The SEYM Gathering falls early in the “season” of yearly meeting events; most yearly meetings in North America hold their large annual sessions over the summer. As a result, we were one of the first yearly meetings to have to cancel our in-person sessions, and to offer some of the program online.
Several Friends who are involved in planning for other yearly meetings’ sessions attended the SEYM Virtual Mini-Gathering (VMG) as observers, and others have emailed to ask about our experience. This nuts-and-bolts post was written to share the experience of planning the VMG with other Friends planning online events. For a more general post about the event, see Virtual Mini-Gathering a Huge Success. For the schedule and event descriptions, see the ‘Virtual Mini-Gathering’ page.
This piece will address some of the most common questions we’ve received, including: How did we decide what to offer? Who was responsible for planning? What kind of technical support and training was offered? How many people attended? What technical features were used to enable different types of programming? What were gifts and limitations of having a gathering online? What would you do differently? What advices do you have for others?
Deciding to Go Virtual
In late February and early March, we received a large volume of emails and phone calls expressing concern over holding the Gathering, and our main speaker and retreat leader cancelled. The SEYM Executive Committee (EC) met by Zoom on March 11, and decided to cancel our in-person gathering (scheduled for April 8-12) and delay our yearly meeting business discernment until June. The Gathering Committee, Youth Committee, and staff were released to offer some of the scheduled program (workshops, worship sharing, retreats) and other activities online, to bring the community together.
The Gathering Program Coordinator began contacting the scheduled workshop leaders the following day. In addition to notifying them of the cancellation of the in-person gathering, she invited them to let her know if they had any interest in offering their workshop online.
Several workshop leaders were enthusiastic about the virtual shift. Youth Committee was clear about wanting to offer a program through which our young people and families could connect. A member of staff had the capacity and skills to take on coordination. All of those things together felt like way was opening to hold a “Virtual Mini-Gathering.” We decided to hold it on the same days that we would have had our in-person gathering, since many people had already cleared their schedules for that time.
We chose Zoom as a platform simply because it was the one that we already had access to and familiarity with. With more lead time, we might have investigated other options before making a decision.
We were very fortunate that the retreat center where we have held our Gatherings for many years allowed us to apply our deposits to the 2021 Gathering—so what could have been a huge financial loss was averted.
Discerning the Program
The program for the Virtual Mini-Gathering came together based on the following considerations:
- Which facilitators were enthusiastic and ready to lead their workshops
- Our best sense of Friends’ spiritual and emotional needs in the current context (connection, community, reflection, laughter, sense of purpose, play, etc)
- Limiting the amount of programming to allow for long breaks, cutting down on screen fatigue
- Providing some touchstones of familiarity and tradition for regular attenders of our annual Gathering
Getting the Word Out
We used our email newsletter, website, Facebook, direct personal invitations, and info-sharing with monthly meeting newsletter editors to make Friends aware of the Virtual Mini-Gathering. We tried to say explicitly in all of our materials that the meetings could be accessed by phone for people without internet access. This seems to have been partially successful: a number of people participated in the VMG by phone, but several people who responded to our post-VMG survey said that they didn’t join because of lack of internet access or because they didn’t think they would be able to figure out Zoom.
In mid-March, when we were beginning promotion, the public health situation was changing rapidly, making advance planning very difficult for a lot of people– so we wanted to make it possible to attend the VMG as a drop-in attender, without signing up in advance. For that reason, we published the Zoom link publicly on our website and in all our announcement emails. Unfortunately, shortly after we did so, major Zoom security issues started hitting the news. We took precautions to protect our sessions (screen-sharing only enabled for host and co-hosts, ability for host to immediately eject someone from the meeting and prevent them from returning, chat only enabled to the host or the whole group) and ultimately had no security problems that we know of.
In addition to the “drop in” option, we had a sign-up form through which people could express interest in different VMG sessions. This was helpful for giving attendance estimates to workshop leaders, and on one or two occasions, for sending out reminders/additional information like “Bring pen and paper!” We also invited donations through the form, which was linked to PayPal. We did not charge anything to attend. Using our own sign-up form, rather than the Zoom registration, allowed us this kind of flexibility.
Building a Volunteer Team
A week or two prior to the VMG, the coordinator reached out to the SEYM Worship and Ministry Committee and a few other seasoned Friends for volunteers to serve as worship sharing group leaders and as elders to hold the VMG in prayer each day. The Committee for Ministry on Racism was invited to help prepare a land acknowledgement for our opening session. Individual emails were sent to Friends with performance or artistic gifts inviting them to perform in the talent show. Promotional materials also included an open invitation to sign up to perform. The VMG coordinator (who serves normally as SEYM’s Youth and Young Adult Coordinator) asked a young person from our program to serve as the talent show emcee.
Technical competence was not a prerequisite for any of these volunteer positions. Zoom set-up and troubleshooting was handled by the coordinator and other staff.
In the week leading up to the event, we held two Zoom training sessions specifically for our volunteer team. The sessions were the same, duplicated for scheduling purposes. These were facilitated by the coordinator with help from other SEYM staff. All staff were already comfortable on Zoom before any of this happened, which was a real gift, because we were able to share tech support responsibilities. The support that was needed in most cases was basic, and not very technically skilled– walking people through the steps of installing and logging in to Zoom, and then exploring the different features together once folks were logged in. We (staff) offered one-on-one support in advance to a couple of workshop leaders who were particularly nervous about using Zoom.
There were several benefits to having specific trainings in advance for the volunteer team. For skill-building, it allowed us to focus on the features most relevant to facilitators, and make sure that folks were comfortable with the tech aspects so that they could focus on content. The practice sessions also created an easy opportunity to identify which workshop leaders were already experienced with Zoom, and discuss any set-up preferences (like whether they wanted “host” controls, etc). It was also a nice way to build people’s sense of excitement and being part of a team.
For participants in general, we offered a “Welcome and Zoom Basics” for our first online session. Besides sharing a land acknowledgement and reviewing the schedule for the week, the only content of that session was tech troubleshooting, letting people know how to access tech support later in the week if needed (we offered: using the chat box, or calling/texting/emailing the coordinator), and orienting people to Zoom features (mute/unmute, chat, gallery/speaker and pinning view options, changing your name, going to full screen, raising hands, breakout rooms). This allowed participants time to practice and build confidence without missing any content. We encouraged people to think about how to create an environment to support their focus: going full-screen, minimizing chat if it was distracting to them, choosing their preferred view options (speaker/gallery, hiding yourself).
Most of all, especially in the general “Zoom Basics” session, we reassured people that, since they had now successfully joined the session, whether by phone or online, they had already done everything they needed to do to participate fully in the event. All other tech skills were bonus.
In all training sessions, it was important to keep in mind that the Zoom interface looks different depending on which device you were using. It was helpful to have people who were already comfortable with Zoom using different devices, so after giving instructions on, for example, how to mute yourself on a computer, the host could ask for someone else to explain what that step looks like on their tablet or phone.
The coordinator kept a spreadsheet tracking set-up details for each session, including whether the session leader had requested host or co-host controls, any changes to Zoom settings specific to a session, breakout rooms needed and who was in charge of setting them up, audio/visual needs, and whether an introduction was required for each presenter. Sessions were always started a few minutes early, to allow the coordinator and session leader time to finalize any details, and to begin welcoming participants. As much as possible, the VMG coordinator greeted each participant individually as they entered the session, both to welcome them, and to determine that everyone’s sound was working.
Worship sharing sessions had more complex set-up requirements than other sessions, because of the need to place people in breakout groups with one leader each. In addition, there was one “special interest” group that people could opt into, with a bilingual host who could give instructions Spanish and English, and an invitation to participants to speak in the language they were most comfortable in. We managed the set-up by inviting people to arrive a few minutes early if able, and greeting them as they entered as in all the other sessions. Promptly at nine, we explained the process and requested people interested in the multi-language group to identify themselves out loud or in the chat. We then entered into open worship while the coordinator manually assigned people to breakout groups.
The sign-up form asked participants about their access needs, but no one completed that section, so we weren’t aware of specific individual access needs in advance of the gathering. More lead time might have allowed for more proactive research and offering of accessibility tools like translation/interpretation or captioning.
During the Virtual Mini-Gathering
All sessions of the VMG went pretty smoothly (excepting very low attendance of youth sessions– more on that later).
Requests for direct troubleshooting help during the event were minimal, so these were all handled by the coordinator. Other staff were on standby to have tech support requests sent to them if there had been a high volume.
Some common challenges were: people new to Zoom struggling to set it up, unstable internet causing people to drop out of the meeting and have to sign back in, and managing muting/unmuting to minimize background noise while still enabling participation. We had several people participating by phone, and it was challenging for people who had video on to remember to say their name before speaking, describe things that happened visually, etc.
Breakout groups were used in both formal, structured ways (with a facilitator assigned to each group) for worship sharing each morning, and in more informal ones (randomly assigned small groups in workshops). People seemed to feel a little more secure when their small group had a designated facilitator, but it didn’t seem to be a huge issue either way.
Screen-sharing was used in several instances and went very smoothly, including video clips and audio-only sharing. We found it worthwhile to play around a little bit in advance with the options that come up when you initiate screen sharing, especially if audio is involved.
We had 112 total attenders over the course of the week, with 30-50 attending each Adult program session (numbers gathered through Zoom reports, which are worth learning about if you haven’t used that function before). These numbers are just a bit smaller than would be normal for our in-person gathering. We also found that the group of attendees were not entirely the same group of people who would have attended in person. The VMG drew a higher-than-usual number of people who are active in SEYM meetings, but have not attended SEYM events before. Participation by young adults (18-35) was also on par with attendance in recent years at our in-person Gathering, but was not spread throughout all of the week’s events. The one event specifically for young adults, the “Best of the Internet Film Festival,” and closing worship on Sunday were the only events to draw more than 2-3 young adult participants.
Youth and family attendance was very low for all events. We expected that youth stuck at home would have more daytime scheduling flexibility, but instead, SEYM youth seem to have higher-than-normal academic workloads under quarantine. They also may be experiencing screen fatigue at higher rates than adults because all of their normal schoolwork, homework, and social connections are now online. Youth attendance was strongest at the All-Ages Talent Show on Friday evening.
We sent out an online survey immediately after the last session. It was a combination Virtual Gathering evaluation and a survey about interest in future virtual events. The survey link was sent to everyone who had signed up for the event; it was also included in our newsletter and forwarded to meeting contacts for inclusion in their newsletters.
The form collected demographic information, then asked additional, different sets of questions for those who had attended the Virtual Gathering and those who had not. For non-attenders, we asked about barriers or other reasons for not attending, then skipped them to questions about interest in future virtual sessions. For attenders, we included a set of questions evaluating the event.
Evaluation feedback was positive, with a very high level of interest expressed in continuing to offer online events. Some people felt that online events should only be offered until we are able to meet in person, but most felt that it would be valuable to continue offering them alongside in-person events once we are able to resume those.
In general, worship sharing seemed to be among the most well-received of all our activities. The intimacy of small-group connection centered in Spirit seemed urgently needed.
Time zones are generally not something we have to think about very much, because when we gather in person, we are all on at the same time. Planning a virtual event, however, requires consideration of the different locations and time zones from which people might be calling in. We didn’t figure this out in time to incorporate it into our publicity materials.
Because the initial decision was to cancel our annual Gathering and delay YM business until the summer, the clerking team is currently figuring out how our essential discernment work will be done. If we had been in a position to make a less urgent decision, we might have considered including meeting for worship with attention to business into our Virtual Gathering.
Knowing and leaning on the spiritual gifts of our community, and individuals in it, was so important. One of SEYM’s spiritual gifts as a community is a willingness to “wing it” and create what we need, even if it’s messy. Other Friends communities will bring different strengths.
Extra explicitness about expectations and agenda are needed in an online setting. Links to registration, log-in information, and resource materials for sessions need to be very visible; as do daily schedules.
Planning an event on line required much more engagement in advance with most workshop leaders, supporting them in moving to a new medium.
The more physically-engaged sessions of the VMG (Animal Yoga, Laughter Yoga, the “Julia Geiger Memorial Chicken Dance” in our talent show) all translated well online, and provided a helpful energy break from sitting and looking at a screen– even though you were still looking at a screen.
Generational communication differences are heightened in digital space. That makes it even more important than usual to have an intergenerational planning and volunteer team.
Volunteers were so critical; and we could have been even more intentional about asking people to serve in support roles.
It might have been helpful for planners to articulate a clear, specific set of “video-conferencing best practices” in advance, and remind participants of them throughout. We struggled with having people remember to mute/unmute themselves, moving around without turning off video in a way that some Friends found distracting, etc. Another measure to address the muting/unmuting issue could have been to designate a co-host for each of the larger sessions whose primary role was muting and unmuting people. The need was constant!
What surprised many Friends was the depth of spiritual connection and community that was experienced at the Virtual Mini-Gathering. Welcoming Friends by name as they enter the meeting and breaking into small groups were very helpful in this regard. We also found that at the close of a worship sharing or workshop, Friends wanted to pause for a few moments to express their gratitude—to the workshop leaders and staff, of course— but also to each other, for just being present, for the gift of being there for each other.
—Kody Hersh, SEYM Youth & Young Adult Coordinator, VMG Coordinator
For questions about the Virtual Mini-Gathering, email Kody