Classis by Video

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Many classes are exploring the possibility of meeting by video. These classes tend to cover a wide geographic area and their leaders are wondering if it might be possible to host a meeting that doesn’t require delegates to fly in or drive significant distances. 

As with all things technology, my general response is that there are really two questions that need to be answered: (1) is it possible, and (2) is it wise.

First: Is It Possible?

First, yes, I do think it is possible. However, it might not be as simple as you might hope. If this is something your classis is exploring, I’d like to make a few suggestions for you to consider:

  1. Do not try this without a dedicated tech person. Many of us have been in enough video meetings to know that having someone who knows what they are doing is necessary. For a classis meeting, I would highly recommend dedicating at least one person or a small team of people who oversee the tech as their only role in the meeting (not one of the delegates). 
  2. Spend the money to get the right equipment. While this could lead to eventual cost savings, do not expect this to be a less expensive option in the short run. Each participating church could consider getting a TV and video conferencing system with camera/microphones rather than depending on several people gathering around an individual's laptop. Churches may also wish to buy a dedicated video-conferencing computer, but at the very least make sure that you are connecting with a newer, fully updated computer that can handle video conferencing well. Put the set up in your church either set up in one spot or on a cart. This can actually have a multi-purpose: there are more and more video training resources being made available, cohorts that you church could be part of, church visiting possibilities using this system, etc. All that to say: put the cash down up front to make sure it works properly. Take the money out of your mileage and travel expenses since you'll be saving on it if you go this route.
  3. Do an individual testing/training with one person from each church to test out the equipment before rolling things out altogether, so that the first time is not the meeting itself. You could do it as groups of five or six for this test so that it isn’t just one-on-one, but also has the space to work with people more individually. 
  4. Make sure failure is an option the first time. In other words, intentionally choose a classis meeting ahead of time where you're going to try out the video conferencing format. Make sure that the content for this meeting’s agenda is appropriate for discussing by video. There is going to be a learning curve. Plan for it. For example, make it an initial 2 hr classis meeting with perhaps only one item of business that could get rescheduled to the next meeting if the video meeting implodes! It’s possible that it takes the first hour just to get everyone on the screen. Test out a vote on something that can be confirmed in case it doesn’t work well (vote to receive something for information, for example). This way, if it doesn't go well it's not really failure; it's learning.
  5. Figure out a good way to do voting ahead of time. Voice voting might work fine for many things that have a general consensus (eg. if everyone says “Aye” and no one opposes or only a few oppose, it would be clear that it passed). If it is not a consensus, you might want to move quicker to non-voice voting. A non-private option would be to use the Chat feature that most video meetings offer to register votes (a church’s delegation could type is “First CRC votes 2 for, 1 against” and so on, with the clerk or another person adding up all the votes). For secret ballots, you could use Google Forms similar to Synod. Rather than refreshing, the classis could perhaps create a stack of forms ahead of time, naming them by number “Classis Meeting Date - Form 1” etc. and giving them basically/no/abstain/register negative vote options. Then when it is time to vote, the chair could simply say “please vote using Form 3” and individuals could at a church could take turns voting that way on the computer or could vote using their own device. Clearly some kinks would need to get worked out on this...take what I’m mentioning here as simply the start of an exploration, not any final advice on voting. 

There are other video conferencing best practices to consider as well, such as ensuring everyone is muted unless they are speaking. I’m also not delving into which video conferencing solution would be the best (Zoom is quite popular, many are familiar with Skype, and Google Hangouts Meet for those with G-Suite accounts can be effective). So there is obviously more to consider here, but it might be a start regarding whether or not a classis meeting by video is possible.

Second: Is It Wise? 

In answer to this question, I’d like to take the middle ground. Using video conferencing for classis meetings might be wise depending on how you go about it and how video meetings fit into the sense of good participation in classis meetings. Just remember, that a video meeting is not the same as being together in-person. Video meetings have their own unique strengths and weaknesses, but I think that all classes should continue to have at least some in-person meetings each year.

For example, if a classis would go to meetings by video, you might want to consider having more frequent classis meetings and make them shorter (1-3hr) with solo-or-minimal agenda items. Video meetings do better when with simplified agendas. If the system were to get smoothed out, portions of what would happen just at a classis meetings could even become part of council meetings if desired (eg. some ministry reports). 

I have thought it would be interesting to change the meeting requirements for classis in Church Order to say that classes must meet a minimum amount of times per year, and at least one of those meetings in a given year must be in person. This would allow opening the door to video meetings while also recognizing we can’t replace the value of meeting in person. When you do actually gather together in person, you could try to be more intentional about the specific value of what in-person offers that video does not: relationship building, communal discernment processes, educational opportunities, workshops, etc. Your in-person classis meeting could almost be like a regional conference.

Also, I will note that more and more classes are using video in other ways beyond trying to host a full meeting by video. For example, it is becoming more common for Synodical Deputies to participate in classis meetings by video. They can watch the examination of a candidate, have their opportunity to ask questions, consult one another separately on their video feed, and report back to the classis with their concurrence or non-concurrence. In terms of wisdom, this can often be an effective use of time and funds that has just as much meaningful participation as being in person.

Overall, video conferencing has matured significantly over the past few years. At the same time, more people are using video conferencing as part of their own work and personal lives. Using this technology to host meetings is (with some work) possible and, for your classis, could also be a wise choice if done well.

Has your classis used video? Have you been looking into it? What would you add?

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Very helpful suggestions!

Good post -- good article!  Very helpful.

You may also want to review the 2019 Agenda for Synod (or 2019 Acts of Synod) where you will find similar advice presented by the Candidacy Committee.  This was prepared in response to a request by Synod 2018 to the candidacy committee,.  The advice as received by synod 2019 will be placed in the "Journey Toward Ordination" document and in the "Commissioned Pastor Handbook."

David Koll