I started Aboundant in 2014 and currently have eight people working for the organization, all in different cities. From the beginning we’ve been what’s known as a “distributed” ministry, meaning we all work remotely. Despite being in charge of a massive amount of websites, we don’t have an office, unless you want to count one of the two coffee shops I liked to frequent before COVID-19. Now that your organization has been forced to work remotely, I thought I might be able to share some wisdom I’ve gleaned over the years from running a remote organization.
First, let me state the obvious:
Working remotely is fundamentally different than working in a building.
If you are simple trying to replicate what you do in your building on ZOOM your results will likely fail to meet expectations. In my companion piece about “A Comprehensive Guide to Online Only Worship in the time of COVID-19: Lessons from Darkwood Brew”, I talk about Marshall McCluhan’s famous line, “The Medium is the Message”. Well…conducting business through online channels is fundamentally different than in person. One notion I want to dispel right away is that it’s inherently “worse”. In some ways, it’s better! In total, it’s just different.
First off, let me cover the tech Aboundant uses to run our remote operation.
We’ve also used Google Meet and Google Hangouts in the past. ZOOM, despite the privacy concerns, just works, and has the best suit of features to run small groups and meetings. We have the lowest paid plan for ZOOM and share the password amongst our leaders. This only allows us to run one meeting at a time, so we use a site called Whereby to set up secondary meetings that involve four people or less. You can also use slack for video or audio meetings on the fly (see below).
If you already have GSuite for Nonprofits (which every church should, it’s FREE!), then you’ll find that Google Meet is superior to the free version of ZOOM.
TIP: We added the subdomain meet [dot] aboundant [dot] com and forwarded it to our personal ZOOM room, so we never have to remember what link to send people to, we’ve even built the password into the link.
On its face Slack is just a fancy chat system, but in reality, it is the glue that holds our ministry together. I would say if you have as little as four leaders/staff that have to coordinate regularly, then it’s worth it to use Slack. We use the free version of slack. Slack is superior to communicating internally over email in every way. It’s biggest advantage is letting you create public and private channels geared around different objectives, letting you keep the conversations separate and ongoing. You also get notifications on your devices, making you more aware of what’s going on at any time. Feel free to invite lay leaders into your slack environment. You can have more sensitive staff discussions in a private channel.
GSuite for Nonprofits
Our email and calendar go through google, as do our hundreds of domains we manage. All our documents are stored in Google Drive. We collaborate on documents in real time as a staff. Great for worship plans, and shared messages. GSuite is Free for Churches. See our handy guide for getting setup.
Think of this as your conference room white board, but better.
We actually use a tool called Avaza now because we need to track the time we spend on projects, but if it weren’t for that, we’d be using Trello, another free tool. Trello uses “kanban”, or card sorting, to help see a project, and track its progress, all on one screen. Toyota invented this process and helped revolutionize the auto industry with it, but churches can use it just the same. It’s great for planning long-term projects like a worship series or (online) VBS. You break down individual parts into separate cards, and then move them across the board as they get closer to completion. Here’s an example.
Other Collaborative Tools: Pass.Camp (Password Manager), Adobe Xd (Collaborative Design Prototyping), Doodle (meeting scheduling)
1. Be Flexible
Obviously, when you do things online, you are at the mercy of the internet gods.
If you never expect a meeting to “for sure” happen, or to even start on-time, you’ll be much happier. Because it’s not your fault. And if it is, technology is a learned skill just like anything else. It takes failure to learn and get better.
We have scheduled meetings at Aboundant, but most of our communications happens “asynchronously” or we say, “on the fly”.
Aboundant employs Slack to do all its communications. It’s a fancy chat system that lets you create channels for specific ministries or to initiate conversations with different groups of people as needed, or you can use it to just blow off steam. When somebody messages me in chat I get a notification on my phone and desktop, but I don’t need to respond to it right away. I know it exists, but I get to work it into my schedule, on my own time. That is the asynchronous part.
Working on the Fly:
Why schedule a meeting when it’s easy to just reach out (on Slack) to the people involved and say, “hey, are you free to meet on ZOOM soon?” In Robert Putnam’s quintessential book on new media and social capital, Bowling Alone, he noted that people don’t make plans ahead of time anymore, because they can text at the last minute to pull stuff together. Yet we still try to do church on a strict schedule!
Aboundant has only one to three scheduled meetings a week, but we have a lot of ad hoc meetings on the fly. Quick check-ins are super simple. I probably hit up all of my staff members every working day with text, and every two days with video.
Family and Pets are Part of the Package
At Aboundant, we are used to family and pet interruptions. We have three staff members with kids and all of us have pets. I’ve been in meetings with big clients and have still been interrupted during the call. Those “interruptions” are a big part of who I am. I always stop the meeting and introduce our member of the family and to let them say hi, or meow, as the case may be. And if my daughter is having an emergency, I either excuse myself or end the meeting. Remember, it’s easy to pick a meeting back up again when you are meeting online with just a few people.
TIP: Recording meetings (with the groups permission) allows people to duck out and see what they missed later.
2. Be Yourself
If that means sweats, then wear sweats.
One of the best things ZOOM has done lately has been to add custom backgrounds. It lets you wear your current attitude on your sleeve. I’ve had a couple meetings where my background was of a protest that was important to me, because I was feeling sassy.
There is a reason why tech people always dress down. It’s the same reason 70% of Stephen Colbert’s twitter followers said he should lose the suit while broadcasting from home. The home isn’t a place to put on airs, it’s a place to be yourself. And because working online is flexible (see the previous section), it’s naturally casual.
3. Be Patient
Never expect a video conference to start on time.
If you want it to start on time, schedule it for 15 minutes before when you want it to start. When I’m meeting with a group of newbies, I always let them know that I’ll be online 15 minutes early, and I give them my phone number in case they run into issues, so I can walk them through it. Even practicing that, someone, even a techie, will have connection issues. Be patient.
Similarly, Someone’s internet will crash on the day when they have important work to do. Right now, we have a lot of people stuck at home with poor internet and dated computers (I’ll talk more about this in a bit). Lower your expectations and be happy when everything works out. Technology is created and managed by humans, and we are an imperfect people, thus, so are our creations.
Because we operate remotely, I’m pretty stingy about setting deadlines with Aboundant. We work really efficiently because of our lack of overhead and the ability to work on the fly, but knowing we can finish something by a specific time is more nebulous. I have little tolerance for “artificial” deadlines.
You don’t always get instant gratification when working online though sometimes you get it faster than when working in person! If I post a need without qualifiers, you have to move on and wait for the response, asynchronously. It’s in the other person’s court. If I have an immediate need, I’ll stress that in the request. If I don’t get an answer in 5 minutes after that, I’ll text. Another 5 minutes, then I’ll call. If they answer and it’s a complicated problem, I immediately ask them to join me on video, where we can share screens AND body language. If they don’t answer, I move on without them and forgive them for not being available (see Forgiveness).
4. Be Thoughtful
Creating a holy, productive, remote culture takes intention.
During our weekly staff meeting, I still do a devotion. I’m not as good about this as I’d like, but one of the advantages of doing a devotion on ZOOM is that you can play a short video or song when doing screen sharing (just be sure to click the button that says “share computer audio”).
TIP: I’m in another group that practices introductions by “mutual invitation,” where whoever went last, invites the next person to share. Often sharing “how is it with your soul, today.” This practice gives everyone agency in the meeting.
I’ve worked with churches long enough to know that you need to actively recommend that people use headphones, and that they mute when not talking. Some won’t pick up on that until you politely bring it up.
One of the most underutilized features of video meetings is the chat feature. It’s a great place to ask questions for later, or to make comments you are not sure are worth interrupting the meeting for. It lets introverts get more involved in what’s going on.
Turn your video/sound off to sneeze/cough, or if you are just having a bad day; and excuse yourself if you need to go to the bathroom. Also turn your video off if you or others are having a bad connection to preserve bandwidth.
Don’t be one of those people that walk into the bathroom with your device or forget they are in their underwear when they show up for a meeting, not unless you want to create a very memorable story. Both have happened to me, not by me, thankfully.
5. Make a Space for Yourself
Claim a space in the name of you!
Find the nook in your house where you will be most at peace, the most productive, and that has good lighting so people can see you, but not so much lighting that you have to deal with a ton of glare on your screen. We no longer have a dining room table because my wife has made that her sanctum for teaching college classes online. It has a big bay window in which she closed the curtains in order to get a nice warm, diffuse lighting. It also let’s her keep an eye on our one-year-old sequestered to the living room (his space).
In keeping with the next section, make this space part of your routine. When I’m in this space, I’m doing work. When I’m out of this space, I’m not doing work. Unfortunately, I really liked the hubbub of working at a coffee shop. I’ve been sure to buy lots of coffee beans from my local roaster, but even I am facing a big adjustment.
6. Create a New Routine
If you haven’t heard this by now: “keep getting ready in the morning.”
That morning routine tells our brain that it’s time to shift focus to work. It’s easy to get distracted when working remotely since there is a lot of online chatter that feels immediate. I still answer email first thing, but there is a growing trend that you should prayerfully discern your biggest need, and work on it for an hour or two before you do any correspondence. Then you’ll know your day was effective, even if you get pulled 100 different directions later. There is a podcast called “Distributed” from the co-founder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic, Matt Mullingweg, which has lots of great ideas like this one for working remotely.
One thing we do at Aboundant is, every time we start working, we say hello in our main channel on slack, and when we leave we say have a good day, or I’ll be back later. This replaces the need to stop by the church office and check in with the office manager so that people know you are “on.”
7. Internet Issues?
I asked a couple of clergy groups on facebook what their biggest remote work issues were and the second biggest response was poor internet. Internet usage is already at a historical peak. Rural folks likely have poor internet to start with. Here are some things you can try, in order:
- Move your router up higher. The higher it is, the less barriers it has to go through before it reaches you. If you have a lowered ceiling, put it in the plenum. Similarly, you can switch to a wired connection.
- Have your ISP test your line. Even when your internet is working there are a lot of things that can go wrong between your router and the service line. I have my ISP come out every other year to test, and they almost always find something.
- Get a better router. New, more expensive routers have different types of antennae that are meant to penetrate different types of material. Spend $80 or more.
- If you have a smartphone, run a speed test to see which is faster, your ISP or your mobile device. If it’s your mobile device use it as a hotspot. Switch back and forth as needed.
- If none of the items above work, look at the data coverage maps for each of the mobile providers in your area. Whichever one has the best data coverage, look at their current offering for mobile hotspots devices. Contact the provider to see if they can activate one you own over the internet/phone without a long-term contract. Then go on Ebay and buy a used hotspot. I’ve employed this strategy with a lot of success while supporting events out in the countryside.
TIP: Some hotels are offering rooms as work spaces for a reduced price if you are desperate.
8. Be Forgiving
The first thing we should all do is forgive ourselves.
Forgive yourself for not knowing how to do all this stuff. Forgive yourself for not being as productive as the moment seems to call for. Forgive yourself for gaining a few pounds. Forgive yourself for not doing a great job at homeschooling our kids.
I’ve been working remotely since 2010 and I still haven’t figured out all this stuff. One of the fun things (to me) about working remotely is that it’s always changing. It takes a healthy dose of humility to withstand the onslaught of changes. Most tech experts know that they are going to get schooled from time-to-time, because everything changes on a weekly basis.
Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus, everything is changing for everyone on a weekly basis. The best thing we can do is forgive ourselves for the many ways in which we will fail, and are failing. Then we can practice that same forgiveness with our peers.
9. Practice Sabbath
Just because it feels like we are always “on” doesn’t mean that we can’t set healthy boundaries.
Saturday is my Sabbath day, I don’t answer or respond to anything unless it’s an emergency. Aboundant keeps a google calendar just for tracking our staff’s typical working hours. This way we know when not to expect a response. I still get notifications on my Sabbath day, but I mark them all as “unread” and save them for later.
10. Be Connected
The clergy I talked to listed a lack of connection as the number one issue they are facing.
I have a bit of good news on that front. I think that the more you adapt to remote culture, the more you will feel connected. Last night I attended my first online birthday party and have to say it was an absolute blast. We need to remember that there are huge companies that run 100% remotely, and in my experience, they have some of the coolest communities and cultures out there. Aboundant does make an annual efforts to meet in person, which I will miss, but we do pretty well in-between those times too.
The best piece of advice I can offer you is to video conference with folks, not because it’s for a program, but just for fun.
What about People that Don’t Have/Don’t Do Video Conferencing?
When we take the time to help people get connected to the internet and teach them how to use it, something amazing happens. They are being opened up to a whole new world of possibilities. There are countless stories of senior citizens whose lives have been made better just by getting to keep up with their grandkids on facebook. Sure, the internet has a lot of warts, but at this point it is a basic human right, and necessary for the dignity of all people. It’s necessary to fight racism and classism. It’s about time the church shows leadership in correcting this inequity.
If you just can’t get people online, fall back on calling and texting. If you want it to be social, be sure to use speakerphone on both ends.
TIP: If you know someone who can’t afford Internet Access, check out this resource or call your local ISPs and see if they are willing to help.
In closing, it took me six years to adopt some of these practices, it’s not going to happen for you overnight. My hope for you is that you can take one idea from this piece and adapt it into your own, newly forming, remote culture. In the meantime, may the Grace of God go before you, walk with you, and brace your stance, as you venture into this new, distributed world.