Lately, I’ve been part of a growing number of meetings that happen by way of Zoom. This system—similar to Skype or GotoMeeting or other videoconference services—is definitely my favorite. I find it reliable and user-friendly, and someone who doesn’t have videoconference capability can still participate by phone.
This type of gathering enables us to do work we couldn’t otherwise do and, in particular, with people we couldn’t otherwise involve. My most recent videoconference clerking happened last night, when I was in Northern Ireland and the members of the committee were in New York, New Jersey, Indiana, and Hawaii. In other words, we spanned eleven time zones.
Clerking such a meeting isn’t always easy. But over time, I’ve found some helpful practices.
THE WEEKS AND DAYS BEFORE
Especially if I’m gathering a large group, I assume that not everybody will make it on the call. (One committee that I clerk has eighteen members.) I use a Doodle poll to find a time that’s as accessible as I can. When I’m working across time zones, I figure out what time it’ll be for me when it’s 8am for the “last-time-zone” member of the group. Then I figure out what time it’ll be for me when it’s 8pm for the “first-time-zone” member of the group. I know we need to start the meeting somewhere in between those times.
Once I’ve sent the Doodle poll, I don’t wait for everybody to answer. I wait for a 50% response rate—75% for smaller committees—or three full days, whichever comes first. Then I make the best decision I can based on the people who’ve answered me and announce the time and date to everyone. If you wait too long between poll and date selection, people’s schedules change; also, I’ve discovered that many people whose schedules are flexible just don’t answer Doodle polls, figuring they’ll adapt to whatever you pick.
The agenda’s also super important. If I’m gathering agenda items from committee members, I ask for submissions no later than four days before the meeting. I send the agenda three days before the meeting. I put as much information in the agenda as possible—background information in black, with the question we’re actually answering in green. If there’s no simple, concrete question to answer, that item doesn’t belong in a virtual meeting. It needs to wait until we’re physically together.
Virtual meeting agendas need to be specific because the communication is inherently flawed. Some people have difficulty hearing; others have barking dogs or doorbells ringing; still others struggle with unstable connections. Having the background information and the questions in writing means you don’t have to say everything three times.
Finally, because—let’s face it—all of this can get really dry, I do what I can to spice up the pre-meeting communications. I attach a funny YouTube video or a picture of cute puppies. When I remember, I put farm animals in the footers of the agenda.
Because I can.
THE HOURS AND MINUTES BEFORE
This part is simple self-care, really. Try not to schedule a meeting at a time that’ll have you rushing home. Eat something. Have water nearby. Make sure the light in your space is angled in such a way that it’s shining on your face rather than behind it. Minimize whatever noise you can.
In the minutes before a meeting, I sit in my seat and have a little worship before I open Zoom on my computer.
THE FIRST FEW MINUTES
This is where there’s chaos and movement for awhile. Small talk works well as people sign on—how are you? how’s the weather? I ask these questions as a way of being friendly, but what I don’t tell Friends is that it’s also my sound test. Can I hear everybody? Can they hear me? I keep track of who hasn’t said anything, and if needed, I call them out by name. “Eliza? I don’t think I’ve heard you yet—is your mic working?”
My threshold for this is about six people. If there are six or fewer on the call, I ask for a check-in. If it’s more, I don’t; it just takes too much time. Committees larger than six tend to have a different tenor, anyway; we might know and like each other, but we’re unified by a task or interest, not a super-strong team feeling.
For smaller groups, my favorite question for check-ins is, “Where are we and how are we?” By including the “where,” you find out who’s in a car (so you need to be aware they might drop out) or at work (and maybe distracted) or visiting family (and likely having an emotional time). On the few occasions when someone shares something difficult that’s happening in their lives, I let the group respond with sympathy for a minute or two, which they’ll do naturally. And if needed, I ask the Friend if we can hold them in prayer—or hold them in the Light—over the next few days. Aside from being important, genuine pastoral care, this gives us a transition so we can move on to other check-ins.
Usually, I’m talking with Quakers from the unprogrammed tradition, or at least majority-unprogrammed.
If they’re all on the call already, I’ll say, “Everybody’s here; let’s have a few minutes of worship.”
If there are still people missing, I’ll say instead, “Let’s settle into a few minutes of worship. If someone joins us during that time, I’ll greet them verbally just so they know their technology is working.” I say this because otherwise, every time somebody new appears, everybody feels the need to say hello, and there’s no real opportunity for worship. When someone does come on late, I say, “Welcome, Friend who just joined us. We’re in worship.” And worship simply continues.
On the occasions when I’m with majority programmed Friends, I’ll invite us into expectant worship and explicitly say that if someone is led to offer verbal prayer during that time, that would be welcome. It usually happens.
STARTING THE BUSINESS
I thank Friends after the period of silence or prayer, and after that, I check on the phone numbers. In Zoom, people who are on video have their names automatically displayed. People who are on the phone only have their numbers displayed. So I ask—“I see a phone number ending in 8930. Who is that? . . . I see another phone number ending in 5572. Who is that?” I quickly change their displays to show their names, which can be done in Zoom.
Next comes introductions. If I’m clerking a meeting where we’re physically together, I invite us to go around the room and introduce ourselves. That doesn’t work very well virtually because nobody knows when to speak, so I do it, especially for the sake of those on the phone. “Just so everyone knows who’s on the call, we have Krista Cardenas, Amaya Zuniga, Mathias Christensen…” If it’s necessary, I’ll include why each person was invited. On the rare occasions that I don’t know everyone’s name or don’t know their functions as part of the group, I’ll call people by their first names to introduce themselves so that it happens quickly and everyone knows when to speak.
Finally, I set the expectation for the ending of the meeting. The agenda and email already listed a start time and an end time, but now I articulate it verbally: “The meeting will end at 3:30 Eastern time or when we’ve finished the agenda, whichever comes first.” And I stick to it. To me, that’s a matter of respect.
I don’t go through the whole agenda at the beginning of the call, since everyone’s had it for three days already, and I don’t ask for additions because I’ve offered everyone the opportunity to place things on the agenda—and the deadline was four days ago. As I referenced above, to me, respecting the participants requires virtual meetings to be efficient, and the only things on the agenda should be things we’ve all had the chance to spend a little time with before the call.
However, I do summarize each item as we get to it, even though the background information’s already written down. That’s because some Friends won’t have it open in front of them, especially if they happen to be driving. I finish by posing the question that’s in the agenda, and just like a meeting happening in person, I let us settle into the silence and speak as led. I listen as carefully as I can and name what I think is the sense of the group as soon as I’m able to with integrity. “Let me reflect what I think I’m hearing…”
I hold us to the questions on the agenda. If something comes up that requires more attention, I either name it as a future agenda item or, if it’s more urgent than that, ask for a task group to follow up. Sometimes it’s just a Friend who wants to know more about something, often a totally reasonable something, but the sort of something that not everybody needs to hear. In that case, I might say, “Jack, that sounds important to figure out. Is there someone on the call who’d be willing to be in conversation with Jack about that by email or phone later on?”
In person, a clerk can search the faces of committee members and know whether it’s the right time to move on. Virtually, half your group might be on the phone, and that makes it impossible. So I just ask: is there anything else we need to do before we move on to the next item on our agenda? And I wait, and usually I’ll hear a few people say “no,” so then I know that we can transition.
I also take the transition time as an opportunity to name any changes of who’s on the call—either “it looks like we’ve lost Amanda” or “welcome, it looks like Cameron has joined us.”
For larger groups, there’s often a pre-identified recording clerk. I love that and make a point of introducing that person as recording clerk and, if possible, also thank them at the end. If we’re doing something especially complicated, I try to check in with the recording clerk as we go to make sure they have it all down and we can move on.
For smaller groups, there’s often no formal recording clerk, and I’ve found that asking for a volunteer at the beginning of the call tends to lead to extended silence—and then, after the call, a period of days or weeks before the notes appear. So I tend to simply take notes myself. I put emphasis on homework and action items. When I need a minute to write something down, I verbalize that; the group understands and will be patient, but if you don’t say anything, it seems like unproductive silence, especially to those on the phone who can’t see you. (Cue somebody asking: is my phone still working? is anybody there?)
I’m lucky in that I find it pretty easy to listen, take notes, and clerk at the same time. If that’s a scary thought, I recommend finding a recording clerk or note taker before the meeting and being specific that you’ll need the notes by within a day following the meeting—“Does that sound like something you know you can commit to? If not, it’s okay. I’ll ask someone else.”
ENDING THE CALL
I name that it’s our time to end, and I do ask the question, “Is there anything else that needs to be said before we close?” Sometimes Friends will take advantage of this to try to launch into items that didn’t make it to the agenda, and if they do, I politely name that it sounds like another agenda item and we should maybe talk about it next time. But more often, Friends are very respectful and limit themselves to observations or clarifications that are brief, Spirit-led, and relevant.
Then I thank Friends for being part of the call. If somebody shared a particularly difficult personal thing during check-in and I offered our prayers, I’ll remind us of that. And then I say goodbye.
There are occasions when I ask for a time of closing worship, but more frequently, the group is eager to go, and we’ve been in a spirit of worship the whole time anyway. So unless I feel particularly prompted to call for that silence, I don’t.
Notes go out, except in extreme circumstances, within 48 hours. I try to highlight homework and action items especially within the notes, either by placing them at the top or by making them a different color.
WHERE IS GOD IN THIS?
A clerk’s job is to make space for discernment. That includes making sure that everybody knows what’s being considered and that as many physical and mental blocks are cleared as possible. In a face-to-face meeting, the clerk articulates agenda items and offers background; the virtual clerk does that, too, just differently. In a face-to-face meeting, the clerk facilitates introductions so that we all know each another; the virtual clerk does that, too, just differently. In a face-to-face meeting, the clerk might ask someone to turn on a fan if it gets too hot or speak up if somebody can’t quite hear or repeat themselves if somebody’s walked in late; the virtual clerk’s adaptations aren’t any different from those things, really.
What other tips would you add to mine?