By: Christa Meland
When Rev. Jeanine Alexander initially heard about a nightly virtual small group open to both clergy and laity, she was looking to learn how to use Zoom so she decided to participate a single time to gain experience with the platform.
What she found was a community so rich and life-giving that she’s made it part of her nightly routine for nearly 60 days and counting.
“Right now, they’re my church,” said Alexander, who serves First UMC (the Coppertop) in Duluth.
A new way of being church
The “How is it with your soul?” group launched March 18, just as COVID-19 was ramping up. Every night at 9 p.m., somewhere between five and 15 people gather online for a devotion, sharing, support, and dialogue. They range in age from 10 to mid-80s and they come from more than half a dozen churches of all sizes across Minnesota. Some show up every night, and others drop in periodically; all are welcome at whatever level of participation they choose.
Becky Boland, a certified lay minister and member at Hennepin Avenue UMC in Minneapolis, came up with the idea and leads the gatherings. Each session begins with participants reflecting on the famous question John Wesley asked at the beginning of his small group meetings: How is it with your soul?
“When the pandemic hit, I realized it was an opportunity for church to be something different,” she said. “It’s still our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ to transform our world. That doesn’t go away with the pandemic. People are hungry for spiritual conversation…Checking in on each other holds us accountable with our faith.”
After each person shares what’s in their heart and how they are doing, Boland leads a devotion. The devotions have ranged from parts of John Wesley’s sermons to poems to book excerpts. Then participants chat about anything else on their minds. They have shared everything from gardening tips to video-editing software to strategies for parenting through the pandemic. At the end of each gathering, Boland sends out an email containing the full devotion and links to any resources discussed.
“The gift for me personally is it has challenged me to grow my faith in ways I did not expect,” said Boland, who estimates she reads about two theological books each week in order to find devotions that she thinks will resonate with the group. “As a lay person, it’s incredibly powerful for us to own our spiritual growth.”
Peter Nielson, a lay member of Hennepin Avenue UMC, participates in the gatherings most nights. Originally from North Dakota, he lived in several cities before moving to Minneapolis three years ago. Forming a social network has been a challenge—and living alone during a time of social distancing has been extremely isolating.
“This group has allowed me to feel like Minnesota is home, that I have connections here,” he said. “It is easier to get through the day knowing I have that community available to me. It sustains me.”
On occasion, Nielson eats a late dinner on the Zoom calls. “Sometimes it’s just nice to share a meal, even if it’s across the iPad,” he said.
Nielson was deeply touched by group members’ acts of compassion after his grandfather died last month. Alexander and Rev. John Mitchem—neither of whom he’s met face-to-face—separately contacted to him to see how he was doing. Mitchem prayed with him over the phone.
“It was just the most beautiful thing,” he said.
Alexander was similarly touched by the group’s display of kindness one evening when she missed the check-in to have a date with her boyfriend. At 9 p.m. that evening, her doorbell unexpectedly rang and she was surprised to see a pizza delivery person. “I didn’t order a pizza,” she explained. “Your 9 p.m. Zoom call did,” he told her.
During the early days of the pandemic, nighttime was particularly challenging for Alexander, and she had a hard time falling asleep. “Now, I have people in my home right before I go to bed who ask about how it is with my soul and really care,” she said. “I have gone from having trouble falling asleep to sometimes falling asleep in the Zoom meetings because I’m so relaxed. I have all these new friends.”
All of the participants have learned from the small group experience.
Nielson said he’s always shied away from participating in small groups at church, but this experience has changed his mind about them and given him a desire to join one when in-person gatherings can resume.
Taylor Rub, a working mom of two young children and a member of Hennepin Avenue UMC, has found the nightly check-ins to be invaluable, and she’s been reflecting on whether the virtual format is part of what makes them work so well.
“I wonder if being separated by these boxes on Zoom allows people to be more open or vulnerable than they would be sitting in a circle with seven people you don’t know,” she said. “You can be in your own home with familiar surroundings. From the very beginning, you can be very open and vulnerable.”
Alexander, meanwhile, has used many of Boland’s devotions with her congregation—through Facebook Live sessions, in weekly emails, in Zoom calls with congregants, and in virtual staff meetings. The model for this small group has been so impactful that she plans to use it as the basis for small groups within her local church this summer, and she’s seeking lay people to lead some of them.
“We all need people to ask us how it is with our soul,” said Alexander. “Even though our experiences are different, our core need is the same. What a gift this group has been.”
RESOURCES: If you’re interested in joining this small group or receiving resources and encouragement to start your own, contact Becky Boland at 612-281-1595 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church