Grace Ji-Sun Kim: Getting creative about teaching and ministry during a pandemic

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The goal of teaching and preaching virtually is still building community, but it will take a lot more creativity, says a professor and preacher.

In the entirety of my children’s lives, they have had only one year of cable TV. We just never thought it was necessary to have cable in the house and were stringent about their use of time.

As a professor and educator, I was adamant in my academic ideals: I wanted them to spend time reading or being creative with their hands rather than sitting in front of a screen. I worried that focused on a screen, they wouldn’t be doing anything but wasting time and worsening their eyesight.

The one year we had cable, I tried to cap their daily TV time at one and a half hours. I thought that giving them a bit of TV would offer me and my husband a much-needed break during the day, but we all just ended up fighting -- about time limits, about who got to watch what, about what channels were allowed.

Most often, I either gave in to the wishes of my youngest, who was 3 at the time, or I turned the TV off and we all left the room angry. Ever-weary with monitoring screen time and attempting to maintain incessant productivity, I made it known in our household that having cable television was an immense privilege that should be used judiciously -- and sparingly.

Since the pandemic’s arrival, I have lost all these battles.

Now, for many of us, it seems as though our lives are inextricably bound to the screen. Whether young, middle-aged or old, we have been forced by the pandemic onto an expedited path of radical technical revolution, dependent on our screens throughout the day and late into the evenings for everything from work to socializing to entertainment.

The unavoidable presence of screens in our interactions means that we need to think creatively about how to craft community through digital avenues.

I taught courses online before the pandemic began. I never liked it; I felt that the face-to-face mode of teaching was best. Likewise with preaching. But with the possibility of physical gatherings put on hold, we must ask ourselves how best to teach and minister in this new reality.

As I teach and preach in physical settings, I gain energy from those gathered in the classroom or the pews, which in turn helps me teach and preach better. Without the immediate energy from the people who are listening and engaging through the computer screen, I’ve had to adjust how I teach and preach.

First, I’ve had to be honest with myself about how much I miss the affirmation from those in the room. I’ve had to build the confidence that what I am doing is working and is worth it. This is a difficult thing, as we human beings naturally want encouragement and affirmation from others.

In addition, I’ve needed to recognize that there’s difficulty on the other side as well. Especially during this pandemic, when people are experiencing so much pain, isolation, depression and grief, it is a good reminder that those on the other side of our screens are feeling the same disconnect that we are.

Teaching and ministering online doesn’t mean that we can forget or lose sight of the people on the other side of the screen; indeed, it means that we need to think about them even more, direct our lessons or sermons with more specificity, more charge, because of their distance.

Even though we are teaching and preaching through a cellphone or a laptop, we must recognize that in this very action we are responsible for fostering a community, one that for the first time is separated from our natural, physical understanding.

Community is vital. Many of us feel as though we have lost a sense of community during the pandemic. Going forward, despite the fluctuations of more openings and closings, second and third waves, and changing social distancing mandates, we must consciously and consistently nurture the way we learn to be together. These times are challenging us to redefine what it means to be a learning and worshipping community.

For online teachers, we must try our best to give students opportunities to ask questions and engage. I know this is difficult to do, because silence is uncomfortable, especially on a virtual platform. Yet because it is hard for students to jump into the class to engage, those extra moments of silence are crucial. The text-based “chat” option in Zoom and other services is another way to offer students the opportunity to be not just passive listeners but actively engaged participants.

For months, the lead story has been isolation, even as we’ve been living a shared experience of loss. But faith leaders have been called to break through the isolation, to answer these profound challenges despite our own uncertainty. We are being asked what it all means, if anything, how to practice spiritual wellness, how to manage grief and how to care for sufferers when we are suffering ourselves.

In this new reality, we need to provide space to share personal stories of loss, love and hope. We can integrate our sermons with our congregants’ readings, poetry, music and art. Going forward, we can create more interactive sermons, inviting our listeners into the experience. They can “chat” prayers with others or even share their children’s drawings with others in the congregation.

As a young mother, I limited my children’s screen time because I felt that they needed to be off screen to become creative, alive and curious learners. Fast-forward 20 years -- now in a digital age, fighting a pandemic -- and we have been thrust overnight into Zoom life. In this new online world, we must continuously think of creative ways to become flourishing online communities of learners and worshippers.