by Linda Ryan
I'm proud to be part of EfM, Education for Ministry. I've been a student and am now a co-mentor to two fine groups of intelligent, inquiring, contributing souls who meet weekly to worship, chat about goings-on in our lives, study and be involved in both theological reflection and a ministry of prayer. They are not much different than most EfM groups except that the folks in my groups have, for the most part, never laid physical eyes on other members of the group. My groups meet online and represent people from all over the country. Even if they are not at home, many fire up the laptops while they are traveling in order to join in the session. It's a unique and very great way of learning, interacting and preparing for ministry both inside and outside the church walls.
One question that often comes up when talking about EfM online is "How can you possibly be a community of you have never met anyone else in the group? How can it be a community when all you see are words on a screen with no body language, facial expression or tone of voice?" The answer is simple, "We can and we do."
What exactly is a community? It's a group of people with similar goals even when there are very different ideas of how to achieve those goals. It's a group where each person is important and where each person's talents and abilities are honored and their thoughts and beliefs, even if not shared by any or all in the group, are considered valid for that person and respected as such. Whether or not the group is all under one roof literally or figuratively is less important than that they all subscribe to a set of norms upon which they all agree. It is a place where confidentiality is respected and participants feel safe to express ideas, beliefs and concerns in a place where no conversation is complete until every voice is heard with respect and openness.
So how can this be achieved when even in places where people meet face-to-face have difficulty doing so? For one thing, groups online have to work a little harder since there are no visual or auditory cues to follow. One of the most important lessons is to assume good intent; what someone reads in a person's words might not be precisely the same thing that the speaker meant, so it behooves us to read generously. That might not be such a bad idea when reading the Bible as well, since what we try to read into it is far from what the original writer or speaker intended it to mean. For another, seeing the words rather than just hearing them enables us to go back and reread statements that we might have otherwise missed. But, like every group, community is achieved by the weekly reporting in of events of the week that are part of what we call the "onboard" question such as "If your week were a bookstore, which section best describes it?" or "Where was God present or absent in your week?" It is also built when prayers are sought for friends, loved ones, mere acquaintances, people impacted by tragedy, world events, illnesses, deaths, thanksgivings for the group or for blessings received. As we learn each other's stories, we form bonds that transcend distance. They truly do become a community, as real and as bonded as any face-to-face group can be.
Last week I had the pleasure of having dinner with two members of one of the groups I co-mentor. One was a lady whom I had met several times before, a delightful person and a fascinating person with whom to talk. The second person was someone whose writing I had read for some time before "meeting" her in class during her first year of EfM. The three of us sat down and the conversation flowed as if we had always met around a dinner table in person rather than being names, pictures and words on a computer screen. We simply picked up a conversation we might have just discontinued an hour, a day or even a week before. It was a testimony to the power of community that can be built in a virtual world.
EfM online offers a course of study in topics usually not covered in a local parish or in a place other than at a seminary or theological school. What it also offers is a place where one can attend class in pajamas or business suit, never miss a discussion or theological reflection, comment on a topic that was written several weeks ago, and feel a part of a community of others who care about one another and who are committed to bringing out the best in each other. So can a virtual study group become a community? Indeed it can -- and it does.