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3 Tips for Virtual Office Hours

How am I going to do this?

As the leader of a growing and ever-changing ministry, Immersion (we attract mostly 20- and 30-somethings), the challenges of “tending the flock” (a highly mobile flock, at that) and finding out what’s going on in the lives of the people I care about can be insurmountable at times. Scheduling conflicts, people who work in all four corners of your city, spending time with your family, and taking a moment to breathe here and there–all of these demands on your time!

If you’ve been in ministry for more than two seconds, you know exactly what I’m talking about: You want to connect with three of your key leaders, but one only has every other Tuesday night open, one works 45-minutes away and is available for 15-minute window on their way home, the other one can only be summoned by the “Bat Signal” (he’s the volunteer that no one seems to know much about…he just kind of appears). Getting all of those people together in the same place? Fuhgettaboutit. Only chances of that happening are if Jesus comes back, and you’re not even sure “Bat Signal” boy will get taken.

I started thinking about how my professors in college used to have office hours. You know, they’d put on the syllabus things like, “Office Hours: 2-2:01 pm. Must call ahead for appointment.” (Something tells me they never liked having office hours.) Then I started thinking, “What if I had office hours, but if instead of being physically located in an office, I held ‘virtual office hours?’ What would that look like?”

I have found that the answer to the task of connecting with people isn’t necessarily geographical but technological.

I am a huge advocate of social media. As such, the question for me became, “How do I leverage what I do have (technology, social media, a blog, etc.) against what I don’t have (extra hours in the week, for example)?” What if I had a set time during the week where I was accessible online to anyone who wanted to stop by?

  • Prayer concern? Come visit me in my online “office” and we’ll pray.
  • Want to know what the message is about this week? Come ask me in my virtual office.
  • Have a friend who has a question about Jesus, and you have no idea how to answer it? Fire up Skype during a coffee break or in your dorm between classes and ask away.

All that to say, I’ve commandeered UStream.tv and embedded a chat room on my blog. People can log onto Office.BeDeviant.com from the hours of 3-4pm CST on Wednesdays and there I’ll be: Writing e-mails, blogging, singing to myself, and talking with people who want to chat.

In the month since I’ve started doing this, the problem hasn’t been getting people to utilize this service, it’s been trying to accommodate and care for all the people who do! The first week I tried this out, at one point I counted 10 people in the chat room at the same time. This may not seem like a lot, but each one of those people was using a Webcam! It was a wild moment when I could look on my screen and see a friend from seminary who lives in Ohio, two Immersionites both on opposite ends of the city, and a co-worker who works down the hall from me.

I believe that those of us in ministry have a responsibility to be available to our people for a certain amount of time during our given week. Boundaries are crucial (I refuse to sacrifice my family at the altar of ministry!), but what if we leveraged technology to “be available” in places and times where we could not be otherwise? I cannot be downtown at Palmer’s Deli for a lunch appointment at the same time I am at Lutheran Church of Hope for a staff meeting. Basic physics tells us this. But I can be online at a fixed place and invite others to join me there in hopes of facilitating deeper discussion and community.

Ultimately, that’s where I believe all of our efforts to use technology must end up: furthering community. If I hold “virtual office hours” just because I can or because it’s “cool,” that misses the point. If I leverage technology to deepen my immediate faith community and the relationships I have with those in my broader faith community, I am using technology effectively.

Now, the question isn’t, “How am I going to do this?” Instead, people are coming by “the office” and asking questions like:

  • “I have a friend who is really lost and lonely…What should I do?”
  • “What are you preaching on this week?”
  • “How do I get my church to start using some of the same technology you are?”

You even get the occasional drive-by-compliment: “Justin, I’m really glad you’re doing what you’re doing. Keep it up.” (For the record, those are my favorite.)

There is some practicality involved in all of this. Over the course of the last month, I’ve learned there are some things that work and some that don’t. What works:

  1. The shorter the better. Start out with one-hour sessions one day a week. Add another day, not more time, if the demand increases and you want to spend more time in your office. (If you talk to people for the full hour, you will be exhausted. A good exhausted, but tuckered out nonetheless.)
  2. Use a service like UStream.tv or Mogulus.com as opposed to TokBox. The first two allow one-way visual communication: People can see you but you can’t see them. This may sound a little, well, creepy, but it’s not. People want to know someone’s there but still want to have a bit of anonymity. TokBox, while an awesome piece of Web 2.0 goodness, forces people to “show themselves,” and some people don’t want to be seen, just heard.
  3. Find a nice, quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. I was praying for someone online when a co-worker barged into my office asking a question about office supplies. Needless to say, it was an awkward moment for us all. Imagine being in a prayer line and the person behind you barges in asking where the pencils are! Treat this time as if someone were in your office face-to-face.

What doesn’t work:

  1. Multiple chat screens. That’s why I ditched TokBox–most casual users don’t have the oomph in their computer to handle multiple video chat screens. Make it “one-way,” and you will be much more effective.
  2. Not being intentional. Because it is “online” and not face-to-face, the temptation will be to treat the time as “less than.” Don’t start office hours if you do not plan on being intentional about them.
  3. Finally, don’t let anyone tell you your virtual office hours “don’t count” as real ministry. Most people marginalize or belittle what they do not understand. Integrating social media and the Internet into ministry is still a very fresh, raw concept for a lot of people. They won’t understand. But you will. And it will be glorious.

Ask these questions of yourself and see if this would work for you: Would your people utilize “virtual office hours” if you had them? What if you blocked out a certain set of hours during the week to be “e-vailable” to your congregation? Would they “stop by” for a video chat over your lunch hour? What if you had a “group prayer” session online via Webcam (a la OnePrayer 2009)? Would you benefit from something like this?