In April, I met on Zoom with the board of governors of my school, Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon. I’m thankful for the opportunities videoconferencing technology affords. It is definitely better than a telephone conference call and miles ahead of nothing at all. I’m not entirely sure we had a real meeting, though — and I’m concerned about that.
The shortcomings of videoconferences are considerable. Personal cues are limited. The visual context is overly rich, making it hard to stay focused. Being on camera all the time is awkward. The extended screen time is physically tiring. I hope that by using Zoom as often as I do these days, it will help me adapt to some of these drawbacks, perhaps by adjusting how I read people and how I present myself in the medium.
Yet what bothers me most about Zoom is one limitation that cannot be adapted to or resolved: it does not lend itself to casual hangout time with my colleagues, such as taking breaks and eating meals together. And efforts to do so virtually — for example, sharing a “quarantini” during a Zoom happy hour — do not come close to replicating what to me is an essential component of interacting with my colleagues.
Watercooler conversations and coffee breaks are not just friendly and relaxing interludes. They are not simply group formation. Instead, they are the times when ideas percolate. They provide the space to form consensus and raise unsettling questions. When important issues are on the line, we need that time to talk to each other.
That April Zoom board meeting was a significant one for our seminary. We are in the process of imagining a new relationship with our Saskatoon Theological Union partners, and we are also moving into a common building with the two other Union schools. We are seeing the culmination of a game-changing curriculum project. We are looking forward to an accreditation visit in the fall (COVID permitting).
All of this is being tied together in a new strategic plan, one that we committed to in that Zoom meeting. These changes are connected to deep questions about our Lutheran identity — questions already raised by shrinking numbers in our supporting denomination and highlighted by our growing ecumenical vision.
And it is here that Zoom failed us. Working on the strategic plan, reviewing flooring samples for renovations in our new space, viewing the curriculum website — all of these were easy to do on Zoom, maybe easier than they would have been in a physical room. “Share screen” is our friend!
But we also needed to discuss what our denominational identity means, what our contribution to an ecumenical context might be, and the ecclesiological significance of the shifting world — the kinds of challenges seminary leaders would ordinarily kick around over beers deep into the night.
These kinds of discussions are not the sort of things that happen easily according to rules of order, even in a committee of the whole. We need space, freedom, and hours together. These are the issues that put the lie to the phrase “quality time,” demonstrating that a few especially intense moments on screen are no substitute for long hours in person — especially when those hours involve pizza, laughter, and the arguing of outrageous theses.
Zoom doesn’t give us that time or space. And I don’t think it’s likely to do so in the foreseeable future. Certainly my experience thus far of “Zoom parties” doesn’t encourage me to be optimistic that they are about to replace the in-person sort. I don’t think my board — which happens to be a friendly, dedicated, thoughtful, and supportive group — is going to work through our school’s identity issues for real until we are in one place for a good, long time. Let it come soon!