Online Discipleship and Mindfulness
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted opportunities to learn together in the same physical space. But Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary offer short online courses for lifelong learners to engage topics such as embodied discipleship and mindfulness in a world gone virtual.
Aaron Einfeld, Calvin Theological Seminary’s director of admissions and enrollment management, did his dissertation on online learning. Irene Kraegel, director of the Calvin University Center for Counseling and Wellness, wrote the book The Mindful Christian: Cultivating a Life of Intentionality, Openness, and Faith. Both teach in Christian Witness in a COVID-Shaped World, a series of short-term online courses. In this edited conversation, they discuss teaching embodied discipleship and mindfulness, two topics that translate surprisingly well to an online format.
Did it feel ironic to teach virtually, rather than in person, about mindfulness or embodied discipleship?
IK: Mindfulness is very much about getting out of your head and into your body, so there are challenges to teaching mindfulness in a virtual environment where we cannot be physically present together. I encourage virtual students to keep their webcams on during live class sessions so we can feel more present to one another. This also helps me observe nonverbals that might indicate a student is feeling emotionally flooded or physically uncomfortable during class. But while mindfulness is best taught in person, the online format makes this practice more accessible to more people during a pandemic season when we all need safe ways to care for our mental health while social distancing.
AE: I co-taught Embodied Discipleship in a World Gone Virtual with Cory Willson, who teaches theology and missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS). We did our first session in June 2020, early enough in the pandemic for people to feel disoriented about having to worship digitally. They realized they have to do more than just put a sermon online to nurture congregational life and discipleship. So they were eager to connect discipleship and digital life.
How do you create a sense of community in a virtual course?
IK: All the Christian Witness in a COVID-Shaped World (CWCW) courses had asynchronous and synchronous elements. “Asynchronous” means that the instructor posts videos, lectures, and discussion questions for students to access when they can, so it fits many schedules. “Synchronous” means live, such as a Zoom call or Microsoft Teams session that people attend in real time. My course had an optional weekly synchronous session, and most students took advantage of that. The live sessions provided valuable opportunities to build community, field questions, and see each other's reactions. Of course, students who couldn’t participate synchronously could always reach out by email or other methods.
AE: Our classes had people from Kenya, South Korea, Canada, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the US. We had church pastors and other church leaders, seminarians, and campus ministry staff. About half participated in the optional weekly Zoom call. Those who participated in the live discussions were surprised by the connections they made. It was interesting to hear differences between Canadian and US approaches to the pandemic.
CTS uses the Canvas platform and Zoom, while Calvin University uses Microsoft Teams. Was technology a barrier for your CWCW students?
IK: I advise students to be ready to fumble around with technology as part of the process! For my course, we set it up to be as accessible as possible for those with limited tech experience, and we also lined up tech coaches to help out. Everyone got it eventually and learned a lot of valuable technology skills that hopefully have been helpful for the other virtual contexts we are all relying on more during this pandemic.
AE: Don’t be intimidated by the technology. We made our course for first-timers. Also, because of the way COVID-19 has affected the world, many pastors had already used Zoom before enrolling. So they already knew how to join our optional weekly live sessions.
What did your students learn about mindfulness and embodied discipleship?
IK: Mindfulness helps people come back to the present moment and focus on what we can control and enjoy right now. Participants reported that the mindfulness course helped them to manage anxiety and feel less overwhelmed by this pandemic season. People also described feeling energized and surprised at how engaging the online format was for them.
AE: We set up assignments to be things they could do with their congregation or discipleship group. One activity was to make a community mapping exercise of where you live and work. This exercise prompted students to prayerfully remember the people they’d been around that day. Students came away from community mapping with an idea of a church parish as a physical envelope around their lives.
Another activity was to use the Pray As You Go app and its nightly prayers of examen to help recognize God’s presence or absence throughout the day.
Aaron, how does the parish idea apply to discipleship and digital life?
AE: It felt a bit ironic to teach about embodied discipleship in a virtual world, so we also asked students to apply their prayer of examen to their digital lives. You can invoke the Holy Spirit’s presence to think back on who you interacted with online that day. This is your digital parish. How did you feel after you got off social media? How do you engage healthy boundaries in your digital parish? One student suggested putting boundaries on your phone. Instead of receiving constant notifications, you can choose to open your phone only at certain times.
We also talked about how to use social media productively. For example, perhaps because Zoom conversations don’t offer a way to record cumulative “likes,” they don’t have a way to keep addictively drawing you back. But Zoom conversations do offer the opportunity to be vulnerable about how you’re doing. Cory and I tried to model that.
What other insights did your CWCW classes yield?
IK: The internet is full of free self-help courses with little accountability built in. In my experience, paying for a course that has frequent instructor interaction increases engagement significantly. Participants who audited my course for free as a perk of their job generally had lower attendance and engagement. For some, intentional outreach from the instructor made a difference. At the beginning of the class, I asked students to introduce themselves in the discussion forum and, if they felt comfortable, to post photos or videos of themselves. Most did, and this was helpful in nurturing a sense of personal connection.
AE: One of our goals was to open people’s eyes to how powerful digital media can be. Social media is intentionally designed to be addictive, like checking how many likes you got on a Facebook post. Also, we concluded that working offline but sharing online is a pattern the church can follow. And remember that the work of discipleship is probably done best offline—with social distancing, of course.
Read course descriptions and sign up for a short-term online course in the Christian Witness in a COVID-Shaped World series. Irene Kraegel wrote the book The Mindful Christian: Cultivating a Life of Intentionality, Openness, and Faith. She offers online classes and workshop through her website, The Mindful Christian. Learn more about simple prayers of examen and the Pray As You Go app.