By Jasmine Obeyesekere Fernando

How to Lead a Virtual Book Club

Women in the Academy and Professions (WAP) has been hosting online book clubs since 2017 and we’ve put together some of our best practices as a resource to help you lead your own book club. These guidelines are easily adaptable to in person book clubs too. If you are meeting in person, consider inviting non-Christian colleagues to join you, it will be a great way to introduce them to Christian thinking on vocation and issues of our time.   

We used Zoom for the video conversations (deliberately keeping them informal and not calling them webinars) and simultaneously used Slack for content related discussion. We used the Zoom chat only for non-topical conversations. We found Slack a useful tool as people could stay engaged between calls and there were multiple channels to keep different conversations on separate threads. 

You might prefer using a messaging App such as GroupMe that is only for book club announcements and conversations.

Before the first meeting

  1. Choose a book that will both resonate with your audience AND further the objectives of your ministry/mission (e.g. integration of faith, learning, and practice).
  2. Divide the book into manageable portions — typically a good book has enough content to be discussed well in four sittings without feeling repetitive. Denser books might need five meetings and simpler books can be covered in three.
  3. Allow for enough time between advertising your book club and date of first meeting for potential participants to purchase the book and do the required reading.  
  4. Inform participants in advance how the readings will be divided — which dates which portions of the book will be discussed.
  5. Ask participants to register for the book club ahead of time, instead of putting up the link to your call in the advert. This is more effective for participant "buy in." You will also get a sense of who will join your book club.
  6. Give as much information ahead of time so that the participants know what to expect about how the book club will be run — this will minimize avoidable distractions during the call.

Before all meetings

  1. Make your questions (around six questions is enough for a group of 6-8 meeting for an hour) and send them ahead of time.
  2. Include questions that both engage the content and incorporate elements of personal application (including vocational/university life — e.g. when discussing Christianity and Gender a question such as “How can we dialogue with women colleagues who think that the Biblical God is a misogynist?”)

At the first meeting

  1. Start on time. Welcome participants, introduce yourself and give an outline of how the time will run.
  2. Ask participants to introduce themselves on the Zoom chat. If you want people to introduce themselves, communicate that it needs to be a one liner. (e.g. Anita, teaching English at Michigan State).
  3. Inform participants that each person should respond only once per question so that everyone’s voices are heard. Encourage them to share additional thoughts on the Zoom chat.
  4. Suggest using Chat to engage with one another around the questions while listening to the participant who is speaking.  
  5. Ask participants to mute mic when not speaking for better sound quality for all.
  6. Remember that your first book club meeting will be shorter on content conversation than the others since you will be giving housekeeping information as well as making space for strangers to get to know one another.

At all meetings

  1. Use three key elements of effectively leading in person small group Bible studies or meetings — allow each person to be heard, manage time well, and make sure the objective of the meeting is met.
  2. Aim to spend ten minutes per question. You can divide up your time differently depending on how simple or complex the questions are or by eliminating a question. Nevertheless, ask people to limit their responses per question to one and a half minutes. Let them know that you will mute them if they speak at length. If you have eight participants on your call and they each respond keeping to one and a half minutes, you will still need twelve minutes. If you have more than ten, you could send them to breakout rooms with a question for discussion and ask one person per group to summarize their conversation.
  3. Plan to use no more than fifty minutes on the actual conversation, giving time for participants to trickle in and feel welcome on the front end and time to pray at the back end.  
  4. Decide if you want to invite participants to respond to your question briefly on the Chat first. This will help you group similar thoughts together and plan the order in which you will invite participants to respond. This method works if you want to control the conversation more tightly, depending on the composition of the group.   
  5. Include everyone. If there are eight participants and only five responded to your question, invite those who didn’t speak to respond first to the next question.
  6. Stay ahead. If a question you’re asking requires some thought, you can answer first, giving time for others to think – make sure you don’t respond first each time.
  7. Use your experts. If you know that one of the participants has experience in the subject under discussion, you can arrange with her ahead of time to respond to a specific question first.
  8. Rephrase your question or invite a specific participant to start the discussion if silence is prolonged.     
  9. Involve participants in decision-making. If there are two good questions and you have time to only discuss one, you can ask the participants to vote for the question of their choice — on the chat function. 
  10. Respect participants’ time and end on time. You can give the option of staying on for a further ten-fifteen minutes for whoever would like to continue the conversation.  
  11. Understand that there will be some who haven’t done their reading. You could suggest that those who haven’t had a chance to read could listen in first and respond as they gain a sense of the focus of the conversation.  
  12. Facilitate fellowship. Make space for your participants to interact well and get to know one another so that mutually edifying relationships can be cultivated beyond the book club.
About the Author

Jasmine is WSAP’s book club host and vocation specialist. She hails from Sri Lanka and has a thirty-year relationship with its national university ministry, the Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS). She has also been involved with InterVarsity for twenty years. She has a BA (Hons.) in English from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, and a MA in International Relations from Syracuse University. She loves writing about theology impacting real life and enjoys British, Korean, and Chinese drama. Jasmine lives in upstate New York with her professor husband and two teenage children.

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