Gathering Together, Separately

Ben Wiechmann (North Mankato, Minnesota USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

A graduate of West Lutheran High School and with a B.A. in Business Administration from Bethany Lutheran College and an M.Div. from Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary, Pastor Wiechmann served for nine years at King of Grace Lutheran Church, Golden Valley, Minnesota, and recently began his work at Peace Lutheran Church, North Mankato, Minnesota. He and his wife Emily are raising two girls and two boys.


Gathering Together, Separately

"In fact where two or three have gathered together in my name, there I am among them." Matthew 18:20

It was the heart of the pandemic and I was leading an online Bible study about self-image. We were trying our best to be the Body of Christ as God intended: gathering virtually around the Word to encourage and comfort one another, to learn from each other and grow together, but it just wasn't working. After asking a question and once again having those bodyless heads in their own little squares stare blankly back, I knew that no matter how hard we tried it would just never be the same as being in the same room together.

In the months and years since then, it's been much more common to have virtual visitors for our in-person studies. And still, with more fluid conversation and interaction, it's a non-ideal experience for the person attending from home. They usually only have a view of the pastor's face with no idea who else is in the room. There are no visual clues to the group that those people at home want to add something to the discussion, so they are usually relegated to being the fly-on-the-wall straining to hear comments picked up by bad laptop microphones not designed for the task.

However, at our congregation we have recently started using a technology that solves many of these problems. I am still a firm believer that it is better by far for believers to be sitting in the same room together as they study the Word, but if that is not an option this device does help the person joining from home feel more like they are a part of the group instead of a passive observer.

It is called the Meeting Owl and it is made by a company called Owl Labs. It is a camera, microphone, speaker, and software in one device. The Meeting Owl sits in the middle of the group instead of on the side. The 360° camera can see everyone in the space and the microphone is omni-directional, so it picks up all the participants as well. The speaker is powerful enough so everyone in the room can hear what the online attendees are saying clearly.

What makes this particular device unique is the artificial intelligence that is built into it. The 360° view is always visible at the top of the viewer's screen, but when a person is speaking, the camera zooms in on the speaker and displays them in the larger section of the screen. If another person begins to speak, instead of simply switching views, the software splits the screen to add the new speaker. Up to three individuals in the room are displayed at a time. If the first person is done talking, they'll fade out of the view after a little while, leaving only the people speaking in the larger image. Basically, it is mimicking your natural behavior of giving your attention to the people currently speaking in the group conversation.

For the initial setup you need to download an app to your phone, but after that there is no software that needs to run on your computer to make the Meeting Owl work. You simply plug it in and use it as you would any other webcam. Because of this, it can be used with Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, or any other web conferencing software. The picture to the right gives you an idea of what people joining from home will see.

To purchase a new Meeting Owl 3, you can expect to spend about $1100. There are additional accessories you can purchase that may increase the cost, but even for larger boardrooms the base unit has worked very well for us. There is certainly some sticker shock here but be aware that used, like-new models can easily be found online for less than half this price. I was able to get the one I purchased for $300 and they are routinely available for about $400.

Besides compliments and expressions of thankfulness from people joining from home, I have noticed other blessings of using this device as well. There is greater participation from our online viewers and more natural conversations. For those who are unable to be there in person, it is certainly better at mimicking the experience of being together than a traditional webcam. We have been able to use it for Bible studies, confirmation class, and board and committee meetings.

While it is better to be together, when that isn't possible it makes sense to create the best possible experience to enable brothers and sisters in Christ to learn together, rejoice together, and build one another up in love. I do believe that this device, and other AI webcams that will follow suit, can be used by our congregations for the good of our people and to God's glory.


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Don Moldstad (Bethany Lutheran College) 2022-10-18 7:18:04pm
Interesting device. I would love to see it in action sometime. It sounds like it could also work well in a pastoral counseling situation, if the individuals are in different locations. Thanks.
Ben Wiechmann (Peace Lutheran Church) 2022-10-24 3:44:46pm
If you had one person with you and another individual online, I could certainly see some value there for pastoral counseling.
Stephanie Wentzlaff (Peace Lutheran Church) 2022-10-25 3:11:32pm
Don, We use this each Tuesday at 9 AM at Peace. If you have a free moment you should get the zoom link and join us.
Phil W 2022-10-20 4:38:25pm
Ben thanks for sharing this, I know finding and implementing new technologies into our churches can be an uphill battle sometimes, but it sounds like this is a fairly easy and painless process.
Ben Wiechmann (Peace Lutheran Church) 2022-10-24 3:47:12pm
Correct! While you can make setting adjustments with the app, I haven't found a reason to keep it on my phone. Once activated it really is plug-and-play. The only difference between using it and a traditional webcam is that it requires to be plugged into an outlet for power.
Stephanie Wentzlaff (Peace Lutheran Church) 2022-10-25 3:10:40pm
I am so thankful to God for all the technology and its use to spread the Gospel. I am one of the recipients of our congregation who gets the benefit of this device. We live 45 minutes from our church. So to be able to join Bible study online each week remotely is such a blessing. To be able to see the participants gives you a great feel for the work being shared. For the two years prior to having this device at Peace, I sometimes had no idea who was participating if I did not recognize their voices. I could of course see the online participants but not the ones who were in class in person.
Emma Griebel (Martin Luther College (MLC)) 2022-10-26 4:02:41pm
Pastor Wiechmann:

In 2020, when COVID-19 occurred, we all were sent to learn online. When this happened, that transition was very difficult for me. The Meeting Owl is a fantastic invention for people still not going out in public. I find this interesting because this could solve so many people's problems. People that are in nursing homes can continue to contribute at church as well as those that aren’t going out since COVID. The Meeting Owl could help my Grandpa be at our family gatherings even if not physically able to go.

I understand technology is expensive. Companies need to make money from the products they are selling. I’m wondering whether most ministry locations can afford the product. Based on your experience with ministry and budgets, do you see cost as a significant barrier to churches using this tool or a pretty manageable issue?

Thank you for demonstrating the importance of worshiping together and introducing this tool for coming together when we can't do so physically.
Ben Wiechmann (Peace Lutheran Church) 2022-10-28 4:26:54pm
Hi Emma! You certainly aren't alone- that transition was so difficult on so many. I hadn't thought about family events, but you are absolutely correct- it would probably work in a wonderful way for those as well!

As for cost, I think it really depends on the overall budget of a congregation and how they would use the device. If it comes out of the closet a few times a year, you would probably be better off spending 1/10th of the cost on a nice webcam and speaker. However, if you have shut-ins who would attend bible study weekly, or people from out of town who want to watch, then it tips the scales for me to being a worthwhile investment. For our Tuesday morning studies, we typically have about 15 in persona and 5 online. The conversations and discussion certainly feel more natural with the mixed audience while using the Meeting Owl, so I certainly see firsthand the benefits.
Magdalyn Spike (Martin Luther College (MLC)) 2022-10-26 4:18:50pm
Hi Pastor Wiechmann,

Thank you for your thorough presentation. I really appreciated how you emphasized that this device does not take the place of meeting together in person, but simply is a blessing that we can use to enhance our experience when meeting in person is not possible. I think that this is a very important reminder, especially with the lowered in-person church attendance rate that became a trend in recent years. I could see this being a useful tool to help people who fell out of attending in-person worship activities during the height of the pandemic to relearn this habit.

In your presentation, you talked a lot about the functions of the Meeting Owl, but I was wondering how you found this technology. Was it something you were looking specifically for or did you happen upon it? Did someone recommend it to you? It seems to be a perfect tool specifically for Bible studies so I’m interested to hear more about how you discovered it. Thank you again for sharing this technology with us along with a wonderful reminder of the blessing that fellowship is!
Ben Wiechmann (Peace Lutheran Church) 2022-10-28 4:31:07pm
Hi Magdalyn!

It was an unexpected blessing of the pandemic. I was previously at a congregation with a thriving grade school. As part of the COVID stimulus, there were funds set aside for technology improvements in elementary and middle school settings. One of our members was serving on our technology committee and had used this device at work so he brought it to our attention.

God bless!
Eleanor Tomhave (Martin Luther College (MLC)) 2022-10-26 4:25:30pm
Pastor Wiechmann:

Just about a month ago I had to fill out this questionnaire about myself for MLC's volleyball program using a Grace In Action survey. This survey would tell me what my top 5 strengths were. Later we met with some partners from Grace In Action and we talked about these strengths and exactly what they were. During this meeting, they used one of these Meeting Owls. At the time I had no idea what it was. I saw that I was on camera individually along with some other people that were at the meeting. I didn’t understand what was recording me, but your article about the use of this product and why it’s resourceful was very helpful in clearing that up. Thank you!

While reading your article, I learned what the meeting owl does and its many uses. It was said that it has a 360-degree camera that picks up the speaker and adds them to the screen. It also mentioned how those from home can easily join once they download the app. I had one question regarding the live chat. If one person’s wifi is not working would that affect all the other people using this app for the meeting owl? Would they have to leave the group discussion completely? Besides this one question that was drawn up this product seems like it is very effective!

Thank you for trying to get those who are not physically present in meetings engaged in a somewhat realistic atmosphere!
Ben Wiechmann (Peace Lutheran Church) 2022-10-28 4:33:17pm
Hi Eleanor!

If someone was at home, they would be using their own webcam and microphone (typically the one built into the laptop). So if they dropped, it wouldn't affect the others.

God bless!
Justin Lo (Bethany Lutheran College) 2022-10-26 8:22:08pm
Hello Pastor Wiechmann,

What an interesting device! I have never heard of this device before and it's interesting to know that this device allows for there to be a more natural flowing conversation when meetings are held as well as more participation. I wonder if that's because of how the Meeting Owl device gives attention to the speaker, allowing them to feel like they're being heard. Though it works best in person, would it not be the same experience as it was to normally zoom?

Ben Wiechmann (Peace Lutheran Church) 2022-10-28 4:35:10pm
For the people in the room where the event is being held, it is the exact same experience as a typical Zoom session. But for the people at home, I do think it helps to be able to see everyone else, especially those who are speaking. So while the same thing can be accomplished on Zoom by a regular webcam, this is an all-in-one device that enhances the experience for the people watching online.

God bless!
Elijah Hutchinson (Martin Luther College) 2022-11-02 1:02:01pm
Pastor Wiechmann,

I am very intrigued by your article on the Meeting Owl. My church utilizes zoom to include members who cannot be at voters' meetings and the like. This device would be a great benefit and give the members a greater sense of involvement in the meeting. Your article does an excellent job of explaining the functionality of the Meeting Owl. I feel that it would be a great thing to implement in our churches.

I have some concerns about the implementation of the Meeting Owl. By utilizing the Meeting Owl we not only enable members to stay at home, but also encourage it. I believe that this would create a problem in the long run. When members are able to participate without leaving the comfort of their own homes, they tend to stop showing up. We saw the result of this in our church during the Covid pandemic with our attendance. When we started streaming our services online, our attendance each Sunday took a sharp decline. My question would be; how should we encourage members to attend meetings in person?

Thank you for your information on the Meeting Owl, I found that this could be a very useful tool.
Ben Wiechmann (Peace Lutheran Church) 2022-11-08 8:49:46pm
Yes, Elijah- this is something we as pastors talk about often! Can the online worship experience be too good? I think the way to do this is the same as any encouragement for Christian growth in a congregation- preach the Word. In sermons and bible studies we need to remember to proclaim what God says about being together as the body of Christ, encouraging one another, serving one another, rejoicing and mourning with one another. I, as a pastor can't create change in people's hearts to want to gather together in person, but if either online or in person I can connect them to the power source that can affect that change, I call that a win. People being the Word together is always good. There's an argument that can be made for making some bible studies in-person only, but when other options aren't possible- this device is a good way to bridge the gap.
Levi Dobberstein (Martin Luther College) 2022-11-02 1:05:38pm

I thought the idea of a simple device to ensure that stay-at-home grandparents or elderly members of the church receive their dose of easy access service. It makes sense to have the whole device implemented with each given person who doesn’t have the normal mobility as some others get to have. I thought that the way this is set up would ensure that those that cannot get their own way to church, especially in light of recent covid concerns.

I was wondering if you would send someone out to help with some of those people that are not the best at understanding the idea of how to switch from regular tv to this. It might be a little confusing for most who aren’t so tech-savvy. How challenging have the folks you're targeting for things like shut-in visits found it to access and engage with this broadcast type?
Meghan Johnson (Martin Luther College) 2022-11-02 1:21:11pm
Hello Pastor Weichmann!

I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation! In the post-pandemic world, there are still many challenges that people face, especially church attendance. My home church struggles with encouraging members back to in-person worship and fellowship. However, I appreciate your outlook on this topic. Yes, in-person is ultimately better and more successful, but changes have to be incorporated. I found it fascinating that the Meeting Owl is a solution. Thank you for conveying this useful tool to us!

You described the many benefits that come from utilizing this tool- which there are many. As I read and reflected on your presentation, I had to stop and wonder. Have you noticed any drawbacks that have emerged after incorporating the Meeting Owl into fellowship? Do your members use this tool to give excuses to stay home? Or are most of the church members making an effort to be back in church? I am curious to hear from you about additional information about the Meeting Owl.

Thank you for the time and energy you put in to making this presentation. What an awesome way to preach and teach the Gospel after a pandemic. God works in awesome ways!
Ben Wiechmann (Peace Lutheran Church) 2022-11-08 8:54:02pm
Hi Meghan,

I just recently started here at Peace and by God's grace most of the members have indeed returned from their Covid hiatus. So for our Tuesday morning bible studies where this is utilized, it's mainly people who live far away or whose schedules conflict with being here in person. I also use it for Confirmation to include a student who lives with her family in Hawaii while her father is stationed there. Overall, I haven't seen the fear of people using this as an excuse to stay home come to fruition- which is great!
Nicole Trapp (Martin Luther College (MLC)) 2022-11-07 1:13:13pm
Pastor Wiechmann:

After taking online classes at various times throughout my sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school, this idea of a 360-degree camera and making online meetings or classrooms more like you are actually there is quite appealing. It is very hard to speak up and feel like you are actually having a conversation with classmates when you join a meeting with more than one other person on the other side of the screen. There will always be people who do not want to participate, but I feel that this would definitely help more people feel more comfortable with online meetings and classes.

I do have one question regarding this idea though, and that is the budget of a church. Open box deals and like-new used cameras are definitely a lot cheaper than brand new, and I have used that to my advantage before as well. However, not every church has the best technology to do very many things online, or technologically gifted people to help aid their set-up of new technology. This could mean that they would end up spending more to have someone else come out and set it up, or potentially needing better internet and updated services. How would we help these congregations to be able to utilize these new ideas?

Thank you for showing us how we might be able to help those stuck at home to feel more invited, welcomed, and involved in Bible classes even though they may not be able to physically be there.
Ben Scoch (Martin Luther College (MLC)) 2022-11-07 1:16:58pm
Pastor Wiechmann,

When COVID hit in 2020 and schools were figuring out how to handle online classes, many turned to Zoom or Google Meet. My high school received a few PTZ cameras with remotes to operate with. They were positioned to see the teacher and the whiteboard, but never really were moved after class began. Your description of a “fly on the wall” is a good one for how those online felt. They didn’t feel like students could participate very well.

Teachers sometimes struggled with being able to zoom cameras in on whiteboards and having them be focused. If you have a whiteboard you want to present to those joining online (perhaps a map or something you want to hand draw on a whiteboard), could you control the Meeting Owl to zoom in manually on a part of the room or would you have to present from your laptop inside of the online meeting?

Teaching classes or running meetings online aren’t great, but this technology is one that I hadn’t yet heard of that could help people feel more included online. Thanks for the time you have spent finding a solution and helping others also find technology that helps them connect to their members!
Tianna Rivera (Martin Luther College (MLC)) 2022-11-07 1:20:45pm

I really liked the Idea of using this device in a meeting. While we of course want to be together when we can, that is not always humanly possible, and this device can make those meetings so much better. I can see this being used in our churches for bible studies, Elders' meetings, Voters' meetings, and so much more. In times when we are sometimes separated by distance or sickness, this is a wonderful tool that we are blessed to have. I really liked how this device focuses on who is talking while still providing the whole 360-degree view at the top. That is a really useful feature.

Your piece got me thinking about how such a resource might be used beyond meetings and distance worship. I feel certain there are other applications that will come to light as we get more familiar with the potential. Pastor Moldstad mentioned personal counseling in the postings above - I wondered if you, an experienced user, had an opinion about the advantages and challenges that might accompany using this device for counseling.

Thanks for sharing this awesome tool and your experiences utilizing it.

Macie VanDenHeuvel (Martin Luther College (MLC)) 2022-11-07 1:27:03pm
Pastor Wiechmann,

Just over halfway into my sophomore year my high school went completely remote due to covid. With the struggle of not being able to meet as a whole group, some challenges began to arise. The school work and activities just would never be the same as in person. This is quite similar to your story of having bible class online but the communication was not quite all there because of not having the connections with people in person.

I do agree that the creation of the meeting owl is a cool, unique tool that allows for it to feel like you are there in person. You mentioned in your article that people join in conversation more when they can see the whole room instead. What have you found to be the biggest challenge of negotiating a Bible study where some folks are present in person and some people are attending digitally?

Thank you again for discussing how you can create a way for everyone to be seen and heard in bible classes whether online or in person.
Ben Wiechmann (Peace Lutheran Church) 2022-11-08 8:43:33pm
Honestly for me, the hardest part is recognizing or knowing when someone at home wants to say something. In person, you have non-verbal cues that someone has something to add, but with a mixed crowd, not only does the person have to raise their hand, but I have to be also constantly checking the screen at regular intervals to notice them. So it's a learned skill, I suppose, but one I'm not great at yet.