Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

3/18 2020

The Ministry of Marco Polo: How a Video Chat App Helped My Ministry (and Me)

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pastors experiencing the shalom of GodIn the fall of 2018, I received a call from a former colleague, asking if I would be interested in being a part of a cohort-covenant group of other women pastors. One of her pastor friends was working on her doctor of ministry degree. This group would be a part of her study in pastoral leadership.

Little did I know how these seven other women would affect my life.


Experiencing the Shalom of God

Julia, the convener of the group, sent us an e-mail describing her project. Her focus was on experiencing the shalom of God, and how covenant community helps pastors experience shalom, both as individuals, and together. We committed to doing readings, praying for one another, and meeting online every week.


But after our first meeting, we decided that we needed a way to stay in touch throughout the week. So, one of the Shalom Sisters—the name we coined together as a nod to Julia and her shalom project—suggested we use the video app Marco Polo. It was new for a few of us, but we agreed it was better than texting, e-mail, or using Facebook messenger.


Over the next few months, we continued to meet and pray together, doing our online check-ins every Thursday. We started to get to know each other better by sharing our joys and concerns. We talked about our faith journeys, our current ministries, and our personal lives. And as we walked alongside each other we started to communicate more and more on Marco Polo.

We sent messages (known as “polos”) from our homes, our offices, our cars, and our local coffee shops. Julia gave us a tour of the Christmas lights in her neighborhood. Jamie showed us the view from her hotel room in Kenya. I shared a video from the beach while on vacation in Florida.


Doing Ministry, and Life Together

Marco Polo was helping us do ministry, and life, together.


Over the past 17 months, we’ve supported one another through community tragedies, discerning new calls, online dating debacles, StepBet challenges, new hires, deaths, surgeries, home sales, engagements, retirements, marriages, challenges with colleagues, and across-the-country moves.


Soon Julia will be defending her dissertation. She has been working for months on this paper, part of which will share the research and data she collected from each of us—data from what was only to be a nine-month covenant group. Several of us are planning on meeting up again this spring in California.*

I always smile when I get the little “ding” on my phone that one of my sisters has left me a message, wondering what funny story they will tell, what prayer request they will share, or what update they will give from the last time we talked. I smile because that “ding” is a reminder that I am not alone in ministry.

Here is just a glimpse of how Marco Polo has allowed us to share life together:

“We will be praying for the doctors to have wisdom, and for you . . . for you to take care of yourself as you try to take care of them.”

“I got connected with another church in the area who is having serious conflict issues. It’s a small church, and I am just praying I’ll be able to help them.”

“Thank you for your prayer for me. Since mom fell it’s been really hard. Exponentially hard.”

“Working on our women’s retreat, and the theme is prayer. If you have any thoughts or feedback I sure would appreciate it.”

“I only got four hours of sleep last night. I’m running on fumes. This is brutal. No family should have to go through this.”

“So have any of you had issues with wild turkey? We got a wild turkey that is pooping all over! Trying to get rid of him. One of my Buildings and Grounds guys is going to come and have early Thanksgiving I think!”

“Love you. Praying for you. Just holding you up this weekend.”


Coming Alongside One Another

In her dissertation, Julia writes about how ministry leaders face unique challenges that hinder their ability to form intentional communities and collegial relationships. She concludes, “Through mutual encouragement and by establishing healthy rhythms, pastors can come alongside one another to seek and to know the full shalom of God.”

Marco Polo has enabled the coming alongside for our group despite the fact that we live in the north, south, east, and west of the United States.

Pastors and ministry leaders, if are feeling alone, don’t limit yourself by finding a group to meet in person over a meal or coffee. I wasn’t able to find that myself because of everyone’s commitments and schedules, let alone my own. Marco Polo is a tool that allows us to connect, encourage, listen, vent frustrations, and share ministry. Share life. As Julia’s dissertation reminds us, “Paul encourages his readers in 2 Corinthians 3:11 by writing, ‘Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.’ The God of love calls us to be in community, reconciled and transformed through relationship, and to receive the promised gift of shalom.’”

I know I experience the gift of shalom, thanks to my God, my Shalom Sisters, and yes, even thanks to a video app called Marco Polo.

*The Shalom Sisters have postponed their gathering as they are also working to follow the CDC guidelines and help their people through the COVID-19 pandemic.


The Rev. Ellen Dawson a 2009 graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (M.Div.) who has years of experience in mission leadership, campus ministry and parish ministry. Ellen serves as associate pastor at Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church, where she preaches, teaches, and works alongside the Mission and Membership committees, as well as the deacons. She currently serves on the advisory board of the Seminary’s World Mission Initiative. When Ellen is not working, she’s usually reading, visiting with friends and family, or walking her dog, Ziggy (pictured above).

Comments ( 2 )

  • I love our Shalom Sisters and would not want to do life without us! Last year when we all met in person for the first time, it was simply an extension of the love and community God had made of us in the previous nine months through our weekly zoom Shalom Sister gatherings, texts, and polos. Make it happen, friends. Grab a group of pastors from around the country and connect weekly. Ministry is too hard to go it alone and you don’t need to go it alone given technology like polo and zoom gatherings today!

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