Last weekend I had the honor of presenting a workshop at Super Saturday, a collaborative event hosted by the Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island Conferences of the United Church of Christ each fall and spring. My workshop, “What the Tech? Taking Ministry Digital,” was about developing an intentional strategy for the use of technology in the church. Digital ministry should support real-world ministry, not be a separate silo competing or running in parallel to it. That means that your digital ministry strategy should look a lot like your real-world ministry strategy: you should be pursuing many of the same goals, trying to reach many of the same people, and attempting to engage them in many of the same ways, just through a different channel.
Why Strategic Alignment for Digital Ministry is So Important
For better or for worse, those of us who spend a lot of time in churches know that usually they are slow to pick up on broader trends in our society. Sometimes this is a benefit, but at others it means we are reactionaries playing catch-up, not trend-setters or though leaders. In this case, I believe, the church should work to overcome this pattern and become cultural leaders. As our society adapts to the digital age, the changes we are immersed in are raising lots of questions that the church can and should be providing answers to. What do relationships and communities look like in a world of social media? What does our attachment to our phones mean for our etiquette? What does it mean to have an interest in truth in an age of “fake news”? While faith is certainly not the only lens through which people might approach these questions, it is a lens that can provide meaningful answers to them. I believe that the church should be striving to offer those answers, but no one is going to listen if we aren’t at the table engaged in the conversation.
Churches should have every reason to want to engage in this conversation. The days of bare, text-dominated, solely informational websites have been almost entirely replaced by the interactive, interpersonal, never-the-same-twice rivers of social media and “collaborative economy” web platforms. Our connectedness to technology has dramatically increased thanks to the smart-phones (and increasingly, smart-watches) we all carry around with us. Even the way technology is built has been revolutionized by the communal dynamism of open-source projects. These features of the modern web all reflect underlying human drives: a desire to form communities based on all the things that connect us (location, family/cultural background, education, interests, common goals, workplaces, etc); an interest in sharing with others our skills, resources, and knowledge (and, preferably, having that sharing be mutually beneficial, whether intrinsically or financially); and a drive to be part of something bigger than ourselves by working with others to create and build a shared vision. These drives for connection, collaboration, and sharing are permeating every aspect of our lives: the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. And from the perspective of the church (or faith more broadly), why would we want it to be? Doesn’t faith compel us to seek community, to share our skills, knowledge, and resources with one another, and to collaboratively build a common vision?
If the motivating human drives underlying the modern web are ones that resonate with faith, and if the questions being raised by technology’s impact on our society resonate with the concerns of faith, it seems to me that those of us who are deeply engaged in faith should be eager to engage the conversations around technology and it’s impact. But, as I said, our voices will not be heard if we are not present at the table. The value in developing an intentional strategy for using technology in our ministries is two-fold, then: first, it helps us to do ministry better without getting bogged down chasing unnecessary rabbits. Second, and perhaps in the long-run even more important, it helps us to be engaged in the conversation happening right now, not the one that was happening three, five, seven, or more years ago.
How to Intentionally Engage In Digital Ministry
To have this sort of strategic alignment and intentional engagement, we need to be thoughtful and pro-active. To start with, this means knowing at least two things:
First, we need to know what our own ministry goals are. Some ministry goals are fairly universal across churches everywhere: we all want to be welcoming to new-comers and find and engage with new potential members. Others may be much more specific to our community context: a downtown church may have a goal of providing relief for a growing homeless population in its city, for example, while a more rural congregation may see different needs in its community. Still others may be more global: our goal may be to articulate a theological response to the refugee crisis and lead an effort among nearby churches to support agencies providing relief to those suffering from it, for example. Finally, we may even have some “bold” goals that we don’t really know how to enact yet: maybe to be a church that turns the “rigged game” of income inequality on its head in our local community, whatever that may look like in practice. Whatever goals we articulate, they should be goals that are grounded in our real-world ministry, not simply goals about how many posts we want on our blog or social media accounts.
Second, we need to know who it is we are trying to reach and something about their concerns, desires, and needs. If our goal is to provide relief for a growing homeless population in our city, we should know something about that homeless population: are they mostly older men or younger women with children, for example? Is the recent rise in homelessness the result of a particular economic event in our area or is it more reflective of national economic trends? How are the newer homeless populations interacting with the existing homeless population? Asking these sorts of questions might help us to identify some real concerns and needs present in our “target audience.” The needs of an older mostly male homeless population look very different from the needs of a younger mostly female one, for example. If we haven’t taken the time to identify that difference, we may be offering things no one is looking for, which can make our ministry highly ineffective.
We also need to remember that frequently in ministry (and in non-profit work as well), we have two target audiences. In our example above, the homeless population that we are seeking to directly serve is our first audience. The other is the volunteers and donors we will enlist to help us. Not much will get done if we don’t understand and appropriately appeal to their needs, too. What are they like? What might motivate them to want to help? What might make them hesitate or hold back? What sorts of things are they capable of, and what would be beyond their abilities?
Once we know something about our audience(s) and can identify some of their needs, the next step is to think about how our goals and their needs intersect. You might draw a chart that looks like this:
In the chart above, we’ve listed some of our church’s goals on one side and we’ve identified some of our target audiences on the other, listing some of their needs below each heading. We can then identify how some of our goals might intersect with some of those needs. The chart above has been simplified: in reality, it might list many more goals, audiences, and needs. If we filled it in more, we would probably find that some of the needs we identified our audience as having were not ones that intersected with any of our goals (for example: our families with young children audience might have a need for good medical care for their children. While we might happen to have doctors in our congregation, this doesn’t correspond particularly well to any of our goals). We might also find that we have goals that actually don’t line up well with the needs of our audience. The presence of either of these “non-matches” is not necessarily bad: they help us know what not to focus on.
The lines we’ve drawn connecting goals and needs help us to identify places where we can put theory into praxis: concrete actions, or “engagements”, that will meet our own goals and answer the needs of those we are trying to reach. For the sake of simplicity, we are going to pick one goal to pursue and use it as our running example. Let’s pick “Doing more local mission work.” This goal intersects with the needs of our local agencies for more materials/supplies and volunteers to staff their programs and events. It also intersects with the need of our current members for spiritual experiences. Translating these intersections into concrete engagements isn’t hard to imagine: to meet the need of providing materials and supplies, we could run donation drives collecting food or school supplies or books or whatever else the local agencies tell us they need. To meet the need of volunteers to staff programs and events, we could coordinate a “church day” in which our own volunteers staff a day’s worth of programming for them. And to meet the need our members have for spiritual experiences, we could add elements of ritualization and some debriefing time to either of these experiences to help facilitate more conscious spiritual engagement with the act of service.
Great. So we know what we want to accomplish, we know who we are trying to reach and what they need, and now we’ve identified how we are going to do it, right? Well, as anyone who has organized a service project knows, this won’t just happen out of thin air. Each of these engagements is going to require a lot of preparation and severals steps/processes to be completed. The next step in our planning process is to do a little thinking about what those steps/processes are:
- To meet the need our local agencies have for materials and supplies, we will organize a donation drive. For this to work we need:
- To know what materials and supplies they are looking for
- To establish a time-line for when they are needed
- To distribute the list to our donors and give them instructions
- To provide a place for our donors to drop off the supplies
- To facilitate transferring the collected supplies from our drop-off location to the agency in need
- To meet the need of our local agencies for volunteers to staff their events, we will organize a “church day” with our own volunteers. For this to work, we need:
- To arrange a date that will benefit the agency and works for the church calendar
- To publicize the information and generate interest
- To recruit volunteers from the church
- To organize a volunteer schedule to make sure all the agency’s needs are covered
- To communicate that information with the agency and with our volunteers
- To facilitate transportation to and from the event, as necessary
- To meet the need of our current members for spiritual experiences (in the context of either of these service projects), we will add elements of ritualization and debriefing time to our service projects to consciously draw out the spiritual elements of service. This will require:
- Developing appropriate “liturgy” or rituals to use
- Working out how to include these elements in the course of the service event
- Gathering necessary supplies or materials
- Communicating what is happening with our volunteers to make sure everyone has the benefit of these experiences
Making the Digital Turn
Notice how those steps are still “real-world” actions. We haven’t yet talked at all about anything digital. And that’s because the digital translation should always be the last step in this process.
Once we have identified concrete steps needed to implement the engagements that we are trying to foster, we can start to translate some of them into digital steps. When we do this, we are trying to do one of two things: either we are trying to smooth out the steps involved and create a “path or least resistance” or we are tying to improve upon the existing way of doing something to get a better, richer experience (or both).
Some of these translations may be patently obvious to us. Some may already be second nature. Our coordination with a local agency is almost certainly going to involve at least some email communication, for example. It’s hard to imagine a world without email these days. Likewise, we are likely to distribute much of the information to our volunteers through email or social media. That’s great, we’re already making some digital translations.
But let’s take a moment to imagine how we might go even farther.
How about the process of recruiting our volunteers? Without any digital translation, this might be done by announcing the need, providing a phone number for people to call and sign-up, and then cold-calling potential volunteers to fill in empty spaces. All the scheduling would be done by whoever was coordinating the event.
Our first digital step is likely to publish the need via email. This hits a larger number of potential volunteers faster, so now we may get more responses earlier and have to make fewer cold calls. But we may need a lot of back-and-forth email with our volunteers to work out their schedules and fit them into the day. A second step might be to create a sign-up form that included an “availability” question, allowing volunteers to check off all the times during the day they are able to serve. Now we have less back-and-forth working out when our people might be available, but our coordinator is still manually copying the information over from the form responses to her schedule for the day. Then she has to distribute that information to everyone who signed up and may still have to deal with change-requests. In other words, it’s still going to be a lot of work.
What if we take another step and let volunteers choose their time slots themselves by putting their names down in a spreadsheet of available slots for the day? That self-facilitation dramatically cuts down on the work our coordinator needs to do. She doesn’t need to wrangle schedules, she doesn’t have to inform the volunteers of their times (they already know), and she shouldn’t need to field many (if any) change requests. There may still be some gaps to fill and cold-calls to make, but the whole process became a lot easier for both her and our volunteers.
Now what if we could take this even farther and streamline the communication between our coordinator and the agency? As a first step, we could share the sign-up spreadsheet with their representative so that they can see the progress in real time. Now they know exactly what to expect without needing our coordinator to drop a fire-hose of information on them just before the event.
But we can go even farther and use our digital tools to facilitate greater coordination. What if we helped our agency partner create a shared “master schedule” that allowed us to see their needs in real time just as we are showing them our volunteer sign-ups? Now we can more easily help them find volunteers beyond the “church day” we’ve signed up for. And, we can make sure the volunteers we are finding are available for the times they actually need help with, cutting down on their workload wrangling schedules, too!
We can take this approach even farther still by brining some of our other neighboring churches into the loop, sharing the “master schedule” amongst us all so that everyone is on the same page. Now we’re not just advancing our goal of doing more local service, we’re also advancing the goal of collaborating more with other churches. And we’re fostering a deeper and more transparent relationship with our partners at the agency we are trying to serve. And we’re accomplishing this work more effectively and efficiently than we could have otherwise. What’s not to love?
Using a shared scheduling spreadsheet is a fairly simple implementation. Most of us will be familiar with basic spreadsheet use, and learning how to share a Google Sheet, for example, is fairly straight forward. The point is that we don’t necessarily need the snazziest new tech toy to make a difference, sometimes fairly simple ones can profoundly improve our coordination and collaboration with others.
We could continue to work through the list of steps we’ve outlined to find more ways they can be “translated” into a digital step, each time with the goal of either making the process more smooth or significantly improving the overall experience. These digital “translations” will now form the foundation for our digital strategy. Having a real-world goal behind these translations keeps us grounded in our own ministry goals and focused on our own target audience. It also allows us to imagine new ways of doing things that actually have real-world value. This isn’t just tech for tech’s sake, it’s tech in support of our real-life ministry. The potential for that sort of approach is, I think, incredible!
The power of digital ministry for your church isn’t just about slickness of presentation or “pushing” information out to website viewers. Your digital presence isn’t a next-generation trifold brochure. What makes the digital revolution exciting from a ministry perspective is the potential to use it as a tool for more effective, interactive, and engaging ministry. Once you begin to approach it from that perspective, it’s easy to see lots of ways you can put the web to work for you. The details will look different for your specific church and depending on which specific platforms you are using, but the goal of strategic alignment with your real-world ministry should be the same.
To see more of what we discussed in our Super Saturday session, check out our Prezi board.