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Ministry & Technology

By David Parsons.

A new context for ministry

Ministry is always given in a context. Urban ministry, rural ministry and estate ministry are obvious examples of ministry contexts. We could add to that the size of church, complementary or competing styles of worship, university town or city or popular retirement area. There are more subtle contexts of ministry. Are some professions represented much more or much less in a church? Has a church been affected by various splits both within its own history or the history of other local churches? Grappling with these and other contexts is the bread and butter of pastoral ministry.

However, there is now another context faced by all who serve in pastoral ministry, whether they embrace it or disown it. Technology affects the lives of every person in the developed world and in particular that aspect of technology called Information Technology (IT for short) or more commonly, computers – especially personal computers.

I'm not unique in having embraced two career paths, nor will I be alone in having an insight into how IT has impacted on pastoral ministry. I had a career in technology which culminated in my becoming head of electronics at Southmead Hospital in Bristol and have served in pastoral ministry for well over twenty years. In 'retirement' I have tried to keep abreast of (some) developments in both technology and theology and retirement has enabled me to look reflectively at what I see developing. This article is about just a few of the issues, and makes no claim to be comprehensive.

Without doubt, IT offers great benefits. Only recently I have enjoyed listening to lectures given by Revd Dr Ernest Lucas on Genesis and others on Faith and Science, one of my great interests. A new word has been coined, “webinar”, which is an online seminar: and some very interesting and even interactive seminars are available. In the last year, I've arranged for a drain to be unblocked, a new central heating boiler to be fitted and purchased a number of books and other items, all by using the internet. Previously I have been able to print sermons, generally prepared early in the week, the day before delivery, allowing them to be shaped by pastoral experience during the week without wasting reams of paper. Excel spreadsheets proved to be a valuable way of monitoring my pastoral visiting.

There are excellent resources for sermon illustration and comment on matters of theological interest – used discerningly. Although I’ve not been guilty of downloading sermons, I admit that some online resources have stimulated my thoughts on more than one occasion. I know the internet sufficiently well enough to be able to judge how much time and what resources are being used by various preachers.

Pastoral records can be password protected to ensure confidentiality. I can find information on almost anything under the sun. If confession is needed, I have one or two games I play which can be relaxing after periods of concentration.

However, there are pressures which this places on people (and not just those in pastoral ministry). A few months ago I preached at a church and almost the first question I was asked was for my flash drive to be given to the person manning the overhead projector to set up my Powerpoint presentation. I didn't use Powerpoint and was told on another occasion when I preached at the church that they were still talking about my sermon weeks later (take that as you will). The pressure exists and the debate needs to be had: how much should preaching either depend on or be supported by facilities such as Powerpoint? Differing views will arise over this, but anybody who attends a reputable Powerpoint lecture or course will find that almost the first thing they will be asked is what will they do if the equipment goes wrong!

Given that I have a reputation for knowing a little about IT, I often get drawn into situations where various groups of people pour out their woes about various problems with email ‘attachments’ (usually files containing documents, pictures, music or even whole presentations) which get circulated between members of the groups. I first became aware of these problems about six years ago and the frustrations and sometimes the anger they generated was considerable. These problems have not gone away. They are due to different programs and different versions of some programs being installed on different people's computers. In addition some people will send large attachments which some computers can't handle. Before retirement I was aware that some ministers in the association of which I was a member were using computers that weren't capable of handling the communications sent out by the association.

Then there are some serious ethical issues which these points raise. For a start, should computer ownership and competency be considered a part of pastoral competency? If so, what finance, support and training should be offered by the various denominations? If computer ownership (and other things like scanners and printers) are considered essential to ministry, should a minister have at least two computers in case one goes wrong? How often should a computer be renewed?

Then there’s the question of what happens when a computer is scrapped, actually causing an ecological problem. At present many old and probably unrepairable computers are shipped to third world countries where workers are at considerable health risk because of the methods used to dispose of certain parts of the computer. After 2014 there will probably be many computers deemed as unrepairable because Microsoft Corporation is going to withdraw support for the ubiquitous Windows XP operating system, which will result in scrapping many computers which are perfectly satisfactory, but aren't powerful enough to run Microsoft's later operating systems (there is another option available for Windows XP users which I would be prepared to write further about on request and the savings could be worth as much as twenty years membership of Ministry Today UK).

You may or may not be aware that about ninety percent of internet use is for pornography. Confidentiality and compassion prevent me saying any more than that. Sadly, I know of good pastors no longer in ministry because of inappropriate use of the internet. Inappropriate content on websites is only a mouse click away. Do denominations, colleges, associations and support groups recognise this reality and if so what support and guidance is given? How should use of inappropriate content be handled? “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”? In retirement I run a very small IT support business. I dread the day I discover the worst kind of inappropriate content on a church members computer. I've already seen some material on computers which I was rather surprised to find. Unfortunately I had to identify what it was in order to ascertain know whether it had been saved prior to undertaking work on the systems.

Then there are the social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). These are an issue we can't avoid. I have been very grateful to the kind of social network sites which help with computer support and have gained much from them. However, if you read very much by Revd Dr Alistair McGrath, you will soon be well informed about how much social networking sites have played in the development of the (so called) New Atheists as well as taking them to task somewhat. I've also found some support on Christian Leader's forums. It was with some reluctance that I joined Facebook and only did so because so many people were asking me questions about it that I felt I needed to be better informed about it. I'm not really sure if what I have discovered by joining reflects the true character of the people who use it, but amongst some users I have seen a level of triviality, bad spelling, bad grammar and time clearly being spent that I can only wonder about. Love them or hate them, social networking sites are a powerful influence for better or worse. It's not impossible for instant messaging, a feature of social networking, to fuel church splits in much the same way that e-mailing can.

Even quite old computers can store vast amounts of data. Much of this is often kept for reference, but in reality can 'later be used as evidence'. How much data should we really store? I have even encountered someone who had over five thousand e-mails preserved for “sentimental reasons”. It's often difficult and near impossible to access data by virtue of the sheer quantity stored unless a system of storing data has been carefully devised. What if sensitive data gets hacked into? How do we protect our data? How do we ensure it has been irrevocably deleted?

And that’s not the end of it. There are all sorts of ethical issues which we need to be aware of. For example, do we always need the latest versions of programs? If we had purchased every operating system and every version of Office that Microsoft had produced since 1995 and upgraded our computers to accommodate the new software we would have spent, based on today's values, more than £1,500. Actually, depending on what versions were bought, that figure could easily be doubled, to say nothing of specialist programs which may be needed. The commercial pressures to continually upgrade can drain resources quite unnecessarily, and in ministry this is a pressure we just don't need. Again, there are alternatives which I would be prepared to write about on request.

It's great, isn't it, when our church has the latest all singing all dancing IT system? But what about the church a mile or so away which has barely enough resources to support the minister, whose monthly stipend is balanced on a seemingly permanent knife edge and which struggles faithfully to support ministry and buildings in a socially deprived area?

How many members of the average congregation actually own a computer at all? My personal observations would suggest somewhere between forty to ninety percent on average, but never one hundred percent. That means that, in every congregation, there will be a significant proportion of members who can't be contacted and informed by e-mail and haven't a clue what we mean when we say we have “Googled” something.

For all that, IT is with us to stay. Personally I love technology and science and relish it, but equally feel I need to appeal for balance. The heart of ministry is fulfilling the command of Jesus given to Peter, but which applies to all believers, “Feed my sheep”. This is only fulfilled in personal relationships where we are Jesus to other people in the preaching of the word and the love they receive from us when we are not in the pulpit. IT will never replace the willingness of the pastor who loves out of hours to be with his people in their sorrows and joys and their gains and losses. No technology can replace care and compassion although it might inform us sooner about where we need to exercise our ministry.

I'm aware that in writing I have in many ways skimmed over the surface and glossed over issues. This is an article, not a thesis, which is opening up matters which now impinge on pastoral practice and church life. I will be happy to continue if desired.

 

Editor’s note

We’re grateful to David for getting us thinking about the pastoral and ethical implications of something which most of us now take for granted as a normal part of ministry life and management. Without doubt, readers will have their own views and we’ll be happy to publish responses – theological, pastoral or just plain practical – if you send them in to us.

Perhaps readers would permit me to reflect a bit further on some of the issues raised by David. Among other things, I’m particularly intrigued by the development of social networking online. Yes, of course it has its pitfalls. We know, for example, that this was how some of the 2011 summer riots in England were mobilised; and some of us wonder how anyone has time to keep up with their vast range of Facebook so-called ‘friends’.

But we should not overlook its potential benefits. For one thing, it’s how I get to find out what my adult children are up to – I just log on to their Facebook pages! More seriously, my son, Gaz Brookfield – a full time professional singer/songwriter – has built his career through his Facebook (and before that, MySpace) page. He talks to his fans, advertises gigs, gets instant feedback from all kinds of people and many of his best songs are available to the world through Facebook. Google him and you’ll see what I mean.

Ministry-wise, social networking is how you keep in contact with your young people nowadays; how you tell them what’s happening; and how, if you get it right, you can get a big gathering of young people together. In my parish last year, a teenager mentioned his birthday party on a social networking site and 450 people turned up from all over Wales and the west of England! Imagine harnessing that kind of power for the Kingdom of God!

Then there’s online shopping, a quite astonishing phenomenon of the internet. I live 20 miles from a decent-sized town, so online shopping is a wonderful boon. When I need paper for my parish computer, cables for my amplifiers, or even a new amplifier, I order it online and it’s delivered the next day. When I need to sell obsolete equipment (recent examples included an ancient and non-working amplifier for electronic church bells; and seven huge iron radiators), eBay enables me to find an enthusiast who will pay real money for my junk. I even bought one of my cars on eBay!

And if you’re involved in any kind of building project, it’s a huge advantage to get your architect’s plans as .pdf files in your email, make your comments and send them back – no expensive meetings or journeys.

Other readers will have different perspectives, but I’m with David on this matter: that technology is neutral – it has no ethical or moral content in and of itself. It’s just a pile of metal and plastic and a few other less friendly elements mixed in. In that respect, it’s no different from, say, a hearing aid. If you use a hearing aid to listen to trash, the hearing aid hasn’t become morally dubious – the listener has. Likewise with IT – if we use it for evil or unethical purposes, it’s not the technology which is at fault. Rather it’s the user.

However, careful thought about how a technology is used will open up huge areas of benefit for the people under our care as pastors – record-keeping, communication, information-gathering and disseminating, money-saving, idea-generating, time-saving, kingdom-building and heavenward-pointing.

Five hundred years ago, all the same anxieties were advanced, I suspect, about the new-fangled technology called ‘printing’, but few would argue now that the world would be a better place without it!

David Parsons

Retired Baptist Minister

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You are reading Ministry and Technology by David Parsons, part of Issue 55 of Ministry Today, published in July 2012.

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