The church I attend finally took the plunge last fall: our newsletter now comes by e-mail. Budget cuts made what had been unthinkable seem plausible. But plausible is not the same as right. How can we evaluate the costs and benefits of using new technologies to make sure we adopt the right ones at the right moment?
The cost saving from e-mailing newsletters is significant: paper, printing, postage. We’re also saving the environment some costs: paper, printing (unless everyone prints the e-version out at home), and diesel fuel—each of the mail trucks in our town is just a little lighter. We’ve laid off our volunteer newsletter folders, saving gas and freeing up their Tuesday afternoons—which may be good or bad.
The benefits are also hard to measure: we don’t know whether people read more now or less. (To be quite fair, we never knew before.) I do know that two members of the choir—one alto, one soprano—complain every Thursday night. “I never look at the e-mail newsletter!” says the soprano. “I hate it,” says the alto. It seems reasonable to assume that some people will read more of a newsletter that sits on the coffee table than one sitting in an e-mail inbox. Others will read more the other way. How can we know?
Before we worry too much about measuring success, we need to get clear why we’re sending out a newsletter at all. Is it to make sure everyone knows all they want to know about committees, boards, budgets, and business meetings? Since almost no one wants to know much about these things—and most of those who want to know, already do—any kind of newsletter will do. If the purpose is to increase attendance at activities, we can measure that; if it is to challenge people to reflect on spiritual things, we can measure that—with difficulty. In congregations, costs and benefits are often hard to measure.
As if to make things more complex, history teaches that it takes time for people to adapt to new technologies. Early television shows were recycled from Broadway (Dick Van Dyke), vaudeville (Milton Berle), or radio (The Lone Ranger). It took years before TV—for better or worse—found content that really fit.
It even took some time to figure out what telephones were for. Alexander Graham Bell knew from the beginning that the telephone would mainly be a vehicle for private, two-person conversation, but others couldn’t seem to shake the notion that it would be more like radio. Phones were sold on the idea that you could receive a baseball play-by-play, hear a politician’s speech, or hire a cellist to pipe background music into your family dining room.
The confusion was natural because the telephone was radically new. Conversation at a distance had not existed in the past, so it was hard to see how much people would need or want it in the future. And so at first, we tried to use the telephone as if it were a radio, a telegraph, or a Victrola.
My congregation’s switch to e-delivery has followed the same pattern. The newsletter lands in my inbox with a thud—as a 12-page monthly PDF attachment. To open it, you have to ignore dire warnings about opening attachments from sources you don’t trust. To print, you have to trust your printer to complete a job that size without jamming, running out of ink or paper, or making you feel like a fool for printing a tome when only a few items interest you.
Effective congregational e-newsletters reshape the content to fit the form. Instead of a big attachment—in effect, a do-it-yourself newsletter kit—the e-mail itself acts as the front page of the newsletter. The three or four most newsworthy stories get headlines and a sentence or two, with links to a web page with more. The e-mail is so short you can see it without scrolling.
Until you massage the message for the medium, as Marshall McLuhan might say, you will not reap the full benefit of new technology. Over-eagerness to jump to new technologies can easily increase your cost. A particular technology costs most when it is new; the cost of using it declines with time, as more people use it in their work and personal lives.
Take, as an example, name and address databases. In the 1990s, I worked in a denominational headquarters that regularly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to create custom database software and buy computers big enough to run it. No one seemed to count up what it cost to convert the data, train people to operate the system, and untangle the innumerable problems created in the course of trying to serve customers with wrong data.
Meanwhile, in the office adjacent to mine, my assistant Nancy Hezlitt kept a ragged Rolodex, and received pilgrims daily from three office buildings looking for a current address or phone number.
The moral of this story is not the obvious Luddite one (“if in doubt, smash everything”). There is a right time to adopt new technology, but too-early adopters incur high costs for the new toys, for training and for the consequences of a trial and error method of testing.
For congregations, the hard question is: When is the right time? The answer varies with each congregation’s size and economic resources and the interests of its leaders, but in general, congregations are and should be technological bottom-feeders. We wait till bigger fish have thoroughly picked over the new offerings. Then we choose carefully the ones that serve our purposes.
Generally this means that it is best to wait till general-purpose tools are flexible and robust and cheap enough for us, rather than buying specialized “church software” or “synagogue sound systems.” QuickBooks, PeachTree, and the other major-league accounting programs have now reached a point where we can take advantage of the legions of potential volunteers and employees who have learned to use them elsewhere. Videoconference systems like Skype, SightSpeed, and GoToMeeting are approaching a similar sweet spot—as more people use them at work and in their personal lives, it becomes easier and cheaper to make use of them in congregations.
One clue that a technology is ripe is that it does not need the daily ministrations of a techno-priesthood. In industry, the trend is to disband Information Technology as a department and distribute its expertise through the organization. Congregations do well to follow this example, putting technology under the control of those who know the work. If a technology is too new to be used by those who know the congregation’s work—religious education, worship, pastoral care, stewardship, and membership development—it is too new to use, no matter how temptingly it satisfies your technical requirements.
That’s how you know: when the “how” of a new technology meshes with the “why” of mission—then it’s time to take the plunge.
Dan Hotchkiss is a senior consultant at the Alban Institute. “When to Adopt New Technology” originally appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of Clergy Journal (logosproductions.com).
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