Using Technology in Service to the Church

By Protodeacon Kirill Sokolov

In this series, Protodeacon Kirill Sokolov examines the role of computer technology in the life of a parish community.

Part I. Savvy Infrastructure

When people united in fidelity to Christ and His Church form a local community—a parish—they strive to offer the first fruits of their lives to God. Both established and emerging parishes struggle to be as effective as possible with the gifts that have been entrusted to them. One “normal” element of organizational life in 2007 that is often overlooked is technology. More specifically, clergy and church workers use technology in a completely ad hoc manner. We bring our laptop—perhaps with some software that our corporation installed for business use—and go about our work with little technology planning.

This series in the Resource Handbook will seek to introduce readers to various topics that must be considered by parishes if they wish to be good stewards of parish resources, the donations of the faithful, and even of their own time. We will address topics such as effective fundraising, records keeping, outreach and promotion through the Internet, and safekeeping of privacy and data. It is hoped that the quarterly presentation of these topics will allow for thoughtful consideration and implementation by our communities.

The first topic I will address in this series is related to creating a very basic infrastructure for technology in a parish. Without reliable systems in place, any good work that takes place in more exciting areas such as fundraising or web site development can easily be lost and wasted.

Parish technology liaison

The first ingredient that every local community or institution needs for successful implementation of a technology plan is a “point-person” or a “technology liaison.” A person in this role is required even if a parish or fledgling mission is very small. One specific person must be charged with maintaining records of ownership, account usernames and privileges, inventories, and other details.

Liaison backup

In addition to the technology liaison, another person in the community must be aware of the location (digital and/or physical) of all of the materials cared for by the parish technology liaison.

Who to select

The technology liaison does not have to be extremely technology savvy. Indeed, this individual may not be the “most experienced” person in the community. It is most important that the liaison be someone who can keep the parish’s technological assets organized and up-to-date. This person should be someone who has the time and energy to keep regular watch over these assets and the technological needs of the community. The liaison can and should develop a team of talented parishioners to perform specific technology-related functions in the life of the parish. The liaison must keep regular communication channels open with the priest and parish council.

In some situations, it may make the most sense for the priest of the parish himself to supervise technology. In this case, it would be logical for an elected member of the parish council to be the backup contact. Conversely, if a volunteer in the community is responsible for technology, it may be most effective for the priest or an elected member of the parish council to be the backup.

The “backup” individual is key. I have personally been involved in too many instances in both the church and academic worlds where only one person knew the location of the key data as described above. In most cases, this person was highly reputable and a respected member of the community or organization. When this person disappeared from the scene, key procedures and data had to be recovered or recreated resulting in great monetary expense to the institution. Especially in volunteer communities such as parishes, the lost time can be crippling to operations for many months. The backup person need not be a technology expert. However, the backup person should be someone who can retain data in an organized manner. It stands to reason that the backup individual should not be a spouse or someone extremely close to the technology liaison.

Do we really need this structure?

There is an element of bureaucracy and corporate-style language involved in all of this that may make us uneasy in parish life. “Aren’t we a family?” Maybe “someone will just volunteer to take care of our web site?” I firmly believe that taking the time to set up appropriate structures will allow a parish community to be more loving, trusting, and committed to donating their time and resources in parish life. Properly designed structures and systems prevent confusion, hurt feelings, and sometimes disasters. At any given moment, you can browse the world wide web and find once-beautiful parish web sites that are basically defunct because a volunteer left the parish or the Church or simply has lost interest. The priest and parish council cannot “get in” and update the calendar of services and events.

How to begin

A new technology liaison must begin by determining what is currently at hand. If the community has its own buildings, there are some key questions that need to be asked and answered quickly:

  • Does the parish have any computers or other high technology on the property?
  • If so, is this equipment owned by the parish? Where is the paperwork?
  • Do the buildings have connections to the Internet? If so, what type? Who knows the account name and password? Who pays the bills?

If the community does not really use technology at its physical plant, questions still remain that must be answered. Indeed, some of these questions may be more difficult to answer when the parish is run out of “virtual offices”:

  • What software is used to maintain the parish records and finances? Is this done on-site or off-site?
  • Are backups being made of key data? If so, where are they kept? Is there a backup plan written down and understood?
  • Is there a parish web site? Who maintains it? Who pays the bills to the web hosting provider? Is there a unique domain name (e.g., http://www.orthodoxparish.org)? If so, who “owns” the name of the domain legally?

Some of these questions may take time to resolve but must be considered to have the same sort of urgency as issues we are more accustomed to such as “when was the last time the fire extinguishers in the Church were checked?”

Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel are basic start-up files.

The technology liaison must systematically record the results of his or her findings. Initially, I suggest that a straightforward Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel file be created to write data down as they become available. Password-protect the file (there is an option to do this when you are saving your work). Store a labeled backup copy once a month on a recordable CD in the parish safe. Keep your current working copy in one location. You can keep your working copy on increasingly inexpensive removable USB “thumb drives.” With these removable devices, you can take your document to the parish office or your home office. One of the most treacherous things you can do is keep multiple copies of the data file in multiple locations. This can lead to easier theft of data or data loss when you mistakenly use an old version of your document.

Keeping a Word or Excel file for this kind of data is a good way of getting your project underway but you must be very mindful of the security of your data. Ultimately, Microsoft Office products are not designed with security in mind. When you are organized enough to know how much data you will need to record and keep, consider a program or utility that will help you maintain this data safely. There are many products in this area. Some products to compare include:

http://passwordsafe.sourceforge.net/

http://www.moonsoftware.com/pwagent.asp

http://www.symantec.com/passwordmanager/

Summary

We want computer technology to help us get the work of our parish done more quickly and efficiently. We would love to see advanced tools help us with our projects and we are excited by the outreach potential of the Internet. These benefits of information technology in the parish can only be realized when clergy, staff, and parishioners understand what they are working with and the security of their data and resources. Each community is a small non-profit organization that must approach these issues carefully and seriously. The appointment of a parish technology liaison and a backup allow for a systematic cataloging and maintenance of technology records and information.

In future installments of this series, we will take a look at issues such as finance and fundraising software choices, web site creation, and parish records maintenance. We will continue to emphasize security and reliability and build on the foundations discussed in this article.

Protodeacon Kirill Sokolov is the Director of Systems at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (http://www.svots.edu). If you have questions or ideas for future installments in this series, please write him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). This article is Copyright © 2007 by the author.