The Answer: Technology
This blog entry won’t be interesting to the majority of my regular readers. But, I wanted to respond to a great conversation on the formation of a Church IT “group” going on over on the blogs of Jason Powell and Tony Dye. I am posting this on my personal blog because A) it is longer than a comment should ever be, and B) it offers a different view than what seems to be the consensus on those two sites that a national, professional organization should be formed. Feel free to hack/mod/refute my points here and keep the other threads focused (unless their authors introduce some of my ideas there).
Who Are You Anyway?
In many respects, I am on the fringe of Technology Ministry conversations. Most of you will not have heard of me, because I lurk a lot. A LOT. I run the Web Ministry for a biggie-sized church in North Texas. Have been doing Ministry Technology work for about 7 years in everything from desktop support to data center build-outs. I am a technology generalist/strategist who sees the big picture and am the worst sys admin ever (seriously, I’m embarrassed). I blog about Web Ministry sometimes too. I have spoken about scalable Content Management at MinistryCom and NRB. I help small businesses with formation and technology planning. Blah blah.
1) “Church IT” overlaps with Web Ministry. This week found me helping some IT geeks from our staff (we have 7 total including ChMS staff) get up to speed on WordPress. We continually work together on the email newsletter, group calendaring, the intranet, rich media storage, etc. Church IT professionals, Web Ministry professionals (and some would argue Communications professionals) have in mind the same broad goals of a) Connect the staff and lay volunteers with the people we serve (and vice versa), and b) Help our staff connect with each other to better do the former. You might add that Web Ministry folks have c) Connect the people we serve with one another.
Regardless of which department your position is budgeted in, or where you as a volunteer report to, the high-level goals are the same. We have that much in common.
2) While the above is true, it does not have to follow that the two should be combined when time to huddle together. After all, there are heaps of Ministry Technology denominations/factions who are doing similar things with a slightly different focus. Some in churches, some in para-church, some in missions, and some as vendors.
(BTW, I am compiling a long list and could use your help. Post others you know of in the list here. Password: passthetest )
Sure, the ministry web designers over at GodBit have different interests than someone dealing with a LAN and software support in a large church. Also, most of these currently “disparate” communities have formed to support one another within their niche focus. Sometimes this is “help me …” and sometimes this is “did ya know …” and sometimes this is “what if ya…”. None the less, the infrastructure and users have overlap; the operations of a web based tool will always depend on IT and whoever “does the web stuff”, regardless of if the tool is a CMS, ChMS, prayer system, etc.
3) We should not ignore convergence. More and more, the devices on the fringe of the network cloud are how people access the data, the communications channels, and ultimately the people. “The Network is the Computer” still holds true, and for now the glue is http. Beyond technology convergence, there is a melding of ministry types as well going on. Media ministries (para-church) are being birthed out of churches as sister ministries to the church ministry. When they become big enough to operate on their own, they usually split off. What happens to those IT people when they are no longer within “XYZ Church”? Are they no longer the best resource for single sign-on?
4) There are heaps of edge components to the “Ministry Technology” cloud/conversation like this one that are just begging for a tipping point. These dialogs likely follow a long-tail distribution, wherein only a small portion of the whole conversation is truly being discovered and utilized by us. It has occurred to each of us at some point that “hey, I am not the only person who gets this Church IT stuff”. This happens when the loosely coupled network nodes finally find a bridge/path to one another. IT Roundtable types of events have long been a great bridge.
5) While IT Roundtable meetings, SXSW get-togethers, and technology tracks in larger ministry conferences are bridging events between the nodes in the Ministry Technology “network”, the infrequent occurrence and physical proximity to all the players prevent mass participation in the Digg/Slashdot sense of the word. Meetup, Upcoming, and many other Web 2.0ish communities prove another model… which is, The Participation Age has arrived.
6) Something more than a “Church IT Association”, with forthcoming annual conference, is needed to address the situation above. Two main reasons (you may think of more):
i) In an association or yet-another-group, there is no aggregation of content or built-in findability of knowledge. As knowledge communities attempt to scale, the best practices, tips, and how-tos get trapped in organizational structures that get outdated, in technologies that get end-of-lifed, and in pay-to-play memberships. Sometimes, the participants in the conversation ultimately board up the entrances to protect what they have. This is all the walled garden problem, friends. We have enough of that in the church.
ii) NACBA and other fine professional organizations like them do become healthy and functional. However, non-profits have overhead, need funding, require management/baby-sitting, and many times fail to grab the attention of their target audience due to their centralized, ivory tower nature (amoung other things). Do you want to have the same problems in this new organization of recruiting, assimilating, and tracking volunteers that you have in your own ministries?
What I Am NOT Saying
1) That this is the emergent church problem all over again. That as M. Scott Peck (don’t have a clue who he was, sorry) said, we should “Share our similarities, celebrate our differences” all the time. None the less, the emergent church folks have done a better job at gaining critical mass, being agents of change, and getting people focused on their loosely coupled likenesses than has the Church IT crowd. They did it without a master plan or a top-heavy governing body, too.
2) That CITA or any other acronym laden professional group CAN’T work. It can and some do. I just question its scalability/viability for us post-moderns and for those coming along behind us. We have the chance to form something that can last longer than a company with a name. Membership groups are last century, but still work today. Will they tomorrow?
3) That “Official” groups are inherently bad. I am not anti-institution. I do believe that belonging to a “group” has a higher barrier of entry than just commenting, blogging, or volunteering to bring a video projector or the pizza. Associations require committees, while assemblies require participation/presence. Audience qualifications/boundaries for an association would be “works for a Church doing IT?”, while qualifications I prefer are “Does IT related stuff for a ministry?” (hint: includes volunteers and part-timers).
4) That all the Church/Missions IT and Web Ministry groups that exist today should merge and form one of the largest technology groups to ever have their interests removed from them. If you think I am promoting a one-world government, you aren’t listening. I am saying that we can have more than one sub-division, but that this formation question we are entertaining is a neighborhood question and not a sub-division question.
What I AM Saying
1) Exodus 35 and Nehemiah 3 and The Cluetrain Manifesto (link to Wikipedia, where else?) provide a better model for getting big things done. A model, in fact, that resists the temptation to take the focus off the participants and put it on the process/structure. A model which admits the creative commons and the priesthood of the believer work. We can trust the self-selecting members who come together in a meritocracy to help the rest of us in our callings. Those not wanting in, will stay out.
2) An unconference-styled gathering model in the vein of Refresh and Barcamp is similar to an IT Roundtable and will get you where you want to go. You’ll still get plenty of vendor-sponsors to provide the lunches and swag. You also get regionally-based meetups (at a frequency the local participants desire) all over the world with no significant, centralized overhead. No formation costs. No risk assessments. No insurance.
What you need: You need a) a group of Ministry Technology leaders to conceptualize the whole thing, b) a people finder (google maps?), c) some well-written recommendations for people organizing an event, d) a wiki or CMS with subdomains to host the self-forming node clusters planning and discussions, and e) a method for determining who is coming (upcoming.com or meetup.com?). Refresh Seattle is one example sub-site and O’reilly Foocamp ’05 is another.
3) Opening up, syndicating, and aggregating the ministry technology discussions in one place will make things more findable and more searchable. The Web20Workgroup is one example that has a bit of a privelaged upper-class bent, but still works. The 9rules Network is a classic example of how to aggregate differing views within a common interest. Blogrolling, a webring/blogring, and a Pligg site (Digg Clone) are also viable technology options. Pligg and blog users could reference forum discussions and web-based listserv messages archived via something like mhonarc. The most simple approach for this might be to create a unique, obscure Technorati tag that someone could build a search on top of using their API. Or, someone could build a Technorati type site on top of pingomatic.com
What you need: You need a) a conversation to decide the scope of the aggregation site/search, b) some competent people to make some hard technology decisions, c) some volunteers who can setup the technologies (hey, we know how to do this!), d) a quality web host with plenty of bandwidth and idle processor (either VPS or Dedicated box I would think), and e) a trustworthy person to hold the domain name in trust and manage the DNS.
Wrapping It Up (I promise)
If you have made it this far, thank you. I know for most of you I am a johnny-come-lately. I respect that perspective. In reality though, there are heaps more of me out here. What we don’t need is another set of membership dues or conference fees to cost-justify, travel time out of our project plans, levels of approval in the way of new ideas, or multiple websites to hit to get what we need now. We want freedom of information (without any overhead) and a place to share valued opinions. Sure, membership has its privelages, but we are already in the big country club upstairs (will it have golf?) and are all hoping to get there when our jobs are finished.
Tony Dye astutely asked “Are We a Group?”. I believe “we” are. Now, who are we? In light of mistakes the protestant church has made in way of divisions, how should we really congeal/form?
04.25 – Jim Walton is in on the discussion. Eric Busby commented to Jim, “Have you considered asking ICTA…”. Nathan Smith pointed me to the ChurchBit Google Group, which describes itself as “A place where churches and those who serve the church can learn about web technologies in order to fulfill the great commission. An emphasis on Web 2.0, Web Standards and Application development.”. Still no takers on helping me identify all the ministry technology sub-divisions in the list here (password: passthetest), and no response or trackback from Tony Dye or Jason Powell.