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Friday, September 25, 2009

Wonder and Ironies Abound

It's really a wonder and an amazement just how 'high tech' St. Paul's has become in the last few years. We communicate less and less on paper and more and more in cyberspace.

We've stopped printing and mailing the monthly newsletter, which, due to the uneven delivery rate of 'bulk mail' (for those of you who've never heard of this, think: 'blast email'), sometimes didn't arrive in a person's mail box until AFTER the event has already taken place.

We do send out a weekly newsletter via email, every Thursday late morning, which captures all but about 30 of our parishioners who either don't have an email account or we simply don't have it on file.

And, we have a weekly USPS mail list of a little over 30 - mostly fragile elderly or those whose health status is unpredictable or who have moved into a nursing home or extended care facility. They also get a copy of the past Sunday's sermon and a little, personal note from the Pastoral Care Coordinator.

We still use the U.S. Postal Service for personal notes and cards - especially condolence cards. There are just some things that can only be communicated in a personal, handwritten note. I'm not exactly 'old fashioned' or necessarily 'conservative' but my Momma did teach me good manners.

Oh, there was some grumbling about all the changes at first, but for the most part, people are really happy to have the information in a timely manner.

We figure there are seven different vehicles of communication we have at our disposal: 'snail mail', email, web page, Sunday parish bulletin, Parish bulletin board, Community Bulletin Boards and Telephone Tree.

The Telephone Tree is something we've saved for Very Important Things - like Stewardship Reminder Calls or to communicate the funeral arrangements of a long-time member of the church. The Vestry did the calling - about 25 calls apiece generally covered the entire parish membership list.

Technology marches on. We now have an Automated Telephone Tree Service - much like the local school system uses to communicate delays in school openings or cancellations due to snow storms.

It's surprisingly inexpensive (the competition looks keen), very efficient and highly effective. The hardest part was getting very clear about when and how often we'd use it and for what purposes and whether or not we wanted to create sub lists for, say, acolytes, Youth Group, etc. We also had to decide when NOT to use it.

The deal is that you have one full minute, but the reality is that you try to get your message in under 30 seconds. Well under 30 seconds. More like 15. People will just hang up if you go on too long. Television and radio announcements have conditioned and trained us well.

You also have to be concerned about consistency of messenger as well as the tone of the message, but once you decide that, you simply call an 800 number, follow the prompts, record your message and then send it off. I did it Wednesday night from my very own home phone.

The Vestry members who used to do the Phone Tree are Very Happy.

We've used it twice since the beginning of the year - one for "Welcome Back Sunday" and just this past Wednesday for a Covered Dish Supper and entertainment featuring the DECCOS - a local band that plays original music and includes two members of our congregation on bass and keyboard.

We didn't know the DECCOS would be available and, since we had a Very Short Window of Time to communicate that information, we decided to use the Telephone Tree.

So far, the response has been Very Positive. Enthusiastic, even.

However, we have had two complaints. The first time was after the first call to "Welcome Back" everyone to the new Program Year. When I asked the congregation for their assessment of the phone call, one young man raised his hand.

He said it was "too impersonal" and wanted a "real voice" on the other end of the phone. Actually, he later told one of the Vestry members, it would be great if the rector - not a Vestry member - could make the personal calls.

That would be ALL the personal calls on the "Parish Phone Tree".

Oh, did I mention that he's an IT / computer geek guy?

The other complaint came yesterday in response to the Covered Dish Supper tonight and the performance by the DECCOS.

He's an elderly gentleman - a faithful usher at the 10 AM Service and a most charming man. He called to say that he wanted to be taken off the Phone Tree List for these sorts of announcements. Found them too impersonal.

Oh, did I mention that he left this recorded message in our voice mailbox?

I have had other, funny stories about people who check their Caller ID, see that it's the church calling at 8:45 in the evening, and immediately think "Trouble" so they fall all over themselves to pick up the phone, only to discover my chirpy little voice beckoning them to come to church.

Other people have said that my recorded message sounds so much like me that, at first, they start talking back to me and then dissolve into laughter when they figure out that it's just a recording.

I'm thinking I should send out one recorded message sometime that says, "Hi, this is Elizabeth . . . How are you?. . . . . Oh, really? Tell me more about that . . . . . . Uh-huh . . . . Mmmm-hmmmm . . . . How did that make you feel? . . . . "

We'll call it something like "The Pastoral Phone Tree Check-in."

Or, maybe we could establish a service called "Dial-A-Priest" - where I would have the recorded message with pauses and appropriate Rogerian reflective questions. During those pauses, the caller could record their problem.

Kidding. Only kidding.

But, you know, there are some days . . . . .


Elisabeth said...

There are time like the last few days when I could have used "Dial-A-Priest". I must know at least 150 clergy people, how do they all happen to be busy at the same time? :-)
Seriously, we started the electronic calling a few months ago, it works fabulously.

Fr Craig said...

can you give us the name of the company?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'd hate to do that here and attract spammers. You can certainly write me offline - go to profile and click on my email. We found them on a google search. Here's some advice: Don't get into a year contract. The technology is still evolving and is highly competitive, so you don't want to get into a long term arrangement. The one we have is a one time charge for a one time use. There are also programs you can get for your computer that will cut out the middleperson and do it from your own home base. Check it out. We are waiting to see how this option evolves as it is the one that is most appealing to us. It's been quite an education.

Muthah+ said...

There ARE some blessings in having a parish too small for bulk mail. We send out a newsletter 4 times a year and put all dates in the bulletin. You have to come to keep up.

Fran said...

I am very big on promoting the use of technology as a pastoral tool! But you knew that already. I recently wrote an article in our diocesan paper about faith and social media.

However, as the one who actually answers the zillions of phone calls that come to the parish where I work every day, I am firmly in favor of the human voice. Even when it is driving me crazy.

Isn't that funny?

When I got there I thought it should be automated, but for reasons far too long to post here, I now disagree.

Does that make me an old fuddy-duddy? Again? LOL!

That said, I think that the use of online newsletters, emailings and the phone messages are great. Good on you and St. Paul's for moving in this direction. That is very Pauline as I see it!

BTW - I do so love what Muthah says!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

"You have to come to keep up" - there is some wisdom in that, Muthah+

You an old fuddy-duddy, Fran? Say it ain't so.