Computer standards for the parish: Do you need a technology specialist?
by the Rev. Charles Austin (July / August 2004 • Volume 20 • Number 4)
Computers are supposed to save time. Telecommunication is supposed to make work easier, right? But anyone who has ever stared at incomprehensible symbols on a screen, pushed Ctrl/Alt/Delete, caught an e-mail virus, or tried to help a friend write or print a report knows that often computers take up time and can make work more difficult. We need to find ways to fix that.
I do a newsletter for a local organization and thought that e-mail would make it easy. “Just send me the items and I’ll put them together.” I forgot that people use different kinds of word-processing software, and not all people use the same software the same way. There are several kinds of formats for pictures. E-mail is not as simple as we think.
Some copy for the newsletter came in a form that my computer could not read or it came with lots of extra characters sprinkled through the items. I could read other contributions, but the lines broke in strange places that meant a lot of keyboard work to get it to look right. Some pictures and charts were GIF, some JPEG, some BMP, some TIFF. My publishing software could handle certain formats, and I had to convert others.
It took a long time to get things standardized and teach people how to submit things properly. Then I could easily pop them into the newsletter format.
Need for Standards
As computer use in a parish grows, it would be helpful to establish some standards or agreed-upon practices. If you send regular e-mail to parishioners or members of committees, the church should make certain everyone receives the messages properly. Some email programs and anti-virus software devices reject attached files or cannot open them to make them readable. Graphics can take a long time to download on slower Internet connections, and pictures unnecessarily take up disk space on the recipient’s computer. That’s why it is important to optimize any graphics you use in email or on the web so the file sizes are small enough for the graphic to display.
An e-mail standard for congregational use might let people know about these problems and encourage people to use the simplest form of e-mails when contacting a large number of members. Some might not be able to see the sophisticated layout of an HTML document, which is why it is important to use an email delivery service that can attach a plain text alternate of the message for people who turn off the option to view HTML.
The same goes for treasurers’ reports, budgets, worship schedules, or other statistical data. Certainly this information will be stored as spreadsheet or database files. It is efficient to circulate these reports via e-mail. But a congregation might need a training session for committee members on how to properly download and view the data. Then, when a regular package of materials arrives a week before the council meeting, everyone can easily read the reports and print out what is necessary.
A congregation could also post statistical information on a closed section of its Web site, accessible by a password given to those who need to see last month’s financial statement.
Sometimes online consultations are faster and easier than calling committee meetings, using various types of shared-work software or an online meeting place like Ecunet. People have to learn how to meet that way and how to obtain online documents, and for some the learning curve may be steep.
Having some standards will make computer use less frustrating and save people the time needed to tweak documents and other material for use at home or at work.
To develop standards, first make a comprehensive review of how you use the technology to communicate with members, link up the staff, prepare your publications, or reach out to others. Find out who is online and what their capabilities are.
Businesses have information-technology specialists. If there is such a person in the congregation, see how their skills can be put to use for the church. Create a position of “technology coordinator” and have this person develop practices that will simplify everyone’s use of computer communications.
If you don’t already have someone knowledgeable about converting documents or files or blending publishing software programs, it would be worth the expense to send someone — the church’s secretary, perhaps — to classes at a local college or night school to learn some advanced computer techniques. Your technology coordinator can also oversee access to church databases and its Web site.
Then write a document explaining how the congregation uses e-mail and how people can submit things for the church newsletter. Communicate what format you prefer for pictures or other graphics. Buy a scanner so people can bring materials to the church office and digitize them in the proper format.
Give council members and other leaders instruction in using the restricted portions of the church’s Web page. Frequently remind all members to check the church’s Web site for new information.
Remember also that as you get more “public” with your use of the technology, you will have a greater need to protect the information with backups, passwords, and security firewalls.
Charles Austin is an ELCA pastor who is a reporter for The Record, a daily newspaper in New Jersey.