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Technology Expands Learning Opportunities
Technology Expands Learning Opportunities

Technology is changing the way congregations acquire information. There was a time not so long ago when a congregation interested in learning how to do a better annual stewardship drive or develop its leadership might invite a consultant in for a day or a weekend.

That can still be the best way to go, but more and more—because our lives are busier and because the economy has shrunk our resources—congregations are gathering information through online "webinars" and other electronic learning formats.

Take the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada in Reno. When it wanted to update its mission and vision statements last winter it knew that an outside consultant would be helpful in that process. It also knew that its budget probably wouldn’t stand the strain of bringing one in for a face-to-face workshop.

It found a solution in technology. Dr. Helen Bishop, an independent consultant to Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations and a former Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) district executive, worked with the congregation from her home in North Carolina using Skype, a software application that allows users to do video conferencing over the Internet.

Typically a mission/vision consultation with a congregation would involve a consultant making an initial on-site visit for planning purposes, then returning for a gathering of the congregation at which the actual mission/vision work is done. That would require two round-trip airfares, two hotel stays, plus meals.

In this case, Bishop (in North Carolina) and a team in Reno conducted several preliminary meetings using Skype. Each could see the other on their respective computer screens. Then in January the main event occurred. About 85 of the congregation’s 250 members gathered at church to develop the mission/vision statements.

At the gathering, Bishop’s image was projected onto a large screen. A video camera at Reno let her see what the participants were doing. Congregants wrote and drew pictures on large sheets of paper, which were posted for Bishop to see. One person was in charge of pointing the camera toward those who were speaking.

“This process let me see how the group process was working,” said Bishop. “I could observe people’s body language and facial expressions and they could see mine. I’ve never done a consultation that I enjoyed more or that I thought was more productive. I didn’t have to get on an airplane or undergo a body scan. I could charge them significantly less because I didn’t have travel expenses.”

The church’s minister, the Rev. Neal T. Anderson, said the congregation had been hesitant to engage a consultant because of the anticipated expense. He’d been using Skype to keep in touch with family and he proposed using it for this purpose.

“We put Helen on the screen and then I zoomed in on people as they were speaking,” he said. “We put the audio through our audiovisual system. Helen could see and hear everybody. It all worked seamlessly.” He said church members practiced with the technology in advance. “Everybody had a chat with my mom and dad on Skype!”

Anderson said the consultation cost the congregation less than $1,000. “We would have spent three times that to have a consultant on site.” Bishop emphasized that there are times when it is necessary for a consultant to attend in person, but for many purposes long-distance consulting works well.

Dr. Wayne Clark, the UUA’s director of congregational stewardship services, does an increasing amount of his consultations electronically. He said he seldom does presentations anymore for individual congregations. Instead, he does keynote addresses or workshops at General Assembly, regional, district, or cluster events, or conducts webinars—workshops where congregational leaders call in on a common number to hear a presentation and share information with each other.

“It’s harder now to get people to commit to coming to a full day workshop,” Clark noted. “So now I often do workshops by phone, in the evening.” He noted that one such workshop this spring, using Persony, on the topic of annual budget drives, drew 97 participants. “That’s more lay leaders than who might attend a weekend workshop,” he noted.

He added, “We’re going to see fewer congregations willing to spend the time and money to have a consultant on site. Technology is really forcing a change.”

Clark noted that when UUA stewardship consultants work with congregations, the stewardship office pays for all consultant expenses, including airfare, ground transportation, lodging, meals, and materials, while congregations pay a sliding daily rate for the consultation itself. Independent consultants, such as Bishop, make their own arrangements with congregations.

The Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, who becomes the UUA’s director for Congregational Life this fall, added, "Lay leaders are really hungry to learn more about being effective leaders of congregations, but because of their busy schedules and the challenges of meeting across large distances, we are turning more and more to utilizing new technologies for this learning. Its a great way to include a larger number of people and to help them connect to each other as well."

The UUA’s Prairie Star District used technology in another way this past April when it live-streamed part of its annual conference, including a business meeting and the keynote presentation by Dr. Mark Hicks of Meadville Lombard Theological School. Some of Hicks’s seminary students, who watched his presentation from other locations, used Facebook to pose theological questions for people in the room with Hicks to reflect on. A maximum of 13 computer users were connected from remote locations at any one time, with 55 total connections at one time or another during the presentation.

Nancy Heege, district executive of the Prairie Star District, said she hopes to expand this type of extended conversation. She believes it’s a way to involve people who otherwise might not attend an annual conference. “Congregations who have delegates who can’t attend could perhaps watch the annual business meeting and participate in that way through their cell phones or an interactive system.”

Next year she hopes to get groups of three to five people together at various congregations to watch the keynote or a business session on a personal computer and then interact with those who are actually at the conference.

“I see this as a way to really broaden participation in a large geographic district like ours.” She cautions that Internet access in whatever conference center the annual meeting is held in has to be strong. “This year we were in an old convention center whose wireless capability was marginal. More and more we’ll have to go to places where there is a strong wireless signal to do this.”

Ben Stallings, Prairie Star’s web coordinator, said the technical requirements for live-streaming the annual meeting were relatively simple: “A video camera that can function as a webcam (in our case a $140 Samsung), a computer with the camera’s driver software installed, a reasonably fast Internet connection, and a Ustream (a website that provides a platform for online video streaming) account.”

He added: “I believe that broadcasting future meetings is necessary if we are to live up to our espoused principle of democracy. I’d like to see the day when our conferences are broadcast to every UU church in the district so that delegates need not travel any farther than they do on a Sunday morning. This is not to say there’s no value in meeting in person. But traveling hundreds of miles should not be a requirement for voting nor for enjoying the services that the district provides.”

Email Stallings (bstallings [at] psduua [dot] org) for more detailed information on PSD’s live-streaming. Contact your own district executive for information on workshops that are available electronically.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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