I was part of a meeting recently with participants from all over the Rio Texas Annual Conference. There were about six people in the room and around 35 on the screen. We were using Zoom video conferencing to gather with people from Austin, San Angelo, McAllen, Victoria and many points in between. Some participants on the call were new to video conferencing. Some were new to the whole concept of collaborating at a distance.
I took a few moments at the beginning of the meeting to talk about this manner of working together. In addition to meeting via Zoom, we were also introducing the use of Basecamp, a project management tool designed for remote collaboration. Remote work and remote collaboration are quickly becoming the new normal of how we work together. Some people love it, some people hate it, but it only seems to be growing.
Thanks to technology, people can work together without physically being in the same place. I was reading this week about a boss who had never met any of his staff in person. They were recruited, hired, and trained remotely and now work every day at their job, sometimes from half a world away.
The Church always seems to be behind. That is not always a bad thing. It is not the church’s job to be an early adopter or a trendsetter. The church does not need to embrace everything society embraces. However, sometimes the church’s inability to adapt and make use of the tools that are available, keep it from effectively carrying out its mission as the world around us changes. This is especially true when the church’s structure is changed by the same economic and social realities other organizations face.
The technological tools powering the remote work movement have great potential for our context. The new normal for many organizations describes the reality we have been working with for some time. The Rio Texas Annual Conference covers a massive geographical space. A drive from one of our churches in Harlingen to another in Sterling City is just over 500 miles. Most of the time that does not present a problem. Our local churches operate mostly on their own with great autonomy to do the work of ministry in their own context. However, the whole idea of an annual conference is that we are stronger when we work together – when we collaborate. This becomes even more important when we are working in a world where it seems to be more and more challenging to reach our communities with the Gospel.
The idea of the annual conference is not about trying to connect all of these churches to a central office; it is about trying to connect all of these churches together that they may gain strength in their number.
The structure of the new Rio Texas Annual Conference was designed around collaboration. Due to the vast geography, the collaborative work was divided into districts under the guidance of District Strategy Teams. This makes collaborating in person easier. However, you still need to account for the fact that the districts themselves are spread out. Las Misiones District, with its office in San Antonio, encompasses Bulverde to the north and Laredo to the south. That is about 200 miles of driving.
While it is incredibly important to spend time face to face in the same room, we have learned over the years that it is nearly impossible to get much work done that way. For conference level collaboration, it takes an enormous number of hours and miles to get working groups together geographically. Moreover, that does not account for the fact that the church depends mostly on volunteers and pastors. The people we count on have many other responsibilities. A trip to San Antonio or even a district gathering means time away from work and family. Our best thinkers do some of their best work on behalf of God’s church in the middle of the night, on their lunch break, or at 5 a.m.
Using a tool like Zoom allows us to meet without traveling. A tool like Basecamp makes it possible to collaborate across time and space. These tools are a great gift to us. However, new things always come at a cost. We need to learn how to use them and use them in ways that help us collaborate, not add extra work and frustration to our process.
That is the hard part. When we introduce new tools, the reaction is always mixed. Some people, those who work in jobs already using similar tools, and those who tend to be early adopters, immediately see the value. Others, however, see these things as another obstacle, another thing to learn, and another thing to keep track of. We need to be patient with that viewpoint. We need to be sure that we offer adequate training and explanation of the value of the tools. We also need to be certain we use them correctly. That means that those of us introducing the tools are adequately trained and have taken the time to become comfortable with their use.
I am hopeful that we can continue to find new ways to work together to live out our mission of making Disciples for the transformation of the world. Change can be difficult. However, we live in a time when change is happening faster than ever before.