As of July 1, 2019, I will no longer serve as the Director of Communications and Media for the Rio Texas Annual Conference.
My answer was always the same. “I help local churches leverage technology to reach the mission field.”
When I first left the local church to work for the Rio Texas Annual Conference*, my boss, now Bishop Ruben Saenz was continually challenging me to be exceptionally clear in what I was trying to do in my role. With his help, I was able to articulate my work very succinctly, and I practiced it on anyone who asked the question, “So, what do you do?”
My answer was always the same. “I help local churches leverage technology to reach the mission field.” Bishop Saenz helped me to use that answer as a lens to evaluate the value of any work I was doing.
In my first year as Director of Communications and Media, I worked relentlessly to figure out how churches could take advantage of the exponential changes happening around them. There were others on our team who thought about how changes in culture, language, and the needs of the world would impact the church. But my focus stayed on the major innovations in how people communicate, learn, and build relationships in the new digital world.
My very first project was an extensive survey of every church in the Rio Texas Conference to understand their level of technology usage and capabilities. I found that many of our churches, in communities where smartphones were quickly becoming the communications tool of choice, didn’t even have basic internet access, let alone any desire to communicate digitally.
From there, my main task was two-fold: convince and assist.
Convincing and Assisting
It is challenging to help churches (or anyone) make a drastic change when they aren’t convinced that a change is needed. Pastors are busy people and churches are busy places. It took some convincing to help them see that what I was talking about was worth the investment of time and energy. Most churches are also unwilling or unable to invest any money in something new. Many churches struggle with finances. Those who have adequate resources, try so hard to be good stewards of their gifts that they fail to invest in the future.
So, I mastered my talking points and could deliver what amounted to a sermon on the importance of churches understanding the reality of the paradigm shift occurring in the way the world communicates. I compared our current moment with the introduction of the printing press and tried to offer prophetic words on the importance of the church being able to adjust and excel in this new digital world.
I could deliver this message across an entire hour, all the way down to a two-minute elevator pitch. I always had my notes, but I quickly stopped needing to look at them. I truly believed that I could witness the beginning of a revolutionary shift that would impact our churches and communities for years to come.
As I was convincing, I was also assisting. Churches that were already beginning to understand their changing context allowed me to walk with them through their first website (or their first new website in a long, long time.) We worked together on adding electronic giving options. More and more churches started streaming their services online or investing in new equipment to upgrade their streaming experience. Churches invested time in learning best practices for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and a few have become good at it. Recently, I had the chance to help a church purchase the equipment to start a podcast.
So now, here I sit, writing on a blog that has followed me for this entire journey. I started this blog a little over a year before I began my work at the conference. It is a fascinating chronicle of my work and thinking. Very often a blog post was written in response to something I was researching for a church or something that I was trying to convince churches to think about.
So What Happened?
The reason I am okay with this part of my journey coming to an end is that I was no longer doing the work that I had been so passionate about.
Well, my time with Rio Texas certainly didn’t come to an end because I had completed my task of starting a technological revolution in our churches. The answer to why I am beginning a new phase of my journey is long, complicated, and beyond the scope of this post.
The reason I am okay with this part of my journey coming to an end is that I was no longer doing the work that I had been so passionate about. At some point, my work became more inwardly focused on the business of the organization. That seems to be one of the risks of innovation. At the same local churches were finally getting excited about all of these new communications tools, so was the annual conference.
That is not a bad thing. The annual conference has an important role in the work and life of our local churches. The conference has embraced video conferencing, online payments, live streaming, social media, and other technology. And most of my work shifted to supporting that work rather than directly supporting churches.
So, instead of helping local churches leverage technology to reach the mission field, I am leveraging technology to support the work of the annual conference. I started spending more time supporting I.T. and telecommunications than I did talking to churches. I work more on the conference’s growing video conferencing needs and less on local church live streaming. This is the time of year I spend most of my days supporting online registration for our annual gathering rather than encouraging churches to use a Facebook campaign to reach new guests for Easter.
And that is essential work. But it is not my work.
So What Now?
I am retaining my status as an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, for now, under a provision called “transitional leave.” This gives me a year to find somewhere else to be appointed. After that year, if I decide not to return to a local church or extension ministry, I can either request more leave or surrender my clergy credentials.
In the meantime, I have found many businesses and organizations that face the same challenges that I witnessed churches facing. There is a multitude of companies that excel at what they do but have no idea how to continue to market their services in a new digital world. Even those that are continuing to see a steady flow of customers are struggling with how to interact with their clients since the preferred methods of communications have shifted from the U.S. Mail and telephone to email, text messaging, instant messaging, apps, and other new digital tools.
Since I won’t be making my living helping local churches, I am going to spend some time working in the private sector, assisting businesses to build integrated strategies that embrace a new digital world.
I will be unveiling my new freelance and consulting work over the next couple of months.
So, what about pastorwill.net? Since I started this blog, its reach has extended far past the Rio Texas Annual Conference and The United Methodist Church. I have regular readers from a multitude of denominations and countries. Because my first love is the church, I will continue this ministry of research and writing. It is still unclear whether my new work will give me more or less time to dedicate to writing here. But for now, stay tuned.
*For my non-Methodist friends, an annual conference refers a regional body of United Methodist churches. I have been serving in the Rio Texas Annual Conference which is made up of much of Central, South, and West Texas. Each of these conferences in the U.S. has an administrative body, led by a bishop that oversees and assists local churches.