Tech on a Shoestring: An Interview with Trey Gillette

December 1, 2019

We asked Classroom and Media Specialist Trey Gillette a few questions about technology and ministry. Below you will find helpful information about various apps that are great for ministry, about youth and technology, about common misconceptions with technology, and how to navigate technology changes in resistant communities. 

What apps can be most helpful in my ministry work? 

Apps are great because they allow us to access the information that is specific to our needs. For example, if I need to know how much money is in my bank account, with one click (and one facial recognition), I have my answer. What I’ve discovered is that the apps I use most often are part of a larger eco-system. The apps give me access to that eco-system when I am on the go. These are the apps that I find most useful for ministry within my setting. 

Google Drive (free with fees for extra storage)– provides access to the online version of everything that has been synced to the Google Cloud. My computer is setup to save 95% of my documents to Google Drive so I have access to almost all of my information right on my phone.  

Planning Center Online (free plan for limited users, paid plans available) – Great for planning worship services, keeping track of hymns and songs, and for organizing worship volunteers.   

Facebook (free but…) – For most churches, this is the social media outlet that is most widely used for congregants. Use a Facebook Page and keep information fresh and up-to-date. Also, this is a great place to post/live stream sermons. Side note: If you have a social media guru on staff or a dedicated volunteer, then there is no problem to add Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat to your social media mix but until the tide turns, Facebook Pages should be your primary Social Media platform. There are several strategies on how to best use social media, but they all have the same goal, how do we reach the most people with an authentic message?  

Bible – Youversion is great because it has many different translations including Greek and it is 100% free  

Notes – Have an app like this for taking notes. You need to be able to capture thoughts and reminders on the go.   

While it shouldn’t need to be said, CalendarContactsEmail, and GPS directions. What should be said, is that your calendar, email, and contacts should be tightly integrated with your desktop/web email/contacts/calendar suite. Google and iPhone play nice with each other in this area. If you lose your phone, you shouldn’t lose access to your calendar, etc. Similarly, if you create a contact in contacts, it would be helpful to access that in your web browser. 

Youth Ministry Specialty App – Minhub ($8 + fees for optional database) – Great for all of the simple but sometimes difficult to manage aspects of ministry. Organize youth contacts, dates, events, and capture attendance. Share database with staff/volunteers. 

What are some apps you’re noticing that young folks (adolescents) are using that you think churches should be leveraging more, in order to connect better with the youth?  

In similar ways to the slideshows in the days of old, youth still enjoy seeing pictures of themselves engaged in activities. Instagram is great for capturing a moment and sparking discussions. Don’t even think of using Facebook for reaching out to young folks. Most youth only go on Facebook to see what photos they were tagged in by their parents. Also a bad idea: email. Whenever I send an email that has detailed information, I send a corresponding text to let them know that I just sent them an email.  

You can join Snapchat or whatever the fad du jour is, but the most important key to engaging youth and young people with social media is to recognize the significant impact it has on their lives. To delegitimize a key component of their communication will get you dis-invited from their trust circle. Whatever means by which you communicate should be authentic and genuine. The youth I work with most often communicate with me through texting. As of this moment, I have yet to hear, I don’t value your ministry as much because you don’t engage me on Snapchat. My preferred means of communication is face-to-face. 

[Editor’s note: Be aware that some churches do not allow use of message-vanishing apps, such as Snapchat. For child protection purposes, it is generally best to require proof that a conversation took place. Other churches may have an even stricter policy in place. Even if your place of ministry doesn’t have set policies about social media or digital communication, you can always start the conversation or at the very least engage in best practices yourself.] 

What is the biggest misconception people have about how technology will negatively affect your church/ministry?  

The biggest misconception is that all technology is good – it is not. However, whenever we can use technology to help us the support the mission of the church, it is worth investigating. Technology can make us more efficient and increase our reach, but it can’t replace ministry or our dependence on God. If an app reminds us that today marks the anniversary of John’s wife’s passing, that is useful and actionable information. We can use GPS to guide us to their home and even look up some verses on our Bible app prior to our appointment. If in the course of events, we don’t pause to pray or attempt to “lean upon our own understanding,” then otherwise helpful technology is merely techno-tower-of-babel. 

Technology implemented and utilized wisely can be a great tool. I often hear about people in power in the church bemoaning the use of online giving. You can have an honest debate about the fees associated with giving, but many of your parishioners only pay bills online. The church therefore is seen as an outoftouch relic. What’s going on at the church this weekend? The bulletin has long been properly recycled from the Sunday trash bin, so check the website. What? No calendar on the website?  The church doesn’t value my time or standard communication practices.  

Technology won’t make you relevant to younger generations, it will make you accessible. No one will come to your church simply because you have online giving, but they make think twice about joining if you don’t. 

How would you support church leaders who are anxious about utilizing technology?  

Leaders often fear change or, more accurately, they fear the repercussions of change. Change can also be made by someone who is not the pastor. When we first rolled out projection technologies in our traditional sanctuary, we did it during a youth service. Congregants were more open to change and were willing to partake in the experiment because it means supporting the youth group. When the projectors stayed up the following week, there were few complaints. 

Seek advice from others who have successfully made similar changes; they are more than happy to share what worked well and what didn’t. Large scale changes take time. Begin implementation with a small group of early adopters and then branch out. If possible, have an implementation committee and let them lead the congregation through the change with the very vocal approval and sense of purpose from the pastor. 

What would you say the is value of having an interactive, relevant, and aesthetically pleasing church website for engaging with potential church congregants?  

If you walk into a nursery at a church and the room smells like dirty diapers or appears dingy, you would likely assume the care and nurturing of young children is not a priority. Then you’d likely turn right around and head out the door. 

You can’t (yet) smell a website, but a poorly updated, poorly designed, website is a sign that newcomers aren’t welcome or at the least, they are not a high priority in the life of the church. Very few people visit a new church without checking out their website first. Some have compared it to the front porch of your home. You can tell a lot about the home and its owner by simply entering into the front hallway. If you see animal heads on the wall, you can assume there are hunters in this family. If you see lots of family pictures, you can assume family is very important. If you find tripping hazards, burned out lightbulbs and mud on the floor you can assume . . . well you can make a lot of assumptions. 

There are a lot of tools to make websites look good and function well that are very user friendly. Make sure you are not the only one who knows how to update the website. At a minimum, the pastor, an administrative assistant (or equivalent), and a lay member in leadership should have access to the website. Ideally, each ministry area would have someone that could update their section of the website. The more difficult it is to make updates to the website, the more likely it is that it will fall into disrepair. 

How do you recommend helping older congregants engage with technology when church staff starts to implement more of it?  

Don’t demand that everyone gets on board. Some will never joyfully adopt new technologies, especially those that are deemed unnecessary or unnecessarily complex. Big changes take time. Remember, your end goal shouldn’t be to adopt a technology, but rather to improve upon existing tools. For instance, an emailed newsletter saves time and money. However, there are still many who have not embraced email or are not screen readers. Announce the change early and often. Make sure that it is easy to understand. Explain the purpose of the change. Provide training/coaching opportunities for those who wish to give it a try. Allow those who are completely opposed to request a mailed copy of the newsletter or even charge a small fee to offset postage fees. In the midst of this master plan, don’t forget the end goal. Namely, communicate efficiently and cost effectively. If in the course of enacting this plan, those who fail to embrace the email option are left out of the loop entirely, then you have actually reduced the number of people to whom you are communicating. Be efficient and thrifty, but don’t leave folks behind. Over time, everyone (in one way or another) will be on board, but don’t lose sight of your goal through your own impatience.   

What is the biggest mistake or pit fall you see you when churches start to integrate more technology in their system?  

Big mistake: implementing technology for the sake of implementing technology. Look at your needs, seek solutions, and if technology offers a viable solution, implement it wisely.   

Even bigger mistake: implementing something that won’t survive without you.  

  • If the tech is too complicated, then it will not be updated or maintained.  
  • If the tech is not volunteer friendly, then you won’t be able to attract volunteers and when you leave, the tech will be thrown away or replaced with something new. This is a poor investment of time and effort. 
  • If the tech is only deemed important by you, then when you leave, people will continue to be unimpressed and uninterested in maintaining the tech.  

Don’t implement tech only because it is cheap, it must be volunteer friendly. For example, in buying a new audio mixing board, it is easy to be scared away by a price tag. In pursuing the cheap route, it may not be very volunteer friendly. Soundboards are notoriously intimidating. The latest mixing board I purchased is digital and is capable of creating presets. The main advantage of setting presets is dialing in a board with the proper levels, EQ, effects, etc. A volunteer can use the board and feel free to change any slider and adjust any knob. When the next volunteer comes to use the board, they click preset and everything is reset to the proper settings. In other words, volunteers can experiment without fear and grow comfortable with the interface. When volunteers feel needed, appreciated, and are not afraid of messing things up, then you are able to recruit more easily and retain volunteers for the long run.   

Trey Gillette (MDiv/MA ‘16, ThM ‘17) is Princeton Theological Seminary’s Classroom and Media Support Specialist. He has over a decade of ministry experience in the United Methodist Church.