Category Archives: Tech and religion

Audio postcards

At this year’s General Assembly, an NPR reporter named Krissa Palmer volunteered with the Web staff, and produced a series of “audio postcards.” Much more interesting than the usual podcast fare. Worth listening to, and thinking about, as you plan ways to promote your own local congregation — which is exactly what I’ve been doing.



UU Bloggers meet

Chris Walton, editor of the UU World magazine, and Deb Weiner, Director of Electronic Communications, both of the Unitarian Universalist Association, hosted a reception of Unitarian Universalist bloggers.

I was fascinated to hear about the different ways Unitarian Universalists (UUs) participate in the blogosphere — including writing a personal blog, writing a blog as a religious professional, political blogging, Live Journal blogging, and writing as a regular contributor for someone else’s blog.

Below you’ll find a list of the bloggers who showed up….

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Social enterprise software

The Social Enterprise Alliance sells business plan software for non-profits that include earned income ventures:

Business Plan Pro-Social Enterprise Edition was developed in partnership with Palo Alto Software specifically for nonprofit organizations as an easy-to-use blueprint and interactive planning tool for successful earned income ventures.

The wizard-driven software produces a social enterprise plan that includes market analysis, strategy and implementation description, social return on investment, sales forecast, personnel plan, and financial statements.


(Not useful for most churches, I know, but I’m associated with a couple of organizations that might find this useful. Looks like it’s Windows-only.)

Email [curse | blessing], part three

The third installment in an occasional series where I think out loud about using email effectively. First installment.

I know this is a minor matter, but when it comes to email I’ve been thinking about….

Salutations and endings

We all pretty much know how to write proper letters. If it’s a formal business letter, you start out with “Dear Ms. Lastname,” then you type or print the body of the letter, and you end with “Sincerely,” followed by your signature. If it’s an informal note, you can start with “Dear Firstname,” the body can be printed or handwritten, and you end with “Yours truly, Me.”

None of us really knows how to write proper email messages, because as yet there are no widely accepted standards. I usually begin all my email messages with “Dear So-and-so,” which won’t offend the traditionalists, but which probably seems hopelessly stuffed-shirt to those with easier manners. I usually end my email messages “Cheers, Dan,” which will neither please nor offend the traditionalists, but which probably seems hopelessly boring to many others.

Yet when it comes to church business, in United States Unitarian Universalist circles at least, I do see faint signs of some standards emerging.

For longer email messages:– More often than not, salutations begin with “Dear…” and here in the United States it is usually considered acceptable to address someone by first name even if you don’t know them. When sending email messages to more than one recipient, I most often see “Dear all,” or less often “Dear friends,” (the latter is my preference, at least in church circles). Endings seem to be less formal than salutations. I never see “Sincerely” or “Yours truly.” I do see “All the best,” “Cheers,” and more specialized endings such as “Thanks,” or “My two cents worth.”

For very short email messages, or for routine replies:– For salutations “Hi,” is perfectly adequate, or no salutation at all. No ending is needed; just typing your name seems acceptable. (By “very short email” I mean maybe half a dozen lines or less.)

What are your perceptions of acceptable standards for email salutations and endings? I’m mostly interested in church business, but I’d be curious to know if other subcultures are evolving their own standards.

Next installment: Email [curse | blessing] part four

Hymn resource

While I was working on creating hymn accompaniments for our summer worship services (when we won’t have a live musician for several Sundays), I discovered a very useful online resource. The Christian Classics Ethereal Hymnary has hundreds of classic, copyright-free hymn tunes in a variety of formats. Not all formats are available for all hymns, but the hymns I looked at generally had the following:

  • MIDI files with four-part harmony (which allows you to listen to the hymn)
  • a score in PDF format
  • a score in one or more of the common music-authoring formats (Noteworthy, Finale, etc.)

Some hymn tunes also had partial scores, and scores in more than one key. The one canon/round I looked at (Tallis’s Canon) also had MIDI files of the melody sung as a round.

(This could be a useful resource for worship leaders who don’t read music, but who want to know what a tune sounds like. All you have to do is find the name of the tune — in the hymnal I use, Singing the Living Tradition, the tune name is in small type at the lower right of the hymn — and play the MIDI file on your computer. The only downside is that the Christian Classics Ethereal Hymnary does not include newer, copyright-protected, hymn tunes. So forget tunes written after 1922.)

What I wanted from the hymnary were the MIDI files, to use as a starting point for making less mechanical hymn accompaniments. Straight out of the box, the MIDI files sound as tacky as they usually do. But you can easily modify a MIDI file to make it sound much better. I downloaded the MIDI file to my Mac and dragged it into GarageBand. From there, I altered the type of instrument (e.g., changing it from the crummy default electronic organ sound to a less offensive “cathedral” organ sound), and played with the note durations and note velocities where necessary to make it sound less mechanical. I also checked the harmony parts, and corrected them to correspond with what’s in our hymnal. Since I’m a perfectionist, I added about half a beat at the end of each verse so the congregation can take a big breath before going on to the next verse; and I altered the last verse so that the final notes are held for an extra measure or so. Of course I looped the hymn to wind up with the correct number of repetitions of the melody (whatever the number of verses, plus once through at the beginning).

The final result of an afternoon’s work is a CD with inoffensive accompaniments for eight hymns, plus Old Hundredth for the doxology. That will be enough to get us through the summer. And if I can free up another afternoon, I might just produce another eight hymn accompaniments.

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Summer hymns

Small congregations often face the problem of small budgets for music. Here at First Unitarian, we have enough money to pay a 3/8 time music director at American Guild of Organist rates for ten months a year, with enough money left over to provide guest musicians on most Sundays when the music director is off. But we have no money in the budget to pay for musicians in July and August.

We’re slowly moving towards becoming a year-round congregation (both because it’s the right thing to do, and because newcomers often drift away during the summer months if there’s a reduced worship schedule). This summer, we’re moving the summer worship services from the chapel, where we sit in plastic lawn chairs, back into the main church. I managed to come up with money to pay for a musician on one Sunday in July and one Sunday in August, and we have our annual jazz concert on the first Sunday in July. But on the five other summer Sundays, the summer worship coordinator will bring in recorded music to play following the prayer, and during the offering.

Even then, on those five weeks we also need music to accompany hymns. Here’s our latest scheme for summer hymn accompaniment:–

The worship committee has picked out a dozen of our congregation’s favorite hymns. I’m no musician, but with a cheap MIDI keyboard and audio editing software, even I (with my minimal keyboard skills) can piece together hymn accompaniments — I play each vocal line separately and at a very slow tempo, fix the timing, mix the parts together in the editing software, and then bring everything up to speed. The recordings I produce are kind of mechanical, but they’re good enough to accompany hymns. (Just to be on the safe side, we are not using any copyrighted melodies or harmonies.)

If I manage to get a dozen hymns done this year, and another dozen next year, we’ll have a decent little collection of recorded hymn accompaniments to use. Sure, we’d rather have live music, but this is something we can afford — and it’s easier than trying to sing a capella all summer long.

The perfect church Web site

I’m still searching for the perfect church Web site.

The perfect church Web site would have to have a lot of things going for it. It would allow committee chairs, staff, and others to directly add content to their pages on the Web site without going through the Webmaster; it would allow several levels of password protection including pages that can only be viewed by members; it would allow online payment of pledges, and online registration for events; it would support an online calendar of events; it would support a forum for congregational conversation; it would integrate staff blogs; it would allow easy posting of news; it would be inexpensive or free; it would be easy to navigate; it would be easy to maintain.

I spent today investigating Drupal, a free (and open-source) content management system. Drupal meets every single one of the criteria above — except the last two. It is not easy to maintain, and it’s easy to give it a bad navigation system. For example, it looks like it’s a pain in the neck to upgrade the software when security patches are released — and as for the navigation, you’ll have to invent it totally on your own. If you wanted your church administrator to maintain a Drupal-based site, you would have to send him or her to a substantial class in Drupal — and, outside of a few major metropolitan areas, where are you going to find such a class?

There’s a smaller subset of Drupal called Civic Space, which was developed in 2005 to support the Howard Dean presidential campaign. It’s now available for non-profits either as a free program, or a for-pay program with lots of technical support. However, it doesn’t look like it’s quite the right thing for a church Web site.

What I’d like to see is some Unitarian Universalist geeks commit themselves to maintaining a subset of Drupal (or similar content management system) for use by Unitarian Universalist congregations. This group of dedicated geeks would volunteer to be on-call via email for technical support (just as I make myself available to support a couple of WordPress blogging sites), and they would also come up with a basic installation of Drupal preconfigured with permission levels, basic navigation, etc. I’d say I’d take this on myself, except that it looks like the Drupal learning curve is pretty steep and I’d need a year (and training in PHP and CSS) to get to the point where I could do this. But maybe there’s some geeks out there who already have the knowledge?…