Category Archives: Culture: new media

Shared online documents as a planning tool

I’ve been using online shared spreadsheets (through Google Docs) as a congregational planning and scheduling tool for three years now. I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been doing, in hopes that others will share what they’ve been doing along these lines.

First, take a look at the Palo Alto churches “RE Grid 0910” (religious education planning grid for 2009-2010). This is an example of a moderately complicated planning grid using an online spreadsheet. Congregational planning in a mid-sized church like ours is focused on Sunday events, so moving up and down in the spreadsheet each row is designated with successive Sunday dates (the only exception is Christmas Eve, which gets its own row). Moving from left to right in the spreadsheet, we start off with columns for various Sunday morning time slots, and move into columns for specific programs (i.e., Children’s Choir, teacher training, youth programs, etc.). The religious education committee, the leaders of various programs, the church administrator, and I use this RE Grid for more efficient communication and coordination. From my point of view, what I like best is that other people can get answers to scheduling questions without having to ask me; furthermore, when we do planning, everyone is literally on the same (online) page which increases efficiency and reduces confusion.

Screen shot of RE Grid mentioned above

Next, here’s a worship planning grid from a small congregation. In this congregation, the musicians were very part-time, and usually could not meet with me with me to plan worship; I used the worship planning grid to share information about sermon topics, and they used the grid to share with each other the music they were playing so we didn’t get duplication. The lay worship associates used the grid to keep track of when they were scheduled. Staff and volunteers tend to be stretched thin in small congregations, and introducing this online spreadsheet as a planning tool made all our lives easier.

Two downsides to online documents for planning: (1) there’s a strong temptation to include too much information (no good solution for this); (2) there’s a tendency to delete old information without saving a copy for future reference (I export Excel versions of Google Docs spreadsheets for archives).

I’d love to hear how other congregations have used online shared documents for planning. Tell us what you’re doing in the comments, and give us a link if your online document is public.

Diminishing Google reliance

Scott Wells links to a good post on getting Google out of your life, a post which reads in part:

But is it dangerous to give all our information and to rely so completely on one corporation? Should we be worried? Should we be looking for alternatives? Should we be moving our data out of Google as soon as possible?

Answers: Yes. Yes. Yes. Maybe not all, but anything that is the least bit sensitive — as a minister, I have steadfastly refused to use Gmail because Google stores email data for a too long, and doesn’t seem to have any real understanding of confidentiality, and the only documents I put on Google Docs are ones I’m willing to share with the whole world.

I’ve placed some links to alternative Web sites in the sidebar. Feel free to add your own non-Google favorites.

Death of the codex? Maybe not.

Christian Century magazine just published an excellent essay on their Web site titled “Booting up books.” The author, Rodney Clapp, begins by saying, “Hardly a day passes without someone declaring the death of the book.” Clapp goes on to say:

The form of the book that many now think is passing away is the codex, in which leaves of paper are bound into a single brick. Invented by the Romans in the third century before Christ, the codex is a remarkable piece of technology—it is compact, durable and affordable. With its folio organizational system (that is, page numbering and chapter labeling) and such devices as a table of contents and an index it is an efficient and precise vehicle of textual memory and communication.

This is a good distinction to make. When people claim the book is dying, what they really mean is that the codex is dying. (I do wonder if there were people mourning the death of the scroll after the codex was invented, but I digress.) Yet Clapp says the codex may not be dead after all:

The electronic book, as its name admits, depends on an abundant and cheap supply of electricity. It has been commonly assumed that electronic reading media would be less ecologically burdensome than the “dead-tree” technologies of print media. But Chris Anderson argues on his blog The Long Tail that “dead-tree magazines have a smaller net carbon footprint than Web media.” Nicholson Baker in McSweeney’s observes that in 2006 computer server farms consumed 60 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, while paper mills consumed 75 billion kilowatt hours. This means servers and paper mills already leave “a roughly comparable carbon footprint”—and server energy consumption is increasing exponentially.

Maybe now that we’re past peak oil, we better not count on the electronic book lasting for more than a century.

Sean says it’s a revolution

A few minutes ago, I was talking with Sean of the blog Ministrare — he’s here at the Palo Alto church while Amy, our senior minister, is on sabbatical — and he showed me a video that he likes. He put the video up on his blog, and I’ll embed it here, so you can watch it, too:



Over on his blog, Sean says that he believes we religious liberals are not ready for the social media revolution. I think Sean is mostly right.

But I can find some bright spots, places where we do use social media well. Here in Palo Alto, we’ve been piloting a podcast for Sunday school teachers, and the teachers tell us they love this venture into online learning. And although I write my blog on my own time, I find that some people in the congregation do read it, and what I have written here has sparked some very interesting conversations in the face-to-face congregation. When we do use social media, what we do online strengthens and reinforces what happens in our face-to-face congregation.

So I’m ready to embrace the social media revolution. I think it will make congregational life that much better. What do you think?

Five years old

Five years old on Monday, I was taking a lunch break in my office in the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois, a stone’s throw away from the little stone church building built by Unitarians in 1843, just a few years after the Illinois frontier had opened up after the conclusion of the Blackhawk Wars. I had spent the morning looking through old church records, to what end I no longer recall. On my lunch break, I decided to start a blog on AOL’s now-defunct blogging service. Being a peripheral participant in geek culture, of course I had to name it “Yet Another Unitarian Universalist Blog,” although I soon dropped the last word. The only person I told about it was my partner Carol, yet within a couple of days several people in the congregation had discovered my new blog, and the blogger’s collective at the old Coffee Hour site had reviewed my first post. Something interesting was happening here: religion had expanded into the digital realm. And there I was, one of the people exploring this new landscape.

It’s been a wild ride since then. Here are some of my favorite moments from the past five years:

  1. I was asked by Peacebang to serve as an example of a poorly-dressed minister when she was interviewed by Mainstream Media about her “Beauty Tips for Ministers” blog. Alas, my photo didn’t make it into the published interview.
  2. I attended one of the Boston-area UU blogger’s picnics, where I got to meet a couple of blogger spouses. They were both very nice mild-mannered people.
  3. Upon being introduced to me at a denominational gathering, a woman said, “Are you really as mean as Mr. Crankypants?” She looked frightened. I was completely nonplussed, and made some halting reply that did nothing to reassure her.
  4. I have had several entertaining online arguments with my older sister, bouncing back and forth between our two blogs.
  5. Commenter, fellow-blogger, and friend E recently took me to task in a long phone conversation for willfully misunderstanding J. D. Salinger in a post (she was right, of course, not that I admitted that while we were talking).

I started out thinking that blogging was just another publishing medium, like letterpress or photocopying. Then I began to understand that social media like blogs are more than a technological means for getting my words and ideas out to a wider public; they are really a way to carry out a larger conversation than can happen face-to-face. Recently, I have begun to understand that really all writing and publishing are forms of social media: when Richard Steele published The Spectator, his letterpress-printed words opened up a broader conversation; when zines started using the new technology of photocopying, they too were opening up a broader conversation; blogs and other online publishing platforms use new technologies, but the ultimate goal of a broader conversation remains the same.

For those of us who use online technologies, the real challenge now is to raise the quality of our writing. We bloggers need our Steele and Addison — or better yet, the blog equivalents of Mark Twain — people who write good prose and who have something to say that’s worth saying. We bloggers need someone who will raise the standard for the rest of us. Maybe the blog equivalents of Richard Steele and Mark Twain are already publishing but I haven’t seen them. Most bloggers write prose that’s either precious, cute, tainted with the contemporary workshop aesthetic,1 confused, rushed, or just plain bad (I tend towards the latter three). Currently, we read blogs for the information, not for the quality of expression.

I plan to write this blog for at least another five years. I hope that five years from now I will be able to point to several blogs written by great English prose stylists. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be one of those writers.


1 See: David Dooley, “The Contemporary Workshop Aesthetic,” Hudson Review, Summer 1990, no. 259.

A blog is back

“Truth to Power,” a blog written by “a survivor of clergy misconduct” is back in action. The blog has left Google’s Blogger service (after the Google Buzz fiasco, would you trust Google with anything confidential?), and is now hosted on First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville’s “Safety Net” Web site.

You’ll find the “Truth to Power” blog here. The blog’s author has wisely turned off comments on that site, but I am happy to host comments about the February 20th post in the comments section here below.

“Because plastic is a sad, strong material that is charming to rodents”

What are today’s household gods? A few days ago, the New York Slime published Gary Snyder’s paean to his Macintosh computer, titled “why I Take Good Care of My Macintosh.” There are several good lines in the poem, and here are two of them:

Because whole worlds of writing can be boldly laid out and then highlighted and vanish in a flash at “delete,” so it teaches of impermanence and pain;

And because my computer and me are both brief in this world, both foolish, and we have earthly fates…

The Roman household gods, the Lares, were less brief and not made of plastic. Yet many of today’s households have small altars devoted to personal computers, we give them offerings of electricity and our attention, and many of us pay obeisance to them on a regular basis; so I’d say at the moment personal computers sometimes fill the role once filled by Lares.

The new pests

Mr. Crankypants just came back from a stroll through downtown San Mateo, where, to his surprise, he saw a few smokers standing outside a bar. You hardly ever see smokers any more, and now that they are a strictly controlled species, Mr. Crankypants feels an odd sort of affection for them, especially when they are out standing in a drizzle. Remember when smokers used to blow smoke right in your face? Only those of us who are middle-aged, or who are from South Carolina, have seen people blowing smoke in the faces of others and getting away with it.

The aggressive smokers who used to blow smoke smoke in your face have been controlled, but now another invasive pest comes along to fill that ecological niche — the oblivious cell phone user. The National Safety Council says oblivious cell phone users cause at least 1.6 million traffic accidents a year, but Mr. Crankypants is talking about something less deadly. He is talking about the stupid man talking loudly on a cell phone while standing right in front of the potato chips who does not move. He is talking about the stupid woman pushing a stroller while mumbling into a cell phone and dragging a toddler (faster than the toddler can comfortably walk) who almost hits a passerby in the shins with the toddler. He is talking about the stupid man riding a bicycle while talking on a cell phone who blows through a stop sign, swerves around a car that stopped just in time, almost picks off a pedestrian in a crosswalk, and blithely keep on peddling and talking.

Like you, Mr. Crankypants is, of course, perfect, and never talks on his cell phone when he is walking on a crowded sidewalk, or while the cashier is totaling up his groceries, or while he is picking up his dog’s poop, or when he is in a one-on-one meeting with someone. A good long-term solution for the oblivious cell phone users is neutering; that will eventually put an end to their species (that, and traffic fatalities), but in the mean time Mr. C. is uncertain how to control these noxious pests.

Just as I feared

From what Wired has to say about the new “Que” e-reader from Plastic Logic, it has everything I want in an e-reader — ability to handle multiple document formats from .epub to .doc files; large screen capable of adequately displaying online versions of newspapers; light and slim; etc. They’re taking pre-orders now for delivery in mid-April. But I will not be ordering one, because it costs $650.

When devices like this are available for $100, I will take e-readers seriously. Not until then.