Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Church e-communication travails: 6 rules to help you keep your e-sanity

A few weeks ago I posted this fake, humorous news story: Church Communication Director Under FBI Scrutiny After Hiring Russian Hacker.

The sad reality is that it’s all based on true experiences. Except the hiring a hacker part and the FBI intervention. At least so far.

Given that my career has revolved around communications, it’s not unusual when I’ve settled into a new church, that I volunteer or am asked to do communications-related stuff, especially in a smaller church.

Typically, the first request is to help with the bulletin or newsletter. Usually not a big deal. Print is pretty straightforward.

But then, if they have a website, I’ll be asked to help out there. This is when things get hairy.

Often, in an effort to take advantage of “free” services, any number of accounts were opened and things weirdly configured so that ultimately, it’s a Gordian knot of a mess.

It’s even worse when the person or persons first involved believe they have some technical expertise (and maybe they do) and do things in the most obscure manner possible. It’s all clear to them, but not to anyone else.

While they are well-intentioned (meaning aiming for all things “free”) this approach tends to create the most chaos down the line. Especially when one or all of these tech experts move away and leave the church for any number of reasons.

Inevitably it seems, when it comes to anything a church needs a computer to accomplish -- email, social media, websites, etc. -- problems surface almost from the start.


Because there is always -- and I mean always -- a lack of documentation regarding logins, passwords, vendors, and how to manage whatever “someone” has set them up with “sometime” ago. Everything known was in “someone’s” head and nowhere else and now they are gone.

Rules for a happier electronic church life

Rather than rant about current travails serving as the impetus for this post, let me offer some suggestions to help you avoid these and other pitfalls:

1. Maintain hardcopy records!

Document everything, especially for anything related to electronics (computers, email, social media, websites, hosting, network services, etc.). Keep one file folder in a file cabinet that contains complete information on every vendor and their complete contact information, every URL, every login, every password, everything and anything that is related to each account or service. Keep this information organized and up-to-date. Every time a change is made, put the new information on paper and into the file. Having documentation will also help you avoid billing scams (see E-gads! The slings & arrows of managing your Internet presence & domain name).

2. Spend money.

Don’t be cheap. Free is never truly free, and often these services are unreliable. When something goes wrong (and something will go wrong), free services seldom provide good or any support. The “costs” for those free services skyrocket once one or more people have to invest their time to research, troubleshoot, get on the phone, etc. trying to resolve a problem. Plus, toss in downtime, lowered productivity, loss of emails, etc., and it’s easy to see how expensive “free” can truly be. It’s far better to spend a little money for an easily accessible service than spend countless hours trying to fix what was supposed to be “free.”

3. Keep it simple.

When setting up a website, creating email aliases, etc., keep everything as simple and straightforward as possible. Avoid creating some complex unique interplay among a variety of services. Understand that most people who will be responsible for managing the services when you’re not around are people who barely know how to turn a computer on. In other words, they are not technical savants so you need to keep everything as simple as possible.

4. Process your documents.

Once upon a time when you bought a computer or software, a nice hefty manual was included. No more. Now you are more likely to find a postcard-sized note pointing you to a PDF online. Don’t assume you’ll always be able to find a manual online later. Download and organize those manuals immediately onto a CD, DVD, or thumb drive (not your computer) and keep them all together in one place. If an actual paper manual came with your software, hardware, or service, keep these in the same place you are keeping the electronic files.

5. Document your processes.

This point is hugely important. Any job I’ve ever held, I’ve always made it a point to organize my files and document what I did so that if, heaven forbid, I died in a car accident or from choking on a chicken bone, whoever took my place would be able to hit the ground running. Anyone helping with their church’s technology needs should approach it like a job, not a casual hobby or afterthought.

Countless hours are lost and heads de-haired trying to recover logins and passwords, hunt down vendors and services, and recreate non-existent processes and procedures. Point #1 covers the vendors, passwords, and logins. This point relates to documenting how you do what you’re doing when you’re not there to do it.

What does this entail? Here are some examples:
  • If you manage a website, write out instructions on how to access the website, how to make changes, how to upload pages, how to size images, and so forth.
  • If you’ve created email aliases, write out instructions on how to access the service you used, a list of aliases and the emails they are associated with, and how to change existing aliases and add new ones.
  • If your domain name is registered in one place and you’ve pointed the URL to a different service while redirecting your email to yet another service, write out instructions on where these services exist, how to access them (logins and passwords) -- in other words everything someone needs to know to make changes.
  • If you move away leaving the church, make sure everyone who needs to know has contact information for you and what you were responsible for. Always be available to help if called upon, even years later.

Basically, any time someone asks you, “How do I....?” write out the answer and add it to your documentation (think FAQs). All of these items should be created in both electronic and hardcopies, with the hardcopies placed with or near all the account information (see #1).

By the way, anyone hired by a church (or any organization) and paid to provide a technology service should always leave behind adequate documentation. It’s part of what you’re being paid for.

6. Never assume. 

If you, like me, have some communications and tech savviness and are tapped to help your church with a website or something related, never assume things are setup in any “normal” sense. Just recently in trying to help fix something, I assumed just that (meaning I expected things to be set up in a logical way like I would do it) and ended up breaking what was working before discovering that how it was configured was a little wacky. If I’d taken the time to check the domain’s DNS settings, I would have seen things were unusual and that what I wanted to do wouldn’t work. And I should have done a screen grab of the “before” settings so I’d know how to put everything back if, as it did, things went awry.

Lesson learned. Notes taken. Apologies issued. And fortunately things were restored fairly quickly with no loss of life and only a few pulled hairs.

Order in the church! Order in the church!

Paul’s well known exhortation in 1 Corinthians 14:40 -- “Let everything be done decently and in order” -- addressed how Christian gatherings should be managed. The goal was to avoid chaos and keep the focus on glorifying God. This is good advice for all aspects of church worship and management, including all things electronic and online.

The Message version has Paul saying, “Be courteous and considerate in everything.” Documenting everything well so those who come behind you will be able to easily continue what you’ve started is exactly that: courteous and considerate.

So, to sum up, here are your takeaways simplified:
  • Document everything.
  • Understand free can be costly.
  • Keep things straightforward.
  • Retain product and service manuals.
  • Create process and instruction documentation.
  • Never assume.

To put it biblically, “Keep [these rules] and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples....” (Deuteronomy 4:6, ESV).

Have you encountered problems similar to those I’ve described? How did you resolve them? What tips and tricks have you developed to manage your communication products and services? Please share your experiences and ideas in the comments!

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