Slack for Ministry: A new way for churches to collaborate virtually and asynchronously
Less than half of Americans want to work full-time from an office when the pandemic subsides, according to the New York Times. These sentiments follow a recent McKinsey analysis suggesting that most organizations can rely predominantly on remote work without any drop in effectiveness or impact. According to McKinsey, even location-based services like healthcare may one day see over one-third of employees coming to work virtually. We are in an economy where the number of available jobs is misaligned to the number of active job seekers. As a result, organizations that are unable or unwilling to collaborate virtually and asynchronously will soon encounter a severe shortage of job applicants.
This trend matters a great deal to churches, which are just as active in the labor market as any organization. While church leaders may prefer to think of congregations as localized units shaped in response to the needs of a geographic neighborhood, the church of the future will be less of a bounded entity. In this digital age, congregations will take up a both/and position, serving the needs of the physical and virtual neighbor in response to God's call, with acts of discipleship taking place down the street and throughout cyberspace.
Church leaders, then, need to find a way to collaborate virtually and asynchronously, with rostered leaders, lay leaders, members, and virtual/physical neighbors. Whether a congregation has a large office with dozens of staffers or a small office with a pastor and an administrator, today's church leader is tasked with extending the collaborative reach of the community.
This is why Slack is such a compelling platform for ministry. Originally designed as a chat application, Slack sought to reduce dependence on email. By convening chat conversations and hosting direct messages between collaborators, Slack reduces dependence on the inbox and facilitates collaboration between those who are neither located in the same place nor working at the same times. While churches are ineligible for Slack's nonprofit discount program, an account starts at just $8/person per month.
Slack invites anyone connected with an organization to join "channels," or chat rooms, created around shared projects. Companies might have channels for sales, marketing, product development, or human resources. Churches might create channels for worship planning, faith formation, Sunday school, and administration.
Once organized into channels, Slack provides the infrastructure for meaningful collaboration. This includes apps that support teleconferencing platforms like Zoom, as well as integrations that support work on shared documents like Google Docs. Slack also provides threaded conversations, facilitating the possibility of a lively back and forth.
How can today's church leader get the most from Slack?
First, identify what areas require collaboration, and accordingly, meeting times. Does your church have a weekly worship planning session? A bi-weekly finance check-in with the treasury committee? Each of these represents a possible Slack channel, where ideas can be exchanged and questions answered outside of scheduled meeting time.
Second, find specific opportunities to utilize Slack to exchange ideas. Adopting a new technology requires an awareness of uses cases. The most common way churches might start to utilize Slack is to bring together the worship planning team, who can use the platform to integrate music, preaching themes, prayers, and other aspects of Sunday morning. Communicate how and when collaborators should turn to Slack - and remember to communicate the benefits of reduced meeting time, and greater community input.
Next, think about Slack as a platform for more than staff collaboration. While most organizations initially adopt Slack for internal use, congregations don't have a clean demarcation of internal/external stakeholders. All members of the church, and to some extent, all members of a neighborhood, are valued collaborators. Most church and neighborhood members won't want to engage via Slack initially - they likely tend to prefer to engage through social media like Facebook Groups. So, start with the church's lay leaders, or those who serve on standing boards or committees. Board and council members may be the most eager to reduce unnecessary meetings, holding conversations and even votes when it best suits their availability. Your church council Slack channel may be far more valuable in fostering collaboration than channels for pastors and church staff.
Finally, remember to have fun with Slack. From an endless trove of animated GIFs to seemingly every emoji (and the ability to create your own), Slack makes digital collaboration far more fun than any email exchange. The extent to which a congregation actually enjoys using Slack determines the sustainability of the platform in a ministry context.
While Slack is an excellent collaboration tool for congregations, it's important to remember that all technologies have a potential cost to our attention and energy. Cal Newport, author of "Digital Minimalism," recently published a book critiquing the rapid adoption of Slack. In fact, Slack can prove to be distracting, particularly when its usage is not goal-directed. In a ministry setting, Slack requires a specific purpose. It also requires some documented usage practices. It's best to encourage Slack users to carefully monitor their notification settings, potentially deactivating mobile notifications so as to avoid interruption outside of working hours.
Throughout this time of extended digital distribution, we've seen and experienced the redefinition of the workplace. That redefinition is coming to our churches, beckoning us to find new ways of collaborating in mission. Slack is a compelling tool for purposeful ministry, an invaluable resource for the digital age church leader.
@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes."