23 July 2010

"Hamlet's Blackberry" and Other Contraptions

For the past couple of weeks I have been trying to read through William Powers' book, "Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age." It is a fairly recent release, and I found it in our local library on the new books shelf. As luck would have it, William Powers was interviewed on NPR early this week about the subject of his book. I was fascinated. My problem with reading the book isn't the content. It is the fact that our work at St. Andrew's has become so dense in the past few weeks, that any reading outside the technical material needed for my craft has been darn near impossible.

I didn't buy my first computer until the spring of 1989. I owned a word processor for my office, and it sufficed...until our parish church (Holy Cross, Sanford, FL at the time) was robbed...my word processor unit being one of the heisted items. I decided to replace it with a bona fide computer. I shopped my purchase through one of the technical gurus in my parish. I purchased a tower unit with 40 mb of hard drive and 1 mb of ram. According to the folks at the computer store, I was on the leading edge of the computing power curve at that moment. Oh, and it included an amber screen. Hot stuff!

Three years later, in the fall of 1992, I was preparing to move family, household and my office to St. James Cathedral, South Bend, IN, where I was to become the Dean on 1 January 1993. Things were becoming difficult for my once fancy computer. So, I had a friend in Orlando custom build a tower unit with a 486 processor, 256mb hard drive and 4 mb ram. Once again, I was in front of the technology curve. I would be the most technically advanced cathedral dean in the Episcopal Church....for about 10 months.

Let me back up a moment and reflect on a comment I made to my parish in Sanford, FL at the Annual Meeting in January 1990. My first computer was about 8 months old, and we had just purchased a full computing system for the parish office. I had done some casual statistics and reported to our parish that, with the two computers, we could reduce administrative production time by almost 60%. The savings in time would provide us with a large number of weekly hours for pastoral, program and other functional ministry opportunities. Huzzah!

It is now 2010. It is two parishes and almost 21 years since the purchase of my first computer. I am writing this on my laptop, which is just passed two months old. It has a ridiculous number of gbs of hard drive and enough ram to run the world on the screen. The whole system weighs about 6 lbs. My office at St. Andrew's is in a pretty good technical place. We have an internal network with our own internet domain and website. Our internal servers are two in number and hum at high speed 24 hrs/day. Each office has either a laptop or a desk top machine. Most all of them are current state of the art. Our network handles all 12 of us on staff using the email and internet features at the same time. We process a huge amount of information and data on a weekly basis (it's a parish of about 1800 folks). We also have wi-fi throughout our complex -- except for the church itself. I can run my office from either my office or my home (25 minutes away).

At home, my wife also has a personal laptop, and we have a "dinosauer" (five year old) desk top system in the study that we use as a main server for our wi-fi system, our wireless printer, scanner, copier, fax machine and music storage.

I have a smartphone that allows me to access my office email at will wherever I am. I could access my home email account as well...should I desire to do so. I Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, text message, phone chat and listen to music via my computers, smartphone and iPod Nano. My phone calendar syncs automatically with my office calendar...all of which syncs with my administrative assistant's version of my calendar. Any time either of us generates an event on my calendar, that event is logged on two computers, a server and my phone. All my computer data is automatically backed up to server when I shut down. Damn! I just keep moving.

BUT, there is a problem, I now have less discretionary, program, pastoral and prep time for my craft than I had 20 years ago. What gives!!

I find this hard to admit (for reasons I will reveal below), but I did a hard data analysis last year on what had happened to my statistical predictions in January 1990. I front-loaded the average weekly hours of work. I then determined what time is spent in administrative, pastoral, program, liturgical and other necessary work in the average week. I did this over a three week period. The results surprised me.

First, my 1990 predications were not wrong. I had saved about 60% of my admin time...time which it took to do set activities. HOWEVER, the total amount of current administrative time had increased by more than 65%! I was spending more time with administration because more administration was being demanded/expected/required. Adding to this was the expected availability. Whether in the office or in the "field" or at home or on a vacation, the expectation had become that availability would be constant and as immediate as possible. I was getting text messages asking why I hadn't responded to an email that was only sent 20 minutes prior to the text message! Absurd? Nope.

All of this led me to proclaim earlier this year (to a group of colleague priests) that we have entered a place of information overload. There is hardly a space left for absorbing what it means to be alive and in the world. This, it turns out, is very much the same tune being played by William Powers in his book.

Now I get back to why data collection would be a surprise to some. I am fast becoming "death" on data. Information, facts and details are important; and I use all of that on a fairly regular basis. We have, however, become data junkies. Whenever something doesn't go the way we want it, there must be measurable means by which to analyze it. Numbers in the pews going down? Give us data...we may be failing. Forget the long view of parish life-cycles that have been normal and natural for the life of the Church. We have lost sight of what information is necessary what is obfuscatory. My little analysis last year found that our staff spends nearly 35% of its time collecting, collating and publishing data. Another survey anyone?

I love technology. I enjoy having information stored in portable and easily retrievable packets of binary bytes. I love my Kindle, which now has 25 full-length books stored within it...and room for probably 150 more.

I love Facebook. I am having a blast connecting with high school and college classmates I never thought I would see or hear from again. What a change 40 years of life makes, when we look at each other's pictures. Still, the energy and enthusiasm of youth returns in sharing stories and current events with those who shared formative years of life.

I love blogging and handling routine communication via email. Such electronic communications allows me to stay up with actions that are in process and needing rapid communication. I can think fast and do so on-screen when the journalistic insight strikes. Now, let's make email what it was designed to be...guaranteed communication that can be easily responded to....in the recipient's own time!

Denise and I have pledged "smartphone free zones" in our life together. No emailing, Tweeting or Facebooking in the master bedroom. My phone is there only when I am on call...and just on phone reception. No email or other communication beeps.

Whenever we have a day off together and plan an outing, the above rule applies in that setting. Last summer, I created a special area for contemplative prayer in our finished basement. It's a great little corner. Phones and laptops are not allowed when the work of that space is engaged.

The bottom line here is BALANCE. When I am working, all my systems are up and engaged. That's the way it should be. In that space, we still have the problem of what constitutes appropriate use of time, data and expertise. My colleagues share my concern that priests are not able to do priestly work at the level commensurate with our craft. The mantra is becoming more universal "Give us an MBA rather than a Master's in Theology." I doubt it will change before I retire next June, but it will need to change before too long...if the Church is to remain the true Body of Christ. One thing my leadership detractors forget: God makes the rules in this place!


Fr. Fred+

1 comment:

  1. Wow a networked parish office! Remember how excited I was that the Cathedral got a fax machine donated? And how I used to synch our calendars via a floppy disk? But I noticed when the fax machine and email came how the pace picked up. It simplified some things but also made more work. I totally agree about digital free zones. I'm one of the few folks I know that doesn't check my office email on weekends or while on vacation, etc. I even go days without turning on my home machine. I need the quiet space.

    I remember that amber screen and when you transitioned from a DOS based machine to Windows. It was a little painful, but look at you now! You once said "I'm a theologian, not a technician." I detect yet another area where you've grown unexpectedly. Rock on Fr. Fred!