We Forged Some Goals for the Coming Year
I’ve been writing about leading a communications committee that’s working on moving a community church into the digital age.
A Tentative Beginning
This week, we concluded the third session of our Zoom “retreat.” When I first posed the idea that it was time for a retreat and said I envisioned a six to eight hour process, I got more pushback than I’d ever expected. I wasn’t prepared for that, so it took several impassioned talks to convey what I hoped we would accomplish. Honestly, I expected everybody to see the need for such a focused time to chart a new course for our work and clarify our mission. As I write this, I realize we may have created a mission statement, but we have never articulated a vision of where we hope to end up. (Note to self: Start to drop crumbs about this into our meetings.)
But one newer member of the group felt that would be redundant and questioned why we needed that long to decide on a few tasks. Another member balked at spending that amount of time on Zoom, no matter how many shorter sessions we broke the time into. They were the loudest voices. I see now that rather than inviting other members to express their support (beyond initial comments), I met the naysayers head-on, with a fair amount of force. Perhaps I strong-armed them? I should check.
I offered to put together a summary of the group’s history, initial mission and tasks, accomplishments of the past two years, and an initial agenda. They agreed to look at the material and we would hold a first meeting, then determine next steps.
The Progression of Meetings
What’s occurred is a progression of three meetings.
In the first, we reviewed a preliminary list of issues and problems I’d drawn up, adding to and clarifying the needs. The list ran to five pages. We ended the meeting by winnowing the list to two pages of the most pressing specific issues related to web-based technologies and office staff. To do this, I created a new Google doc and asked each person to take items we’d identified as priorities and move them to that page.
That shared editing process could also be seen as an unintentional agenda item– actively engaging with and using a digital tool to collaborate on a task was an experiential lesson in the power of digital tools. “The Cloud,” a large topic of discussion, became real through this experience.
“The cloud” first arose when one committee member insisted a key goal for the church had to be a complete move to it. Hie explained that his father’s business had suffered a fire and lost everything; only because the business was cloud-based could it start up again. “But what do you mean by ‘the cloud’?” one member asked. She qualified the question by apologizing for her ignorance. In fact, throughout these meetings, it was not uncommon for members to apologize for not understanding something. This is important to recognize as we move ahead; there needs to be time for questions to be addressed. More important, there needs to be an environment where people they can take the risk to say that they don’t know or understand. In my answers, I need to always talk about the significance of the question is in the context of the internet writ large, as well in the context of being a spiritual/religious space and neighborhood presence.
Almost as an afterthought in my planning, I had added several broad questions. When I noticed that we hadn’t even approached these, I suggested we start with these at our second meeting. I confess I was kind of snarky at that point. Two-plus hours into a meeting that a number of people had actively resisted, we’d emerged with a long list of significant issues that needed to be addressed, from digital security to staff training. So, I said, I assumed people agreed we would need another meeting? (Note to self: Just stop it.)
The second meeting had two main parts. In the first, we took up several broad questions from the initial document that we hadn’t touched. In the second, we took up the nitty-gritty issues we’d identified. (Given that this was one of the nights of the Democratic Convention, we also agreed we’d break to hear President Obama’s speech, which energized everyone.)
It always amazes me when a meeting evolves from a mish-mash of ideas, yes-buts, yes-ands, and random brainstorming, chatting, and focused discussion into a coherent, clearly articulated set of ideas. That’s what happened here. After a lot of GDoc writing, editing (transforming ideas into language all could embrace), and outlining, we emerged with two main points: to act as quasi-consultants to each working committee of the church, “to explore how we can use technologies, specifically, Google tools, to 1) build community; 2) boost creativity; and 3) work more effectively and collaboratively.” When a group can boil down a plethora of ideas to a simple statement, you know that statement is real and true.
This was an exhilarating meeting for me. We have been able to collaborate effectively since our start in 2018, but as I facilitated this discussion and shared my own ideas, I was keenly aware of the ways in which the group’s process and each individual’s participation have evolved. More significantly, I observed how their own experiences with simple tools had affected their ideas of what effective committee work could look like. Even with only a preliminary grasp of Docs and some basic collaborative data entry on Sheets, something had shifted in the way they were thinking. (Note to self: follow up with this before they become too comfortable with the tools and too acclimated to the new world view they may be working from.)
The came the nitty gritty.
As we attempted to organize and clarify the long list of technology-related tasks that needed to be addressed, one member stopped and said, “This can all be summed up in a single phrase: office manager. We’re writing a job description for an office manager. A good office manager comes in with the expectation that they’ll be in charge of these things.”
Murmurs of agreement. Some discussion of what happened in offices of nonprofits.
At that point, we had been working for a couple of hours. People were weary. As they prepared to return to clarifying and outlining, I said that we should just stop revising that portion of the document. It was clear to me that I needed to bring this to the personnel committee for discussion.
We’d worked really hard during this meeting, well past the stopping point we’d agreed to. But the outcomes were significant. I’m excited about what we’ve developed, and so proud of the team.
…started with a review of the revised document. I’d stretched myself to format our notes into an outline, not my strength, and I’d outlined were five key points. I saw our objective of the evening as finalizing these points, then moving on to a completely new area, one which I hadn’t included before.
The review went quickly. One committee member volunteered to wordsmith the section about our committee’s work for the year. Then we moved on to the fifth area, which I’d titled, “Internal Goals and Tasks.”
My point was simply that if we were to position ourselves as resources and supports to our organizational counterparts, perhaps we needed to develop our own understanding of available tools, how they operate, and their potential to support creative and effective workflows. I then began a session of show-and-tell of Google tools: Google Forms, Sites, Calendar, a cursory look at Sheets, and a more detailed look at Docs. I hadn’t prepared to do this, so I scrambled to find forms, sheets, and sites as I’d already created. With each example, I played around, demonstrating how the tool worked and talking about how it might be used in our church.
Forms sparked a lot of excitement, especially as people considered the ways the tool would have helped them in the past month. Then we looked at Sites. People were interested. Then, I said, “Now, imagine this as the church newsletter.” Silence. Then, from one of the pastors, “Mind BLOWN.”
Sheets? A committee member shared how another community group she belonged to had used Sheets and revolutionized the way they complied and shared data with their statewide organization. “We’re the fastest submission every month. People are always saying, how do you guys do that?” She said she could see herself created a spread sheet of all the things we’d been talking about. I listened, then said, “Whenever we are really comfortable with a tool, it’s naturally the first thing we reach toward. I love your idea of using Sheets to compile information! As we explore more tools, think about whether there are other tools that can accomplish your purpose– it’s always about what am I trying to accomplish, for what purpose, and what’s the tool that will best help me accomplish that.” She sat back, thoughtfully nodding.
I couldn’t read their responses. Did they think this would be helpful? Good? Should we move ahead with it?
One man, usually a “Yeah, but…” responder said, “I never would have known these tools exist if you hadn’t brought them in and started using them.” He was frustrated though, by how he could never find anything. Even though we had “a lot of folders,” Google Docs was still a challenge. He needed some kind of central repository, where everything lived and he could just go to and get stuff.
I realized that he thought google Docs was the main Google hub. “I think you want to understand how the Google universe operates,” I said. “For example, you’re saying ‘Google Docs’ when what I think you mean is ‘Google Drive.'” He nodded. “That’s fair,” he said.
And so, next week we resume our regular monthly meetings. I’ll have a letter to our personnel committee, suggesting they consider a shift in office staffing. Then we’ll start talking about our mission for the year and how to set some goals. And then, the Google world.
Maybe I could make a HyperDoc…? (I’ll be writing about HyperDocs not too long from now.)
- Being in a leadership position is a key for inciting changes in both technology use and mindsets about technology. And yet, this position does nothing to speed understanding or uptake. What leadership does afford is a consistent stance for education and advocacy.
- Advocacy is not enough. Hands-on experience with tech tools is not enough. Both of these need to happen in an learning environment, framed by research-based principles. I draw primarily from Henry Jenkins’ work on participatory culture, Castell’s work on the internet as the most important social innovation since the industrial age, and Lankshear and Knobel’s work on the role of the internet in transforming education writ large, literacy education in particular. Those ideas have given shape to the way I’ve guided this committee’s work, posed questions, and suggested outcomes and rationales for these. This bigger picture has been important. While I haven’t thrown around THE research in these areas, I’ve brought the ideas into our discussions. If I were just sharing tools, I’d be more like a saleswoman. But I’m talking about the possibilities we are trying to build into the culture of our community, with the net result being a broader, more welcoming, and more authentically inclusive congregation. The promise of a transformed community has been an important motivation for these people to stay on this committee.
- The more involved in the traditional routines, practices, and activities participants are, the less likely they are to accept an activity that deviates from these. In many cases, they can’t envision the suggestion or don’t understand it until it’s explained to them, sometimes several times. In those cases, it’s important to include clear examples and rationales. They appear to accept a very different practice or activity if it is bookended with traditional or familiar practices.
- Creating the environment where people can ask even what they consider to be obvious (i.e., stupid) questions is crucial to the group being able to work together. There is a saying in wilderness education that a backpacking group can travel only as fast as its slowest member. That metaphor holds true in this situation– probably any situation that involves an extended learning process. In this case, understanding the terminology is a way to encounter and grapple with new mindsets.
- I don’t think it should be a surprise that, in developing new understandings of digital technologies, an organization could find itself reconsidering personnel infrastructure, job descriptions/responsibilities.
And, this is only the beginning.
Thanks for coming on the journey.