Being the "Church together" using Google Hangouts

September 18, 2013

by Lisa Bourne*

The Northwest District of the Iowa Annual Conference is employing a popular social media application to connect with people.

This latest effort to reach out to churches and pastors in its district got its start around the time when District Superintendent Tom Carver started in his new role, said Sarah Kitterman Stevens, Field Outreach Minister for the Northwest District.

“We did a lot of talking about what we wanted to be about in the district,” Stevens said. “And what was God calling us into in this time and this place.”

It was when working on the latest ministry plan for the year, Stevens said, that they really fixed on connecting the people of their district. 

“We really wanted to focus on the fact that we weren’t necessarily called to be the hands and the feet,” said Stevens. “But the eyes and the ears, and the connecting pieces; and maybe even like a nervous system kind of thing.”

Stevens said so many great things have been happening in the churches of the district, whether it’s in small churches or large, county seat or rural, but the good news hasn’t been getting out.

“And people weren’t necessarily getting to hear about those,” she said. “And they weren’t able necessarily to connect with one another to hear about that.”

In addition to communicating individual churches successes, Stevens said another question has been how to connect people who have ideas and passions for ministry with each other, when there aren’t haven’t been others doing the same thing in their immediate area.

“And so, how could we help connect somebody in O’Brien County with somebody in Sac County, and bridge that distance,” said Stevens. “And so we’ve talked about using technology to help us in that context.”

A goal they’ve kept in mind is trying to use the least amount financial resources at the same time as leveraging human resources, she said.

“Free technology is even better,” said Stevens.

So the decision was made that with all of the pastors and churches in the Iowa Annual Conference having access to a Gmail account, to utilize one of Google’s social media applications.

“Here this thing called Google Hangouts is a perfect opportunity for us to utilize technology,” Stevens said.

Google Hangouts is multi-feature application available to users with a Gmail account that allows them to video chat, collaborate and share data. Hangouts works on desktop computers and mobile devices, as long as the device has a camera, speaker and microphone. Video calls can accommodate up to 10 participants. 

“The idea is that any point in time, local pastors, churches, we can connect up with them,” said Stevens. “District staff are just a click away from being in a face-to-face conversation that normally would take at least a couple hours to physically be present for.”

An implementation issue could be getting people to sign up and download the application.

“That’s something that can be kind of intimidating,” Stevens said. “Especially if you haven’t used it before.”

Stevens said there a lot pastors who have become grandparents, aunts and uncles or have children in college, who have discovered the benefits of technology such as Skype. The desire to keep up with their loved ones from a distance drove discovery and use of the technology. In that same fashion the Northwest District will put Google Hangouts into hands-on use to address the need to connect people.

With Google Hangouts allowing for more people in more locations to video conference at once, the Northwest District will employ the application in the process of conducting professional interviews this year.

Pastors in the Northwest District will have the opportunity to meet with the superintendent as usual, Stevens said, as well as meet with her to talk about where they are in their ministry and how she can be of help. However that’s not all and this is where Google Hangouts comes in.

“But we also recognize it’s really important for them to connect with our District Administrative Secretary Judi (Calhoon),” said Stevens.

With Stevens and Rev. Carver going out into the district for the interviews, she said, they wanted to find a way to have Calhoon participate and not lose important time in the office.

“We also wanted to help people experience the technology,” Stevens said.

So when clergy come in for their professional meetings they will first meet with Stevens, and receive paperwork from her.

“But then they actually “Google Hangout” with Judi in the district office,” said Stevens.

The idea worked well for them at a recent meeting in Lake Park.

“I had my laptop set up for PC users and I had my iPad set up for tablet users or Mac users,” Stevens said. “And they actually got to experiment with it and try it and they got some quality time with Judi, and to experience that.”

Hands-on experience goes a long way toward removing barriers.

“Sometimes it is intimidating,” said Stevens. “And so to be able to see how it actually works, I think is a good thing.”

This is still a period of experimentation for this approach of using Google Hangouts, she said.

“We’re going to see, again, what is God calling us to in this time and this place with the resources we have available now,” Stevens said.

They expect the effort will be successful in the district.

“Whether it allows either Tom or I or Judi to answer face-to-face questions with pastors or churches …” she said.

Stevens has used Skype to take part in a staff parish meeting or with a cluster group in the past, and notes the advantage of being present through technology, especially given the unpredictable winter weather in the area.

“If you hang out in northwest Iowa at all, you know we have good, hard winters,” said Stevens. “And sometimes we’ll get hit with something by surprise, and just to have that flexibility (is good).”

The more personal touch is also a benefit.

“And there’s something to see in somebody’s face when you’re talking,” she said. “That’s different than just hearing a voice, or just shooting off an email.”

“We’re going to try this Hangouts thing,” Stevens continued. “And see what God has in store for us in that kind of community.”

Video conferencing has continued to increase in prevalence and Google Hangoutss has been called the most popular video conferencing application. Availability and ease of access are positive aspects to the application, and both should help in the Northwest District’s use of it.

“Your face will pop up and the other person’s face will pop up,” said Stevens. “It’s like talking on the phone, but you just have the added component of the real-time face interaction.”

She likened it somewhat in terms of awareness to the Apple application FaceTime or to Skype.

“But more people have access to it,” Stevens said. “It’s just an easy click once you get it set up, and chances are even if you don’t know how to do it, chances are, somebody very near you knows how to set it up for you and could do that.”

The Northwest District looks for Google Hangouts to help them link people up across miles, save travel time and be productive, while also being relational.

“In our district we’ve talked about relationships, and this is one of the ways we’re trying to foster that,” said Stevens. “In an important, but timely, and efficient way.”

“Because it’s good to be the church together,” Stevens said. “Even from far away.”

Click here to listen to the conversation with Sarah Stevens

*Lisa Bourne is a member of the Communications Ministry Team, serving as Communications Assistant