by Travis Garner
I have a love/hate relationship with technology. I absolutely LOVE new gadgets, new apps, and anything shiny with a great marketing campaign. I’ll admit that I bought my first Macbook because I thought it would look cooler than my Dell while I sat at coffee shops and worked. (It also seemed like all the trendy, spiritually mature people were using Apple products, and I have a reputation to uphold!) While I’ve never stood in line for the newest “iRelease,” it hasn’t been because of a lack of desire as much of as a lack of funding.
On the other hand, I also recognize the dark side of technology, and how it can be like a black hole. I was once having coffee with another youth minister and, in the middle of a conversation, got a text message and looked down at my phone, which led me to click on my email real quick to check on something else. 10 MINUTES LATER, I looked up to see my friend sitting patiently across the table from me, smiling.
I said, “How long was I in there?” He said, “About ten minutes.”
TEN MINUTES! I got sucked into the world of my phone for ten whole minutes while I was IN THE MIDDLE OF A CONVERSATION!
All that to say, while I love technology, I don’t necessarily think it’s always used in a healthy way. I don’t necessarily think it’s healthy that I can (and often do) wake up in the middle of the night several times a week, reach for my phone, and process emails that have come in since I went to bed. I don’t necessarily think it’s healthy that on several occasions my wife and I have posted on each other’s Facebook walls from different parts of the house in order to have a conversation we could have had in person. I don’t necessarily think it’s healthy that some of my best tweets come from my time in the bathroom. (It’s funny, but not healthy.)
Having said all that, I know that technology can be an incredible tool for ministry. My question and my struggle is, “How can I find a balance between using technology as a helpful tool for ministry and allowing the technology I use for my ministry to completely monopolize my time and dominate my life?”
Apps and tools for ministry will change constantly. There are a thousand articles and websites dedicated to “the best apps for ministry,” and there will be a thousand more written tomorrow as technology continues to change. What will be a constant in the life of a youth pastor, however, is the question of balance.
Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve begun using (or need to begin using) that have allowed me to achieve much more balance and control over the technology I use for ministry.
1) Turn Most Smart Phone App Notifications OFF.
When I first got an iPhone, I thought it would be a really good idea to have an alert come through from every app. After all, that’s why I got a smart phone, to help me be in constant connection with the world. My phone alerted me for every new email, every new text, every new Facebook post, every time someone mentioned me on Twitter, every time there was breaking news on CNN. At first it was great because I could respond to everything immediately. After a while, I realized I wasn’t getting anything else done when I needed to do it because I was constantly checking my phone with every new alert. I got so many alerts that when I put my phone on the charger at night, I could literally still feel my leg vibrating as if I had my phone in my pocket.
The only two alerts I still have turned “on” are my text messages and my calendar alerts. If my family needs to get in touch with me they can always text me, and my calendar alerts make sure I don’t forget any meetings, but other than that, I have the control over when I check my email and all other apps rather than having them interrupt my train of thought several times an hour.
2) Utilize the Email Away Message
Email was invented to make communication more efficient, and in most ways it’s done that. However, it’s also created a culture where most people expect an immediate response. I love it when someone emails me late on a Saturday and then asks me Sunday morning, “Did you get my email last night?” The answer in my head is usually, “No! I have a life!” My real answer is usually more like, “No, I’m sorry, I didn’t have a chance to check that between when I went to bed last night and when I got up at the crack of dawn this morning to come in here and work my butt off to…” (Sorry, that answer’s usually in my head as well.)
A simple tool that is often overlooked is the email away message. Most email systems have them, and they allow you to send a customized, automated response to all your emails. If you’re going to be on vacation, on a youth retreat or mission trip, or working a more irregular schedule than normal, set up your away message letting people know you’re gone and when they can expect a response from you so that they understand why you’re not responding to them immediately. And then don’t check your email during that time period!
3) Regularly Change Your Voicemail Greeting
See above about the email away message. The same principles hold true with the voicemail greeting on your cell phone and your office phone. When people call, they expect a pretty quick response, but there are times when a quick response just isn’t possible or necessary. If you’re going to be gone, out of cell phone range, or just need a day to recharge your batteries, change your voicemail greeting to tell people you’re unavailable and when they can expect a call back from you.
4) Turn Your Electronic Gadgets OFF
This is the most important (and most difficult) of all things to help achieve balance in using technology in ministry. Regularly turn things off and disconnect from the globe, taking regular technological Sabbaths. When most youth ministers think about powering down our phones and computers and iPads and whatever else we have, the “What if’s?” begin racing through our heads.
“What if there’s an emergency?”
“What if my youth need me?”
“What if a parent has an important question?”
“What if someone thinks I don’t work hard enough because I don’t respond immediately?”
The truth is, the question of turning our technology off is really a theological question. Am I so important that the world will stop spinning if I disconnect for a day? Who is the real provider for my ministry, God or me? Can I really trust in God’s provision, even in my absence?
When we get caught in the mindset that in order to be effective in ministry we must be continually connected, we find ourselves in a dangerous cycle, elevating ourselves above where we ought to be and spiraling toward burnout. Technology is an incredibly useful tool for ministry, but it can’t replace the effectiveness of a rooted, balanced, spiritually nourished minister.
How do you find balance in your use of technology in ministry? How do you effectively use technology in your ministry without allowing it to monopolize your time?
Travis Garner is ordained as an Elder in the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as the Pastor of Discipleship and Missions at Brentwood UMC; he served as the youth minister at BUMC from 2004 to 2013. Travis and his wife, Amanda, have three sons.