Progressing technology strengthens an innovative agency
By Laura Buchanan*
Clattering manual typewriters and the metallic ringing of rotary telephones have given way to ever-evolving communication tools, empowering innovative ministry at United Methodist Communications for 75 years.
75 years of communicating faithView the interactive timeline of United Methodist Communications' 75 years of telling the church's story, both within the church and to the world.
In the beginning
Francis Asbury, one of the first two Methodist bishops, said, “The propagation of religion by means of the press is next in importance to the preaching of the gospel.” Methodist Information staff of the 1940s-era took this advice seriously: they would carefully type and mail press information and news story ideas, waiting days for responses from reporters.
Technology restricted the speed with which news traveled, but the Methodist Church had inspirational stories to tell, and hundreds of newspapers and magazines across the country helped spread the good news.
Equipping the local church
In the following years, the agency began to utilize new mediums for their work. Television, radio, public relations, and general communication training sessions were held for local churches and annual conference staff to equip leaders with the skills needed to keep up with the developing tools and the opportunities they afforded.
Agency staff developed ministry tools that utilized the current trends, expanding resources as technology progressed. Motion pictures and filmstrips were produced for church use in the 1950s, which evolved to at-home viewings of video resources with the wide adoption of the VCR in the 1980s, adding a new audience for agency productions.
Picking up the pace
The 1970s brought the beginnings of faster communication methods. News stories could now be composed on electric typewriters, photocopied, and faxed to media outlets, increasing the speed with which news could be shared.
The agency also explored the possibilities of computerization. As soon as computers were wieldy enough to be housed in-office, staff began to utilize them for records management and word processing.
Zona Watkins, who retired in 2014, worked with the first agency computer, used as a service center to support various departments. She reminisced, “I worked on different projects: letters for large mailings, newsletters, forms…it was really something to be able to easily make changes to documents. No more Wite-Out!”
Eventually, computers were common throughout the office, beginning with one machine in each department before they became present on numerous desktops. Computer networks, electronic bulletin boards, an online news service and an email system equipped employees to communicate more efficiently so information could be shared quickly with constituents.
Tom McAnally, former director of United Methodist News Service, said, “News Service had the first portable [computers] that allowed us to see a couple of lines of text at a time and transmit - with great difficulty, using acoustic couplers - stories from the field to the central office. We joked about Bob Lear on our staff driving from one pay phone to another somewhere in the Midwest trying to find a line that would let him file a story.”
The agency wanted local churches to be equipped with computer knowledge as well. United Methodist Communications and the General Council on Ministries sponsored a consultation event in 1983, demonstrating an electronic newsletter for general agency, annual conference, and local church representatives.
In 1987, Sue Couch, a member of the United Methodist Information pilot committee wrote, “Using electronic communication is giving us a heightened sense of communication as caring for people … we have to keep demonstrating practical applications for this medium on all levels.”
Embracing new opportunities
Online communication grew exponentially when the denomination’s first website, umc.org, launched in 1995. Sherri Thiel, chief operations officer, was a member of the team that created the site and she fondly recalls the collaborative, pioneering project. “We were an early non-profit site among a large corporate presence and it was a new tool for the church,” she said. “We saw it as a different avenue for people to dialog with the church as well as a means to deliver information.”
As society began to adopt new technology, reporters and churches could elect to receive information via the postal service, fax, or email and the agency ensured that its tools filled everyone’s needs according to their technological preference.
Connection with the growing online audience became key. The agency offered the Find-A-Church online directory, web-based program publications such as the Interpreter, and an ever-increasing range of tools and materials for local church use.
As use of email and other digital tools soared, United Methodist News Service moved to purely digital information delivery.
Tim Tanton, executive director of content, remembers this exciting time in the agency. “The Internet allowed direct-to-audience communication…,” he said. “This was significant, as we now had a direct, instantaneous connection with thousands of people interested in the church who wanted news. They could also send feedback and news tips, allowing for meaningful interaction.”
Communication for a tech-savvy world
Today, United Methodist Communications’ ministry is multifaceted. Offerings include extensive online training courses, social media tools, webhosting, thoughtful technology-centered resources, multimedia marketing campaigns, daily email updates, and UMTV video features.
New technology has also enabled global reach to grow. United Methodist Communications is using ICT4D (Information & Communications Technology for Development) to empower some of the most marginalized people in the world with communication tools such as FrontlineSMS text messaging and rugged, solar-powered computer centers, establishing connections that improve communities and save lives.
"It was dramatic that we introduced technology where none had been used by the church before," said the Rev. Larry Hollon, former top staff executive of United Methodist Communications, who oversaw this expansion. Introducing cell phones and digital technology in different areas of the world, and training people to use them, was a radical change, he said.
"For the disenfranchised and dispossessed, this is a great benefit," he said. "It has proven its worth through providing access to information, communicating about health care, and monitoring diseases, among other benefits."
As technology continues to improve and shift, United Methodist Communications will rise to the opportunities it affords, relying on a pioneering staff whose work is successful, relevant, and progressive - carrying the church’s message of hope into the future.
Some information cited from Keeping up with a Revolution: The Story of United Methodist Communications 1940-1990 by Edwin H. Maynard.
*Laura Buchanan is a PR Specialist for United Methodist Communications.