No ordinary days for “InfoServants”
It's happened more times than Mary Lynn Holly can count. She's sitting at her desk at the end of a particularly difficult day, weary, ready to go home, questioning whether there's meaning to her work. Then the phone rings, and she shifts into "help" mode. Inevitably, at those times, it's always a caller who really needs her. She spends a long time with those callers, and doesn't even mind when she's late getting home.
"I've lost count of how many times I end my day talking to someone who needs me," says Mary Lynn, tears welling in her eyes. "It's then I know I'm where God wants me to be."
Mary Lynn is an "InfoServant," who's worked for the official information service of The United Methodist Church more than 20 years. But InfoServ is less about questions and answers, less about phone numbers and addresses, than it is about "information-as-ministry."
Vicki Wallace, InfoServ's director, says they approach every person – every question – as seriously as if there could be unforeseen consequences.
"It might appear as though we're just answering questions, but we are called to do so much more," she says. "The exciting part is not knowing how what we do might impact someone's life," says Vicki, who's been with InfoServ since 1996.
"There was a time I responded to an email trying to be very caring. I had no idea that the next day I'd receive a response that said, 'Thank you. Because of you, I didn't end my life last night.'"
InfoServ provides a voice for the church to those who are asking questions important to them, says the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications, including a customized response that's unique to the question rather than a template response. "In a world of automated text chat on websites and menu options leading to more pre-recorded computer-controlled voices for call-in information in the corporate world, InfoServ is staffed by real human beings whose first concern is to serve."
InfoServ's customers appreciate the thoughtful responses. As one customer expressed, "THANK YOU! I felt a little foolish asking this question! Thank you for taking it as seriously as my congregation has been taking it."
The roots of InfoServ
InfoServ, the brainchild of Sue Couch, former public relations director, was created because the denomination's communications agency was continually bombarded with general information questions. Few argued that the church needed some kind of centralized "hot line" to provide information. Putting Sue's good idea into motion were staffer Sam Barefield and new hire Peggy West. After two years of planning, the innovative service went online October 1, 1974.
"We learned very quickly that we had to help callers find out what they needed," Peggy said. "Although we did have some time to set-it up, we didn't know what we were going to be asked or the volume of calls we would have."
Starting with a staff of two – Sam and Peggy manned the phones themselves – it didn't take long to see that they were in over their heads. On the first day, they logged 50 calls. By 1980, they were up to 112 calls a day. By 1988, 140 calls a day.
Peggy said, "We were desperate to hire people quickly because we couldn't keep up with calls or have the time to build an information system." In a pre-computer era, there were no databases. Paper was the tool of necessity. The staff did everything manually, including reading every single publication and news story or article related to The United Methodist Church.
"Occasionally, in those first few weeks, we would turn off the phones for five minutes just so we could catch our breath."
Before long, the staff grew to nine people who did the work of researchers, organizers, catalogers, archivists, typists and customer service reps.
Times change, and so do questions
Today the information service's two-person staff responds to more than 11,000 requests each year, mostly by email, live chat and phone.
InfoServ's audience today is different than it was in the early 1970s, and so are the questions people ask. Once, the inquiries were mostly from church staff or members, but today's audience has broadened to include people who aren't familiar with The United Methodist Church or with church at all.
"The questions aren't just about where to find a person or about church history and basic facts," Vicki explains. "People are asking deeper questions. They want to know about God, theology, what we believe and why. We're called upon to do more interpretation, explanation and education than ever before. Whenever possible, we try to make a connection to the local church in their community."
In fact, it's the "connection" of The United Methodist Church that makes their work possible.They often rely on staff in other general agencies for assistance or connect people to resources they provide.
InfoServ has always received questions about the church's position on various social issues, such as gun violence, immigration and sexuality. To stay up-to-date, the team covers nearly every minute of the legislative process during General Conference, following closely petitions that pass and changes that occur.
Any and all questions are welcome; still, the staple of InfoServ 's queries are personal, such as, "May I be re-baptized?" or "May I get married in your church?" InfoServ has always been and continues to be a one-on-one experience. It's the personal touch that is key to their mission.
"What a blessing to have a United Methodist Information Service, knowing there is a place we Methodists can obtain important information and answers." – A satisfied customer