Startup: such a good podcast for church planters

By Alex Blumberg, original from This American Life, comes a podcast on starting a business.

The first season documents Alex starting his own media company — Gimlet Media. And then subsequent seasons follow other businesses.

What I found enthralling was how close his experiences (and others on the show) were to some elements of starting a new Christian ministry: the awkward interactions with major donors who give mixed messages about what they think you should do and make you feel small and silly; the seaons of profound self-doubt; the peculiar dynamics between you and your partner; the need to make complex inuitive ethical decisions about what you stand for and so on.

It's well worth subscribing I reckon:

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UTAS O Week Mission 2016 — Part 7: Phonecalls, SMS and email

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On each day we made all our contacts we aimed to enter the data in 'live' and then make contact that afternoon with everybody we had met that day.

We began on the assumption that phonecalls were more personal and effective for personal connection than SMS or email. So the plan was to try to call, and then if that didn't work, send SMS and email. If they didn't give a number, then obviously email was it.

But what we soon found is that phonecall is not just more awkward for those staff and students making the call. For students today, receiving a phonecall from someone they don't know is not welcome. It's invasive, akward and largely unwelcome.

So our project manager, Laura, made the 'call' (;-P) to stop calling, and rely only on SMS and email. Not only was this more efficient for us, it was also more effective, we believe.

[Dave Moore's blog 'Ministry Principles and Pragmatics' has a good blog post on this topic here.]

What we are still thinking about is the role of automation in this process. After all, we could do a lot of our email and SMS stuff in bulk through Elvanto, and still have auto-fill fields that personalise the address.

For next year, we will do all our emailing through the automated system. However, since we don't want to give the job of field all replies to SMS to one person, we will probably keep the SMSing from individual phones, so that there can be a whole spread of people who interact. But we might change our mind on this: watch this space!

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UTAS O Week Mission 2016 — Part 6: Social connection opportunities

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A singificant factor in students 'sticking' with a Christian union is whether or not they establish good social connection. This is a massive challenge when you are dealing with hundred of new names at the start of every year and you are competing with all sorts of social activities and groups.

Part of our O Week Mission was to increase the amount of opportunity for social connection early on in the year. I think we did ok. But I think we could actually do more still.

Pizza Parties

We offered free pizza from Monday to Wednesday of O Week in the same venue where we hold our Thursday night Citywide Gatherings. This gave us a same-day place for new students we met to come and meet us.

We had not idea how successful these would be. In the end we had 56 people attend these events, of whom 20 were new contacts. So not great, but still ok. And of these 20 people, two of them were non-Christians who have since become Christians... so that's awesome!

Follow Up Coffees

It a massive feat to chase up all the almost 400 contacts and invite them one by one to meet for coffee. To contact them 3 times on both SMS and email was a huge feat, and then to arrange all these meetings was huge. We ended up meeting 70 people for coffee. And this was really worthwhile.

This kind of face to face, sharing stories, explaining things that were in brochures and emails and Facebook directly to somebody is great. Answering their questions and objections, helping them take a next step to church, to the FOCUS ministry or whatever.

Even then, however, lots of the people you end up meeting for coffee don't stick. So far about 15 cold contacts have joined small groups, 5 have attended evangelistic courses and 20 have attended public meetings. That's not including contacts made through youth group and school visits and members inviting friends along.

We have seen people trickle in and connect continually across the whole semester. In fact I met with another student just today who only just responded to an invitaton to meet for coffee.

Faculty Events

We had our faculty clusters organise social events to engage new people as well as bring together existing people. These have remained small so far: about 10-15 people per cluster. But even then, about 20 new people have come to at least one of these.

These are still not the size that we'd like. But they provide another contact point.

Public Events

We have worked at making sure food and socialising is a part of all our events. We have a simple breakfast at our 'Breakfast Session' monthly sermonn at 7:30am on Tuesday. We bought sushi and Subway for our evangelistic Lunchtime Session. We always have lots of unhealthy snack food, nicely presented, at our Citywide Gatherings. 

Making our public meetings places where social connection can happen is really great. The night time slot for Citywide Gathering is especially powerful for this: we can build community in this slot in a way that a lunchtime Bible talk would never allow.

Still more to do

But as I said... there's still more we could have done, I think.

Some campuses set up a social space on campus for O Week: a lunch bar / cafe / lunch on the lawns sort of thing. I think this could work... but I also worry that it could absorb a lot of staff and student time hanging out with the pre-existing core, rather than really connecting with new people. Keen to hear what others have found. There's a balance between proactive and deliberately social connection events for NEW people... and just running hangout stuff for existing people.

I wonder if we actually need more social events AND Bible teaching events into Week 2 and even Week 3. We were steadily connecting with new people over those first few weeks, so that the first week of pizza parties and Citywide Gathering were over and done with before we connected. This is especially a problem with our monthly pattern of meetings.

So I'm thinking we might need some pizza party type things and some kind of public Bible teaching stuff in Week 2 as well.

Pacing yourself vs going hard 

A challenge with figuring this all out, however, is managing the energy of your staff and student team. Creating more points of contact comes at the cost of the staff and student leaders. The more you add, the more you drain them.

This is a delicate balance, and we will have to think about this carefully, but boldly, as we look into 2017.

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UTAS O Week Mission 2016 — Part 5: Data Entry and Volunteer Support

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This year, we recruited a team of people to help us do data entry in 'real time' for a couple of reasons:

  1. So that people would hear back from us as soon as possible after we had first met them.
  2. So that we could invite people to our free pizza parties that were happening each evening of O Week.
  3. So that we didn't have a huge backlog of hundreds of names at the end of the day.

This was a huge challenge logistically for us. But it is one of the things we will definitely repeat from now on.

Advantages to recruiting a data entry team

  • Gave an avenue for students and local church volunteers to serve the campus mission, if they didn't have the time flexibility, gifts or confidence to help out in public promotional stuff.
  • Freed up staff time and energy from doing administration.
  • Many hands make light work!
  • Forced us to write very detailed, step by step 'how to use Elvanto' guidelines for both adding people and putting them into People Flows. This will help us in future training of people to use our database.

Challenges of training and overseeing a data entry team

  • Volunteer recruitment, communication and training takes a lot of time and effort.
  • You need advice to people on deciphering handwriting:
    • hold it far away, or drop on the floor and look while standing up above it — it helps your brain do its pattern recog thing
    • look for other examples of unclear letters to get clues to what it might be
    • different ways of writings 7s and 1s
    • beware of difference between a dash and an underscore
    • '.' in the name bit of gmail addresses don't matter — and go to the same place
    • tell them about — a common Chinese email site. It's NOT :-)
    • especially if you have older people: common email endings — to avoid them writing '' or whatever by mistake
    • be aware that some nationalities list surname FIRST followed by first name.
  • We found a lot of data entry errors and a lot of failures to follow the steps that were carefully laid out in the guidelines of adding people into Elvanto:
    • this demonstrates how people find it hard to follow step by step instructions consistently over time 
    • really stress the need to be accurate with data, when training
    • really stress the need to follow every step on the guidelines, when training.
    • remind people regularly to follow each step on the guidelines
  • We tried on one day to have the person traveling between campuses and collecting forms to also be training and overseeing data entry. This didn't work at all: both roles are almost full time.
  • You need a really clear system for managing all the piles of completed surveys for EACH PERSON doing the surveys:
    • different campuses and locations
    • each day
    • not sorted
    • people's responses added to Survey Monkey
    • 'No' to further contact?
    • 'No' to further contact but then give contact details — do you send them a once off email with links to an explanation of the gospel and answers to common questions
    • 'Yes' to furter contact
    • 'Maybe to furter contact
    • Fully processed

Advice on helping this really work

  • You need spaces where internet is available (or have people do WiFi hotspots over their phones). Since there will be people travelling between different sites on campus anyway, I recommend setting up a headquarters, even if it's not on campus — perhaps a local church that is happy for you to camp there for a few days and steal their WiFi?
  • Have a staff or student leader who is really clear on the process set aside to oversee this, or at least available nearby.
  • You will need to be ready to regularly: remind of process, check process, encourage and boost morale, solve technology problems, keep space tidy, offer food and drink, encourage breaks to stretch.
  • Make sure you give good and clear privacy policy training to those who are doing this.
  • Make the space they will work in be pleasant and fun.
  • Provide free food and drink and snacks for them.
  • Make sure there are enough chairs, tables, power cords, power boards and spare laptops/tablets if possible
  • We didn't keep track of who processed which people. That would've been helpful.
  • We didn't keep track in Elvanto of who said Yes and Maybe... so we will have to trawl back through our paper surveys to see how many of the Maybes ended up connecting with us — set up a field for next year.

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