Virtual Assistants: ‘These Are Not Robots’

Helping Congregations Fulfill Their Ministries

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

One year ago, just before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, St. Mark’s Church in Alexandria, Virginia, relied on a team of part-time staff, including a parish administrator and a bookkeeper. Sudden belt-tightening meant they all had to be furloughed, and the church had to find new ways to handle administration.

Johnathan Barnes, Virtual Ministry Assistants

Now St. Mark’s has redistributed its work, and perhaps catapulted into the future. The Rev. Elizabeth Gardner, rector of St. Mark’s, prepares parochial reports that once fell to the administrator. A parishioner volunteer handles bookkeeping. Communications fall to a Georgia contractor shared among St. Mark’s and three other Episcopal congregations within a three-mile radius.

Potomac Episcopal sprang up last spring to share online worship, outreach, and formation among All Saints Sharon Chapel, Church of the Spirit, Olivet Church, and St. Mark’s. As the parishes pooled ministries, they realized they could also share a communications professional, whom they found through Virtual Ministry Assistants (VMA), a division of Tennessee-based Ministry Architects. The parishes found they could be more efficient with the help of a young woman named Evan, a virtual assistant (an off-site administrator with the skills they need).

“She is young and conversant in social media and tech language, and forward-thinking,” Gardner said of Evan. “She’s also a believer who grew up in the church — not Episcopal, but another mainline denomination. And she works for another church and shares ideas with me. The parish administrators that I’ve experienced in the past were more friendly faces and generous listeners, but not necessarily efficient staff members.”

The change is not unique to northern Virginia. VMA and Belay Solutions, a Georgia-based provider of administrative services, say demand for virtual assistants has surged during the pandemic. They are reportedly drawn to measurable advantages: lower costs, faster turnarounds and, at least in some cases, better quality. They generally save 15 to 30 percent on administrative costs by turning virtual, according to estimates by VMA and Belay. Another reason: in the past year, faith communities have become more comfortable with technology-assisted systems.

“For most churches, the idea of somebody working virtually is just totally out of their contexts,” said Johnathan Barnes, executive director of VMA. “What COVID did, with everybody now sitting at home, virtual is no longer outside of their contexts. It has become part of the normal way of operating.”

Nevertheless, navigating the path to tech-driven administration is not as simple as outsourcing or automating every task. To succeed, tech consultants say, a congregation needs a supportive culture and a discerning approach to preserve relationships and personal touches.

At stake for congregants is more than how quickly or slickly their weekly newsletter is produced. Many have had long, close personal relationships with administrative assistants at the hub of parish life. Often these assistants know who is recovering from surgery, who needs a bulletin sent in the mail, and the status of roof repairs.

“When I was at Christ Church, Georgetown, people walked in all the time and just checked in with Diana,” who provided administrative support, Gardner said. “Hi, Diana! Here are the cookies that I made. I thought you would like a dozen. Here, this is for the rector [the Rev. Timothy Cole]. I saw this article in The New York Times, and I clipped it.’ … Very old-fashioned church.”

Such personal touches are important in neighborhoods like Georgetown, where many members live nearby and walk past the office regularly. But in settings where people drive to church, turning virtual can be a smoother transition because frequent in-person exchanges are not expected.

Shamika Goddard

If a church wants to retain an on-site administrative assistant but also needs to trim expenses, automation of select tasks can help, said Shamika Goddard, a Colorado-based technology consultant who works with mainline congregations. Goddard studied technology and ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado.

“While there are several opportunities to automate administrative tasks for faith leaders, there is still so much room and space for personalization, interacting and engaging with people synchronously and in real time,” Goddard said.

Among her suggestions:

  • Calendly manages schedules. Rather than sending email to an executive assistant to schedule time with a rector, congregants use Calendly to schedule available slots. Calendly is available free, but it also sells monthly subscriptions.
  • Breeze and Planning Center help administrative assistants automate donation-tracking and notifications to staff about new developments.
  • Gmail templates simplify email. They help an administrative assistant create a standard response and focus on writing only what is important for a given conversation.

Using virtual assistants can also preserve a personal touch, albeit with some modifications to tradition. Potomac Episcopal celebrates Evan’s work when she offers creatives ideas.

That happened when Evan proposed adding seasonal buttons to the website. In addition to sorting content under headings such as Ministries and Worship, Evan started cross-referencing everything related to Advent and Lent under a seasonal button, or category. When parishioners liked that improvement, Gardner gave credit to Evan, although parishioners do not know her.

Now Potomac Episcopal works with Evan to rely more on its website than on social media.

“We know people are looking at [social media], but we want people to participate in it and get excited about it and share it with their friends,” Gardner said. From her home in Georgia, Evan is the key player in making that change.

For some churches, a virtual assistant is not a good fit. Barnes of Ministry Architects said that accountability among parishioners is crucial. If a church’s volunteers or staff miss deadlines, a virtual assistant cannot succeed, Barnes said.

Flexibility is also important. A parish that wants a worker at its beck and call will not like that a virtual assistant cannot always respond immediately as complications arise.

“There is a culture that must exist in a church in order for virtual to work well,” Barnes said. “Sometimes churches can’t make that shift. They’re not disciplined enough to make that shift, or they just culturally don’t want to make the shift. They want to be able to call Susie at 2 and ask her to do something, instead of having a scheduled meeting to cover all the things that are needed for the week.”

For those that make the shift, new skills emerge. Younger clergy do not believe they need an executive assistant to handle their calendars like older generation of rectors did, said Melissa Tidwell, a church specialist at Belay, which works with 1,100 staff and contractors.

What they likely need instead are assistants with digital skills who can create a PowerPoint presentation to reflect themes during an online sermon. They might use Hootsuite to manage a social media campaign.

“These are not robots,” Tidwell said. “These are ministry-minded, professional executive assistants who really connect to the church, understand the culture of the church, and really help support the ministry team with a variety of tasks.”

Still, it is not easy for parishioners or supervisors to reduce hours or eliminate a position when the employee is someone they appreciate and depend on. For those situations, parishes need to weigh the tradeoffs, what they can afford, and what will best help them fulfill their missions.

“I don’t feel like we can continue to pay somebody to sit in an office and answer the phone, even though people love that,” Gardner said. “I don’t think we have the resources to do that.”


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