I attended the national Church IT Roundtable  event last week, this time held at Saddleback Church  around Los Angeles. I was asked by the editor of IndyGeek.net  if I would write up the event and, since my blog is in transition (and somewhat unattended :-) and he asked nicely, I’ve posted the article over there. Here’s an excerpt followed with a link to the full thing:
Last week, listening to my iPhone while traveling home, I heard the first verse of the song Calling All Friends by The Low Stars:
Calling all friends, and people I met on the way down.
Calling all friends, and people I don’t even know.
Calling on high, I wanna believe there’s a way now.
I’m too tired to pretend I don’t wanna be alone, I’m calling all friends.
For those working with Information Technology in churches, it’s easy to feel isolated and alone, trying to figure out what the best technology solutions are (and how to afford them!), how to best support your staff, recruit and manage volunteers, and figure out how to communicate your needs and solutions to leadership and users in ways they understand, go along with, and fund. Most churches have either a volunteer IT staff, a paid staff member who does IT as part of their job, or perhaps one full-time IT position. If you’re really large and fortunate, you may have a small team of two or more to support your environment, creating some camaraderie, but it’s still easy to feel alone, isolated and seldom understood.
Read the rest at IndyGeek.net . (NOTE on Dec. 12, 2011: IndyGeek.net is no longer operational. I am republishing the rest of the original article below, picking up from where I just left off above.)
Fortunately, Jason Powell, the IT Director at Granger Community Church (GCC) in Granger, Indiana felt that way himself several years ago, and decided to do something about it: he started blogging. The online community created by Jason’s blog led him to invite other church IT folks to GCC and have a “roundtable” discussion to see if they could benefit from sharing with each other. This was the first official Church IT Roundtable (CITRT), a term that now encompasses an unofficial group of people, discussions and community that connect from around the US and even the world so no one has to “go it alone.”
Roundtables are generally held a couple of times a year. The most recent Roundtable was held at Saddleback Church in Foothill Ranch, CA on March 10th through 12th. Approximately 75 people from churches around the country (and a small number of vendors) attended.
On Wednesday night, officially the optional “pre-roundtable” dinner, old friends and new ones gathered for some excellent dinner provided by the on-campus foodservices at Saddleback and some even more excellent socialization. Sharing technology and technique are excuses to have a Roundtable, and don’t get me wrong, the both were shared in abundance and the knowledge and experience is invaluable. But the real, just as tangible but less quantifiable, reason to get together is to share life with each other and forge long-lasting friendships with peers who just happen to often have resources they’re willing to share with you at and after the Roundtable. For all the technology, there’s at least a triple dose of inspiration and connection.
Why get together in person? That’s a good question, one that geeks of all stripes would probably ask in a similar situation. After all, technology and the Internet are pretty powerful now. Why not leverage blogs, social media, online chat and streaming video to accomplish everything remotely? Because that already happens, and it’s not enough! Relationships developed online can be good, and even somewhat deep, but it’s not often they are as rich, full and close as ones developed when eating, laughing, sharing and telling stories together around a table or tables. The “roundtable” events often happen around square tables, and the CITRT geeks enjoy pointing out the irony of this fact—however the national Roundtable at Saddleback actually took place around round tables! Additionally, it’s much easier to focus on sharing and developing friendships in an environment removed from daily workflow and life.
That doesn’t mean that the CITRT group foregoes the use of technology! In between Roundtable events, the group does leverage Twitter, Facebook, wikis, blogs, and IRC (Internet Relay Chat, a very old and once more widely used Internet chat protocol where the chat rooms are called “channels”) to communicate regularly, and for those who have met in person it’s that much easier to continue those friendships in between get-togethers when everyone is spread around the country. There’s a social aspect, but every day there are usually multiple technology problems and questions answered by others in the group in the IRC channel, saving those who ask countless hours of their own research, trial, error, and often even the cost of hiring a contractor or outside expert to provide advice and/or solutions.
And that is the focus of the daily Roundtable sessions in California on Thursday. In addition to a daily keynote speaker, there were two Roundtable discussion times on Thursday and one on Friday. Wednesday’s discussion started revolving around how the spiritual life of Church IT staff was affected by working in a church. Generally, a moderator stands up at the front of the room and takes topics from the group, writing them on a whiteboard. That’s how the rest of the sessions worked, but because most geeks would rather talk about technology, the spiritual discussion was a pre-picked starting topic foisted on the three rooms of Roundtable groups at the opening session (with 75 attendees, the sessions are much more manageable and more can participate if they are divided up into groups of around 25 each). After the spiritual discussion, the groups moved on to pick a set of topics ranging from email systems to storage solutions, networking to working with volunteers, and many more. The afternoon session on Thursday was divided up into four groups by type, with infrastructure in one room, management in another, helpdesk and user support in another room, and web design and support in the final, while the Thursday morning Roundtable was an open discussion of any remaining topics.
Attendees are admonished at the beginning: if the topic you have questions about isn’t covered, it’s your fault! Speak up, join the conversation, and participate so everyone can get what they need most from the group. Yes, geeks often are shy and reserved, but it’s much easier to open up with friends. Many in the group are already friends, some have met at prior Roundtable events and some were only friends online until this week, but even for those there for the first time, the pre-existing online friendships created a fast connection.
On Thursday afternoon, an unscheduled visitor stopped by, Pastor Rick Warren, founding pastor at Saddleback Church and author of the bestselling Purpose Driven Life book. For him to take an hour and a half out of his busy schedule to greet everyone individually, give a very insightful talk and stick around for individual pictures was not only unexpected and very welcome, but demonstrated a down-to-earth man with a heart for service and Christian ministry.
Friday morning was opened with a keynote from Scott Smith, CEO of Solerant, a company that was founded to provide IT services and support to churches, although they have corporate clients as well. Solerant has been a long-time supporter of the Roundtable online and in person, and Scott delivered a much-needed message from a CEO’s perspective about how communicating as a technology person to leadership needs to be carefully constructed to provide information that the leaders care about in a context of the things they care about, rather than spewing techno-speak that may very well be correct, but won’t translate into a concrete reason to provide support and resources. Scott focused on how to position projects and requests through high-level descriptions and especially by using stories and analogies that are easy to relate to outside of the geek mindset. Geeks in all fields could benefit from using his tips.
The daytime food and events were just the icing on the cake, as most attendees continued their discussions after dinner, often late into the wee hours of the morning in their hotel rooms, the hotel lobby, and for some, the pool and hot tub! This could range from group discussions to one-on-one or two-on-one teaching or assistance. The knowledge transfer happening at all levels is something most organizations probably wish they could leverage on demand.
It’s an event that’s hard to describe, as much as I’ve attempted here, and a lot of people who might benefit from the event, even if they already participate online, have wondered if it’s worth the time and expense (travel is most of the cost as the registration, including food, has always been under $100 thanks to sponsors who not only bring technology and services to display, but also in most cases participate in the discussions and truly help just like everyone else—the group encourages vendor engineers and technologists to attend and become part of the community, not just sales people!). However, without fail, first-time attendees enthusiastically said at the end that it was indescribably valuable, that they’d forged new and deep friendships, gathered excellent ideas to take home and implement, and that they couldn’t imagine not making this a part of their regular schedule whenever possible. This is my personal feeling after attending all but three Roundtable events since they started, but it was by far a widely shared opinion.
The CITRT main website is currently a wiki located at http://www.citrt.org . The site provides links to participant blogs, Twitter lists, ways to connect to the #citrt IRC channel on the Freenode IRC network, and information and registration information for future in-person Roundtable events around the country as it becomes available (they move often or will break down into multiple regional Roundtables around the country in some cases), along with other information, and allows anyone to easily get involved. And because it’s a wiki, anyone connected to Church IT can request an account and add/update information on their own—just one more way to connect and collaborate! Every church, contrary to what it sometimes feels like, has many similar technology needs and those supporting them are not alone. And sometimes, that makes a big difference.
Also, for more technical notes, Tony Dye  posted his excellent rough notes of Day 1  and Day 2 , my article is a high-level overview but Tony provides a blow-by-technical-blow of the sessions he was in (and the main ones), even though it’s unedited there’s a ton of useful information there. Worth checking out, thanks for sharing Tony!