Ubuntu Linux for Ministry: a new feature, hopefully helpful

With all the talk about student debt, low salaries, missing employment, unwanted bivocationality and plain-old poverty in the ministry, it makes some sense to address ways of saving money as a way of making-do, because structural change (and success is not guaranteed) takes time.

That’s a good reason to put free-of-charge Ubuntu Linux on an old “obsolete” computer, to give it modern utility.

With concerns about online privacy invasion, copyright overreach and vendor lock-in, it makes sense to use an operating system that is backed by a community that takes your concerns seriously.

That’s a good reason to use free-to-use Ubuntu Linux, which has a community that takes these concerns seriously.

With brand-consciousness trumping utility, and the work of the ministry still being an under-served market, it makes sense to seek out an operating system that is easy (or easier) to build upon and responsive to active, if unprofitable, groups that create tools for their own use.

That’s a good reason to use free-to-adapt Ubuntu Linux, which has deep communities that address very specific needs, including those of congregations and ministers.

But Ubuntu, like all Linux versions, have a reputation — no longer fair — of being difficult or esoteric to install, maintain or use.

If you used a Linux version before, I recommend you try one again, as a group of more user-friendly versions have developed and improved in recent years. 

And that’s a good reason for me to start a weekly feature — each Thursday — demonstrating a feature or tool on the current long-term support version of Ubuntu Linux, probably the best used and most generally useful member of the desktop/laptop Linux family.


So, here's that clever order of service I described

A few weeks ago, I mentioned a set of nicely-formatted orders of service/bulletins from First Church (Unitarian), Boston, that I found in the archives at the Andover-Harvard library. They were preserved in a file about coordinated opposition to the consolidation of the Unitarians and the Universalists because the minister’s message in them. But I recognized its good taste and yet was hesitant to post the photos of the order of service. Unless something is plainly public — websites and reported statistics come to mind — or of historic interest, I won’t discuss the business of a congregation. Is this too recent? We are talking about 1960: the matter is old (and decided) news and it’s very clear that I’m not going to get around to making a mockup of it.

So here are the photos. Click through to see enlargements. Lean but elegant stuff, this.





Historical Unitarian church accounting!

I ran across an American Unitarian Association booklet “Church finance and accounting” — undated, but having internal examples suggesting 1914 — that makes for fun reading.

On the one hand, some things were very different then. It includes a review of the proprietor (pew owner) and pew rental system, and deprecates both to the free-pew (not that we call it that) system we have today, “the most modern and democratic way of financing a church, and is the system adopted in most new churches.” I can’t imagine the first two options today.

On the other hand, more seemed very familiar. I’m a member of Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington and we had a congregational meeting last Sunday. We reviewed financials that were more like those suggested than not.

The booklet was also full of candid advice. One good example:

Business-like methods in the financial administration of a church are of vital importance to the welfare of the society. Inefficient administration, hand-to-mouth ways of raising money, carelessness or tardiness in the payment of bills, usually indicate low vitality in a church, and are a constant source of danger and invitation to financial calamity.

Sample collection envelope text
And also a set of worked examples with charming fictitious churches. I might have to revive a couple for my own work:

  • Church of Our Father, Hope City, Colorado (a mission church)
  • Unity Church, Winterboro, Mass.
  • All Souls’ Church, Washington Square, Oakwood, N. Y. (obviously old and wealthy)
  • All Souls’ Church, Canterbury, Mich.
  • Unity Church, New Boston, Oregon

Why do ministers hate writing newsletter columns?

I was chatting with some parish ministers; one complained about having to go back to finish a newsletter column, to the moans and commiserations of the others. (The weekly newsletter-meditation implied by the order of service-themed blog post yesterday only raises the demand.)

I lightly chuckled, since I don’t have that responsibility anymore. And funny, as I was already blogging in my last pastorate, it was always easier and more pleasant to blog than write newsletter columns, so it isn’t the act of writing, per se. (The only thing worse was coming up with suitably vague but interesting blurbs for sermons I hadn’t written yet.)

So preachers,

  • why is this task so awful?
  • what can be done to make it less awful?
  • would anyone notice if we stopped?

And by “we” I mean “you.” I’d love to hear from you. I’ll allow anonymous comments for this post, for obvious reasons.


Archives search: a nicely laid-out order of service

My day at the Andover-Harvard Library archives was running out, so I wanted to see what I could as quickly as possible, including the files related to an ad hoc organization opposed to the creation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, from a minority of Universalists and Unitarians alike.

One of the opposing Unitarian churches was First Church, Boston, and the minister editorialized through orders of service, so these were included in the  file. The controversy aside, I thought it had value as a format.

The order was four pages: one leaf folded, and printed the usual way like a booklet. Since I don’t know the copyright status of the order of services, I won’t post them; it may be legitimate fair use, but the value is in the form (rather than the content) so I may replicate that later. A description will do.

Page one:

  • Name of the church
  • Names and title of the ministers
  • Date and time
  • Outline order of service with dialogues, responses and doxology printed out
  • Name and title of organist

Page two:

  • Responsive reading

Page three:

  • A pastoral meditation (being the anti-consolidation opinion piece), signed with initials
  • Staff list (or on page four)

Page four:

  • Notices, in a mix of one and two columns
  • Staff list and address (or on page three)

Not radical, but a some interesting features.

  • tightly edited notices reduce or eliminate the need for a church newsletter
  • the minister’s meditation provides another avenue for principled and educational communication; I wonder if it was used for pledging?
  • bored with the service? you can read that meditation instead
  • folded backwards, to expose pages 2 and 3, you have a welcome reminder of church to be extracted later in the week from your bag…
  • …or a pleasing representation of the church to share with others
  • one leaf means less paper and less cost, and extras can easily be printed on the fly

Of course, yours would be photocopied or laser printed, rather than job printing. That’s something you couldn’t do in 1959!

Filing for non-profit status: hope and help for smaller organizations

Ever been stymied getting a non-profit organization together?

Got word from the IRS yesterday that a draft form 1023-EZ was being make available for review, for possible use this summer. And little wonder: the form 1023 is what an organization files to acquire its tax-exempt status. It’s a beast to complete, and the filing fee isn’t trivial for a group bootstrapping. Form 1023-EZ should take away some strain in those fragile, early days of of new organization.

So I looked at the much-shorter proposed form (PDF) and a couple of blog posts sharing the same news; this is the one to see for more detail. First, only relatively small organizations can use the 1023-EZ to apply: annual revenues of less than $200,000 and assets less than $500,000. Second, no word on the fees. Third, churches (which formally are exempt from applying, but need to do so to get a letter of exemption) would not be able to use this form at release time.  Fourth, the IRS also benefits due to its long backlog of applicants, which may not sound like much until your fundraising is inhibited for want of a determination.

So who, in church circles, should care? Smallish, independent mission-focused non-churches, like mission societies, charitable projects, publication efforts, travel funds and the like. Think of the former independent affiliate organization. Who shouldn’t? Those who can work through an existing non-profit organization, and those who want to form a very, very small organization (under $5,000 in annual revenues) because the IRS provides for those without application, and they’re unlikely to really need a determination letter. (I thought I had written about this option, but cannot find that I have.)

One CRM to rule them all

I don’t agree with Unitarian Universalist blogger and minister Tom Schade on his call for a common UUA-wide CRM (customer relationship management) tool on practical grounds.

In short, I think it isn’t any real kind of reorganization, but rather he conflates a tool with a creative and productive culture, and so would disappoint those hoping for a meaningful solution to our lack of evangelization. Such a CRM would necessarily disappoint some people who might want to use it, and it’s implementation will take vast resources of time and money that would likely be used more productively in local activity.

That’s the short version of my objection. I worried that I have written for too long and too much. I may add another post if it is needed.

The suggestion that technology is itself an organizational change misunderstands the relationship between technology and its user. The old saying “use the right tool for the job” implies you know what the job is, and I think Unitarian Universalists have too little practical experience with evangelism to make adequate use of this or any tool. A vision comes before planning, which comes before provisioning. (And, besides, if one’s going to claim that this was the most important changing polity-tool in a hundred years, other more radical but simple technologies, like the mimeograph or telephone would make a better case.)

I’m concerned that there will be fond interest, born out of desperation, and that the investment of thought, labor and money that might be better used building skills or developing an evangelism strategy will be frittered away in an experiment which would bear nothing like its promises in a few years’ time. (Programatically, the UUA seems a shadow of itself ten or twenty years ago.) The promises will then changed to fit the new reality, but the bills will keep coming at the old rate. And the feeling that the UUA is in a death spiral increases.

I’m glad to see some commentators at Tom’s blog mention privacy. Securing the amount of data his idea suggests takes professional help, and such a CRM will certainly be white-labeled. No complaint there, if you trust the expertise of your suppliers. But we are talking about literally thousands of data users and suppliers… Pretty easy to make an error in permissions or judgment. And more than that: consider privileged information, say between pastor and parishioner, or among staff. Or on a pledge committee. Would you want everything on a common, cloud-based, UUA-managed CRM. I wouldn’t; I bet  many others wouldn’t either, which invites a database fragmentation within a congregation. That limits its utility. And that’s not even considering that personal privacy concerns of people who never signed up for a religious community that collects such a large volume of data centrally.

And how many UUA-member congregations have to not participate — after all, guessing by the UUA ChurchMgmtSoftware mailing list  traffic, many already have their own CRM and others way simply be suspicious of the quality of service — before its utility as an association-wide tool is compromized? But say your congregation has opted it: what do you get?  The creation of CRM suggests use cases which conditions what kind of information is gathered, by whom, and how often and to what detail. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution, which means that a common CRM is going to fit much better for some congregations than others. And I suspect the use-case in mind will be large congregations rather than small ones. Meaning that the small congregations, the ones least likely to adopt their own CRM, would be the ones least well served by a common UUA CRM.  Once you’re in, you’re locked in, and that changes the power relationship between congregations and the UUA.  Central databases are meant to be used for coordinated efforts. What’s to keep a development officer for the Friends of the UUA (or what-have-you) from running reports on your big donors for central development purposes? Is that really wrong? But is that really what a congregation agrees to?

And I haven’t gotten to the polity considerations, service quality, ongoing cost (including staff time in Boston and at home) or real or perceived overreach.

So we have a good, well-intentioned thought that needs the clear eye of review. Plainly, though, there are so many other programmatic and policy changes that would do more good with fewer resources that I think there’s little to debate.

Watching Unincorporated Nonprofit Association Act, 2014 edition

I’ve written before how state adoption of the Revised Uniform Unincorporated Nonprofit Association Act — look; RUUNA, a UU acronym with no Unitarian Universalist reference — can make church organization easier and polity more organic, rather than always borrowing the idiom of corporations or trusts.

It is being considered this year/session in two states: South Carolina (S 552) and Oklahoma (HB 1996).

(Links are to the Sunlight Foundation’s Open States project. I work for the Sunlight Foundation, but these opinions are mine alone.)

The free and open-source tools I use the most (that non-Linux users can also use)

After the call for tools, what can you get today?

Free software, as defined by the Free Software Foundation — their office is halfway between old 25 and new 24 — is

means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”.

Open-source software is software which has code you can review; no hidden “black box” blobs. These aren’t the same thing, even though one often defends the other, and one kind of software is often the other. (But some defenders of one camp will also pick apart the other with a zeal that might be called religious. We won’t be getting into that here.)

In any case, both free and open-source software (together, FOSS) have defined meanings and a set of defined obligations though a family of licenses, the ramifications of which are not particularly clear to newcomers, thus I am suspicious when a non-software project is described as “free and open source” as fuzzy branding and jargon.

Here are the tools.

  • Firefox. Yes, the browser. You may be using it already, and it has developer tools and add-ons (not necessarily FOSS) I use. 
  • LibreOffice. Word processing, spreadsheet, presentation (a la Power Point) and other tools. Makes PDFs natively. I use it daily at work and home. A fork (offhoot project) of OpenOffice.org; the development community seems to have sided with it.
  • VLC Media Player. Plays just about anything you can throw at it, including streams and converts between formats.
  • Inkscape. A vector graphics editor, analogous to Adobe Illustrator. It’s what I’ve used to make the flaming nectarine, the double rings and other oddments.
  • KeePassX. Password creator and manager. Can’t live without it.
  • Brackets. An HTML editor, in rapid development. I’ve not created any sites with it — I don’t write sites from scratch anymore — but I have been noodling with it, and looks promising. A proper review when I use it more.

What’s needed across platforms? (Please comment if you know one that’s cross-platform and free and open-source.)

  • PDF reader (though there’s a plugin for Firefox)
  • a good low-distraction text editor (like iA for Mac; I use UberWriter)
  • FTP client (though there’s a plugin for Firefox) Filezilla, see comments.
  • color themer (can use certain web services)
  • photo manager
  • score editor (for that new hymnal)

Observations from the Unitarian Universalist website scan

Some notes from my quick survey of Unitarian Universalist websites. This speak to the broad middle in quality; I’ll be writing about the really amazing ones and some deeply problematic habits another time.

  • Unitarian Universalists sites make little use of web fonts, which is unfortunate as Google makes many families available free of charge. (This blog uses two.) Noteworthy exceptions:
  • And yet much too much Papyrus.
  • Congregation size (or influential pastor) is no guarantee of a high-quality site; some very small congregations punch above their weight (or some other sports metaphor.)
  • Unitarian Universalist sites are prone to be wordy — a shocker, right? — and many seem to value long lists of service and newsletter archives. On the front page. Why?
  • Many sites are not suited for mobile devices; I’ll keep harping on that one.
  • Lots of sites independently designed, I’m guessing locally; most of these are reasonably well designed.
  • There was an obvious shared effort in collaborative web development in past; will try to track down the initiators.
  • The “off center cross” appears on three Unitarian Universalist sites, all of Universalist origin:
  • Also, more use of the 2005 “flytrap chalice” than I would have guessed.
  • Lots of Weebly sites. Also some WordPress.com ones, but fewer Google sites that I would have anticipated. All, at a basic level, are free of charge.
  • Saw some Drupal installs — which will power the new UUA.org site — even for churches too small to make the best use of it. Surely hobbiest interest; been there myself — and turned back.
  • Installation photos seem to be a thing as a front page image.
  • Massachusetts sites tend to feature the prominant meeting-house photo, and also tend to be better designed overall. Those areas with fewer Unitarian Universalists, in my impression, have poorer sites overall. That deserves a rescan.