Monday, September 13, 2010

Missionary Mingles & MTC Facebook Missionaries: New Innovative Method

Yesterday I discovered that the missionaries at the MTC have been approved for Facebook use this coming Friday. Apparently the new Social Media guru Michael Hemmingway from the LDS Missionary Department has given the go-live approval.   A special MTC team of social media consultants are working with this small cadre of missionaries to get the program up and running.

I was invited to participate in a new innovative program called Missionary Mingles by one of the key players Gideon Burton.  I wasn't able to do it because I wasn't feeling well and it was late on the East Coast where I live.  Missionaries hook up via Skype audio with some of the more techno saavy members who either give them ideas for improving the process or give them support by adding them as Facebook friends.  Apparently the implementers are selectively choosing pilot people who can give input to the missionaries on ways of improving their use of Facebook and blogs.  Also they are choosing missionaries that are skilled at posting on Facebook and/or blogs.

I questioned the MTC advisor Burton about why it wasn't more wide spread since even a good writer might not gain a large following.  He said they are working out the procedures and not all missionaries make good commenters.  The underlying reason for the Missionary Mingles according to Brother Burton is that "We are very hopeful about the Mormon Mingles because it has the low-key advantage but can lead quickly to missionary referrals or lessons."

I told Burton that I was doubtful that members would in large numbers become involved in this program.  I told him it would take a refocus on social media being viewed by many members as a negative thing.  Just a few weeks ago in church I heard a stake leader question the use of Facebook during a don't use porn talk. I heard priesthood brethren in the room a round the room say they wouldn't let their kids use social media especially not Facebook or MySpace. 

Burton responded that "My view is members will respond if they are given clear instructions and reasons."  Burton who is a professor of English Rhetoric at BYU is using a classical approach involving training a small cadre and developing a method of interactive teaching based on social media that is tested.  I can see the advantages of such an approach since it takes a broader view of how to harness social media.  I think it is good to start out with a core group and make it in to a missionary tool.  Facebook has the potential of reaching over 300 million people the majority who are not members.

I  think that social media is a gamble.  You never know who will become popular and a social media celebrity.  It will take some real structure to keep missionaries and members on task of using it to actually teach the gospel.  I have been blogging for a few years and there are a handful of popular bloggers out there that can really interact with their audience.  Burton seems to think that there are tried and true ways of increasing the success  for missionary and member writers.

Burton started a blog to help educate people on how to more effectively improve their impact called O That I Were an Angel: New Media for Mormon Missionary Work.  Last week he put out a post entitled "Mormon Mingle--The Cottage Meeting in the Digital Age

Gideon states:
Recently at the MTC the Referral Center missionaries (who are full time online missionaries with whom people chat at have begun to pilot what they are calling the "Mormon Mingle" -- a version of the cottage meeting updated for the digital age. Instead of meeting in someone's home, those invited either meet in a group chat room or through a telephone conference call. The Mormon Mingle format is still in its infancy, but early efforts have proven so positive that these online missionaries are very encouraged and are now expanding their efforts.
This how the cottage meeting is conducted:

The missionaries invite a small number of recent converts and current investigators to come together for an informal chat. They try to bring together people who have some things in common if they can, since building relationships is a primary goal of the meeting. People show up at the given time online or on the phone. The missionaries welcome everyone and make introductions. There is no formal lesson, but someone presents a brief devotional or thought, or shares something of interest (such as one of the Mormon Messages videos). The introductions and the spiritual thought are just ways to springboard some good discussion. The whole thing takes between 30-60 minutes, depending upon the interest of those attending.

While the missionaries try to guide the conversation in the Mormon Mingle, they do not try to control it very much. Again, the idea is for members to feel comfortable talking about their lives and their beliefs with others; and for non-members to learn to know the church by way of its members. As they all get to know one another, it is very natural for members to explain their beliefs. One thing the missionaries do try to do is to make invitations both to members and to non-members: would you be willing to attend our church services this week and come back and chat about your experience here next week? Or, to a member, the missionaries might ask if they might continue contact with one of the investigators at the Mingle either through email or via Facebook, etc. Last week, this connecting between members and non-members happened without prompting from the Elders. It's simple: if people have a positive experience with others online, they like to keep contact (and can do so so easily now online).

I like the idea of Missionary Mingles but I don't think it goes far enough.  If you want to be successful you need to consult the stakeholders.  The stakeholders are not a bunch of fellow Mormons but the non-Mormons you are trying to reach.  The recently invited new members is close to consulting nonmembers but the truth is the largest segment of people is those who don't join the church.  I have a fancy doctorate in program planning and all the experts say you can't design a program unless you consult the person you are trying to reach.  I think you could invite non-members who might give you a less glowing picture.

I suggested to Burton that the church could consider using the youth and young people such as young women and young men who couldn't go on mission because the bar was raised.  He said that they were using disabled young men and injuried missionaries who might have to go home in the MTC to do social missionary work already.  I told him "There are many more young people who don't go on a mission why not have them serve as social missionaries. If the bar is so high use the young women who aren't encouraged to go and young men who aren't considered on that level because they made transgressions or were too fat or whatever or were recent converts to go. Then all young people could serve a mission. It would eliminate stigma of not going for many of them."

I am glad to see that Burton and the MTC group is amenable to input from the so-called gurus like me and this is a departure from a top-down approach.  However since we are not decision-makers nor are we consulting with the decision-makers namely the new Social Media Guru and their priesthood bosses it is doubtful much of what I say or anyone else says will be implemented beyond the missionaries that I mingle with.  Not to mention that someone higher up could squash whatever we say as being not the way they want to go.  Even Burton hinself is just being invited to sit down with the big dogs in the Missionary Department.  I hope that Michael Hemmingway will implement the things being discovered by this approach.  My lack of confidence is the fact that I emailed him unsolicited and he never responded.  I guess he did make me a Facebook friend so I am taking a see what happens approach. Maybe he will surprise me. I wish Burton and his team good luck Missionary Mingles and MTC Facebook Missionaries have lots of promise.  I hope Hemingway is brighter than other bureaucrats in the LDS Church Office Building and can take counsel.

I learned what a good leader was years ago when I worked for Ezra Taft Benson.  One day he came in wearing his boy scout uniform and sat down in his yellow recliner in the Eagle Gate Condos where he lived.  While Dennis Wardle and I were reading the Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson manuscript to him he stopped us and said he wanted to get our advice on something. He said he was concerned about the youth programs and particularly scouting.  I was warned not to venture too much by his son Reed.  So I tried to get him back on task.  Dennis Wardle stopped me and said that President Benson asked me a valid question and we should be respectful of what he wanted which was to answer his question.  I then proceeded to tell him what I thought.  When he liked the path he continued asking questions when he shut up you knew you were headed down a path he didn't want to follow.  I was an elder in the elder's quorum and no one of great position or status in the church but he genuinely cared what I had to offer.  He also invited random families over for FHE.  He talked to Russian Mig pilots.  The guy taught me that the best way to make an informed decision was to get input from varied people.


Gideon Burton said...

Implementing big changes in missionary work is daunting, and getting missionaries (or members for that matter) online constructively is fraught with problems. We have not begun to find all the birds whose feathers we will be ruffling. But the good news is that LDS leaders are open to input. Even the very structure of the Mormon Mingles is to draw from the talents and ideas of the rank and file members. This all takes time to work out, but it's useful when you have many people helping with the thinking and the tools. I appreciate your blog, your experience, and your input (which I know Michael Hemingway is aware of). Hope we can have you join us in a Mingle one of these days.

Anonymous said...

Its funny how technology has made an impact on many things. The way we communicate our information is a big item that has been impacted by technology. I think that missionaires can really used this to get to people about the church.