Virtual Assistant Review and Giveaway

When I began church planting, I knew I had an opportunity to approach things differently. When I found that I couldn’t keep on top of my administrative tasks, I experimented with using a virtual assistant. I’d read about it through Michael Hyatt, and it seemed like an effective and affordable way to get the help I needed.

I’ve tried three virtual assistant options so far, and all of them have benefits and drawbacks.

North American dedicated virtual assistant — I tried this for a while, and it worked well overall. The quality of work was high. The virtual assistant company monitored the relationship to ensure things were going well. On the downside, the cost was relatively high, the hours were limited (my package was five hours a week), and the virtual assistant juggled other clients. Managing a dedicated virtual assistant also takes an investment of time. If you want to check out this approach, I recommend eaHelp.

Offshore virtual assistant — I tried this one most recently. Affordability is the biggest selling feature. On the downside, I found that the quality of work was lower, and there was nobody to monitor the relationship. Again, it takes time to manage a dedicated virtual assistant. If you want to try this approach, I recommend Virtual Assistant Finder.

North American on-demand assistant — I’ve been using model for almost two years, and it’s what I would recommend for most people. It’s affordable, and doesn’t require time to manage the relationship. On the downside, you don’t have a dedicated assistant who gets to know you. In Less Doing, More Being, Ari Meisel explains the benefits of this approach:

Ninety-five percent of tasks can be done by an on-demand assistant. The great thing about coming to this realization is that it makes you bombproof. You don’t have to worry if something happens to the dedicated assistant you depend on…Furthermore, since your tasks are no longer limited to one capable person, scaling becomes automatic and painless. Communicating exclusively through e-mail means that you can assign tasks whenever and wherever you are.

If you want to try this approach, I recommend Fancy Hands.

Which one is best? Meisel says, “On-demand assistants are great for people who are just starting out and have few tasks, and they’re great for very advanced people. In the middle, you should be with a dedicated assistant.”

Each approach has its benefits and drawbacks. For most, I would recommend an on-demand assistant like Fancy Hands, especially if you want to experiment with using a virtual assistant.

Giveaway

Want to try a virtual assistant? I’m giving away a month’s starter pack (five tasks) for Fancy Hands. Fill in the form below. I’ll randomly pick a winner. You have until Sunday night. Please enter only once.


Congratulations to Clay Porr, winner of the giveaway.

The Smartphone and the Soul

It’s still a good quote, even though it’s dated:

Fax machines, emails, telephones, beepers, an over-committed schedule, the press of people's needs...these are the tools of mass destruction for spiritual leaders. Their development and deployment often proceed without inspection. They threaten to shut down the spiritual leader's communion with God. Once that happens, the leader's effectiveness is destroyed. The leader becomes a casualty of a struggle that is as old as humanity – the drowning out of eternity by the screams of temporal concerns. (Reggie McNeal, A Work of Heart)

Fax machines? Beepers? Other technologies have taken their place, most notably smartphones. According to the one report, smartphones have had one of the fastest penetration rates of any technology ever introduced. I remember seeing a secret review unit of the iPhone in 2007, less than a decade ago. It’s impossible to go anywhere without seeing one now.

Is the phone in my pocket a tool of mass destruction for the soul? Does it hinder my connections with people and God? Maybe there is some danger. Consider what these numbers reveal about Canadians between the age of 18 and 24:

  • When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone — 77% agree
  • I check my phone at least every 30 minutes — 52% agree
  • The last thing I do before I go to bed is check my phone — 73% agree
  • I often use other devices while watching TV — 79% agree

Since smartphones aren’t going away, we’d better learn to live wisely with them. Secular books like The End of Absence and Christian books like The Joy of Missing Out and The Next Story explore what technology is doing for us, and how we should now live.

I have two thoughts.

First, pastors and church leaders have to go first. Technology gives us great tools, but always at a cost. Unless we’re careful, we’ll get swept away in the currents along with everyone else. I heard a pastor speak recently about some of the habits he’s cultivated to maintain his spiritual life in an always-connected world. He checks email only twice a week. He’s disabled email on his smartphone. He puts his phone away when he arrives at home and refuses to check it. While I’m not suggesting that we should adopt his habits, I am suggesting that we think carefully about the habits we want to cultivate so that our souls can thrive.

Second, we need to disciple in light of this technology. People haven’t changed, but some of the pressures we face are new. We’re constantly connected, instantly available, and glued to screens from the moment we open our eyes in the morning to when we shut them at night. As Michael Harris writes in The End of Absence, “That is the end of absence— the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished.” We need to disciple others in light of these new realities, and consider practices that guard our souls in this always-connected world.

We live in an always-connected world. While I’m happy about this, there are trade-offs. We need to think carefully about how to live well with this technology, which is a gift, but also a potential danger to our souls if we’re not careful.

Affordable Tech Tools for Churches

As a church planter, I'm tight on both time and money. That means I'm on the lookout for tools that save me time and don't cost too much. I'm picky, so I'm not just looking for cheap. I want quality as well.

Here are some tools that I've found to be helpful recently. Many of them offer discounts for churches. You may find some of them helpful too.

Buffer — Buffer is a great way to schedule your posts to social media. They now offer a 50% discount for nonprofits.

Dollar Photo Club — Stock photos are getting more expensive. Dollar Photo Club is a good alternative to some of the more expensive sites. Join for $99 a year, and you get 99 photos, and additional ones at $1 each.

Evernote Business — You're probably aware of Evernote. It's where I store pretty much everything. You may not be aware that they offer a 75% discount on Evernote Business to not-for-profit organizations that sign up with a minimum of 5 users.

Fiverr — Fiverr is a marketplace for creative and professional services, starting at just $5. I've used it for voicemail greetings, website design, and a whiteboard animation. Check out the reviews, as results are mixed, but I've had some great work done here.

I Done This — I Done This is a simple way to keep track of what you and your team accomplish every day. They now offer a 40% discount for non-profit organizations.

MailChimp — MailChimp is a way to send emails to your email list, and they offer a 15% discount for non-profits.

Planning Center — We use Planning Center to organize and plan our worship services and participants. It saves us a lot of headaches.

Proclaim — Proclaim works with Planning Center, and helps us quickly move from our order of service to a fully formatted slideshow complete with song lyrics and Scripture readings.

Salesforce — Salesforce is a great tool to manage donors, members, and volunteers. I didn't know until recently that the Salesforce Foundation offers to pay all or most of the cost for eligible non-profit organizations.

Squarespace — Squarespace provides everything you need to set up a great website. I'm a huge fan. I host this blog and our church site on Squarespace, and you can't beat the price: $16/month for unlimited pages, storage, and bandwidth. If you need help in getting set up, I've already mentioned a Fiverr service that can help.

Leave a comment if you have any recommendations I've missed.

Help Me Kickstart The Church Website Expert's Guide to Squarespace

As you probably know, I'm helping to start a church in downtown Toronto. To help pay the bills, I work on other projects as a tentmaker one day a week. One of those projects has just gone live on Kickstarter. It's called The Church Website Expert's Guide to Squarespace.

Here's the deal: I want to help churches create excellent, affordable websites using a great service called Squarespace. To do this, I'm publishing an ebook that will offer practical advice on how to build a great website. I've put together a website that explains all the details. I think this project will help churches, and it will also help support me in my work here.

If you're interested, would you consider backing this project? Let others know about it as well. Check out the video below, the Kickstarter page, or the www.churchwebsite.expert page.

Back to regular programming on Thursday. Thanks for your help with this!

Being Present in a World of Cell Phones and Social Media

So much of the time I’m not completely present. I’m thinking of what else I need to be doing, or somewhere else I would rather be. I don’t think I’m alone, either. I sometimes sense that others are half-present, suffering from what one person has called continuous partial attention. We can end up skimming through life, ministry, and relationships.

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One of the culprits, to be honest, is technology. I find myself checking Twitter and Facebook more often than I’d like to admit. I sometimes suffer from phantom vibrations of my cell phone. I forgot my cell phone one evening at a concert and felt a little lost. I also felt strangely judgmental towards others at the concert who spent the evening looking at glowing screens rather than at the artist who was right in front of them.

And that’s the point: we miss what is right in front of us — stunning, average, or even negative — because we are plugged into screens that are roughly 8-10 square inches.

What’s hard to believe is how new a problem this is. I remember seeing the first iPhone from a friend who is a tech journalist, and it was only seven years ago. When I sent my first round of Facebook friend requests in 2007, I received this puzzled response from a university professor:

I have no idea what "Facebook" is. I'll have to ask my boys...I suspect that they know what this is. Do let me know what you have in mind with this.

When I joined Twitter in 2007 (the same year as I joined Facebook and saw the first iPhone), it wasn’t the time suck that it is today. My first tweet, by the way, was a lame and only one word long:

In his book The End of Absence, Michael Harris observes that this is all so new that we haven’t even stopped to consider what we’ve lost when we’re always connected. “Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet,” he says.

Just as previous generations were charmed by televisions until their sets were left always on, murmuring as consolingly as the radios before them, future generations will be so immersed in the Internet that questions about its basic purpose or meaning will have faded from notice. Something tremendous will be missing from their lives— a mind-set that their ancestors took entirely for granted— but they will hardly be able to notice its disappearance.

We went camping this summer, and were completely unplugged (no cell phone signal, no Internet, no power) for two weeks. By the time I came back, I found that I had no desire to immerse myself in social media again. Since then, I’ve drastically cut back on the number of blogs I follow, and the number of tweets I read. (I follow over 2,700 people but make use of lists to help me manage that number.) It took a complete break from social media for me to be ready to make drastic changes. And yes, I’ve thought about going back to a dumb phone, although that may be a little too drastic. (See David Wells, though, on six ways that cell phones are changing us. The article is definitely worth careful thought).

There’s no going back, but there are some steps we can take. I’ve found these ones helpful:

  • Consider a digital fast. It is hard to be aware of how deeply we are immersed in technology until we take a break from it. Take a break as an experiment to see how you feel.
  • Make it a little bit harder to pull out your cell phone when you’re bored. At least you will be aware of when you pull it out absent-mindedly to pass the time, when you could instead be alone with your thoughts or the people around you. (Surprisingly, some people would rather be shocked than to be alone with their thoughts.)
  • Turn off the screens at a certain time of the day. We’ve tried to start putting our screens (except for the Kindle) away at 8:00 at night. It’s made my evenings a lot more enjoyable.
  • Cut back. Stop reading so many blogs and tweets. Separate the essential few from the trivial many. (Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is helpful here.)

I continue to live both online and off, but I want to be deliberate about where I am choosing to focus. This will no doubt be an ongoing struggle, but I want my life back. I want to be present.

I’m guessing that you do too. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you are managing your life so that you are present despite the new technologies that can capture us before we even think.