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iPad preachers - More clergy e-readers in ministry Sam Hodges, Jul 1, 2011
PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
A new study from the Pew Research Center found that 12 percent of Americans reported having an e-reader in May, up from 6 percent in November.
By Sam Hodges Managing Editor
The first few times the Rev. Adam Walker Cleaveland preached from his tablet computer, he carried along a printed text, just in case of computer failure.
“I’ve done it enough now that I’m solely relying on the iPad,” said Mr. Cleaveland, minister for youth and young adults at Asbury United Methodist Church in Livermore, Calif. “If something happened, I would need to rely on the Holy Spirit a little more to get me through it, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
The United Methodist Church is known for its circuit riding history, but these days it’s full of clergy for whom electronic circuitry—as in tablet computers, smart phones and e-readers—is a big part of their work.
Mr. Cleaveland is 31, and early in his career. But the Rev. Milton Guttierrez used his recent retirement address to show how he’s an iPhone-thumping preacher now.
A district superintendent in the North Texas Annual Conference, Mr. Guttierrez cracked up his colleagues by saying that the short Old Testament book of Habakkuk had a way of “migrating” when he was in front of a crowd, flipping pages to find it.
Then he used his iPhone with its Bible app to show he could quickly and confidently find the concluding verses of Habakkuk, which he read as part of his farewell.
Reflecting on the experience, Mr. Guttierrez said, “I’m an old dog that’s learned a new trick.”
Anyone who’s been in a busy airport can testify to how common smart phones, tablet computers and e-readers have become. A Pew Research Center study found that the percentage of Americans who report owning an e-reader grew from 6 to 12 between November and May. Amazon.com recently announced that it’s selling more e-books than hardbacks and paperbacks.
At Cokesbury, retail arm of the United Methodist Publishing House, e-books account for 8 percent of sales. But that’s doubled since January.
“We’re seeing tremendous growth [in e-book sales],” said Audrey Kidd, UMPH’s executive vice president for revenue and operations. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that clergy—United Methodist and otherwise—are part of this latest technology trend.
“I’m definitely seeing more people,” said Bishop Scott Jones of the UMC’s Kansas West Annual Conference. “I have three of my 11 district superintendents who bring iPads into our meetings.”
Bishop Jones owns a Kindle e-reader, onto which he downloaded all the books he took on two trips to Africa this past year, and an iPhone, which he uses for reading Scripture as he preaches around his conference.
“I used to carry a Bible that fit into my suit coat pocket, but I left it four different times in churches around the state,” he said. “So I decided to download the NRSV [Bible] app to my iPhone. I read that and put it in my pocket, and I don’t leave it anywhere.”
Even at funerals
Bishop Jones and the other UM bishops made denominational news by acquiring dozens of the e-reader known as the Nook, and using them for downloading and reading documents at their spring meeting. It was the first paperless meeting for the bishops, a move they pitched as pro-environment.
And though there were glitches—Bishop Earl Bledsoe of North Texas had a pocket New Testament when he couldn’t make his Nook work while preaching in one of the morning services—they were few.
“It was very smooth,” Bishop Jones said.
Mr. Cleaveland too has been trying to go paperless, and his embrace of the iPad in his ministry was a means toward that end. But he also admits to being a “tech junkie.”
More often, the motivation for clergy simply seems to be convenience—the ability to save time and trouble in a demanding profession. “I’ve had an iPad for about a year or two now,” said the Rev. Andy Stoddard, of Asbury United Methodist Church in Petal, Miss. “I preach with it. I write sermons on it. I use it for meetings.”
The Rev. Sandi Hire, of Camargo United Methodist Church in Camargo, Ill., emails notes for funeral services to her Kindle, and reads from it rather than from a printed text.
“Funerals are great [for Kindle use],” she said. “I just did a funeral the other day, and I was using it again at the graveside service. It was so windy, but I didn’t have to worry about the pages flipping.”
The Rev. Joe Stobaugh, cantor and curator of worship at Argyle United Methodist Church in North Texas, had so crowded his home with books that his wife was threatening to make him remove two volumes for every new one he brought inside. Then for Christmas he got a Kindle, which weighs about as much as a paperback and holds up to 3,500 books. He has shifted to buying e-books, solving or at least minimizing the space problem.
He hasn’t, however, lowered his costs. E-books typically cost less than printed books, but Mr. Stobaugh notes that the immediacy factor—being able to download a book and have it available almost instantly—sorely tempts an ardent reader.
“While I would like to say I’m saving money, I’m probably buying more books than ever,” Mr. Stobaugh said.
Some pastors who cite the convenience of smart phones, tablet computers and e-readers say they also use them as a friendly overture to tech-savvy young people. That’s why the Rev. David Brian Smith of First UMC in Winfield, Kan., has used his iPad for reading Scripture in some services.
“That doesn’t really flip some people’s switch, but there’s a whole generation of people where that just opens up a door and creates a connection,” he said.
Bye bye, bookstores
There are, of course, consequences to this mini-revolution, including for United Methodist-related institutions.
More than a year ago, Duke Divinity School’s library purchased six Kindles, and sent three on to a sister seminary in Côte d’Ivoire. The library loaded the remaining three with required texts for core courses, and made them available for two-week checkout. The devices were borrowed about 50 times last year, said associate director Andrew Keck.
The library has stepped up its purchase of e-books, and plans to digitize large parts of its historical collection, including local church histories.
Cokesbury and Abingdon Press, an imprint of the self-supporting United Methodist Publishing House, are scrambling to adjust to the shift to e-books.
“Digital has changed everything,” Ms. Kidd said.
The creation of a standard digital format promises to help Cokesbury.com compete with other retailers in delivering materials, she added. Meanwhile, Abingdon is seeing rapid growth in its Christian fiction line, and nearly 30 percent of those sales are e-books.
But the rise of online bookselling and e-books has, with the recession, clobbered bricks-and-mortar bookstores.
Earlier this year, Borders filed for bankruptcy and announced it was closing about 200 stores. Religious bookstores have been less dramatically affected, but Cokesbury is down to 57 stores, having closed 12 in the last two years.
Ms. Kidd said she “absolutely” believes there’s a long-term future for bookstores and the printed book.
But Tony Jones, a popular Christian speaker, author and expert on social media, thinks the e-publishing phenomenon means huge and continuing trouble for bookstores and publishers.
Mr. Jones points to Amanda Hocking, who became a best-selling genre novelist by uploading her works to Amazon.com, bypassing traditional print publishers through e-book sales.
She recently signed a contract with St. Martin’s Press, but Mr. Jones believes we’re entering an era when even many established authors will self-publish to the Internet as Ms. Hocking did, avoiding giving a big cut of profits to any middlemen.
“It’s great for writers and for readers, and it’s horrible for publishers and agents,” he said.
Mr. Stoddard, the Mississippi pastor, worries about Christian bookstores and bookstores generally. But he’s an iPad convert, and doesn’t anticipate ever again buying many books published on paper.
“I spent a lot of my college days in an old used bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi, because I loved books,” he said. “I still do. I also love to be effective. I thought [the iPad] was a vanity purchase, because I like gadgets, but I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful thing for my ministry.”