Friday, June 7, 2024

Having Embraced Tech, Pastors Now Use AI to Support Ministry

Pastor Tom Hathaway with his AI-designed rack for name tags at Hillside Community Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Medford, Mass. 

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

When the secretary at Hillside Community Church in Medford, Mass. retired during the pandemic, her departure meant administrative tasks might fall to Pastor Tom Hathway. He wasn’t enthused. 

“We have this sock drive coming up, and I hate writing copy for events,” Hathaway said recently, noting that the secretary used to do that type of work. “I’d rather spend my time writing a really good sermon.”

Fortunately, Hathaway has found a new assistant to handle event write-ups among other tasks, including some that were the secretary’s and others that used to be his. The arrangement saves him about three hours a week, he said. It also improves his work as good suggestions often flow from the relationship. And it costs only $20 a month because this new assistant isn’t human.

It’s ChatGPT 4.0, an artificial intelligence chatbot from OpenAI, which also offers a less robust version for free. It’s one of several AI tools Hathaway is using to make him a more focused, efficient and pastoral clergyman.

Like a growing number of pastors, Hathaway finds AI can help with unglamorous, behind-the-scenes aspects of ministry. It’s a pivot enabled not only by technology but also by greater openness to using tech in church. Pastors who scrambled in March 2020 to begin streaming worship and move Bible studies to Zoom are now braving the next frontier: testing what AI has to offer.

The pandemic shift to more tech in church “allowed us to recognize that we don’t have to be afraid,” said the Rev. Lorenzo Lebrija, chief innovation officer at Virginia Theological Seminary and author of How to Try: Design Thinking and Church Innovation (Church Publishing, 2021). “Trying a new tool doesn’t mean that we’re giving up on God. It doesn’t mean that we’re throwing away Sunday. It doesn’t mean any of that. It just means: here’s a tool, and what if we used this tool? Would it help us to make more disciples?” 

Signs point to growing interest in what AI can mean for ministry. For instance, last fall when VTS offered a webinar on using ChatGPT in ministry, 145 church leaders paid $25 to $40 per head to attend live online. Another 50 bought the recording afterwards. That’s much higher attendance than most VTS webinars draw, according to Fr. Lebrija, who directs the TryTank Research Institute at VTS.

Don’t assume, however, that pastors are preaching AI-generated sermons. Emerging ethical guidelines widely agree that clergy shouldn’t ask AI to do their sermon- or devotions-writing, according to the Rev. Alex Shea Will, an Associate Conference Minister for the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ, in an email.

He encourages pastors to instead let AI improve their work. For example, Will uses ChatGPT as a copyeditor to make his sermon text more readable and flow better. He also lets AI help him create fresh material for weekly worship bulletins.  

To the bot, “I might say: ‘Here is the scripture reading for Sunday: [INSERT SCRIPTURE],” Will said in an email. “Write a 6-line, call and response, call to worship, utilizing this scripture and the theme of [THEME], where the last line is said in unison. It doesn’t always give you something that works on the first attempt, but it can be helpful when you’re daunted by writing yet another piece of liturgy, week after week, and you’re staring at a blank page.”

The growing use of AI in ministry comes amidst some post-pandemic tech fatigue uncovered in a Feb. 2024 joint report from Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC) and Faith Communities Today. For instance, many congregations that had offered programs online during the pandemic had discontinued their virtual components by 2023.

But using AI behind the scenes doesn’t require tech-weary parishioners to learn new skills. Tech-interested pastors can use AI on their own and simply share results with congregants.

What’s more, congregations that integrate multiple tech tools into church life tend to report higher levels of spiritual vitality and optimism than those that don’t, according to the EPIC and FACT research, which is led by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. That suggests it might be a promising sign when the pastor brings AI to church.

“There seems to be an interesting association between technology use and measures of congregational thriving,” says the February report, titled “The Continuing Impact of Technology on Congregations.”

Hathaway sees that correlation playing out at Hillside, which draws 50 to 60 to hybrid worship on an average Sunday. About a third are newcomers in their 20s and 30s who discovered the church online during or shortly after the pandemic. Having liked the inclusive, progressive vibe and tech-savvy presentation, they now attend regularly in person.

That the pastor uses AI fits with Hillside’s tech- and young adult-friendly culture. In one favorite use, Hathaway saves a good 30 minutes when formatting a weekly blog that’s based on the prior Sunday’s sermon themes. AI quickly organizes his key points, lays out the page and plugs in AI-generated images (with no copyright limitations) to illustrate themes.

AI even helps with odd jobs around the building. For example, Hillside parishioners recently needed an alphabetical peg rack for hanging up nametags. To avoid bunching too many tags on one peg and not enough on another, Hathaway asked ChatGPT to figure out an even grouping based on which letters are most and least common at the start of first names in the United States. He then asked how far apart to space the pegs on the wall.

When he put the rack up, AI’s groupings were right. No peg is too full or empty. Mission accomplished.

In the future, AI might shape ministry in more profound ways, Lebrija said, such as providing a theologically informed resource for people experiencing loneliness, dementia or spiritual curiosity when a priest isn’t available. But for now, just helping with ordinary work might be enough.

With AI, “you save time on all these piddly tasks,” Hathaway said. “No one cares who wrote the online description for my sock drive event.” By giving it to AI, he “frees up space for what is an otherwise inefficient process” – namely, writing next Sunday’s sermon.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance religion reporter, UCC pastor, church educator and author. His reporting clients include the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which runs the EPIC project.