From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Presbynet 2000 Task Group

Date 04 May 1996 20:59:55


96053               Presbynet 2000 Task Group 
             Mulls Future of Electronic Communication 
                         by Julian Shipp 
LOUISVILLE, Ky.--Pondering the infinite possibilities of electronic 
communication in the Information Age, members of the PresbyNet 2000 Task 
Group met here Jan. 23-24. 
     Appointed last September by the General Assembly Council (GAC) at the 
request of Corporate and Administrative Services (CAS), the task group's 
goal is to prepare a long-range development plan for PresbyNet by which all 
congregations, middle governing bodies, educational institutions and other 
agencies related to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be connected 
     In developing their plan, the group will address such things as cost, 
financing, hardware and software needs, training, customer service, 
promotion, marketing and other matters related to implementation of the 
plan. The task group will report back to the CAS Committee no later than 
September 1996. 
     The seven-member group, which is chaired by the Rev. J. Houston Hodges 
of Huntsville, Ala., discussed its vision of PresbyNet's future, listened 
to the joys and concerns of current users and developed strategies for the 
burgeoning technology in the next millennium. 
                          PresbyNet 101 
     "PresbyNet" is the name given to a growing community of people who use 
the denomination's computer communication system. It had its formal origins 
when the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA) Support Agency 
did an experiment in computer communication in the summer of 1985.  
     Soon afterward, Presbyterian and other computer enthusiasts organized 
their own religious network, using services provided by a commercial 
vendor. The Support Agency organized a more formal network on April 1, 
1986. In June of 1988, this officially sponsored network joined the 
enthusiast group, using the services of an outside computer vendor. 
     Without warning, on May 31, 1991, access to Ecunet (an umbrella 
network of more than 20 denominations and church organizations of which 
PresbyNet is the largest part) was cut off at the host computer in 
Hartford, Conn., just as the 203rd General Assembly in Baltimore was 
getting under way.  Litigation between telephone and computer service 
providers had temporarily shut down the PresbyNet/Ecunet database.  
     Undaunted, staff from the Stewardship and Communication Development 
Ministry Unit, along with the Office of Information Services (OIS) and 
others, put together a proposal to move Ecunet onto a computer owned by the 
PC(USA) and housed in its own facilities. 
     Along with PC(USA) participants came members from other denominations 
who had their own networks on the disabled host computer. The PC(USA) 
computer is now host to Ecunet and the experimental efforts of adventuring 
computer buffs of more than a decade ago have now been joined by more than 
2,400 other Presbyterian computer users from around the world. 
     By the end of 1995, there were more than 7,000 individual Ecunet 
accounts, according to the Rev. Merrill Cook, administrator for computer 
communication in the GAC Office of Communication and staff to the PresbyNet 
2000 Task Group. 
                        Eyes on the Future 
     While no one knows exactly what PresbyNet will evolve into by the year 
2000, Stephen C. Rose of  New York, N.Y., a creative consultant to the task 
group, said the PC(USA) must realize the importance of being an "online 
church" and that PresbyNet must be given the resources both to "facilitate 
this realization and make possible its implementation." 
     While no one denies the significance of computer communication, one of 
the immediate dilemmas facing church leaders is how to provide the 
necessary financing for such technology when the denomination is struggling 
with the reality of shrinking funds. 
     "If the will is to get a [personal computer] and a modem [which 
converts computer signals to telephone-compatible signals and vice versa] 
into every church, that can be done," Rose said. "That is a policy thing 
and not a financial one. Mainline churches will have to stake out a niche 
for themselves in the future. And for the Presbyterian Church, that niche 
is thoughtful people." 
     Robert F. Cramer, of Windsor, Calif., another creative consultant to 
the task group, said he does not envision PresbyNet/Ecunet becoming "huge" 
in the near or distant future since its current service is providing a 
"family" base for 10,000 to 20,000 people. That does not mean, however, 
that the technology won't have profound effects on people's lives by the 
year 2000, Cramer said. 
     "I see PresbyNet and Ecunet ... developing interactive relationships 
that, while still not all that obvious to the wider world, will by the year 
2000 have profoundly changed the way Christians do church," Cramer said. 
"I'd like to see cyberspace become a mission priority [for the 
denomination]. I believe it is."            
     One question raised by G.A. "Pat" Goff, CAS director, was how managers 
at the Presbyterian Center can determine the "right balance" between using 
computers for professional and personal reasons when there is a faction of 
what he described as "general chitchat" users on the system? 
     When asked to elaborate, Goff, citing PresbyNet usage statistics, said 
20 percent of the activity on the current PC(USA) Web page is related to 
"ECULAUGH," an electronic religious humor meeting featuring  jokes and 
amusing anecdotes of an ecumenical nature. 
     "What's the right balance for usage of personal time and professional 
time?" Goff asked.  "Regardless of the size of PresbyNet, it's not a 
noncost thing. There is a limit in [financial] resources." 
     "You obviously don't write sermons every week," replied the Rev. 
Joanne C. Sizoo, a task group committee member from Cincinnati. "PresbyNet 
is much larger than what goes on at 100 Witherspoon." 
     Computers undeniably increase efficiency and productivity, Goff said, 
but they also open up the potential for becoming an "attractive nuisance," 
especially in areas such as security and liability. Goff cited hypothetical 
examples such as someone posting copyrighted material over the system or 
breaching confidential data contained in personnel, medical or legal files. 
     PresbyNet officials acknowledged that computer issues such as 
security, liability, and confidentiality are important, but maintained that 
an online community is more than just a work environment.  
     According to Cook, the strategy up to this point has been to make 
PresbyNet both indispensable and useful for its users while avoiding the 
extra expense of a having one electronic mailbox for work-related use and a 
second mailbox on a different system for personal use. Although it may be 
time to revise or revisit this strategy, Cook said, there needs to be a 
clear rationale as to what is being done and why. 
     "There will be arguments on the other side questioning the use of a 
church-sponsored medium for things like playing games, telling jokes or 
visiting with family members electronically," Cook said. "We would in this 
case say clearly that playing games and telling jokes support some people's 
ministries and build community. 
     "If our members are checking their mailbox for a note from a young 
person off  at college, it is more likely they will also receive important 
communication from presbytery or General Assembly staff in a timely 
fashion," Cook said. 
                    "Hit Any Key to Continue" 
     After compiling an extensive list of current PresbyNet issues, 
applications and possibilities for the future, the task group divided the 
list among themselves for further consideration. As part of the 
data-gathering process, a questionnaire that was devised last year by 
Research Services will be mailed to several hundred of PresbyNet users and 
     Once data from the task group members and the surveys have been 
received, the group's recommendations will be submitted to the CAS 
Committee and ultimately to the GAC for action.  
     Barry Creech, coordinator for churchwide communication for the GAC's 
Office of Communication and a PresbyNet 2000 Task Group staff member, said 
the survey should be completed by late May. 
     "I think it will be a good idea to have what information we need to 
answer the questions that we've asked," said the Rev. John Ramsey, a 
PresbyNet 2000 Task Group member from Ottawa, Ohio.  "And part of that may 
be the data that we get back from the survey." 
     "I think we got some good, helpful information from folks," Sizoo 
said. "I think we have a sense of what the task at hand here is and how we 
can get there from here." 
     Other PresbyNet 2000 Task Group members are Andrew J. Browne of 
Aurora, Colo.; Barbara Campbell-Davis of Rocky Mount, N.C.; Robert S. 
Jaquiss, Jr., of Beaverton, Ore.; and Deborah Mills-Scofield of Cleveland, 
      Other staff to the PresbyNet 2000 Task Group are Ron Cutler, 
associate director of the Office of Information Services; Gary Luhr, 
associate director of the GAC Office of Communication; Steve Moulton, 
associate for administration in the GAC Office of Communication; and Chris 
E. Weaver, associate for computer communication in the GAC Office of 
     The Ecunet representative to the task group is the Rev. Donel 
McClellan, of Bellingham, Wash., who is Ecunet president and co-pastor of 
First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ there. 

For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
  phone 502-569-5504            fax 502-569-8073  
  E-mail   Web page: 


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