Digital Parish: Grace, dignity and tech chaplaincy

Technology is scary–even for those of us knee-deep in digital ministry.

Shamika Klassen kept running up against tech anxieties and fears, too. And she saw them as opportunities to offer grace and spiritual nourishment. So she created the Tech Chaplaincy Institute.

Shamika is our adjunct professor on this session of Pastoring in the Digital Parish, and she’s going to share her story of becoming a Tech Chaplain while helping us see the ways in which we, too, can utilize conversations around technology to offer grace and raise people up in dignity.

The Episode

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Show Notes 

Shamika wrote a great piece on Medium that further explains the needs addressed through tech chaplaincy.

Some things Shamika referenced during our conversation:


Ryan Dunn (00:02):

This is pastoring in the digital parish, your resource for community and insights for ministry in the digital realm. My name is Ryan Dunn. I'm the host of this podcast and a fellow practitioner of digital ministry technology. It's a little bit scary. And if you're listening to this podcast, you've likely heard myriad fears expressed in countless ways about the use of technology in church. Can you believe that back in the 1930s, there was a big push within the church to not put worship services or Bible studies on the radio because they feared that that would keep people from showing up. In my early days of ministry (a little bit later than 1930s) the hot topic was whether or not we should put screens for displaying lyrics in the sanctuary. Now the technology flashpoint seems to be whether or not to keep streaming, right?

Ryan Dunn (01:02):

With our own individual lives, technology is a source of anxiety from time to time as well. Few things set me on edge more than seeing the blue screen of death or getting that annoying spooling error from my printer or figuring out why my phone is constantly at 90% storage capacity, even though I've wiped all the pictures. Anyways, Shamika Klassen kept running up against these anxieties in fears too. And she saw them as opportunities to offer grace in spiritual nourishment. So she created the tech chaplaincy Institute. Shamika is our adjunct professor on this session of pastoring in the digital parish. And she's gonna share her story of becoming a tech chaplain while helping us see the ways in which we too can utilize conversations around technology to offer grace and raise people up in dignity. So let's meet Shamika Klassen.

New Speaker (02:05):

Shamika, first of all, thank you so much for joining us and giving us your time today. Hope you're doing well.

Shamika Klassen (02:10):

Absolutely. It's my pleasure. And indeed, I am. I hope you're doing as well today.

Ryan Dunn (02:15):

I am. Thank you. Second of all, I would love to know how does one find oneself entering into the field of tech chaplaincy?

Shamika Klassen (02:27):

Ah, well, it, it starts with service actually. So for myself, I was a first year seminarian at Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York. And in that first semester, excuse me, in that first semester, I was starting to help people set up their new email set up their new laptop. They just bought for school. And eventually I got this reputation for helping people with their technology. So eventually so many people were coming to me for help. I went to the it department to ask them if they could do drop in hours or something like that. And they, they did the best thing they could have done, which was to say, no, we can't do that. But since you're already doing something similar, we can support you in doing that. So I started working for the it department and doing these drop-in hours for folks.

Shamika Klassen (03:12):

And it was the second semester of my first year when I really started to think critically about the way I was helping people, because so many folks were starting to say that they really appreciated the difference when they went to me for tech help, as opposed to, if they'd gone to a family member, a friend or geek squad or something like that for tech help when in those other situations, sometimes folks would make them feel silly or like they did something wrong or, oh, you don't know this, of course it's a track MMA C or whatever the case is. So I, I had a conversation with one of the adjunct faculty at union at the time, Reverend Gregory Horn about the way I was helping people. And he said, you know, it sounds like what you're doing is like, what a chaplain does. They meet people in moments of crisis and usher them through those moments with dignity and grace. And so sounds like you're, you're practicing this ministry of presence with people as you're helping them with their technology. So that's where the, the idea and the name sort of came together for tech chaplaincy. And I've gone forward from there.

Ryan Dunn (04:16):

Did you really consider yourself a techy person prior to that?

Shamika Klassen (04:21):

Absolutely. I was tech support from my family <laugh> and I loved tinkering with our family computer. I went to math and engineering camps as a kid, and I was very interested in the different ways that technology was impacting lives, just sort of on my own before it became an academic interest.

Ryan Dunn (04:42):

So what kind of feedback were you getting where it was your presence was, was different. I mean, besides not berating people for not knowing that their CD ROM was a, you know, drink tray or whatever, like what, right. What was it that you were offering that, that they were really responding to?

Shamika Klassen (05:01):

Well, one of the things that I was doing with folks was really taking the time to get at what not only the technical issue was, but what maybe an emotional or internal issue was. So if people were trying to figure out why the printer wasn't working, maybe they're upset because they had to get the class and the printer was the last thing he needed to do and et cetera, et cetera. So I'm like, I understand you need to get this done quickly. It's very important. Like I'm reflecting and validating their feelings and their experiences as well as trying to solve the technical issue, but I'm not centering the technology in the situation. I'm really centering the person. So I think of it as human centered technology support or tech training or whatever the case may be.

Ryan Dunn (05:44):

Okay. So I imagine then you were meeting with a lot of people who were in a hurry or flustered or anxious, like for example, the, the whole printer thing, like nobody prints anything ahead of time. Right. So whenever, whenever print issues come up, it's always at the last minute. Right. They need it. Right now! Did that really seem to be the case. And are you able then to kind of well process through in a spiritual way, are there some practices that you have that help bring a sense of, of connectedness or ease of anxiety to those kinds of moments?

Shamika Klassen (06:19):

Mm-Hmm <affirmative> yeah. So in urgent situations, like when a printer is malfunctioning, right before class starts it's a matter of being able to look at the person in the eye, breathe with them, encourage them to breathe, because there's also this thing that happens when there's a tech issue and you're frustrated and it's not working and you're under a time crunch where you're not able to see things in the same way you might otherwise. So if I'm saying, if you click the button in the top, right, it's red and it's got an X in it, where's the button, what button? I don't see a button. And so like, that's the energy that they're at. So my job and that moment is to bring the energy down a notch and remain calm myself throughout that process and be someone who can set the tone in a different fashion and bring a different energy to the space during that interaction.

Shamika Klassen (07:10):

And there are also times where in addition to helping with sort of hardware things, I was also helping students with like getting their inbox down to zero or setting up their, you know, different accounts that they have. And so for those kinds of conversations that were less time sensitive, but certainly still important. We were able to have more overarching conversations about the relationship people had with their technology in the digital space in particular, and how they were cultivating those spaces, how they were managing those spaces from a, from a perspective of wanting to have a healthy relationship with your email, for example, and not letting your email run your life, but figure out ways to use the features of Gmail to filter your emails and take advantage of whatever is there. So that you're able to check your email when you want to check it and not be at the behest of whatever notifications come up or have this overwhelming inbox and whatnot, which I know is as many people's testimony these days.

Ryan Dunn (08:15):

Yeah. It, and so this was beginning and has it continued with mainly seminary students, you're working with the

Shamika Klassen (08:25):

Chaplain. So with the Tech Chaplaincy Institute that was established about four or five years after I was in seminary. So that was in the summer of 2020 where I was no longer in seminary. I was actually in a doctoral program at the university of Colorado Boulder, but our focus for the Institute was actually faith communities who were open and affirming social justice oriented, progressive spaces, as well as mission driven organizations. And part of the reason why I focused on those two groups was as a seminary student, talking to people about technology and faith and spirituality and whatnot. I was seeing this pattern or this trend that the faith communities who were using technology well, who were using the cutting edge of technology, pushing the envelope with it. They didn't always have the most human-centered theologies okay. That they encompass. So this could be a faith community that has many campuses and they're doing a holographic preacher.

Shamika Klassen (09:24):

And they've got like, you know, it's really fantastic social media presence that they've got all these digital presence and digital footprint, but the message that they're sending isn't open and affirming or their, their messaging is not in alignment with the social justice issues that we're facing today. That maybe they're on the other side of history, so to speak. Mm. So I saw this pattern happening with technology and faith, and I thought I wanna help equip the faith communities who are doing the social justice work, who are centering human beings and their, their needs in their theologies, but they're having trouble with getting a website together. Okay. Or they, they don't have a social media presence that is strong and tied to their mission and vision and values in what they want to do in their community and these kinds of things. So through the Institute, as a tech chaplain, we've been able to help folks create and manage websites, get social media strategies together, figure out some of the hardware and software to live streaming. Also helping with things like Google products and figuring out how to use Google drive, how to use Google forms for doing pledge drives at your faith community, as opposed to the hand paper ones, cuz at a point in the pandemic, people weren't able to do paper for their pledge drives, right? So mm-hmm, <affirmative> being able to figure out technological solutions to the work that people needed to do. And that was where the focus of the tech chaplaincy Institute became. So it definitely expanded beyond yeah. Just seminarians.

Ryan Dunn (10:58):

Yeah. Okay. That's wonderful work as churches or ministries were approaching you then to do some of this work, are they often coming with specific questions or are they really kinda rushing in almost like that person that is anxious about the printer? Like we just need help, you know, we know that change is coming, we need help.

Shamika Klassen (11:22):

Mm that's a good question. So it does vary, there are some folks who are like you know, we gotta update our website because this event is happening in a month and a half and we just really need to write. So there's that scenario then there's other folks who are either an individual faith community or a group of faith communities who are like, we know that in general, we're not doing everything we could be doing with technology. So we would love your guidance on helping us figure out what that looks like. So there's this spectrum of ways that a tech chaplain can enter into journeying with someone and it could be very acute, very specific needs in, in troubleshooting or this specific task that we just need your eyes and ears on. Or it could be something that's a little bit more amorphous, a little bit more general and either way we do our best to equip those mission driven organizations or faith communities with whatever they may need in that moment.

Ryan Dunn (12:21):

Okay. Well, we're gonna talk in a little bit about some of your future projects, but as we reflected on those beforehand, before we jumped on the microphones you were sharing that there's gonna be a, in a sense, you're gonna be doing some recruiting coming up for tech chaplains. As you share that, are there specific ways that you're kind of trying to encapsulate the vision for people? So for example, are, are you helping people understand why they need tech chaplains? Is that something that you have to answer a lot?

Shamika Klassen (13:00):

I don't know that that's the question that comes up the most in terms of why tech chaplains, but I think the, the real, I guess query or curiosity is around either the origins of tech chaplaincy or how those two things come together. Because I think that and I wrote a medium piece about why tech needs a chaplain. The thinking behind that and in general tech chaplaincy is that there is a way to engage with technology that is life giving that's oriented around a healthy perspective and relationship to technology. And it doesn't have to be a sort of anxiety riddled experience, cuz there's so many people who have fears and anxieties around technology mm-hmm <affirmative>. And I think that, because that there's that experience of folks saying, oh, I'm not a tech person or don't give me the tech it's just gonna break immediately.

Shamika Klassen (14:00):

Or like there's all these ways that people orient themselves in relationship to technology from this perspective of not being able to do it and having this sort of feeling about that. So part of the, the chaplaincy that comes in there is being able to see that in people validate the roots of those fears. If it's, you know, I don't wanna break it, I don't wanna you know, be the reason why, whatever we're trying to do with this technology doesn't then work or, or anything like this. Being able to address that and then, and turn around and empower someone around that very technology.

Ryan Dunn (14:40):

Yeah. Well, let's flip that question a little bit and not just why, why tech needs a chaplain, but maybe why does chaplaincy and church ministry need tech? What are some of the ways that you've witnessed the, the mission of a ministry be advanced through tech

Shamika Klassen (15:01):

Mm-Hmm <affirmative>? Well, I would give a lot of responses between, you know, the time of the pandemic, but even before that, I would say technologies like the the Gutenberg press, which helped facilitate the Gutenberg Bible, which changed the way people engaged with their faith you know, 500 years ago or so that kind of technology has been able to come in and drastically innovate the way that people are able to engage with each other and engage with the divine. So over time when you had things like the radio and then the television and then the internet and now web three and the metaverse entering into the scene, all of these are opportunities to change how we communicate, what we believe with who we believe those things with and why. So I feel like the way that we've organized ourselves as humans and society is to use technologies of various kinds to solve problems. That's how I define technologies as anything that solves a problem. Hmm. So when you have communication technologies like the internet like streaming podcasts shows, whatnot all of these are opportunities in my opinion to amplify what we're already doing offline or in person.

Ryan Dunn (16:26):

Yeah. Hmm. Yeah. I hear it. That one of the things that fascinates me so much about ministry and the digital age is the possibilities of presence that we now have. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative> the way that we can kind of be enmeshed with, with people in building relationships so much more than simply felt available to us in the analog system of, of doing church where, you know, we might come in contact with people for 60 minutes a week. And now there are so many more opportunities to, to build that kind of relationship. You brought up web 3.0 there, you just mentioned it in passing, but it peaked my interest because as we talk about things that are coming web 3.0, is that thing that is that is here and yet not yet here. <Laugh> kind of like, you know, we might call the kingdom of God, but web 3.0 is certainly on the way. What might churches need to be mindful of in web 3.0, so if I were a church leader approaching you with some anxiety about this issue, say I'm playing a part here. <Laugh> mm-hmm <affirmative> what can I expect with web three point? Oh,

Shamika Klassen (17:38):

I think that's a good question. And I have had folks who have journeyed alongside who have questions about the, the metaverse and how they can engage with it. I think like any technology before you start thinking about how to use it and what to use it for, I like to start people with, what is your mission and vision? What is it that you want to do in the world? Who do you want to serve and what communities and how, and orienting yourself from that starting point, you can then say, okay, now that we know this information, what is this technology that we're dealing with getting a sense for what it can do, how people are using it, which people are using it, who's not using it and why. And then thinking through, if there are ways to then utilize the technologies of web three, which include the metaverse virtual reality spaces there are currently faith communities that exist in the virtual space, like DJ Soto has a church there.

Shamika Klassen (18:36):

And there's another pastor or another faith leader who I've come across, who also is in the virtual space. But then there are also blockchain technologies and cryptocurrencies and NFTs. All of these things are sort of related, but separate, but integrated in some ways. And so understanding the function of those technologies and connecting that to your mission and vision, to be able to further that work in the world, I think that's the great pairing of technology and faith is being able to use the two together to amplify what you're trying to do. So what you need to know right now is that very likely, the most applicable thing for a faith community is either to enter into what the metaverse through a virtual reality space. So there's there are apps that you can use to enter various platforms of virtual reality.

Shamika Klassen (19:41):

You can do so with things like Google cardboard, which is a VR headset that's made out of cardboards. It's very inexpensive mm-hmm <affirmative>. So you don't have to go and get like the Facebook Oculus which is hundreds of dollars to get started. Yeah. And then there's also if you're looking at, for example, creating an NFT, that is something that comes with a lot of considerations because of the environmental issues that are related to creating and exchanging NFTs. So I, I know they're trying to make changes with that. And one of the platforms Ethereum, that's trying to get off of the old way of doing things to get to a newer, more greener, cleaner way of doing those transactions. But the, the advice is to do research, do legwork, look at what people are currently doing and seeing if there's a way to enter into the space in a way that is authentic and true to who you are and what you've already been doing.

Ryan Dunn (20:42):

And the, the challenge with the NFTs is I understand it. And I'm hoping you can either reeducate me or back me up on this is, is that they, it takes an awful lot of energy to, to maintain and trade them. Is that right?

Shamika Klassen (20:57):

Mm-Hmm <affirmative>, mm-hmm <affirmative> okay. Yes. So similar to with cryptocurrencies, when people mining for cryptocurrencies, that mining process takes up a lot of energy. So the, the process of creating and exchanging NFTs is somewhat of a similar process to mining where you're taking a lot of energy to produce these transactions.

Ryan Dunn (21:23):

Okay. I bring that up because as communities of faith our place is to be conscientious about the ways that we are present in the world. And, and certainly we, when we start toss, tossing around terms like NFT a lot of us want to figure out how to get in on that. We wanna be ahead of the curve, and yet here's a warning in which we, in order to be a faithful witness. We, we may wanna pull back a little bit to assess, to not just jump onto, I guess, the, the next trend as it comes. Do you find yourself having to, to offer that kind of counsel in tech chaplaincy?

Shamika Klassen (22:05):

Yes. Yes. And I refer back to the bell curve of innovation. I don't know if you've heard of that, but if you picture a bell curve on the, the lower end on the left hand side, there are innovators and early adopters. And these are the folks who jump in first, soon as somethings and available, even before it's on the market, right. They get the beta versions. Then you have the, the middle folks who sort of wait until the new iPhone has been out for a couple days or a couple weeks or a couple months, and then they get it. And then you have sort of the laggards on the other side, who they hold out, they resist, they, they maybe don't even adopt until they have to, or if then so this innovation curve really gives folks a sense of where they are in terms of how they engage with technology.

Shamika Klassen (22:50):

And when, but it, for me, I've had folks say, should I be on TikTok? Do I need to be on you know, I think it's called trier is the new one but, or be real, right? So all these new spaces that are coming out or, or new spaces that have become very popular and I come back to your mission and vision who you're serving are the people you're serving on those platforms and in those spaces, or if you're looking to get an audience with the people in those spaces, what do you want their audience for? Like when you get their attention, what are you going to do with it? What are you hoping to build in terms of a relationship with those folks? So yes, I've, I've had people sort of chomping at the bit to enter into a particular platform and the ideas instead of saying, oh, yes, here's how you do that. I sort of pull back and ask questions and get them to think through what that might look like and whether or not it is even something to do.

Ryan Dunn (23:47):

Hmm. Well, we started this podcast with the idea that we were gonna offer some of the training that ministry leaders did not get in, in seminary with your experience what's been missing, what was missed in your seminary education that would've been useful for ministry as you engage in it today?

Shamika Klassen (24:09):

Mm, yes, I, so I was in seminary from 2013 to 2017. Mm. And I would say one of the things I would've appreciated getting was a dual sort of dual class that had digital ministry, which talked about the technology itself, sort of what like affirmation does. Yeah. And did, so affirmation out of Virginia, theological seminary is a, a conference and a learning community in which there are digital ministers who are teaching the tools that they're using and the practices they have. And so something like that, but for seminarians, that's either winter course that's a couple weeks long or a full semester course. We really get into the ins and outs of creating and maintaining a website. And here's the website builders you can use. And here's what needs to be on your website, et cetera social media strategies and platforms also for those going into parish ministry, they're church planning software that folks can take advantage of just all of these different ways that technology interfaces with leading a faith community.

Shamika Klassen (25:20):

But then also thinking through the second part of this is thinking through the theology behind technology. And for example, if you're using technology in your liturgy, what kinds of considerations do you have to make or take in terms of how that technology is impacting the way that you're crafting that service or that, that sacred space. And a couple of years ago in preparation for an information presentation with Kenji K Mitsu, he and I were doing some research about apps, spiritual apps, and we noticed there was not an app for communion. There were prayer apps, but there wasn't an app that you could say, I'm doing communion with this app. And we thought, well, I wonder why that is. And I wonder if, if someone wanted to do that, what's the theologically grounded way to do so. So we, we consulted several faith leaders and built a web built an app called E dash Eucharist in which the code itself is blessed by various faith leaders.

Shamika Klassen (26:26):

And it uses the spiritual communion prayer from the Catholic tradition. And it's an app that's in the, the Google play store. I think it's still there and the website's still up. But after I coded this app and working with Kenji on this project, it was really very valuable experience to be able to think very critically and theologically about the role of technology in this sacrament. And I know it's a huge conversation, right, with communion and the digital space. And I I've seen it happen. It's sort of like baptism and how that affected various denominations. But I think it's a good wrestling to have as faith communities and faith leaders to think about how these various technologies are impacting people. I know I've seen other faith communities like in the Muslim community. There's questions about being able to use the Quran on your, your phone, if you're in the restroom and these kinds of questions come up and it's like, well, is that okay? And if it is okay, then why, and if not, then why not? And the, it's a good thing to answer these questions as they come up, I think.

Ryan Dunn (27:30):

Hmm. So if that stuff was not yet thought of, in terms of your seminary education, where are some places, or how have you gotten some education about those issues for creation? Like where did you learn to code an app? How about that?

Shamika Klassen (27:49):

<Laugh> well, I, I did learn some basic coding on my own when I was in high school. And then I did go to a coding bootcamp to more formally learn how to, to program web development and app development. But I would say I've also learned about sort of the nexus of faith and technology from other people who are interested in question in these questions and in getting answers to these questions. So like Dr. Heidi Campbell has done work at the intersection of technology and faith for, for years. So I know that she is, she's done this research during the pandemic on technology trends in the church and has a report that's out tech in church trends, I think it's called, but so they have a report out on the findings that they, they gathered. And so research like that has been really helpful at this, at this juncture.

Shamika Klassen (28:43):

And I also know, years ago, back in 2006, before the iPhone came out, there was an article by Genevieve bell called no more SMS from Jesus. And it's an article that highlights all these different ways that people of faith around the world, we're using technology such as faxing in their confessions to a Catholic church or sending text messages to a service that would text them back from Jesus and all, all kinds of different things, different ways that people are using this. So doing, doing that kind of research, but then also having conversations like this, being able to chat with folks who are figuring it out as well themselves, and thinking through what's been working, what hasn't been working and the questions that are on their heart and just talking through them together and inviting other folks to the conversation.

Ryan Dunn (29:33):

Okay, well, we're recording this towards the end of August and in September, things are changing for you a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit about that? What's next for you?

Shamika Klassen (29:42):

Absolutely. So the tech chaplaincy Institute bit back on Juneteenth of this summer celebrated its second year. And in that celebration, we're able to announce that the tech chaplaincy Institute will be closing at the end of August, because in the beginning of January of 2023, we will be absolved into learning forte, which is an organization that does change management and consulting for faith communities and mission driven organizations. And they're gonna take up the mantle of tech chaplaincy as I turn my attention to my dissertation research.

Ryan Dunn (30:19):

Cool. And I, I recognize that we're, we're looking at each other on video here. Most of the people who are joining us are just gonna be in earbuds. And so it's, you've got a backdrop behind you, black minds matter, hashtag studying while black, is that is that a movement that, that you are sponsoring the, the hashtag or in what ways can we invest in, in sharing that?

Shamika Klassen (30:48):

Absolutely. That's a great question. This is actually a poster that I created for a protest that I did back in 2015 when I was still at union with some students from Columbia. And so this was the name of the protest and the hashtag that we were using during the protest. And I've been able to keep this poster sort of as a remembrance of that time and that experience, but also to remind myself that my education, my pursuit of education matters as a black scholar. So it's been something that I've kept in my sort of office quote unquote space since, since that protest and I've moved from New York, several boroughs in New York to Colorado with this poster and then several places in Colorado. So that's where it comes from. And it's certainly near and dear to my heart. So I think there, there may actually be more resources around the black minds matter aspect of the protest. I, I know that there, there were students that were very heavily involved in it back in 2015. So I, I think that if folks are interested in learning more, there's definitely resources out there for that.

Ryan Dunn (32:02):

Right. Well, Shamika, thank you so much for taking this time to share with us about tech chaplaincy for sharing your story. I know that it's not always easy to do so we appreciate it very much fun stuff.

New Speaker (32:16):

A great follow up to this session would be our season one session with Joseph McBrayer titled learning the art of visual ministry. There Joseph McBrayer shares his own experience in learning to use technology on his own again, to advance ministry.

New Speaker (32:32):

Another good episode related to this topic would be season three's understanding our online behaviors with Dr. Kelly Price. That session is a good dive a little deeper into the human psyche and why we do the things that we do specifically, why we do 'em online.

New Speaker (32:48):

I'm Ryan Dunn. I'd like to thank, the online destination for leaders throughout the United Methodist church. They make this podcast possible. And of course they host our where you can find more online resources for ministry. I'll speak with you again in a new episode next week in the meantime: peace to you.


On this episode

Shamika Klassen, tech chaplain

Shamika Klassen is the founder of the Tech Chaplaincy Institute. Shamika is a Stanford grad in AAAS, Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York. Currently she is a CU Boulder Ph.D. student in Information Science.

Ryan Dunn, co-host and producer of the Compass Podcast

Our proctor/host is the Rev. Ryan Dunn, a Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications. Ryan manages the digital brand presence of Rethink Church, co-hosts and produces the Compass Podcast, manages his personal brand, and obsesses with finding ways to offer new expression of grace.

United Methodist Communications is an agency of The United Methodist Church

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