Should the Church Be More Like United Airlines?

Yesterday as I prepared to travel to Chicago on United Airlines I had what I am told is not an uncommon experience in flying to O’Hare: Flight delays.

I say “I am told” because while people from all over the country talk a fair amount of smack about their experiences at O’Hare, all the years in purgatory they’ve worked off waiting there or waiting to get there, I’ve never had that experience. But then, I’m originally from Chicago. And maybe God just likes Chicagoans better.

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(Note: The editors of America would like to make it clear that Fr. McDermott’s opinions most definitely do not represent the opinions of the magazine or its New York-based staff.)

So anyway I’m sitting there, stuck first because of inclement weather in the Midwest, but then also because United said my flight was going to be delayed two hours, but then when I stepped away for a half hour and came back, it turned out they had changed their minds and my plane was now gone. Thanks for flying the friendly skies.

(Note: The editors feel not even a little schaudenfreude that Fr. McDermott missed his flight.)

As you might imagine, this did not make me happy. Especially after the flight I got put on instead was itself delayed so many times that I eventually gave up and rescheduled my flight for today.

(Note: Poor dear.)

So, having a lot of free time and the typical airport need for some sort of gratification to get me through the metric tons of recirculated air, I hopped on my phone and started tweeting.

 

Within minutes, United had responded. At first, they were a little lecture-y:

 

But when I wrote again, things changed dramatically:

 

I’ve had a lot of experience tweeting at United the last few years. Every encounter pretty much goes this way – a clear sense of hearing what I’m saying, a promise to look into the situation/offer feedback, and lots of thanks:

 

Now, did they actually pass along either my complaint or the praise I had for the agent that helped me? I assume so, but I have no idea. It could have gone right into the internet version of the circular file (which I think is actually also known as the internet).

Either way, I felt better. In fact, even though I ended up waiting five hours in an airport yesterday and never even got on a plane, when all was said and done I had nothing but positive feelings towards United. Because they were willing to interact with me, and to hear me out.

The whole experience and others like it that I’ve had with businesses on Twitter  make me wonder whether our dioceses and parishes might have something here to draw on. For instance, what would it be like if your parish had a Twitter handle to which you could tweet questions, concerns and praise? Or a diocese, for that matter? What if you could tweet at your diocese to thank the bishop for coming to do confirmations, or tweet at your parish to express dismay at a comment made in a service that caused some pain for you? Or to find out when the baptism registration is? Or to send your pastor who likes funny stories a joke?

I can see the very devoted and hard working people who do communications in our institutions pulling their hair out at this idea. Who has the time? And also, who wants to have to wade through all the trolls?

And there’s no doubt, this could be time consuming – in fact, the better an institution is at it, the more people will use it. I started tweeting at United regularly precisely because they always gave such positive, professional responses.

But I think it’s also notable that as I’ve done more tweeting at them, I’ve begun sending a lot more positive things. If a flight crew is amazing, or a gate agent treats me with patience or kindness (even when most of the time I don’t necessarily deserve it), I tweet at United and tell them that. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s clear there’s someone there who will receive it.

Clearly, the trolls we will always have with us. But I wonder if having some sort of online mechanism whereby people can send feedback (which not for nothing is also limited to 140 characters!), even if it’s only “open” one day a week or one hour a day, might not create greater positive feelings and investment in our communities.

In some quarters social media is thought to be predicated upon our isolation, our desire not to be connected, to be free to launch missiles anonymously and from afar. But I don’t think that’s the full picture. The internet’s a tool; it can draw us together just as much as it can force us apart. I’m sure I’ve had as many mixed experiences with United as anyone else. But at this point when someone starts to talk them down, all I can think is “Come at me, bro.”

Maybe some reading belong to parishes or dioceses that do respond to tweets or Facebook posts, or who do that kind of work in their own Catholic community. I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments, what’s worked for you and what hasn’t.

Or feel free to tell me your horror stories about the airlines. (That’s a joke. Resist the temptation.)

(Note: The editors wish Fr. McDermott luck in his travels tomorrow. They really really hope he doesn’t get delayed because of O’Hare again. That would be just terrible.)

(Literally two minutes after I posted this article last night I got an email from United saying my flight for tomorrow has in fact been delayed. *shakes his fist at America editors* *still loves United* *still knows God loves Chicagoans most of all*

 

 

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Jack Rakosky
3 years 6 months ago
At my parish once a month the parish council members serve as “greeters” before and after Mass and are available for suggestions and comments which they write down and bring to the next parish council meeting and discuss with the pastor. Comments and suggestions can be anonymous but people are told that if they put their name and phone number down they will get a response. During my four year tenure as a parish council member the most frequent complaints were about poor lighting, poor sound and lack of sufficient handicapped parking in this large affluent parish. The parish had a read need for the blind to see, the deaf to hear and the lame to walk but not enough money for most of these miracles. After several years (and my constant reminders) they did redo the parking lot for more handicapped parking Some other frequent complaints, people coming late and leaving early. Actually I have observed some very clever ways that people join the communion lines so they can exit quickly. Then there were complaints about the choir not allowing enough silent time after communion. I suspect these have disappeared since we now have some young priests who love to spend time cleaning the communion vessels. Beware of your complaints; you might not like the solution. As a parish council member I did do surveys of selected well qualified parish members by e-mail and found people responded well. I gave them the choice of e-mail or personal phone interviews. Most chose e-mail which made it very easy to collate and organize responses for parish council. The responses were anonymous (but council knew who was in the group). This worked very well for council and for the people who responded. Many people are hesitant to state their opinions publicly on controversial issues but find it very valuable to see their own and others in print with anonymity. There is a real need in parishes to give members a feel for the diversity of parish opinion without causing conflict or personal animosity. If a parish council has twelve members it would be easy to interview 4 parish members per councilor each month by e-mail and/or phone, have those interviews collated by a secretary for discussion at a monthly meeting. About 5 to 10 questions maximum; do brief open ended answers not multiple choice. At the rate of 50 people per month interviewed, that is about 500 people per year.
Nathan Schneider
3 years 6 months ago

My parish actually does have a fairly good social media presence, thanks to particular parishioners who volunteer to manage it. Could be better, but they do a good job for queries like this. I'm surprised yours doesn't. It's 2015! Time to get with it.

That said, I'm troubled by the thought of modeling our churches' use of technology and social media too much on that of corporations like United. United's primary task is to provide a service to you, the customer, and to give you the customer a convincing-enough illusion that they're not massively scaling back and outsourcing their customer-service budgets every way they can. (One might also ask questions like, why was it you their main account decided to reply to? If your Twitter profile looked different—ethnically, professionally, etc.—would they have responded? If a poor artisan from Palestine were to tweet at them, would they bother to reply?)

I think the social-media calling of a church needs to be different from that of a corporation. The mission of a church is be to strengthen the ties among its members, and empower the local community through the gospel. The goal is not to create an illusion of service, but a reality of reciprocity. Perhaps we should ask questions like:

  • How can we use social media to help people assist each other, rather than relying on a centralized service from the church office or the pastor?
  • Can we use community-driven, open-source software to accomplish our goals, rather than commercial tools that may expose members' data to surveillance? (If you think this isn't an issue for religious communities, ask an imam at a New York City mosque.)
  • How can we make sure that we're using social media to hear voices that tech culture tends to marginalize, such as those with limited access to the Internet and those who feel the need to anonymize their identities online?

Actually, these are questions corporations like United should be asking too, but they're not likely to in many cases. We, in our churches, can start.

G Miller
3 years 6 months ago
It would be nice to see more humorous writing be produced by America Media. This is the first time I have laughed at a piece published by y'all in a long, long time.

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