Do you remember phone trees? Our church used a phone tree method for our prayer chain for years. Each person on the tree was assigned to call several others, some of whom were assigned to pass on the prayer request to several others and the tree kept branching out like that. It worked...mostly...but there were always weak links in the chain. Perhaps someone moved away and the tree had not been updated. Or someone could not be reached, which in turn meant none of the people she/he was supposed to call would receive the prayer request, either.
Several years ago (February 2007 to be exact), I started an electronic prayer chain for our church using Google groups. It’s been a blessing to our church and, I think, drawn us closer to each other as a community. All anyone needs is an email address—no more technical skill is necessary than the ability to read their own email. It’s been the easiest thing ever to create and maintain.
Using Google groups may be very familiar to many of you, but I thought it would be worthwhile to describe in detail how to create a group, in case any of you out there would like to get one started for your church. With a Google group, you create an address for the group, and everyone in the group receives an email when someone sends to that address.
Sign up for a Google Account
If you don’t already have one, the first step is to sign up for a Google account. That’s easy, too. Just go to www.google.com, click on the little “Sign in” link at the top right, and follow the link and instructions to “Start a new account.” It’s free and takes just a few seconds. You can either use an email address you already have, or create a Gmail account.
Start the Group
Once you’re signed in to your Google account, click on the “More” link at the top left of the Google home page and select “Groups.” That will bring you to the Google groups home page where you can click on a link to “take a tour” of Google groups and learn more about them, or just click the “Create a group” button and get started.
You’ll be asked to give the group a name and email address (which will end in @googlegroups.com), write a brief discussion and select whether your group will be Public, Announcement-only or Restricted, which are defined as:
- Public - Anyone can read the archives. Anyone can join, but only members can post messages.
- Announcement-only - Anyone can read the archives. Anyone can join, but only managers can post messages.
- Restricted - People must be invited to join the group and post or read messages. Your group and its archives do not appear in public Google search results or the directory.
I chose Restricted and would recommend that, but you may have a reason to choose one of the other access levels. With Restricted, only the people I either invite or add to the group will be able to send to and receive messages from the group.
The next step is to add members. You can either invite members—send them an email asking them to sign up for the group themselves—or manually add them in. Nearly all my members have been added manually by me. We have quite a few members who are not at all tech savvy, but they can at least read their email. By using the method where I add them in to the group myself, all they have to do is tell me their email address, and they’re in.
On the group home page there’s a “Management tasks” link. When you click on that, you’ll have a link to “Invite members by email” or “Add members directly.” As I said, I add members directly. If you decide to do that, too, just click on that link and enter the email addresses of those you are adding. Then write a little note to welcome them to the group, with any instructions you may wish to add.
You can determine some defaults and settings for your group. You can put a photo or image on your group’s welcome page, write a welcome notice, and some other settings. No one really has any need to go to our prayer chain group’s page and its address is not published anywhere so I did not worry too much about what I put there. I did write a custom footer (see below).
You Can Do It!
There are other tools for email groups besides Google groups. I’m most familiar with Google groups but, of course, current technology offers many options. Some sites offer more collaboration beyond email, such as text messaging, broadcast voicemail or sharing calendars. At this point, email still works well but as technology changes, you may want to use other communication channels.
If your church does not have a prayer chain, I encourage you to talk to your pastor or council and offer to create one. Your church family will appreciate it. You don’t necessarily have to be in any official capacity to do this for your church. It’s a simple way to serve others in your church community.
- There’s a limit on the number of people you can add in directly at once. I ran into this when I first started the group and put in 72 email addresses. When I clicked to send them, I received a message saying I’d gone over the limit and I needed to explain why I was adding so many, then wait for approval. I did that and the approval came through in just a few days. I don’t know (and can’t find) what the exact maximum is for adding members directly in the same day. You may wish to spread out the additions, or just put them all in and explain it, as I did
- You may have a few church members with no computer or email address. I asked for volunteers who would each call a particular person with no computer when they received a prayer request. In many cases the person has a daughter, son, granddaughter, grandson or friend who will gladly do this. Also, our bulletin secretary posts each prayer request received in the preceding week in the bulletin so, we hope, no one misses the requests, even if they have no email.
- The exact email address you put into the prayer chain group for a member is the only one that will work. Sometimes people forget which address is in the group. Often they have different addresses forwarding mail to another, so even though they receive the prayer chain messages in one address, they may find they can’t send to the group from that account. If someone tells you they are in the group but can’t send to it, ask them to give you the exact address of that account so you can make that a member.
- It took my members a while to understand that when they hit “Reply,” it would default to replying to the group address—so everyone got their reply, not just the original sender. To try to educate them about this, I added a custom footer to each email (see sample below) with that information.
Sample Custom Footer
You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups
"Name of group" group. To post to this group, send email to NameOfGroup@googlegroups.com
To unsubscribe from this group, send email to NameOfGroupfirstname.lastname@example.org
- REPLIES GO TO EVERYONE. When you reply to a prayer request, your reply will go to everyone on the list. If you wish to reply to an individual, reveal the details on the email to see the individual's address, then write a separate email to that address.
- USE ONLY FOR PRAYER REQUESTS. This group was formed only for prayer requests, so we can share each others' concerns and joys. Out of respect for everyone's time, please use the address only for prayer requests.