10/13/97 Pastors assess Caller I.D., Call Waiting, voice mail

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Newer telephone technologies can be helpful tools for church staff members, according to a variety of Southern Baptist ministers.

Caller I.D., which allows the recipient of a telephone call to see the name and number of the person calling, generally received high marks from several ministers interviewed by Baptist Press.

"I use Caller I.D. instead of an answering machine," said Johnye Horton, pastor of Aldrich First Baptist Church, Montevallo, Ala. "A lot of people don't want to talk to a machine. For this reason, I've told our members, 'If I'm not home when you call, I'll see your name and number on the Caller I.D. unit, and I'll call you back.'"

Larry Carter, pastor of Northwood Baptist Church, Greer, S.C., said Caller I.D. has impacted the phone manners of people who call his home. "The Caller I.D. came as a result of numerous caller hang-ups. It is amazing how the calls decreased once the word got out that this technology was available."

In at least one instance, Caller I.D. may have helped save a man's life, according to R.D. Fowler, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, Lincoln, Neb.

Earlier this year on a Saturday night, Fowler's phone rang with a call from a man despondent over unemployment and family problems.

"He began to talk like he might be suicidal," Fowler recounted. "He would only give me his first name and would not tell me where he was. When I thought he was sounding more and more like he was going to harm himself, I had my wife and daughters call the police from another line in our home. We gave them the number from Caller I.D."

Meanwhile the conversation continued as Fowler tried to convince the caller he needed help, but the man was fearful of legal consequences and eventually hung up.

But a couple of minutes later, the police located the man and called Fowler to let him know the man was unharmed.

"He spent the night at the hospital for evaluation and was released the next day," Fowler said. "Later the next night, he called to thank me for being concerned enough about him to try and help."

Even with the advantages of Caller I.D., there is still a downside, according to David L. Davis, pastor of Lakeview Baptist Church, San Antonio, Texas.

"When people know you have Caller I.D., at least two things happen," Davis observed. "First, they expect you to check the unit and return their calls, which I don't always do. Second, when you're not home and they call, some may be inclined to think you're not answering their call because you have seen their name on Caller I.D."

But Davis still favors having Caller I.D. in his home. "I am for it, and I will still pay for it, because I have four girls -- and I won't answer the phone for them anymore. Also, Caller I.D. is a good way to avoid calls from phone sales people."

A more controversial phone feature is Call Waiting, which produces a beep in the midst of an ongoing call, alerting a phone customer to another incoming call.

"Call Waiting is an absolutely despicable feature," declared Tom Fillinger, senior pastor of Dutch Fork Grace Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Irmo, S.C. "If you are going to speak with me, do it. If everyone practices a good communication ethic, there is no need for Call Waiting."

L. Earl Tew, director of missions for Birmingham (Ala.) Baptist Association, acknowledged Call Waiting has some advantages but still weighs in against it.

"I tried Call Waiting for a while, but if I'm interrupted on an important call, it may cause me to lose my focus and concentration," Tew observed. "I do not believe it's in good taste for me to call you and allow someone to interrupt us because I might have Call Waiting."

Tew acknowledged the phone feature has benefits, for example, for people with seriously ill relatives or friends or who are otherwise expecting an emergency call.

Kelly Coffield, pastor of Englewood Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Fla., said he jettisoned Call Waiting in favor of voice mail.

"I had Call Waiting for a while and found it somewhat annoying," Coffield recounted. "When talking to someone, I felt like I needed not to be interrupted, so I switched to voice mail."

Voice mail, known as Memory Call or Call Notes in various parts of the country, is a recording that answers incoming calls when a phone line is busy or goes unanswered.

Unlike an answering machine, which is physically present in a phone customer's home, voice mail operates out of a telephone company's digital circuits.

When a caller leaves a message, the voice-mail subscriber is notified by either a message transmitted to a digital beeper or by a stuttered (or "broken") dial tone.

Coffield said one disadvantage of voice mail is the need "to remember to check for the 'stutter tone' to see if there are messages."

Lee Outlaw, pastor of Modello Baptist Church, Homestead, Fla., uses voice mail and other telephone features to work out of his home, a practice some observers have dubbed "telecommuting."

Two factors influenced Outlaw's decision to work primarily from his home: weather and crime.

"Since Hurricane Andrew destroyed our facilities five years ago and we lost the majority of our congregation, it has been difficult to keep a secretary," Outlaw said. "I have been forced to utilize all the technology available to keep this multi-million-dollar facility operating with few people and only one staff member: me."

The church is also located in a high-crime area, Outlaw said, making it unsafe for one person to work alone in the church facilities.

To facilitate his telecommuting, Outlaw subscribes to some of the more common phone features, including Caller I.D., Call Waiting and voice mail.

But he suggested a variety of other technologies also have facilitated his unique situation. Call Forwarding, for example, allows him to send church calls to his home.

The forwarded calls come to a special "Ringmaster" number, which causes his phone to ring with a distinctive ringing pattern, instead of the usual series of single rings common to most telephones.

"This allows me to answer specifically for the church when it rings this way," he said.

Joe Brooks, pastor of Brodie Road Baptist Church, Biloxi, Miss., found himself protected from additional technology when the suggestion was made during budget planning that the church provide him with a beeper.

"Though most of my people have these types of communication tools and have readily accepted them, most felt I was already in touch with people enough and that it would be too much of an intrusion," Brooks said.

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