A challenge for ministry—particularly in the preaching, teaching and writing obligations for any pastor—is to have a system in place to capture and organize ideas. A pastor reads an article in the local newspaper that he’d like to save to use as a sermon illustration at some point in the future. He doesn’t think he could use it this coming Sunday, so how can he save in order to retrieve it easily in the future?
A pastor hears a sermon he would like to use in some way in the future. He’s not going to preach it as his own, but the sermon had a good illustration or two that he could see himself using. He wants to save the sermon for future devotional use in a more personal way or to serve as a springboard for his own approach to the text.
The pastor amasses a large file of his own sermons and the exegetical notes that form their background. How can he file these in such a way as to retrieve them later, either to preach a sermon again in a different venue or to use the exegetical notes in some other way?
The pastor has kept notes and would like to have a way of filing them. He has scribbled thoughts that could lay the groundwork for a future sermon or writing project.
Any pastor finds himself doing these things, observing life, reading as widely as possible and gathering ideas along the way. The challenge is organizing these ideas from various sources so that they can be retrieved later. This has been a challenge for me personally in ministry.
The Challenge of Capturing and Organizing
I attended seminary and experienced my first pastorate in the late-1980s, before the digital age really dawned. I began a filing system using 4’x6′ index cards, a file box and a numbering system, which entailed literally cutting articles from newspapers and magazines, taping them to a piece of 8½’x11′ paper and assigning that paper a number, at least two topic names and a Scripture passage. A card would be started for each topic. A card also would be started for every book of the Bible.
This was a good system in that it was simple and flexible. I did not have to change it as I collected new information to be catalogued. The problem was that it was so time-consuming and cumbersome. I desired a better way but had not found one.
I have colleagues in ministry who use Excel for cataloguing and filing. I recall reading an article in Preaching that extolled Excel as this kind of tool, but I found limitations and did not abandon my old system. Excel never has been easy or intuitive for me. Before I could start using Excel I had to learn it first, and that’s where the possibilities stopped.
Now I have found a system for cataloguing ideas and information that is simple, flexible, easy to use and available in multiple platforms (i.e., any computer that has Internet access, as well as a smartphone—in my case, an iPhone—called Evernote.
Evernote and Online Archiving
Evernote is an online archiving tool. It is a suite of software and services that allows users to save and categorize any number of notes or pieces of information that might be in the form of a text note, Webpage, excerpt from a Website, voice memo, photograph, Twitter post or even a handwritten note. This information can be organized in folders and assigned tags, thus facilitating later search and retrieval. A similar product bundled with the latest versions of Microsoft Office is called OneNote.
To quote Evernote’s Website, “Remember everything. Use Evernote to save your ideas, things you see and things you like. Then find them all on any computer, phone or device you use.” Evernote’s icon is an amalgam of an elephant silhouette and a Post-it®. That pretty much says it.
The data is saved using cloud technology. The data stored can be accessed on any computer that has the software downloaded. Even if a computer does not have the program installed, a person still can access the material through a Web interface. Evernote works on standard operating systems. I use it with Windows; it’s available for the Mac, as well.
A key to Evernote’s functionality is its availability as a smartphone application. An app has been published for Blackberry and Android. I use the iPhone version. What this means is that one can add bits of information to an Evernote account via smartphone either by text, photo, voice or Web browser. After synchronization, the information is then visible and accessible across the software’s many platforms. In other words, I can add a piece of information to my Evernote account on my iPhone and seconds later access it from any computer with Internet access, including an iPad.
Another key to the software’s functionality is its ease of use with other programs. Once Evernote is installed on a PC it is integrated with the Web browser. If I want to save a Webpage to Evernote, I can right-click on the page and the menu that appears on the screen has as an option specifically saving the page to Evernote.
Evernote also coordinates with JotNot, a document-scanning app for smartphones. I can take a picture of a document with the smartphone camera, and JotNot will convert it to a scanned document. Then the JotNot program can send the scanned document directly to my Evernote account.
Evernote also coordinates with the Associated Press smartphone mobile app. Let’s say I’m reading an article from the AP on my iPhone and I would like to save it for later use. I can send the article directly to Evernote.
The software coordinates, as well with Olive Tree’s BibleReader app. This means I can jot down notes while listening to a sermon using BibleReader and save the notes directly to Evernote for later categorization.
Perhaps the best thing about Evernote is that it’s free. There is a premium subscription available for $45 annually, and there are a few tradeoffs. The free version is limited to 500 megabites a month; the free version displays ads in the lower left corner. These are relatively unobtrusive and have even contained helpful information for further use of the program. A third tradeoff is a limit on the kinds of files that can be attached to a note. For example, Word files cannot be attached using the free version, but JPEG, PDF, WAV, MP3 and digital ink files can be.
How I Use Evernote in Ministry
I’ve been using Evernote for a little less than a year. It is a powerful organizational tool that is simple to use and flexible. I have about 15 notebooks set up. Notebooks are how notes can be categorized. Some of my notebooks are for personal use, such as music I might want to download or books that pique my interest. For ministry, I have notebooks set up for sermon illustrations, finished sermons, academic subjects (I’m an adjunct professor at a nearby Baptist college), current events, leadership and funerals.
Here’s an example of how I used Evernote and associated apps recently. I had attended the funeral of a brother of one of my church members. The presiding minister shared a very simple, biblical and clear message for dealing with the loss of a loved one. I liked what the preacher was saying and wanted to jot down some notes. If I had pulled out my smartphone it might have appeared that I was texting during a funeral—not good! Instead, I jotted down the speaker’s outline using a pen and the back of the funeral home program.
Previously, I would have taken that scrap of paper and put in a file folder of unfiled material that I later would file using the index card/tape method. With Evernote and a smartphone, I could record the information more quickly, easily and clearly. I took a picture of the scrap of paper and used JotNot to convert it to a scanned document. Then I sent this document to EverNote and specified that it go to my “Funerals” notebook. The next time I sat in front of my PC, I logged on to my Evernote account; sure enough, there the scanned document was in my “Funerals” notebook. The scribbled notes were legible and in digital format for ease of storage and use. I could have printed a hard copy if necessary.
Another example: I was recently on the elliptical and heard a story on NPR that I thought would make a good sermon illustration. I used Evernote to record a voice note and stored it in the sermon illustration notebook. Later at my PC, I retrieved the voice memo, found the story at the NRP Website and copied it to Evernote.
One more: I was reading an article in Time magazine about a salt mine under the city of Detroit. My sermon illustration radar was activated. I pulled out my smartphone and found the article online. I was then able to clip it and send it to Evernote to the “Sermon Illustration” folder, all using the iPhone app.
A few questions remain regarding the use of Evernote for ministry. The first is whether or not to spring for the premium membership. I have not upgraded and have been very satisfied with the free version for as long as I have used the service. I would be more open to upgrading if I started to exceed the monthly data limit; so far I haven’t gotten close to going over the 500 megabite-a-month limit. I also would look into upgrading if I saw an increased need to attach a wider variety of file types to notes.
Not all of the apps mentioned in this article are free. JotNot Scanner Pro is a $1.99 download and well worth it. Olive Tree BibleReader is $.99, with specific Bible translations costing less than $10. I would think that most pastors who have a smartphone already have downloaded BibleReader and at least one translation. AP Mobile is free and is an amazing app all on its own.
Another question to explore is how Evernote compares to other online archiving tools in terms of ministry use. I tried Microsoft’s OneNote program that came bundled with Office 2007. It does not appear to have the ease of use that EverNote has or the simple multi-platform capability that makes Evernote so practical. AP Mobile and JotNot specifically work with Evernote, not OneNote. Using Excel would not afford a person the advantages of the multi-platform features.
Evernote has been a useful discovery for me in ministry. Combined with a smartphone, amazing new ways of collecting and organizing ideas and information are opened up. It has helped me capture, categorize and retrieve all sorts of information for sermons, writing, ministry and personal use.