By RENEE WEBB
Anyone trying to determine the best night to have a family birthday party or get together with friends knows how difficult it can be to make schedules of multiple people work.
For parishes with hundreds of volunteers, the art of scheduling volunteers to serve in the various ministries can be extremely time-consuming.
“We have over 300 volunteers and our office staff was scheduling them manually with pen and paper,” he said.
Through priest friends in New York, Father Lona learned about a computer software program – Ministry Scheduler Pro – that could automate the process. Shortly thereafter, he learned some parishes in the Diocese of Sioux City such as the cluster parishes in Manson, Pomeroy and Rockwell City, as well as All Saints Parish in Le Mars, were also using the program.
The parochial vicar brought the automated schedule up to St. Mary’s pastor, Father Tim Friedrichsen, who agreed it was a good idea. The scheduler, noted Father Lona, was seen as an avenue to best utilize the time of the staff.
“We got it in January and it took us time to set it up – to input information, to set up parameters and familiarize ourselves with it. We started using it and went live with it for the March calendar,” Father Lona explained.
At St. Mary’s the scheduler is used to fill the volunteer ministries of lectors, altar servers, Eucharistic ministers, hospitality and children’s liturgy of the word for both English and Spanish Masses.
“It is a Cloud-based system. People can put in their preferences – when they can serve, how often and in what capacity,” said Father Lona. “It runs an algorithm and uses all of the information you put in to create a schedule. You make the schedule public and give people access to it so the users on their end, at their home computer, can make swaps, find replacements and put in their availability.”
Volunteers always had to find their own substitutes, he noted, but this automates that process. If a volunteer needs to swap a date, the system will send out a message to all other volunteers who are available at that time.
“Hopefully, with 300-plus volunteers someone will say they can take it,” Father Lona said. “It really reduces no-shows and not only that, it will send out alerts to remind people when they are scheduled to serve or if there is a spot to be filled.”
Volunteers have the opportunity to submit their availability each month online for the following month’s schedule. They can get as detailed as they want with their availability, such as they only wish to serve on the second Sunday of the month at a particular Mass, or they may wish to take the summer off.
“It really gives people the power to list their availability and our staff doesn’t have to keep track of it,” said Father Lona, who noted there is less chance for error or things to be forgotten when volunteers input their own availability.
Once the schedule has gone live, then it’s up to the volunteer to make swaps or find replacements.
At the present time, Father Lona said the alerts are sent out through email but the system does have the capacity to add cell phones. Because there are added charges for that service, he said they want to make sure the process is working smoothly before they would take that step.
While Father Lona was instrumental in bringing this process to the parish and in helping to set it up, he stressed the fact that the office staff are doing the day-to-day maintenance of the system.
Even though the automated scheduler is new, it appears to be working.
“My impression is that it works because it has made people show up early to prepare and people have shown up when they are supposed to. That makes it easier for me to then just be able to do Mass and know people are here,” Father Lona said.
After the initial input goes into the system, he said it’s easy to make updates.
Father Lona anticipates that ministry sign-ups will also be simple, allowing parishioners to sign up almost immediately online and have constant contact with the parish. Plus, the program allows the parish to seek volunteers for special or additional liturgies.
“For example, for Holy Thursday – a Mass that is not regularly scheduled, we can set it up and recruit volunteers all electronically. It saves us from having to put out sign-up sheets or make phone calls,” Father Lona said.