Church in the age of algorithms and AI:

Opportunity or minefield?

Sam Neves, MA, is the associate director of Communication, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Humanity has always derived its perception of competence from a person’s ability to articulate cohesive thoughts. In other words, the more clear, nuanced, and logical someone’s language is, the more competent we perceive them to be. The same applies to empathy. Our sense of how much someone cares for us increases with the vocabulary and sentence structure they use to express their care and concern. The ability to create cohesive and logical forms of communication is one of the main strengths of artificial intelligence (AI).

The advantage of new AI tools for genuinely competent and compassionate clergy is that it enables them to demonstrate this even when they minister in a foreign language or have not had the opportunity of an extensive education. On the other hand, pastors who are not competent or compassionate can now project a false image that does not reflect reality. It allows them to be deceptive, which will lead to dire consequences, especially if they get placed in congregations they are not qualified to lead.

In the ever-evolving landscape of technology, AI is leaving its footprint across a multitude of sectors, and pastoral ministry is no exception. In the face of such changes, it is crucial to balance the opportunities AI provides with the moral and ethical considerations intrinsic to the pastoral role. This is the primary focus of this article.

Using AI as a mentorship tool

The integration of AI into pastoral ministry presents an intriguing opportunity to provide an “experienced mentor” that is always available to local church pastors. Using AI in this context could help them enhance a variety of skills crucial for their role, ranging from theological understanding to leadership and administrative capabilities.

With machine learning algorithms becoming increasingly sophisticated, AI can now be programmed to learn and mimic human conversation, offering nuanced responses and providing relevant information drawn from a vast database. For instance, a pastor could engage in a dialogue with an AI tool about a specific theological concept, gaining insights from the collective wisdom programmed into the AI.

Prompts for such a conversation might include, “Can you explain the concept of divine grace?” or “How has the concept of the Holy Trinity evolved through time?” In response, the AI could pull from theological texts and historical data to provide a comprehensive answer. By broadening the pastor’s theological knowledge, it enables them to present complex ideas more effectively during sermons or teaching sessions.

When it comes to improving leadership and interpersonal skills, AI can serve as a resource by providing communication strategies, conflict resolution methods, and leadership philosophies. Prompts might include, “What are effective ways to mediate a conflict within the church community?” or “How can I communicate this complex idea in a way my congregation will understand?” The AI can provide researched, empirically backed responses that would offer practical guidance.

For administrative and adaptive skills, an AI system could help pastors manage their tasks more efficiently, learn new technologies, or suggest ways to adapt their ministry in response to changes in their congregation or wider com­munity. Questions such as “How can I better organize my weekly schedule?” or “What are effective strategies for engaging younger members of the community?” could produce new insights.

However, the intersection of AI and pastoral work also brings up important ethical and moral considerations. An AI mentor, though highly knowledgeable, is, ultimately, an echo of the information programmed into it. The computer program does not possess the emotional intelligence, intuition, and spiritual discernment that comes from personal human experience. This lack could lead to oversimplifications or misinterpretations of complex pastoral situations.

Moreover, clergy engaging with AI for mentorship must ensure that they do not substitute AI interactions for genuine human connections. It is critical to maintain personal relationships with mentors, congregants, and community members because these relationships form the core of pastoral work.

Furthermore, consider the element of data privacy. Conversations between a pastor and an AI system might involve sensitive information, both personal and related to the congregation. Therefore, robust safeguards need to be kept in place to protect such data.

AI can offer an efficient, accessible, and informative resource for pastors seeking to increase their skills. However, it is important to navigate this intersection cautiously, always keeping in mind AI’s limitations and ensuring that the human touch remains central to pastoral work.

Using AI as a productivity tool

Much has been said about employing AI to increase productivity. For each main function of a local church pastor, I will list the potential productivity benefits and then its risks and how to mitigate those dangers as much as possible.

When considering AI’s moral and ethical implications in pastoral ministry, we come to a central and poignant reality: love, the cornerstone of our pastoral work, is something AI will never truly replicate.

1. Preaching and teaching. For sermon preparation, AI enables the pastor to quickly access a wealth of biblical passages, commentaries, and illustrations. With the ability to generate nuanced and logical communication, AI can help even those with language barriers or limited education to express their thoughts and ideas more coherently.

However, some pastors might overly rely on AI, creating sermons devoid of personal conviction and divine inspiration. AI might project an image of competence and empathy, but it lacks the personal, emotional, and spiritual discernment intrinsic to preaching. It is critical to remember that human beings create AI systems, and the resulting product can reflect their biases, potentially leading to skewed interpretations of Scripture.

Mitigation: Encourage a balanced use of AI. One can use it as a resource in sermon preparation, but the final message should be grounded in the pastor’s personal study, prayer, and spiritual understanding. Only this will ensure authenticity in preaching and teaching, thus upholding the moral responsibility of a pastor.

2. Pastoral care. AI has significant potential in pastoral care, especially in organizing and scheduling. For instance, it can assist in identifying congregational needs based on already recognized patterns, remind pastors of follow-ups they need to make, and help manage the distribution of care tasks in larger congregations. Given its high capacity for empathetic language, AI can also serve as an initial touchpoint for individuals seeking guidance.

Yet, providing comfort and spiritual counsel is a profoundly personal and empathetic task. AI can articulate compassionate-sounding language, but it lacks genuine human empathy and shared personal experiences. The risk of privacy invasion is also substantial, as sensitive conversations could get recorded or potentially misused.

Mitigation: Use AI as a support tool for administrative tasks related to pastoral care but make sure that direct pastoral care always remains a human-led task. Implement stringent data privacy measures and clearly inform the congregation about how their data is used and secured.

3. Administration. AI could drastically improve administrative efficiency, providing tools for managing budgets, staff, volunteer coordination, and church programs. Particularly for clergy who have limited administrative support, AI can streamline such tasks, giving pastors more time for their core spiritual and pastoral responsibilities.

However, decision-making could become depersonalized, potentially leading to determinations based solely on efficiency and not on essential human factors. The congregation’s trust might begin to erode if they feel that decisions involving them are being made impersonally.

Mitigation: Use AI for administrative tasks, but involve human decision-makers in the final decisions. Regularly communicate the use of AI to the congregation and maintain stringent data privacy protocols.

4. Leadership. AI can assist with mentoring as well as providing resources and learning tools. It can even help assess progress in specific programs or other areas of ministry, creating useful data to inform leadership development. It can be especially valuable for pastors leading in a language other than their first.

Nevertheless, leadership development is also deeply personal and context specific. AI lacks the personal intuition, wisdom, and discernment required when mentoring actual potential leaders. Also, it can create a feeling of being “managed by machine” that could be disconcerting to members.

Mitigation: Use AI as an assistive tool in leadership development, but ensure that the core of the mentoring relationship remains human-to-human interaction. Always be transparent about how AI is being used in the process.

5. Community outreach and evangelism. AI can help organize outreach activities, track donations, or even analyze community needs. By making these operations more efficient, it enables a broader outreach and potentially more significant impact.

However, community outreach and evangelism require a deep understanding of human experiences, emotions, and spiritual needs that AI cannot replicate. Overreliance on AI for community profiling could lead to unrecognized bias or exclusion if the algorithms are not correctly managed.

Mitigation: Use AI as a tool to organize and analyze data, but ensure that human-led teams make final decisions and maintain direct contact with the community. Regularly check and adjust algorithms to avoid potential bias and exclusion.

How to think about AI

Not just a content engine, AI is also a reasoning engine. Keeping this differentiation in mind is crucial to maintaining our moral and ethical standards. It is like a calculator for textual content. You will be no less of a mathematician for using spreadsheets and calculators in your analysis. Once you master AI as a tool to reason with, one you can guide in the development of content, the moral and ethical questions that ministers deal with are easier to answer. This is especially true because content strictly generated by AI cannot be copyrighted.

When considering AI’s moral and ethical implications in pastoral ministry, we come to a central and poignant reality: love, the cornerstone of our pastoral work, is something AI will never truly replicate. It is important to remember that despite its remarkable advancements, AI remains only a tool. It is a resource that can aid us in our work, enabling us to reach more people, tailor our sermons more effectively, and manage our time more efficiently. Yet, it is only one aspect of our role.

The heart of pastoral ministry is not in perfect sermons, flawless administrative work, or efficient task management. Instead, it is in the moments of human connection that we share with our congregants, the love we convey through our work, and the love we inspire in our communities. Such moments are uniquely human, born from our capacity to understand, empathize, and genuinely connect with others. As we continue to navigate the intersection of AI and pastoral ministry, let us remember to use the tool wisely without ever losing sight of the genuine love that sits at the heart of our calling.

  1. Scripture is from the New Revised Standard Version.

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Sam Neves, MA, is the associate director of Communication, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

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