May 17

Could TechOptimization+mobility automate the confessional and save the Church?

In various forms of Christianity (most notably the Roman Catholic Church) confessing your sins plays a major role in the life of both priests and congregation.  Yet this is, in business terms, an awkward and inefficient process.  In this analysis Constellation Research considers how (hypothetically) technology optimization when combining mobile phone, VOIP, call center and CRM technologies could help the faithful, solve a long term manpower problem and open up huge revenue opportunities (even if many of the latter would have Martin Luther turning in his grave).

In the regular life of the Roman Catholic believer everyone is supposed to go to church to confess his or her sins to the priest, have penances administered and obtain absolution.  When you enter most Roman Catholic Churches there is at least one confessional (booth) in which a priest will sit while the sinner (if you have not sinned you do not need to confess, but it is almost impossible not to be a sinner) kneels outside and talks through a grill (to preserve anonymity) about all the ill-deeds he or she has committed.  The priest listens, decides what recompense (penance) the sinner must make — perhaps the recitation of 20 Hail Marys and a couple of Lord’s Prayers or to make selected readings from the Bible — and then he offers absolution.  Once the penances are complete the sinner is sin-less — and ready to start afresh.

Why is this inefficient? To start with, a sinner cannot confess unless a priest is present in a confessional.  This means that a priest must be available.  But sinners do not make appointments to sin or to confess their sins (though enforcing pre-planned appointments could be an option).

At the same time the Roman Catholic Church is suffering a serious serial decline in men offering themselves to become priests while at the same time and more and more existing priests are retiring.  With fewer priests and just as many churches and faithful it becomes harder to confess.  To make matters worse, the Roman Catholic Church has plentiful assets (think of St Peter’s in Rome or the treasures of the Vatican as well as all those lesser churches) but income (contributions from the faithful) is not rising as fast as costs (including those related to maintaining its assets, many of which are elderly and needing special care).

The business picture is clear.  An inefficient manual process combined with an increasing shortage of staff plus falling income is not a good place to be. Yet the Church might be able to help itself.  How?  With a liberal dose of modern technology optimization:

  • rather than have a priest in a confessional, why not install a ‘smartphone’ (aka, perhaps a ‘Holyphone’) in each confessional; the sinner would still come to Church, go to the confessional and there he or she would press the ‘start-to-confess’ button
  • using WiFi or 2G/3G/4G a VOIP session would be opened to what might be called the VCCC (or Vatican Confessional Call Center), where a priest would take the call, hear the confession, administer the penances, provide absolution and end the call.

This is a straight forward application of modern mobile and other technologies to solve multipe problems.  But think of some of the additional possibilities:

  • as soon as the call arrives at the VCCC it could ask in which language you wish to confess, and direct you to an Italian, Spanish, French or other suitably-language equipped priest
  • if the Vatican were to issue anonymous ‘confess-cards’ in advance which the Holy-phone could read (QR codes, possibly), the use of CRM would enable the priest hearing the confession at the VCCC to bring up the sinner’s past sins (still anonymously), add the new sins and apply more sophisticated sin-remediation penances (in theory improving the spiritual quality of the sinner, who would sin less — though whether this is a desirable business objective for the Roman Catholic Church could be debated)
  • if the confess-cards had a credit or debit card authorization associated, the priest hearing confession might offer to substitute some of those Hail Marys for, say, a financial contribution to the Church; this would then be electronically processed on authorization at the Holyphone (through Visa, Mastercard or even Paypal) with the contribution going straight into the Vatican’s coffers; while this payment process might be innovative, the underlying concept would not be — Martin Luther railed against the selling of indulgences (in effect buying-off your sins) in the 16th Century.

At a stroke the Roman Catholic Church would solve three of its most critical problems — provision of confessional services, manpower challenges and income.  In addition it would improve its services to sinners and by building, via the VCCC, an ever richer database of sins committed would create a resource which could be data-mined for trends about sins as well as penance optimization.  In turn this could have additional favorable consequences:

  • penances would be matched to sins and quantity of sins (though, arguably, this could also have dangers — possibly reducing the incentive to go to confession regularly)
  • additional income could arrive via selling broad data analysis of sins (and preferences) to retailers (think Walmart, Tesco, Carrefour, etc) and even to governments (for sociological trends).

A further logical extension could envision opening a special confessional Skype or Google Voice phone number — which the faithful could use from their own personal mobile phone.  This would have the advantage of replacing the infrastructure and connection cost from confessional to the VCCC while still enabling the VOIP session to the VCCC.  Signing up for the anonymous confess-card ID could be as simple as via a web site, which would also take the payment card details (while always preserving anonymity — the confess-card ID would be the only unique identifier).

Does this all sound too fanciful or hypothetical?  Go and read the WSJ of May 15th (http://on.wsj.com/MeJJ4Q) with its description of the services now offered by Coastal Bank of North Carolina. Technology Optimization combined with mobility is going to impact enterprises and customers in ways you might never have contemplated.  At Constellation Research we see this more and more. Mobility is opening up new possibilities for all sorts of enterprise businesses.

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