AI Ethics: A Guide for Churches

It seems like you can’t go anywhere these days without hearing about artificial intelligence, or AI, and how it’s quickly shaping the world around us. Whether it’s a nightly news story, a viral social media post, or just a conversation with friends after Sunday service; everyone seems to have an opinion.

Will AI define the future? Is it a temporary headline, a passing fad? Or—more than likely—is the truth somewhere in between?

Regardless, such a popular and powerful tool should not be overlooked or dismissed by anyone. Including church leaders.

At Pushpay, our mindset is that the thousands of ministries we serve are led by people who probably didn’t pursue their vocation because of a passion for technology. That’s where we come in. Our mission is to help churches achieve their mission, by building and developing the digital tools and features they need to thrive into the future. And the surge of excitement around AI means that it’s incumbent on us to explore and investigate on behalf of the Church.

We’re going to break down the most important AI considerations for churches below, including the pros and cons of generative AI, and the ethical questions leaders should keep in mind while implementing this new tool.

AI for Churches: The Good, the Bad, and the Techy

A person frustrated at their computer because things are not going their way. They need help.

Artificial intelligence can mean many things, but the specific technology lately dominating the news and reforming hundreds of industries worldwide is what’s referred to as “generative AI.” This refers to a wide swath of machine learning products which lets users provide detailed instructions, then creates output based on those instructions in the form of text, images, audio, and video content.

The appeal of such automation is obvious—and the Church is already getting in on the action.

Why AI is catching on in the church world

Consider how many messages you and your team are currently writing to maintain connection with your community. Make no mistake, AI can certainly handle much of that process for you.

The hours and days required to generate the same amount of messages on behalf of your church could be reduced dramatically. Imagine where you, your staff, and your volunteers could invest your time and talent into if you weren’t glued to your computer, tailoring emails and notifications to individual members, if AI drafted much of that text automatically.

There are other boosts to efficiency as well. Clerical note taking may soon be a thing of the past, if AI can be implemented to do the job for you. Data analysis can become more automated than ever before, allowing leaders to rely less on intuition, and instead make more informed decisions about how they allocate resources and how they could better support their members.

If you’re looking for additional ways to connect with your church, download our free ebook, The Ultimate Guide to Church Engagement!

The potential risks of embracing AI in your ministry

As with any new technology, exciting benefits come with potential pitfalls.

The rapid adoption of AI platforms has raised eyebrows in terms of data security. Machine learning algorithms sift through and collect inconceivably massive amounts of information. How that data is tracked and stored—including the personal info of your congregation—is an ongoing debate worth monitoring. In the same vein, there are legal and liability issues that your leadership will need to investigate to mitigate risk.

Perhaps most relevant to churches, however, are what communications you deliver to your community with AI assistance. Generative programs can create seemingly concrete messages, sermons, and ideas that—at a glance—seem like a fit for your congregation. But those messages may be derived from information, sources, or interpretations that don’t fit your ministry’s worldview. For instance, AI may generate text that lacks a nuanced understanding of scripture, the context surrounding certain references, or fail to invoke an authentic voice of pastoral care and connection.

But those warnings aren’t meant to scare you off! Just be as intentional and mindful with AI as you are with every other part of your ministry.


AI Ethics: How to Make the Right Choices for Your Church

Your ministry is unique. Only you can know the mood, spirit, and readiness of your congregation to begin using AI to drive your shared mission.

That said, there’s a few universal pointers that every church leader should consider as they start exploring AI’s role moving forward.

Tackling data privacy and security head-on

Stories about data leaks and digital information hacks appear in the news all the time. It’s reasonable for your church members and staff to hear “AI” and immediately have similar concerns about this new technology initiative.

As always, transparency is key. Do your research, become articulate on the details, then explain exactly how you’ll ensure the community will be protected from the dangers they might read about online.

You can start by discussing data collection and access control; you’ll pledge to only save the data your church needs, and to strictly limit who has access to the information. Documenting a data privacy policy plan will go a long way here!

Keeping biases in check and promoting responsible data use

Many decisions we make in life are colored by our own preferences and experiences. Early research suggests that AI isn’t so different from people in this regard, and it’s a reality anyone utilizing these systems must be aware of.

Instead of blindly trusting the content AI systems generate for your church, it’s important to retain a human touch. You must keep one eye on all content and analysis being provided by AI, as it may be drawing inferences or conclusions about your church that you, instinctively and from experience, know are simply untrue.

Your membership trusts you, your staff, and all the volunteers who make the ministry they love possible; reassure them that you’re not handing everything to a computer with no oversight.

Striking a balance between high-tech and high-touch experiences

As you can imagine, we’re biased towards technology at Pushpay. We fully believe in digital tools’ ability to support the church, especially in the modern era of ministry. And AI may very well be a powerful tool for taking that concept to the next level.

Sometimes, however, organizations can get so eager about adopting the newest, flashiest tech, they lose sight of the role digital church solutions are meant to play; they’re tools to assist in building faith, connection, and belonging in a community. However, if that community feels new tech is achieving the opposite and actually devolving their connection with ministry and the Church, perhaps the generative and automated benefits of AI aren’t the right fit.

The balance in every community is different. Rapidly adopting AI may thrill some congregations and spur unprecedented growth; in others, even the hint of new-wave tech might startle members.

As always, only you can know your church. Keep that idea front of mind as you follow this next critical step in adopting AI.


Crafting Your AI Ethics for Churches Playbook

AI is taking the administrative workload, allowing church staff to engage in more productive, strategic meetings

Once your initial AI meetings have ended, when the community’s questions and concerns are answered, and the best route for your ministry has been chosen, there’s still one major task left; making sure everyone’s on the same page.

Documenting policies governing how your church will utilize and engage with AI is absolutely essential. Here’s a checklist to get you started:

Essential principles for responsible AI adoption

  • Clearly explain how and why AI will play a role in your ministry.
  • Document what data you intend to gather through your tools, and clearly lay out why that data collection drives your goals and vision for the church.
  • Establish how any changes to the policy dictating collection and implementation of data may be handled in the future.
  • Outline who has access to any acquired data—on your staff, and among individuals in the congregation whose data’s been collected.
  • Express a commitment to regularly evaluating if biases in the AI system are creating discrepancies in the church’s mission or ethical framework.
  • Commit to regular reviews of AI’s impact, positive or negative, on your church and community, and pledge to act on those reviews.

Implementing ethical AI policies and practices in your ministry

Once again to stress—get the plan on paper. And that documentation shouldn’t only represent the input of a handful of leaders who were involved in the strategy process. Seek out congregants as well, perhaps some with a technology background, as well as a handful of influential members who could best speak to the mood of the community.

After that, remain transparent, and be willing to adjust the strategy as needed. If your initial plan works, great! If you quickly realize there’s a need to modify the direction, embrace it! And if, after all that hard work, it’s becoming evident that the plans you’ve put in place are more trouble than they’re worth, treat it as a learning experience and move on!

The Importance of Using Technology that Protects Congregant Data

Some people will always be hesitant to jump into the deep end of the pool. In the case of AI, not everyone might be willing to accept and recognize this next-gen tool’s potential for ministry.

The most common hesitation on many church leaders and members’ minds tends to stem from the data security associated with diving into such a new technology.

Since Pushpay’s inception over a decade ago, we’ve never taken digital security lightly. Our products are fully PCI-DSS Compliant—the highest level available to payment processors. And long before AI became a viral trend, we’ve used machine learning algorithms to protect churches from fraud protection.

Security is a serious matter for us, just as it is for you. If you’d like to hear more about the comprehensive measures we take to ensure your church’s data—or any of the other first-in-class tools we offer—take a self-guided tour of our latest features now, and consider a one-on-one demo with one of our Pushpay experts. We’re waiting and willing to see how together we can take your church to the next level.


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