Palm Power: PDA programs for pastors

Iappreciate a good gadget. Many times a day, I reach into my pocket for my personal digital assistant (PDA) in order to look up a phone number, schedule an appointment, or update my to do list. When I do, no one around me looks twice. However, if I pull out my Palm Pilot (one brand of PDA) to do a pastor-specific task—look up a Bible verse, write out the melody to a new song I’ve just heard, review my prayer list, or brush up on my Greek at the bus stop—peers and passersby rubberneck without shame. Of course, that may be because these powerful little machines have an undeniable “gee-whiz” factor. But I suspect that some may be realizing that PDAs are more than just expensive toys; they can function as legitimate ministry tools.

For a good article offering basic information about PDAs, see ttp:// bguide/0,guid,11,page,1,00.asp. What follows here is a small sampling of the PDA software I’ve found most helpful in my own work.

Organizational Basics

All PDAs come with a standard suite of flexible organizational tools: an address book, a date book (which can be viewed by day or week or month), a to do list (customizable by categories and priorities), and a rudimentary notepad. You enter data into these PDA programs by tapping a small stylus on a touch screen. You can also enter data using organizational software installed on your desktop or laptop computer. A plug and play cable connects the PDA to the PC, you push a button, and the two talk to each other, keeping all your files backed up and in sync with each other.

I find it terrifically convenient to have these life-management tools not only on my PC, but always with me, in one place

—my back pocket. So, for example, if I’m walking across campus and bump into a student who wants to set up an appointment with me, I make an entry in my datebook and set an alarm to remind me 5 minutes before the meeting. Back in my office, I sync up, and the new appointment is stored on my PC computer. Since I’m always juggling more mental bowling pins than I can handle, the greatest benefit of these organizational programs is this: I entrust a few of the “pins” to the machine, and it keeps them aloft, freeing me to concentrate on more important things.

Bells and Whistles

Beyond this basic software common to all PDAs are a handful of hardware dependent bells-and-whistles programs. Some PDAs, for example, are equipped with a camera and the ability to view pictures (I’ve used mine to show people pictures of some of the unusual worship spaces I’ve visited in my travels). Some have voice recorders, something like a limited-length dictation machine. Some are equipped with MP3 players. I keep audio files of Jazz Psalms ( on mine. The biggest-selling machines these days are hybrids between the PDA and the cell phone. This means that you can look up a phone number and call from the same device.

Wonders from the Web

These hybrid machines also provide up-to-the-minute access to e-mail and to the Internet. (More pedestrian PDAs can still Web-surf while syncing to a connected computer.) Though I don’t like the idea of bringing my e-mail wherever I go, I am grateful for Web content I can download as I

need it or automatically every time I sync. For example, I often download MapQuest maps ( to my PDA when I’m about to drive to an unfamiliar place. I appreciate the devotional “thought for the day” that I get each morning from For more substantive daily devotions, I recommend the ELCA website ( with a daily reading that follows the lectionary. It also offers prayers, sermon starters, and the full Revised Common Lectionary readings for Years A, B, and C.

Working with Words

Document-editing software ( and a hardware add-on like a portable keyboard turn my Palm into something very like a laptop computer. I regularly store

documents on my Palm that I’m working on (sermon ideas, overdue RW articles, etc.), and other long documents I won’t edit, but that I want to have available for reference (Calvin’s Institutes and the Heidelberg Catechism, for example).

But these are just the tip of the software iceberg. There are all sorts of additional programs available on the Internet. Most of them cost between $9 and $29. There are programs to help people in just about every imaginable human activity—athletics, medicine, education, philately—and my primary passions, music and worship.

I Got Rhythm

One of the most useful programs on my Palm is a portable guitar chord dictionary. I use it to look up tricky jazz chords I don’t have yet at my fingertips. I simply choose the root and the particular chord I want, and the program shows me its shape on the guitar neck, offering me a choice of voicings. There are quite a few of this type of program, but I like “Guitar Power” by Jana Software ( I’ve also made use of Music Tools mtools), a smart little program that provides a diagram of the circle of fifths, an adjustable Hz tuner, and a metronome. More than once I’ve watched the flashes on my Palm screen to get a tempo in my head before beginning a song.

Poetry, Parsing, and Prayer

Of course, a pastor’s primary tool isn’t a widget, it’s the Word. Some people are amazed that the entire Bible can be crammed onto a little PDA; actually the most minimal memory configuration has enough room to fit the entire Bible many times over. Olive Tree Software (www.olive products) offers the Good Book in dozens of versions, including KJV, ASV, and NRSV. You can get the NLT and NIV from Both these sites also offer many Bible study tools and versions of the Bible in dozens of other languages, including the original Greek and Hebrew. For those who need a refresher, there is plenty of language help available. I find vocabulary flash cards to be the most helpful in keeping my linguistic muscles toned, and use MiniFlash from SouthPaw Solutions (

One advantage to the digitized Scripture is the computer’s capability to search and find just what you’re looking for. Where was that passage about Balaam? What was the name of the centurion’s daughter Jesus healed? How many times are “wings” referred to in the Psalms? The answer is a few stylus taps away. It’s true that when I peruse my Palm at church, I sometimes get funny looks from my evangelical friends as they pull out their own gilt-edged, leather-bound tomes. But I usually win the sword drills.


Of course, efficiency and organization aren’t signal Christian virtues, and they shouldn’t be pursued uncritically, whether through technology or by other means. I’d rather be known for being forgetful, while having loads of patience and compassion. These higher gifts the Spirit gives; but there’s more room for me to receive them if I’m not holding on, in my heart and mind, to everything else that I stow away now in my electronic PDA.

Ron Rienstra is associate professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary and co-author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).