The Rev. Dave Wilkinson has a lot of experience in soul food – or, as he puts it, "something to chew on that is good for the soul."
That’s how he describes SOUND BITES, a free e-mail publication ministry he founded four years ago in memory of his son, Dustin. Five days a week, he spends typically 30 minutes selecting, formatting and distributing someone else’s words "to chew on." A daily "bite" averages 60 words. Moments after he hits the computer "send" button in his office at First United Methodist Church in Green Bay, Wis., some 800 subscribers have those "bites" to chew on.
"SOUND BITES is a vital part of my ministry," says the ordained deacon and minister of discipleship. "It is part of our communications to our members and part of our ministry to the world."
In conversations with a reporter, he explains how this ministry came about.
Q: Was your initial impulse to begin an e-mail ministry and you named it in memory of Dustin, or to do something in memory of Dustin and it turned out to be SOUND BITES?
A: Over the years, I had collected quotes that pertained to the Christian faith and life in general. I remember back to high school where an English teacher put a quote a day on the board. My maternal grandfather collected quotes as well. Of course, these were pre-personal-computer days. As I read or studied what others had written, I was struck by the profound thought captured in their few short words.
I have accumulated these quotes over the years and categorized them in a computer file. I have used these short quotes in sermons I have preached, in free devotional booklets I have published for our congregation, in small-group studies I have led and in articles I have written. It has been a great resource to me. I often include quotes in the Spirit Alive monthly newsletter that I edit and the weekly First UMC E-News that I send to our members.
During Lent 1999, God prompted me to think about a new idea as to how I might share these thoughts with a broader audience. At the same time, our family was experiencing the first anniversary of the death of our son, Dustin, who died at the age of 16 from a brain tumor. So, on that anniversary, March 29, 1999, we began an e-mail ministry in memory of Dustin that we call "SOUND BITES: Something to chew on that is good for the soul."
Q: Where do you get your material?
A: I do a lot of reading and prep work for classes I teach. I am always flagging quotes there. My wife, Donna, is also on the lookout in books she uses for studies. Other quotes are sent to me by subscribers. I invite them to share a quote that is meaningful to them.
Q: What are your editorial guides for what you select?
A: I don’t have a checklist of criteria. But I do consider whether it is true to my understanding of Scripture, whether it is uplifting and encouraging, whether it might help a subscriber get through the day or grow in their faith, whether it has broad appeal.
Q: What about copyright clearances, as needed?
A: Some of the quotes are "unknown," while others are the author’s name only. For published quotes, where we know the author and source, we always include that. We operate under the "Fair Use" clause of the Copyright Act of 1976. Since many of the quotes we use are copyrighted, we adhere very closely to the guidelines.
Q: Is there a seasonal, lectional, scriptural or other sequence in the selections? Or are they more or less random?
A: There is some obvious seasonal flavor to them, when appropriate. But otherwise they are the randomness of the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
Q: What’s the typical word count per item?
A: On average, each quote is about 60 words contained in a paragraph or two. Occasionally, a quote might be just one sentence. Sometimes, if there is a story involved, it might be twice the average. But generally, my goal is that it is brief enough for someone to take the time to read but long enough to contain some "meat" – "Something to chew on that is good for the soul."
Q: How many people are on the list?
A: When I started in 1999, I sent it to an initial list of 81. After the first year, we had 302, after the second year 475, after the third year 628. We now have 781. Each week, we have new subscribers. Very seldom does anyone unsubscribe from the list.
The list is also growing geographically. I ask new subscribers to let us know what state in the U.S., province in Canada, or other country they live in. We are sending SOUND BITES to at least 35 states, to Canada and South America, and seven countries overseas. Not all of our subscribers tell us where they are, however.
The other thing I have discovered is that subscribers forward SOUND BITES on to family, friends and co-workers; use them as devotionals for small groups or staff meetings; use them in sermons; etc. So the ripple effect is far reaching. Feedback has always been very positive. (See http://www.firstumcgb.org/SOUNDBITES.html.)
Q: Do you have a picture of Dustin or of the family, including Dustin, in the room where you do SOUND BITES? Even if the answer’s "yes," are you aware of having an additional image of him in the back of your mind as you work?
A: Actually I have a picture of Dustin, with our daughter, Lindsay, set as my computer wallpaper. I tell people that I do this ministry in memory of Dustin and to the glory of God. One subscriber from Oklahoma wrote, "What a powerful tribute to Dustin. Thank you so much for your faithful love of him and the gifts you bring to us in cyberspace – through the power of the Spirit."
Q: In what sense, if at all, is this your and Donna’s joint ministry?
A: This began as our family’s ministry, but in reality, I am the nuts and bolts of it; they are my support and inspiration.
I usually send Donna, our other son, Ryan, and Lindsay feedback that I receive, especially when someone says something such as this subscriber from Wisconsin: "Thank you for having the vision to put together something so positive that touches the lives of so many people around the globe. When I check my e-mail each day, I have 20 to 30 e-mail messages. I more often than not end up deleting all of them without even reading them except for one. SOUND BITES is the one thing that I know will be there at the end of a long day that will lift me up, challenge me, inspire me, or just simply comfort me ... it’s my bedtime ‘e-snack.’ So thanks again, and may God continue to bless you and guide you as you continue to provide this wonderful ministry in loving memory of your son."
By Albert H. Lee