By Eddie Pipkin
This is the last in our January series, and the fourth in a series of blogs on how to avoid self-sabotage in our ministries. This week I wanted to revisit a topic that we have covered numerous times from many different angles. It’s one of those topics that is so basic, so fundamental for modern ministry that it boggles the mind how many local churches still botch it. Frequently, when we consult with local churches (whatever the denomination, geographic location, or even the size of the ministry), it’s one of the first things we have to zero in on when churches want to know why more people aren’t energized and engaged with the good work they are doing: it’s the self-sabotage caused by the confused and convoluted presence (or lack thereof) of local ministries in the online world.
These observations are fresh from recent personal experiences (frustrations), but to flip the script, I’m going to lay out some recommendations first before sharing the anecdotal evidence.
#1 – Establish an Online Ombudsman.
This is a person who is passionate about your online presence, detail-oriented, organized, and articulate. This person’s ministry job is to monitor your online presence in all its forms and routinely report back to ministry leaders where there are issues / opportunities / things that are confusing, broken, or just not working the way they should be working. This does NOT have to be the person who technically makes changes, and it probably SHOULDN’T be the person who is responsible for your online strategy and the actual development and production of content. This person’s function is as “consumer” or “reviewer” of all aspects of your online presence (website, social media, e-newsletters, online giving portal, etc.). For some more robustly staffed churches, this could be the staff person tasked with your online strategy, but even in that case, there should be a savvy, independent reader whose mission is to constantly evaluate your online presence and offer suggestions for what’s not working. (They may also, in the spirit of constructive feedback, offer pats on the back for what IS working, of course!) This person should optimally work in conjunction with the content producer / social media auteurs / online editors, but it’s a separate role, a role of independent observer.
The Online Ombudsman should be a person that anyone with a question or suggestion about your online presence has an ability to contact and engage. Such a position and such a process builds ongoing real-time accountability into the system, and many local churches are sorely lacking in such timely accountability. Because many online operations are the responsibility of either volunteers or staff members who are juggling that role as a secondary or tertiary ministry priority, it is very easy for things to fall through the cracks, and it is very easy for known inadequacies to become familiar and forgotten (like a leaky faucet you get used to over time). That’s why it’s important to have someone thinking about the big picture, thinking from a user’s point of view, and thinking without being detoured by the understandable desire to put off the complications of fixing an identified problem.
#2 – Someone should be definitively in charge of your online presence.
This is as important a ministry calling as many of our existing staff and non-pad leadership roles. Here’s the thing: There’s a difference between providing content and managing the back-of-house technical processes. It is the rare bird who can fill both of those roles with style and proficiency. Many churches make the honest mistake of selecting someone with good IT skills/background for this role, but what users notice is the content. They just expect links and log-ins to work the way they are supposed to work, without hassle, and that expectation is so ingrained into our daily online experience at this point that you don’t really get brownie points for a website that’s functional. You get brownie points for content that is clearly organized, cleverly presented, relevant in real time, and engaging to the user.
These goals are rarely achieved if done by committee, done by an IT genius with no PR DNA, done by a passionate volunteer whose ideas are thwarted by staff or volunteers who secretly find this aspect of ministry to be a hassle and distraction from their “important” work, or done by the office administrator as a side gig so they can check it off the weekly “assigned chores” list.
Optimally this is going to be a creative person who is backstopped by some gifted techies, part of your core leadership team (so they intimately understand the vision you are pursuing), working in partnership with your staff and volunteer ministry leads (who are going to be the core group posting pics and writing ministry blurbs), and offered training and resources that position this person for success.
You should be able to with pride and confidence to anybody who asks, “Here is _____, my online ministry leader!”
# 3 – Get the technical end sorted and streamlined.
There are many ways to solve the technical side of having a professional looking online presence. There are many turnkey solutions offered by major players (i.e. Constant Contact for distribution, etc.) and hosting sites. There are small hosting companies in every community. There are individuals within your church who are have professional knowledge or are hobbyists with skill. There are resources through the UMC and other organizations with packages and guidance for getting started or getting better. The key is to pick a strategy and get it in place and make it as streamlined and easy to use as possible. Your budget will affect your menu of choices, but there are good choices at every level. Don’t get too ambitious, but do lean into the context and human resources you have at hand to be as creative as possible (and this is a great modern example of a ministry outlet for persons who have not always been celebrated as meeting the traditional ministry mold) – and once you take the time to get a system in place, it should be responsive to getting glitches fixed. If it’s not, fire whoever is in charge (individual or professional hosting service) and hire someone else, because there are lots of candidates for this kind of work, and if they are not responsive to your needs, it will kill your efforts.
To reiterate, if you are the clergy person at a small church – you are not called to an expert in this stuff – it’s fine if it’s fun for you, but there are people out there who would love to take on this assignment: let them do it. There is no excuse at this point for not having a competent, consistent online presence, and there is no excuse for having web sites and social media interactions that don’t work properly. That’s just sloppy ministry at this point, and it’s poor discipleship.
Focusing on those three goals are essential for long-term success, but once you’ve got them in place, here are some do’s and don’ts to paste on the wall and observe as the “10 Commandments for Online Ministry”:
- Make sure all online info is timely and accurate. This issue has haunted churches large and small since web pages existed. As a basic standard, info should be up-to-date, from calendar listings, descriptions of classes and outreach opportunities, staff pages, worship service archives, all of these things should be accurate and updated.
- Make sure your links work. This is a great example of something that a person who is dedicated to “inspections” would care about and value — and a user would be completely frustrated by if not working properly.
- Organize content intuitively. Think about what people are looking for and give them a glide path to that info. Lots of content is great, but it should be layered in a way that gets people to what they are truly seeking first.
- Give people an easy path to a real person. At every stage on every page, there should be a clear link to interact with a flesh-and-blood human. We are in the business of people, not programs.
- Post content relevant to your unique context. Swap out those air-brushed shots of perfect people and use photos from your own ministries. Share stories! Don’t just have lists and maps and statements and announcements!
- Post content that clearly establishes your ministry personality. A person should be able to visit your site and your social media feeds and get a true sense of your vibe as a congregation — what’ s important to you — why you matter to your community.
- Share content across all your platforms. If you are posting photos from an event, they should be posted across all available outlets. This should become disciplined second nature, because users tend to live in platform silos (and they mostly on visit you at their chosen silo).
- Let creativity shine. There has never been a more direct outlet for explosive creativity, and your congregation is filled with creative, inspired people. Why are our social media feeds reduced to announcements of upcoming events?
- Give people external links to other resources that can fuel their journey. Link, link, link to all that great content out there that is inspiring your team. Share! Make your feeds the #1 comprehensive resource for folks who want to grow in their discipleship.
- Be sure you are accessible on mobile devices. Most everyone is accessing your content from their phones. Make it accessible and enjoyable whatever device they are using.
As for my recent personal experiences which inspired this blog topic, they were in no way exotic. You and I encounter these frustrations in our online existence every day, and as more and more of our lives move into the internet ether, we navigate them just like we do the continual frustrations of the real world (although perhaps with even less patience — the online world makes us cranky about instant gratification). So, when we meet glitches at a commerce site, aggravations at a news site, annoyances at an entertainment site, or confusion at a site that’s supposed to be bringing us clarity, we take action to switch to a competitor / alternate.
Let’s not let this be the fate of our local ministry (based on as silly a development as a frustrating website).
Here are some of the online scenarios I wrestled with in just the past week:
- An online reservation process for an exhibit at my local science center that did not work the way it was supposed to (and no easy path provided for resolution of the problem).
- An announcement of a new contact person for a local food bank ministry, but no information about how to actually contact her (either by email or phone) and no such listing anywhere on the organization’s website, compounded by no one returning calls from the organization.
- Enthusiasm about “getting connected” to ministry and “answering our call,” without reinforcing material to take next steps to do so either on the church website or in social media feeds.
- Weeks of announcements of a major event at the church, followed by no after-reports, pictures, or stories from participants about what happened.
- Repeated references to becoming stronger disciples without any links to any practical resources to grow as a disciple (other than appeals to join this standing group or that standing group).
- A giving portal that is convoluted and confusing.
You could each easily add to this list. Think about how you felt in those moments. Then think about your expectation for how you hope people will feel as they encounter your ministry online. It’s a subject worthy of our thoughts . . . and prayer . . . and action!
How are you doing on your online presence? Do you have a clear strategy? Do you have the right people involved? Are you providing people with clear, timely, and functional connections that work the way they are supposed to work? Are you also inspiring them along the way?