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Online Ministries Community Blog

Apr 17

Development Frameworks: The Pillars Supporting an Online Ministry

Posted by Bill Anderton

The vast majority of church websites do little in the way of strategic planning. All too often, strategic planning is completely overlooked, and tactical planning is minimal and reactionary.

Since, by definition, online ministries have lots more moving parts (components), the need for planning is even greater. Good websites, social media and online ministries don’t just happen; they are intentional acts.

nine_pillars_400w.jpgAlso, websites and online ministries, like other ministries too, are corporative arts; formed into a unified body of work from individual parts, including people. Therefore, intentional acts involving multiple parts and people require both strategic and tactical planning if, for no other reason, to coordinate the troops. There has to be a method to the madness; a method that forms the pillars that support the development and operations of an online ministry!

Doing planning and having a methodology for doing planning is necessary because these types of projects inherently want to fail. Left to their own devices, more projects fail or are seriously challenged than succeed unless worked:

  • There are many stakeholders in such projects
  • Many different views, often at odds with each other
  • Consensus must be built to support implementation
  • Budgets are usually very dear
  • Implementation lead-times can be drawn out
  • Can't afford too many false trails or be very inefficient

While many churches may not be familiar with formal planning methodologies used in high-tech projects, they are common and almost always used on all serious web projects in the professional world. They can be very easy to learn and apply.

Planning methodologies are sometimes called “development frameworks” that are set of principles, models, disciplines, concepts, and guidelines for delivering technology solutions. They were born out of movements to capture and share best practices within the industry and foster mindsets for delivering better solutions with more positive features such as:

  • Executing faster
  • Requiring fewer people
  • Involving less risk
  • Staying within budget
  • Enabling higher quality results

Development frameworks won’t prevent you from making bad decisions. But, they will help you ask all the right questions before you make important decisions and therefore greatly improve the odds that you will make better, more informed decisions.

Development frameworks also help with getting team members to “play nice" together. Getting church volunteer teams to work together is often like herding cats. Development frameworks help a great deal by giving everyone a voice in the process and properly channels and organizes their input that can often be very diverse and it is not uncommon that some good-faith opinions are diametrically opposed. Development frameworks instill and reinforce a sense of professionalism, collegiality and civility.

There are a number of development frameworks. Some are very complex and detailed. Others are simpler and more streamlined. Which framework you use should be the one that fits your team. However, it is important that you use one! Almost all of them will provide the important rigor and structure that your team needs.

The development framework that I use is based on a well-known one that I slightly modified for churches and online ministries by adding an additional important step. I felt that this was necessary because all of the development frameworks that I know about were made for use in commercial companies. As church-related ministries, we have an additional phase that needs to be added as a baseline element in any framework: discernment!

In a general church context, discernment is a series of steps we take to seek direction from God as part of spiritually-centered discipleship that opens us to God’s movement in our lives and to follow the direction and guidance He gives us through His grace. Just like any ministry of the church, online ministries must begin with discernment.

Before I begin any process using a development framework in a church, I conduct a formal discernment process with the church and its web team as the foundation on which all other planning phases are based. Discernment becomes the underpinning of a successful online ministry project.

I will write more about the discernment process as applied to online ministries in a future blog posting.

The basic development framework that I used was created by the well-known information architect and web user interface expert Jesse James Garrett and is called “The Nine Pillars of Successful Web Teams.” Jesse is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Adaptive Path, a design firm with offices in San Francisco, CA and Austin, TX. Jesse is a widely recognized technology product designer and the author of the book, “The Elements of User Experience.”

In Jesse’s blog of July 9, 2003, he put forth the concept of the Nine Pillars:

“Every Web team has its own take on dividing up roles and responsibilities and implementing processes for design and development. Formal titles, job descriptions, and reporting structures can vary widely. But the best teams I’ve encountered have one important thing in common: their team structure and processes cover a full range of distinct competencies necessary for success.

I’ve come to think of these competencies as the Nine Pillars. In a successful team, we can quickly and clearly identify which team members have which of these nine competencies, and where these competencies come into play in the design and development processes. When the system seems to be breaking down, it’s often because one of the pillars is missing, either from the team structure or from the process.”

I like the Nine Pillars because it is a concise graphic description of the core roles and steps in website development. It is simple enough to be presented on a single page. The Nine Pillars is widely embraced and used in the professional web industry. It is small and compact, but comprehensive enough to provide guidance. While there are larger and even-more-comprehensive frameworks that I use if needed, the Nine Pillars fit the planning capabilities of churches rather nicely.


I am going to spend some time below introducing the Nine Pillars framework because it takes a lot of the mystery out of the process of building web presences.

The Nine Pillars also makes clear where many church we projects go wrong. Many church web teams, with all of the best intentions, simply jump into the project without doing any homework, or follow-up for that matter. Websites are complex and it would take a pretty-experienced generalist to know everything one would need to know about building and operating even a small website. However, even an experienced generalist would NOT know “what” to build without doing the necessary and needed user research. Like all development frameworks, the Nine Pillars helps you “know what you don’t know” so you can identify and fill any gaps.

It has been my experience from doing case studies of church websites and online ministries, particularly of the projects that go wrong, inexperienced web teams NOT using a development framework simply jump directly to the “Concrete Design” phase. This was the case in the analysis I wrote about in my recent “Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts” postings.


Just jumping into the Concrete Design phase obviously bypasses eight of the other pillars. As such, it misses all of the important information and guidance that these other steps provide. Projects that jump directly to this phase, at best, under-serve their church and, most often, utterly fail to provide any meaningful benefits to the church even when they manage to make a working website.

In Jesse’s blog, he describes each of the Nine Pillars as follows. I’m quoting his blog directly, along with my comments.

User Research: User-centered design means understanding what your users need, how they think, and how they behave — and incorporating that understanding into every aspect of your process. User research provides the raw observations that fuel this insight into the people your site must serve.

My comments: Be sure to understand that your “users” mean ALL of the people who will interact with the site. Yes, that certainly means web visitors, but it also means your congregants and staff as well as your content authors, web editors, administrative staff. “Users” mean everybody!

Site Strategy: Defining your own goals for the site can be surprisingly tricky. Arriving at a common understanding of the site’s purpose for your organization, how you’ll prioritize the site’s various goals, and the means by which you’ll measure the site’s success are all matters of site strategy.

My comments: This almost-always-overlooked-step is very critical because herein are all of the important things that determine almost everything else you do! Also, figure out how you are going to integrate social media into the project. Websites and social media should be integrated and work synergistically together.

Technology Strategy: Web sites are technologically complex, and getting more intricate all the time. Identifying the technology strategy for the site — platforms, standards, technologies, and how they can all interoperate — is essential to avoiding costly mistakes.

My comments: Many church web teams may be ill-equipped to perform this step unless you are blessed in having “geeks” in-house. If you don’t, consider using a good technology consultant for this step.

Content Strategy: Content is often the reason users come to your site. But what content can you offer to meet your users’ expectations? How much content is appropriate, and what form should it take? What style or tone should it have? Before you can produce that content, you need to answer fundamental content strategy questions such as these.

My comments: Also consider the frequency of your content updates. More so that many commercial websites, churches often WANT returning visitor and deeper on-going virtual relationships with your users than is common in many websites. Returning visitors will want to see fresh content. Also, again, be sure to think about your social media content in this phase too.

Abstract Design: Information architecture and interaction design translate strategic objectives into a conceptual framework for the final user experience. These emerging disciplines addressing abstract design are increasingly recognized for their value in the Web development process.

My comments: Abstract Design is a good place to begin to think about the organization of you website and how people will navigate among its various major sections and pages. Abstract Design is almost always done in wire-frame only; you are dealing with big concepts here so don’t become too detailed. In other words, Abstract Design is not the Concrete Design phase.

Technology Implementation: Building technical systems involves a lot of hard work and specialized knowledge: languages and protocols, coding and debugging, testing and refactoring. The more complex your site, the more important a competency in technology implementation becomes.

My comments: This is another place where having your own geeks on your web team is important. If you don’t, again, turn to outside help.

Content Production: Knowing what content you need isn’t enough. You also need to know how you’ll produce it. Gathering raw information, writing and editing, and defining editorial workflows and approvals are all part of content production.

My comments: This is a very important planning step as well as in its execution. Know the sources of content and who you will need to recruit to develop the all-important content you will need to fulfill your Content Concept. Also, think about the full editorial process her (see my blog posting of April 11th, “Minimal Editorial Skills Needed For A Church Webmaster To Thrive.”

Concrete Design: Before the abstract design can become a fully realized user experience, you must determine the specific details of interfaces, navigation, information design, and visual design. This realm of concrete design is essential to creating the final product.

My comments: Don’t be afraid to engage a talented designer for this phase. It isn’t as expensive as you might fear particularly when you have done your planning and foundation work in the Nine Pillars; your designer will how specifically what you are looking for.

Project Management: The hub that binds all the tactical competencies together as well as the engine that drives the project forward to completion, project management requires a highly specialized set of skills all its own. Neglecting this area often results in missed deadlines and cost overruns.

My comments: This is another important step that is often overlooked by church web teams. The more you can commit your project to paper (or online management tool) the better!

How long it takes to move through all nine pillars varies directly with both the size of your project and the experience of your web team.

On small church projects confined to just a website, with good leadership, I have seen this happen in less than 30 days (from beginning to the launch of the new site.)

If you are doing a large website or a full online ministry with its greater number of moving parts, five to six months is very typical if all steps of Nine Pillars process are done with rigor and great deal of collaboration and conscious-building among all of the stakeholders (from beginning to the launch of the new site.)

In the book, "Web Style Guide" by Patrick J. Lynch and Sarah Horton, the two authors did some great work expanding on the Nine Pillars, including an interesting take on the timing of each step:

“We’ve taken Garrett’s diagram and added a more explicit time dimension and emphasis on the early and continuing role of project management throughout the process of web site development. We also emphasize the importance of getting broad participation and input in the user research and strategic planning stages of your project. The more you hear from stakeholders and potential users, the better your planning and design will be. Early in the process your designs and plans ought to change almost daily, as the iterative tasks of design, user research, and stakeholder input help you refine and improve your ideas. Design iteration is essential in developing the ordered complexity of a large web site.

Later in the process, however, the team should pare down to those core specialists who are building the site. Otherwise, continuing design changes can lead to production churning, wasted effort, and blown schedules. Get broad input early on, make the best site design and project plan possible, and then focus the team on implementing the plan.”


My strong recommendation is for all web teams to do their own Nine Pillars process. If you need outside help, seek it out. However, hiring outside help doesn't relieve you of the need (or the responsibility) of doing your own planning. It will be just helpful to our outside constants too.

If you hire outside people to help, be careful of engaging too much of a “specialist” who may want to provide an alternative to the Nine Pillars process. Websites and online ministries are, by necessity and practice, cover broad sets of skills. For example, if you hire a specialist, such as a graphics design, you may get a biased result that over-weights the graphics in the process at the expense of other important aspects of the site. Specialist often know only their specialty and there is a lot of truth in the saying, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail!”

It is okay that a specialist has and uses another development framework. Just make sure that it is at least as comprehensive and the Nine Pillars. Talk to them about it before you engage them.

Development frameworks are important. We don’t go through these processes just because we like to split hairs or engage in unnecessary exercises. I’ve been doing this a long time and whenever I skip employing a framework, I regret it and the resulting site suffers. It is absolutely necessary to get all of the steps right! Also, I have found that frameworks are one of the few ways to coordinate and reconcile all of the different views of the important stakeholders in churches.

“Measure twice and cut once!” is good advice.

Category: (04-13) April 2013   Tag:

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