Common Characteristics of Successful Online Ministries
Posted by Bill Anderton
There are some basic requirements that must be met whether you build only a simple website, a comprehensive website, a full Internet presence or are elevating a presence to an effective and meaningful online ministry. However, it is very hard to draw neat lines around only a few specific disciplines that are needed; we have to be broad generalists, wearing many hats. This can lead to what appears to be an uncrackable code to beginners. Beginners are often dropped into the deep end of the pool without a very broad range of skills. Obviously, as beginners, they simply lack the experience to be generalists.
Herein is a classic Catch-22. How does a church begin an online project without the experience of a generalist BUT how does one gain the experience without beginning a project?
It is possible to provide a list of the common characteristics of other successful church Internet projects. Such a list can provide guidance for all of those starting new online projects. Importantly, such a list can be made up of things that appear obvious once they have been explained.
If you haven’t yet learned these things through experience, a checklist can provide lots of insight into what a new project must do in order to have a positive outcome.
In preparing a new book, I have analyzed hundreds of ministry-related Internet projects to make a list of common basic characteristics that are shared among churches and ministries with have projects with positive outcomes. I present that list here.
The projects I covered were across the full range; simple websites, social media projects, comprehensive Internet presences and full online ministries. Projects came from small churches, medium-sized church and large churches. I also included projects from middle judicatories and national denominations. The scope of the research represented as much of the greater Church that was practicable.
The characteristics presented here are indeed basic; I cannot think of how to reduce or normalize the list further. Also, I do believe all of these characteristics rise to the level of being requirements; nothing from this list can be removed from a project without substantially increasing the risk of the outcome of a project. You could still succeed by skipping one or more of these characteristics/requirements but good stewardship of projects, and common sense, dictates that you will want to eliminate as much risk as possible.
The resulting list deliberately is very short and easy to wrap your head around. The list is scale/scope independent; it can be applied to large or small projects by large or small churches:
Discernment - The first common thread of all successful church-related ministries that I have analyzed began with prayerful discernment. For even the simplest static church website, discernment is where everything must begin. The more complex projects become as they grow into a multi-faceted Internet presences or a full online ministries, the more important discernment processes become. By discernment, I mean the 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 other ministry of the church, online projects must begin with discernment. Surprisingly, I find many churches that I analyzed bypassed this, the most basic of steps. When asked why, many skipped discernment because they failed to grasp the spiritual potential of the Internet and how it can be used strategically; they thought only tactical terms but then wonder why their website or other Internet assets didn’t perform as well as other churches. This is a time to pray, reflect and discern. If you don’t take away anything else from this blog, take this, “Start with discernment!”
Vision - From the foundation of your discernment work, you need to build a vision for your website, Internet presence or online ministry. By vision, I mean the act of imagination; the mode of conceiving something from the immaterial to manifest your direction learned for your discernment. At this stage, I’m not talking about something that has to be, or should be, too detailed or very concrete. At this stage, your vision should be very broad and high level. Details will be developed in the next planning phase so go for “the big picture” in your envisioning work.
Development Framework - From your discernment and broad vision, you next need to develop both strategic and tactical plans and then execute those plans into reality. Successful projects use some sort of methodology for these important steps. Internet projects are, by their nature, corporative arts so a methodology is important to blend all of the various voices, roles and skills into a whole. While there are many methodologies, for churches and ministries, I often use Jesse James Garrett’s “Nine Pillars of Successful Web Teams,” See my blog of April 17, “Development Frameworks: The Pillars Supporting an Online Ministry” where I write in more detail about this framework. If you don’t use the Nine Pillars, use some sort of framework. You will need the rigor and methodologies that frameworks provide. This is doubly true for beginners; good frameworks can provide roadmaps and structures for moving ahead.
Editorial Operations – Continually adding new and fresh content a website, Internet presence or online ministry is an absolute requirement for a successful project. In all of the projects that I have analyzed, I can’t find a single example of a successful project that didn’t regularly and continuously add fresh new content to the project. The most successful projects added or updated content at least on a weekly basis and many on a multiple-times-per-week basis. In other words, launching any project was just the beginning of ongoing content operations. Successful projects used some sort of editorial-operations processes that were embodied in what could be called mini development frameworks that were specialized for the nature of their continuous operations. These ongoing content operations were scaled to be appropriate for the resources of the sponsoring church. In my analysis of successful projects, editorial operations were not necessarily large; many were actually quite small. However, in all cases, they were very efficient by deliberate design. Continuous editorial operations to produce content have to be efficient because these processes have to be performed every week over a long period of time. Inefficient processes didn’t survive very long; they either resulted in being replaced by more efficient processes or resulted in the project ceasing to be successful. I wrote about one such failure in my three-part series “Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts” on April 12, 15 and 16.
Team – You need a team people to not only plan and execute your project to the point of launching it but also, importantly, to perform the on-going operations of your website after your “build” phase is over. Your team will span three broad areas: (1) Governance - depending on your polity, your Board of Directors or another body within your church that establishes policies, authorities and provides resources for the project; (2) Leadership – this includes both clergy and laity leaders who will recruit, train and manage the team; and (3) Labor force – this includes the people who will have some role in the project such as content authors, editors, designers, etc. You team will also include any outside professionals you may engage to assist your church. You team will also need some structure and organization; something along the lines I suggested in my blog of April 16, “Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts - Part 3.” Team members can wear multiple hats and fill more than one role; indeed, they often do. Teams can also be teams-of-one but this does introduce some danger because of the levels of long-term commitments that are needed. Building and operating websites, Internet presences or online ministries are lots of work! Also, these projects have to be operated over the long term; years and years. At some point, you are likely to suffer the loss of your team-of-one, for any number of reasons, and therefore all of your resources in one action. Rather than teams-of-one, I much prefer to use small teams there the leader of the team mentors and trains a couple of others; first to share the load and then to take over if needed. In other words, teams-of-one MUST do succession planning anticipating the time when the critical person has to step aside for any number of perfectly valid reasons.
Budget – Your project will require financial resources; large or small, your online efforts will require some amount of money. Yes, more is better, but even small budgets can produce desirable outcomes if spent intelligently. Be prepared to allocate as much budget as you can. Also, think through the long term. Don’t budget for just the current year; think five and ten years out. Also, think about systematic spending such as starting small, producing some initial results and then increasing your spending over a series of years. In the grand scheme of things, budgets for full online ministries are not all that much. In my research, I heard many times of churches that funded large vibrant online ministries for some fraction of what the churches previously spent on just their Yellow Page advertising. Church governance bodies should NOT be afraid to spend money in this area but, wisely, add some conditions. Start with a reasonable budget, let the web team become productive and then scale up the budget as the team demonstrates that the website, Internet presence or full online ministry is beginning to work.
Support – By support, I mean a network of people from within the church who provide the team with practical and emotional support; overt acts that provide all involved in the project with substantiation and encouragement. The most successful projects have broad and very visible support from within their congregations. Support for the morale of the team, including prayers, helps a lot. You will be asking a lot of your team so support them! Support from other church leaders or the congregation may not be spontaneous, particularly if the church has had a spotted past of poor websites. This is both normal and understandable. Support may have to be built; you may have to "socialize" the project and explain your new improved vision. Also be prepared to regularly report the results of your project as it begins. It will build confidence and ultimately support. Also, encourage your congregations to use your online assets and pass the word around in places like their personal social media can help a lot. I found a high correlation between successful projects and congregations with institutional cultures that encouraged the use of these technologies. Even if you have an older congregation, developing an embryonic Internet culture can be a well-received (and needed) project.
If you are just starting a new project, either building a site for the first time or upgrading your existing online assets, take a close look at this list. Then, assess where you and your church or ministry stand. It is important to be honest with yourself; you won’t be so much as scoring yourself but rather looking for any missing components that you need to put in place or beef up before you begin. Look for gaps and places where you may lack strengths.
If you know where you stand going in, you will know what you have to work on first.
Tomorrow, I am going to write about a phase that is often overlooked: how you get started from the very beginning. I mean the absolute beginning; the "pre-work" one should so using this list before you set the wheels in motion.
Category: (04-13) April 2013 Tag:
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