Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Religious Leaders...Watch This!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Why I Can't Wait To Be An Usher

Good ushering is church leadership.  Most people don't think of it that way, but it is.  Ushers are spiritual leaders in the church by modeling religious hospitality.  Ushers can really set the tone of a church.

While I am taking a break from my professional work in the church to attend grad school, one of the things that I am looking forward to doing in the church I attend is ushering.  When I say I am looking forward to it, what I mean is that I am doing a happy dance about it.

Why?  Here are some reasons, both semi-silly and serious:

1.  I won't know anybody, and I will want to get to know them.  Ushering is an easy way to come to know the church regulars, and a good way to meet the not-so-regulars.  Within a few months, I may not know everyone's names, but I will know whose names I "should" know (this way I don't have to worry so much about accidentally introducing myself to someone I've met five times already).

2.  Ushering isn't labor intensive in the least, and yet it is high reward. 

3.  Ushering doesn't require a longterm commitment like many volunteer jobs, and since I know I am going to be overcommited in school, I am eager for a way to contribute my volunteer time to a church without getting myself in over my head.

4.  Ushering will help me achieve my goal of being one of those people who has laugh lines in the mix of her wrinkles.  Smiling is good for me.  I am glad for the opportunity to be forced to spend a half hour stretch on Sunday morning just smiling away.

5.  There is no view of the congregation that replaces that of the viewpoint of the usher. 

Can I make a suggestion?  I think everyone should usher -- even ministers, music directors, and religious educators, every now and then.  It is true that not all ushers are leaders, but all leaders should sometimes be ushers. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On Economy and Church Part II: Some Fundamentals For the Conversation

Click here for part I of this blog series on economy and church. 

In part one of this blog series, I referenced an economic "Crash Course" website.  In this post and probably other posts that follow, I am going to include some videos from that site because talking about the economy and church requires a foundational understanding of what is happening economically beyond our awareness that we are still trying to recover from a recession that has been hard to shake, and we're all feeling a little vulnerable and unsure. 

I want to say that I recognize that in referencing this particular "Crash Course," I'm using a reference point with some particular assumptions behind it.  However, I think the author of the "Crash Course" does a pretty good job at distinguishing between facts, beliefs, and opinions as he states is his goal in the first video.   I also think the "Crash Course" is the most accessible explanation and history of the United States economy for non-economists available, which is the primary reason I use it as my reference. 

The "Crash Course" website consists of twenty very short videos that are as short as one minute and 46 seconds to no longer than twenty minutes.  The entire course is 3 hours and 20 minutes long, and I think this subject is important enough to call upon that length of time, whether by short spurts or sitting down with the videos for an evening.

However, knowing that we need some common information right now on which to base this conversation, I am going to include some of the video segments here and hope that the lack of context won't unnecessarily confuse the issues.

First a couple of the fundamentals of what our congregations are facing in terms of a massively shifting economy.  If you don't have a lot of time, and feel pretty confident about your knowledge level regarding assets and debt, I'd say it starts to get most interesting around the eight-minute mark:

I show that video first because those are not unfamiliar economic realities, especially given the economic strains of the last couple of years.  Somewhat more vague for most of us are the concepts related to the intersection of energy and economics.  It takes "Crash Course" author Chris Martenson seventeen chapters to work up to them, but these concepts may be some of the most important:

Around the five-minute and twenty-second mark in the video above, Chris Martenson makes a particularly heart-wrenching educated prediction.  He says: "The status quo will be preserved at all costs.  Politicians will hide the truth, economic statistics will become even fuzzier, and central banks will continue to throw more and more money at a system that at its core is out of tune with reality."

I want to stop here for a minute and say that it was in October 2008 when Chris Martenson completed the "Crash Course" series.  However, I believe I first was introduced to the series in 2007, before its completion, and only in what seemed like the early phases of the recession.  By that time, Mr. Martenson had apparently been giving workshops and working on the course for several years.  I've been stunned but unsurprised to watch President Obama, a president who had my vote and who continues to have my general support, do exactly what was predicted in his response to what some call "the great recession."  That is, he has maintained the status quo at all costs.  Again and again.  ("Quantitative easing" anyone?)  I do not believe this would have been any different with any other politician in the office, nor do I believe it will be any different with any politician who comes after him. 

What we are facing is the possibility of deep change:

My basic question is, if there is even a 50-50 chance that such a change is occurring under our feet, what is our religious and moral call to the people in our congregations, our communities, and the world?  Who are we called to be at this turning point in history?  And how can we actually survive to live out that call?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Haven't We All Heard Enough About Church Websites: The Discussion

Thanks so much to all who engaged in the conversation about church websites.  We definitely all had different sensibilities about website content.  That said, while people will always have varying needs and interests in a website, establishing general trends is useful.

I'd argue that congregations that want to remain vibrant should consider tracking those trends particularly as they relate to "upcoming generations..." because in terms of technological stuff, often the trendsetters tend to be younger, and older generations eventually fall in (think Facebook).

Based on the discussion sparked by part II of this series of blog posts, if I was going to summarize suggestions for someone looking to design or redesign their website, I would say:

1. Photos of people are absolutely key. Especially of ministers and staff but also "candid ones" from church activities or worship. We all agree on that.

2. Sermons are important. Posting just a few of the best ones is useful. Posts should include text. Additional audio (or video) is helpful for those who like what they read and want to follow it with audio or share it in audio.

I still argue that more and more with people my age and younger, the audio and video will be important.

3. Go ahead and include your calendar if you would like, but be sure on your homepage to highlight what is happening with "happening this month" type lists that include the highlights.

Prioritize keeping calendars and lists updated so that newcomers don't ask about that book group, etc. only to find out it is defunct. People want to know what you are really doing.

4. Folks say that they really like to have congregational business online. I will not sway from my position that this stuff is more appropriately placed online somewhere other than your billboard for the world (website). However, as evidenced in this conversation, people do feel it is important to have this stuff online, so by all means, put it somewhere...I recommend private or public blogs, google docs, Constant Contact, etc. A single "congregational business" link should suffice if you want to link it from your website. Link to directories, password protected, if you need to, but I hope you will consider whether there are alternatives.

5. Know yourself well enough to keep your "headlines" clear in that "about us" link.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Adding a Blog

I'm adding a blog to my list of blogs.  My latest blog will be tales from downsizing with children.  Just FYI:


I will of course continue posting here on all things related to religious leadership. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Haven't We All Heard Enough About Church Websites? Part III

Here is a link to one of the church websites I've recently been admiring: UU Church of Charlotte.  Considering the amount of content they have on the site, it is easy to navigate and engaging.  I did notice today that I have to scroll the site, which I don't like, but check it out because it's pretty great.

Here's a screenshot:

So now that I've contributed my voice to the many out there calling for better church websites, I want to go back to my question, haven't we all heard enough?  Why are there still so many bad sites out there?

Here are some of my observations:

In all the churches I have been in, as either vocational staff or congregant, since the time that churches started having their own websites, I have noticed one problem that seems to be common among them, and it inevitably results in bad websites.

The problem is as follows.  A website is generally considered a one-person project, and for good reason.  While a "communications committee" or similar body can help with planning and design, one person -- a volunteer with website building experience, an administrator, and sometimes even the minister -- needs to be the webmaster.

The webmaster has to play the role of the gatekeeper.  It's a necessary function.   And yet, if the gatekeeper doesn't have enough time for the job, nothing ever gets through the gate.  No changes or improvements, and only the most minimal updates.  The most common problem I see is that churches don't ever have someone doing the job who has time for the job, or for whom that particular job is top priority.

Sure, there are plenty of other reasons for bad church websites too: lack of vision, uncertainty about whether the website is for members or for folks just learning about the church, poor graphic design, and so forth.  But I really think that all the problems would be much easier to solve if the gatekeeper was doing more than just standing in front of the gate. 

(By the way, sometimes the pressure starts to build outside the gate, so the gatekeeper opens the gate a little to relieve the pressure, and every idea the congregation has ever had comes through like a flood.  I have seen more than one church website go from fine to terrible as congregants excitedly chatter on about how great it would be to, for example, get meeting minutes up on the website, even though those really belong in another medium such as a blog, Google Docs, or something like PB Wiki.)

What are models that eliminate this challenge?  Do we have to have webmasters on staff for that purpose, or are resources like Cloversites able to take away enough of the website design challenges to provide more time for actual design?  What of these models, if any, would be sustainable in a problematic economy?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Haven't We All Heard Enough About Church Websites? Part II

So I am probably going to be moving this summer, and for the first time in ten years, I am looking for a church not for vocational reasons, but to be a member.  I'm looking at church websites with fresh eyes, and friends, it is a frustrating world (wide web) in which to be a seeker.

To be clear, I am not church shopping.  Well aside from one thing.  See, my children have been happy participants in a Spirit Play ministry now for two years, and it has made a tremendous difference in their spiritual lives. I really, really want them to have that ministry for at least another year or two. So yeah, in that way, I am shopping for a program (largely unsuccessfully I might add, since it seems the closest church with a Spirit Play ministry is about an hour's drive away).

No, I'm not church shopping, but seeking.

I am seeking a tribe. I am seeking a band of folks with whom my family can join for the next three to six years. Though three to six years is a relatively short-term prospect, it will cover the span of my children's lives all the way from ages five and six to ages eight and nine at least, if not to ages eleven and twelve.  Those years of their lives will be significant.

It's a big deal, this finding a tribe for my family thing.


So, religious leaders, how can I say this delicately? When I visit a church website and can't find a photo of the minister or the professional staff, or real photos of real members, I can't really envision myself in the tribe, you know?

When I click on "leadership" and your website takes me to a list rather than a series of photos, I am just a hop, skip, and a jump away from closing out the window. I'm still browsing a few sites.  I don't really care what your names are yet. I want to see some faces behind all that text on your site because it is actually true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

When I click on "sermons," I need to hear something so I can imagine myself sitting amongst the other members of the tribe, hearing what you are hearing.  Better yet, I'd love a You Tube video (parceled into parts) so I can see and hear as if I was there.  This isn't a research project. I don't want to sit and read your sermons, I want to hear your voices.

And friends, I know you all want to have a photo directory on your website but can't make it public for safety reasons, but truly, those "for members" links and password protected parts of your site that I stumble upon so easily communicate to me that I am an outsider. Even though I totally understand the reasons you do it, I find that somehow it still feels terribly uninviting to me, this person who is considering bringing up her family among your people.

Calendars are similar.  Please, when I go to find out what is going on in your church, I don't want an actual calendar.  I know you've done that cool thing of actually putting links in for each calendar entry so I can click to get more information.  And truly, that's better than the way things used to be.  But it's cumbersome, it's boring, and it doesn't inspire me to imagine myself with you. 

Actually, the ever-fabulous Andover Newton Theological School provides a fantastic example of an alternative to a calendar.  Stay on their homepage for a few seconds and you will see the primary graphic on the page as a slideshow with events advertised.  Each one has a "headline" and a way to click for more info.  Then, look over to the right side of the page.  The first thing you see is "new and current."  Your eyes naturally lower and then you get "fall 2010: key dates."  Now that's the kind of thing that says, "join us."

Here's a screenshot:

Another issue is that if you can't tell me in three or four sentences who you are, I get the feeling that you don't really know, and then how can you expect me to imagine myself as one of you? Yes, I will want more information, but you would do so much better to keep the headlines clean so I can settle into your picture of words for a minute.

If you have links to your bylaws and your meeting minutes, I am like "whoah, TMI." We've just met one another. I feel like you are airing all your laundry, clean or dirty, and it blocks my view of you the people.  When I picture myself walking with you, I see myself carrying a big pile of laundry by your side. Not too inviting.  (By the way, your members rarely if ever use those links themselves, anyway, no matter how much they say they want them.)

That's actually the crux of the issue.  Are our websites invitational?  Do they inspire imaginings about joining our tribes?

We as religious leaders need to continue to revisit our websites again and again, asking ourselves these three simple questions:

1. When people visit our website, is it clear what kind of tribe they've stumbled upon?
2. Oh yeah, what kind of tribe is that? Is that an accurate reflection of the tribe we actually are?
3. What sights (photos of members and staff) and sounds (sermons) do we have on our website that help people imagine themselves walking with us?

Haven't We All Heard Enough About Church Websites? Part I

First, a video just for fun.  I've been reading a ton about easy church website creation through both Cloversites and Wordpress.

Church consultants, blogs, and books have given us an earfull about bad church websites.  We know we are supposed to do better.  Here are "just a few" examples: 
See what I mean?  The talk is everywhere!

So why are there still so many bad church websites out there?

This quick post series (and yes, I am still going to return to the theme of church and the economy) will contain my recent thoughts about church websites.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Response to "Fighting Bullying With Babies"

I will return to the subject of church and the economy soon, but today I have come across something that is too powerful not to talk about right away.  It is this opinion piece from the New York Times:

Fighting Bullying With Babies

This is really powerful stuff ya'll.  We need to take note.

For religious leaders I have a few special comments:

1.  This is one more argument for multigenerational, family-style church communities. Older kids and teens *need* opportunities to interact with babies (and it probably is a good idea for plenty of us adults too, to interact more with babies).

2.  The church could be a powerful agent in lowering all kinds of community violence.  The project described in the article actually started from the need to reduce in-home violence, not bullying.  I'm dreaming up an empathy-building ministry for a whole community as we speak!

3.  I think that this program likely benefits the babies too.  Babies who have empathetic interactions with older kids have been given a powerful gift.

4.  Related to the above #3, it is so easy as a church to stay out of the conversation about how to care for babies.  After all, everyone has their own philosophy of parenting, and parents of babies are often inundated with well-meant but irritating unsolicited instructions from busy bodies about how to care for their babies.  None of us wants to be an irritating busy body. 

On the other hand, if our churches have a calling to live out God's love in the world, we need to really be there for parents as they navigate their way through all the cultural roadblocks to children's development of empathy.  That starts before folks have even had babies yet, or when babies are just babies.  Reassuring parents who are making choices that build empathy -- such as responding to baby's cries rather than letting baby cry it out -- is an important part of raising kids together with parents as a church community.

What do you think?