Cloud Based Note Keeping, Huron Church News October 2017

I have a habit that may horrify some of you, and to which others will relate. I write in, dog ear, and highlight my books with complete abandon. Whenever I find a good quote, illustration or sermon idea, I keep a note of it. Then, months later when I want to reference those notes, I find myself staring at a bookshelf full of equally marked up books trying to remember which book holds that one quote that would bring out the Gospel message on a particular Sunday.

To combat my office floor from being littered with books every time I desperately try to remember that one specific sermon quote or illustration I have adopted cloud-based notekeeping. Evernote is my platform of choice, but Google Keep, and One Note are also great options and provide similar functionality.

Evernote is a cloud-based cross-platform application. It syncs across multiple devices so I can take notes on my phone or tablet and access them later from my laptop. I can create a text note, an audio note or even snap a quick picture. I can include attachments to my notes and even can set a reminder to alert me when the note might be relevant. Say, the beginning of Easter, or before the sale ends on the item I just snapped in a store.

Being able to store and search my notes easily gives me the freedom to take notes wherever and whenever I want without worrying about losing them or remembering to look them up when necessary. And, since my notes are on the cloud, I can share them with people; from sharing service ideas with clergy colleagues, to a shopping list with my wife. As much as I love post-its, they just can’t compare.

Evernote certainly hasn’t stopped me from marking up my books, but it has helped me organize my thoughts, sermon illustrations and seasonal ideas in a quick searchable notes that I can quickly access wherever I am. And most importantly, it has helped me avoid stubbing my toes and tripping over yet another pile of books in my office.

Understanding your audience: how to use your analytics tools, Huron Church News September 2017

While listening to a podcast the other day (The Pro Church Podcast with Brady Shearer, check it out), I heard a phrase that struck a chord with me. “One of the first rules of social media is always to take a deep dive rather than going wide.”

This is an idea I have advocated for years and it is so well summed up in this simple sentence.
Let me explain.

Social media consists of a plethora of platforms that can help you make and maintain connections and share the story of your community and faith.

It can be tempting to use all of them. We want to be connected to everyone in every way possible, on our websites, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. But by spreading our efforts so thin, it is hard to be effective on any of them. In other words, it is best to do one thing really well, than a few things poorly.

It is easy, however, to figure out where you are the most effective and where you should focus your attention by monitoring the analytics on your social platforms. These analytics offer insights into how your content is received by your audience. It can also help you determine your current audience and evaluate your efforts to reach new audiences. They can also aid you in trimming the number of platforms is use as well.

Most social media platforms come with built in analytics. For websites, my preference is still Google Analytics, which while quite robust is also free.

Analytics on your website will help you determine your bounce rate (how long people stay on your sight), landing page (which page or sub-page gets the most direct traffic), how traffic arrived at your site (whether through a Google search, social media link or other) and user flow (how users navigate through your site). This is all very powerful information and will help you tailor your message to meet current users’ needs.

The same is true for Facebook. Pages come with built in analytics. Simply click on “Insights” at the top of page and you will see all kinds of demographic and behavioural information about your page’s users. You can see the gender and age break-down of your users and their language and location. You can also see statistics about people that were reached and engaged and what content resonated with your audience and what isn’t hitting the mark.

Twitter also offers analytics on its platform and much of the same information is readily available. You can also see the interests of those who follow you, giving you a great insight into the type of content that your audience seeks, will engage with, and will share to their followers.

It is understandable to want to be on social media platform. The more platforms, the bigger your audience, the greater your reach. However, poorly engaging with your users will not grow your audience but will cause your audience to disengage.

By focusing your resources only on the platforms on which you are be effective, you can maximize the reach and impact of your message to help fulfill the Great Commission, to baptize new believers in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit and to teach all that Jesus taught.

Canadian Church Press Awards

The Canadian Church Press 2017 award of merits were released. While I did not win an award, the Huron Church News had a third place award for in-depth coverage of a news event. It is for the coverage of coadjutor bishop election of Feb. 13, 2016 (printed in our April edition). The April edition can be viewed here, HCN-4-InDepthNews I share the byline with Sandra Coulson.

My column, “Media Bytes”, was also entered but alas won no awards. The comments back from the judges though were, “Once again, if there were more than three prizes to award I could give half of the entries on this competition an award. Consistently interesting and highly readable.”

Tips on how to garden your website, Huron Church News April 2017

Throughout this series, I’ve written in detail about how your website is often the first and sometimes the only impression a church gets to make.

But websites are like gardens, they must be regularly tended and updated or else they get overgrown and unappealing. So it’s important to take stock every now and then.

Here are a quick five things you can do to ‘audit’ your website to keep it fresh and well weeded.

Keep the pages well structured. Common elements such as headers, footers, sidebars and menu items should be consistent on every page. Your home page can be an exception to this rule, but a visitor must be able to find their way around.

Keep the text short and well structured. I try to remove 50% of the words from my first draft. Readers disengage if they have to read too much to find your point or have to wade through too much jargon. Your website is your first point of contact with those un-churched. Words like Eucharist, Compline and BCP and BAS have deep meaning to those inside the church, but to many, it is confusing jargon.

People tend to scan when they read online. Break up your text into short sentences and paragraphs. Make liberal use of bullet points and headers and include an image every 250 words to keep people engaged and illustrate your point.

The menu should be short and concise. If you need more than 7 items, consider sub-menus so visitors can quickly find what they are looking for.

Have a clear and distinct call-to-action that drives visitors to fulfil the goal of your site. If you don’t know the goal of your website, now is a good time to think about it. For a church community, you likely want to increase attendance at your weekly services, solicit donations for your ministry, recruit volunteers, or collect contact information for potential members. Once you have identified your goal, your website needs to make it simple and easy for visitors to do it. A large “register for our newsletter” button or “newcomer information” page may suit your needs. Just make sure to keep it clear and concise.

Make your website accessible. You want your website to reach as many people as possible, so make sure it can be read with different devices and browsers. There is now more mobile traffic than desktop traffic so your website should be mobile-friendly at the very least. Ideally, you should also consider users using accessibility software such as screen readers for those who are colour blind.

These simple five tips can be used when designing your new website or auditing your existing site. If you discover your site needs a little work, don’t worry; even the healthiest garden is never maintenance-free. But by knowing what needs to be done and keeping on top of your content, layout, and goals, your site will help your community fulfil the Great Commission and make that first point of contact memorable, in a good way.

Email – central to your parish’s communications strategy, Huron Church News March 2017

Email is King. All hail the king!

I know that sounds flippant, but in P2P communication no platform has yet managed to supplant email. As popular as Facebook and Twitter have become, the largest P2P communication channel remains email.

In 2015, 205 billion emails, on average, were sent each day. Meanwhile, only 23 billion text messages are sent each day, 500 million Tweets and 55 million status updates are created on Facebook. The numbers are staggering, I know. Yet, the volume of emails dwarfs all others players in the field.

The power of email cannot be understated. While some people may resist signing up to Facebook or Twitter, or undertake a Lenten fast from social media, the one channel that even the latest adopters usually have is email. This means email is central to any parish’s communication strategy.

My current favourite application to help with email and parish ministry is MailChimp. The Forever Free plan at Mailchimp allows for up to 2000 subscribers and 12,000 emails to be sent each month free of charge. The multiple list feature allows for different communications to reach different audiences. Customizable templates can be updated with a parish logo, pictures and text, or, with a little HTML knowledge, you can create your own.

Regular communications like announcements and newsletters can be created easily and unexpected messages such as obituaries and emergency announcements can be quickly shared with the entire community or just a small group. MailChimp can also be integrated with tools such as Facebook, WordPress, Raiser’s Edge and more.

This free platform allows churches to use email to build community and fellowship and keep in touch with those that may otherwise only connect a few times a year. By having the entire parish list only a click away, communities are able to come together in times of crisis and share the Good News of God’s Spirit working in the world.

You can read more about how MailChimp can help manage your church communications by reading their guide for nonprofits here: https://mailchimp.com/resources/guides/mailchimp-for-nonprofits.

Sermon from Lent 4 Year A, Preached at All Saints March 26, 2017

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Two years ago at our Diocese Synod, the synod of Huron voted to memorialise Archbishop Oscar Romero. What this means in the Anglican tradition is that we recognise his status within the Roman Catholic Church. As he proceeds toward sainthood (San Romero), we in the Diocese of Huron have chosen to embrace this journey and make his soon to be saint day, his day of remembrance part of our calendar. That day is March 24, the date of Romero’s assassination, just two days ago. Today I want to reflect upon Romero, how he lived his life and he was blind but regained his sight.

When you step off the plane in El Salvador and you enter into the city of San Salvador, without realising it you are stepping deep into the biblical narrative. That isn’t to say that El Salvador is some backwards third world country that has you stepping backwards 2000 years into the past, for San Salvador is much like any North American city complete with gas stations, shopping malls and of course ice cream shops.

No. What I mean is that the biblical story has been lived out in El Salvador in our lifetime. This becomes abundantly clear as you drive around the city and country and you steep yourself in its people and its history. This is the place that its people suffered in slavery, suppressed by Pharaoh, the right wing government of oligarchs. This is the place where they journeyed for years in exile during the civil war, searching for their promise land, to share all that God had promised them with each other, where the land could provide enough for each person, a land flowing with milk and honey. And this is the place that gave birth to some of the most prominent people in the Liberation Theology movement, prophets to be sure.

Let me explain. You see before Oscar Romero was Oscar Romero, he was a dutiful priest in El Salvador. He was, in many ways, ill prepared for his ascension to the role of Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador. He was a quiet man, who more often than not shrank from confrontation. He was prayerful of course and he lived a pious and meagre life, serving the people that God sent to him.

But much like the Catholic Church as a whole at that time, he focused on the salvation of the person’s soul, not the material conditions in which people found themselves. The scripture that informed the church’s position in El Salvador was, “blessed are the poor for theirs shall be the kingdom of heaven”. He taught, much like the rest of the church, that you ought to be happy with your lot in this life for in the kingdom of heaven you would receive their reward. And that is how the church became a tool of the right wing government, the military and the oligarchy that helped to maintain the status quo and the oppression of the poor. Take your lumps for your reward will be in heaven. Hardly the principles of a legend, like Romero. Much more akin to one who is blind to the plight of his people.

That was, of course, till Romero met a friend and mentor, Padre Grande. Padre Grande was a revolutionary, a rogue and a radical. And he was a mentor to Romero. Padre Grande preached a radical message. He preached a message of the love of God for the poor, not only in the next world but also in this world, in the material conditions in which the poor found themselves. He preached that God chooses the poor, he resides with the poor and that God has a preference for the poor, a message with deep scriptural and theological roots.

This revolutionary and counter-cultural message of the times rubbed the ruling families the wrong way. Romero hadn’t adopted this position when he ascended the throne of the archbishop of El Salvador. In fact, he was chosen specifically to be archbishop because he was quiet and a moderate. The government and the oligarchs of El Salvador figured he would be a useful tool in using religion as the opiate of the masses in an effort to maintain the status quo and their position of privilege.

Two events changed the course of Romero’s life and therefore also changed the fate and destiny of the people of El Salvador. He was asked to be present by the army at a student protest, for the army feared violence would break out and the archbishop’s presence with the military could help keep the peace. Three times the generals asked Romero, and three times Romero denied them, quietly and simply saying he would pray for them.

When Romero woke the next day and opened the paper, he read of the violence that had occurred, how the army had opened fire on the peaceful protesters and how hundreds were now dead, murdered by their government. Romero had an epiphany that day. A moment when the heavens are torn open and God descended. That doing nothing was, in fact, a choice, and therefore he was complicit with the murders and the violence that had just occurred because choosing to do nothing meant he chose the side of the oppressor.

And while Romero was wrestling with this epiphany, during a period of fasting and prayer, Padre Grande his mentor and friend and a leader in the liberation theology movement in the Roman Catholic Church was assassinated by the government of El Salvador. Much as John the Baptist was killed and silenced by Herod, Padre Grande was also silenced by those he opposed with nothing more than a message of peace, love and repentance. A message the oligarchs deemed too dangerous.

These two events, the gift from God of knowledge and the death of a mentor spurred Romero into a new direction, a new ministry; a ministry to be with the poor and to speak on behalf of the poor. A ministry that focused on the life of Christ, the life that Christ lead; of feeding the poor, healing the sick and caring for the most vulnerable of society. A ministry that focused on not only allowing the light of Christ to guide our lives, but for the light of Christ to become a beacon for nation suffering under foreign oppression and domination, as the US government ignored atrocities of entire villages being murdered as they poured over 1 million dollars a day in military aid into the right wing government and the oligarchs that controlled it.

If this reminds you of the baptism of Christ and Jesus’s relationship with John the Baptist, it should, for it is a mirror of the Gospel story. Romero would champion the cause of the poor. The light of Christ guided Romero and his work of healing a nation and a people divided. The government, the Pharisees, though fought him every step of the way.

Until they could take no more. The Pharisees, the government, conspired after one of the most controversial sermons Romero preached on a radio address to the people of El Salvador in which he ordered the soldiers of the military junta to disobey commands when ordered to open fire and kill their brother or sister, their fellow Salvadorian. That God’s law of thou shall not kill trumps any order from any officers in the military, or the government, or the Pharisees, the oligarchs.

And while preparing to celebrate the last supper, the Eucharist, the greatest offering to God of the church, Romero was assassinated. Gunned down in cold blood has he stood behind the altar of our Lord.

After preaching love, healing and care for the poor in the outskirts of the Holy Land, the outskirts of Jerusalem, Romero would come to Jerusalem, San Salvador and would be killed by the authorities. I remembered Christ own journey from baptism and his light rising as John light faded, till John was eventually killed like Padre Grande. And I remembered how Christ actions of siding with the poor and fighting systems of oppressions of oligarchs and foreign domination would lead to his eventual crucifixion.

This is where the story diverges, although I wonder if it truly does. Christ was resurrected, while Romero lies dead still. I have visited and prayed at his tomb. Except, except that in his final sermon the night before his assassination, Romero boldly predicted that even if he were killed he would live on in the people of El Salvador. And after visiting his tomb and walking past mural after mural, shrine after shrine, the image of Oscar Romero is literally everywhere in El Salvador.

I tell you this story of the people of El Salvador for a reason. We, like Monsieur Romero have a choice. We can either choose blindness or we can choose to see. Romero was blind to the plight of his people until the light of Christ illumined the suffering of the people of El Salvador. And we too have the same choice. The salve to open our eyes lies within the words of scripture, the Logos, the word made flesh, Jesus. The healing of our blindness comes from following Christ. Our sight is dependent on washing ourselves in the waters of baptism as the blind man washed himself in the pool of Siloam.

But like the blind, I will not promise you that from baptism comes a life of ease. We will be questioned as he was questioned. We will be doubted as he was doubted. We will be pushed out and ostracised as he was. Yet even though it will not be easy, the grace that flows from the waters of baptism will heal us and we others. We were blind but now we see. And once we see the plight of the poor, once we have walked with them in their lives, in mission and service of mutual transformation, we, like Romero will never be the same. I was blind, but now I see.

Dios bendiga a monseñor Romero y Dios los bendiga. Amen

Too many friends? Know your limit! Huron Church News February 2017

Recently, I saw a news post on my Facebook feed and I realized I couldn’t remember who the ‘friend’ who posted it was. Obviously, not one of my closest friendships. With upwards of 1100 friends on Facebook I find it difficult to maintain all these relationships and keep straight who is who.

This got me thinking about the 150 rule, or Dunbar’s number.

Dunbar’s number is the suggested limit to the number of people with whom it is possible to maintain stable social relationships. Within a group that does not exceed this number, you know who each person is and how each person relates to all others within the group. Robert Dunbar, the British anthropologist, first proposed this number in the 1990s.

The 150 rule wasn’t exactly new though. Hutterites, a Christian farming sect related to Mennonites, create new daughter colonies when the original colony surpasses 150 people. The communal lifestyle of the Hutterites becomes endangered as the size of the group grows. Relationships drift and a sense of accountability to the collective is lost. A colony, at its absolute maximum, may have up to 250 people. Once that upward threshold is reached, 10 to 20 families leave the colony to plant a new community, leaving 150 people in the original colony. Hutterites have been engaging in this practice since 16th century.

The same principle is also true for our worshipping communities. Once membership reaches 150, social connections begin to break down and familiarity is lost. There is a certain magic about small churches. They have that family feel of knowing everyone and belonging which comes from not exceeding Dunbar’s number.

Social media lowers the bar for ‘maintaining’ relationships which allows us expand our network well past Dunbar’s number. This is both good and bad. Social media allows us to reconnect with people we have lost contact with, and maintain connections that might otherwise drift or dissolve. However, as the Hutterites have known for centuries, it can be extremely difficult to keep so many relationships in order, no matter the medium. While it is nice to reconnect with that high school friend initially, it may become more draining than it is worth.

Recently, I found Facebook becoming too much. Overwhelmed with messages from people that I was having difficulty placing, I decided that something had to be done. I found myself going through my friends list and realized I didn’t know who many of my ‘friends’ were. I could easily have gone on the great Facebook cull of 2017 and un-friended 500 people. Yet I had made these connections because I had, at some point, thought they would be worthwhile so I was hesitant to throw it all away.

Facebook allows you to ‘tune’ your feed so you can see only what you want. You can unfollow someone while remaining friends, or make sure close connections are surfaced at the top of your feed. This feature has allowed me to de-clutter my Facebook, while maintaining all the loose connections I want. My news feed now only contains those relationships I want to strengthen, and allows the others to become acquaintances: people to which I am available, but not overwhelmed by. And while I am nowhere close to Dunbar’s number, the noise has diminished and my news feed is much more manageable.

As we come closer to Lent, maybe it is the time to de-clutter your Facebook as well. Instead of a social media hiatus for 40 days, those 40 days can be spent de-cluttering. Prioritize those relationships that are important. As much as we all want to be liked, nobody can be friends with everyone, or, as it turns out, more than about 150 people.

Don’t push content upon your followers but interact with them, Huron Church News January 2017

The road to Emmaus is one of the best biblical accounts of how social media works.

I find it striking that in this 2000-year-old account of a resurrection appearance of Jesus Christ we have the very fundamentals of social media. But then again should I be surprised? The Gospel is, after all, always astonishing.

In this passage, Jesus appears to the disciples, although they do not yet know who he is. He walks with them along the long and dusty road. He comes into relationship with them. Jesus dialogues with them and lets them open up to him about themselves and what has just transpired in Jerusalem. Jesus does not force the conversation or push “content” upon them. Instead he builds a relationship.

After a time, once a relationship has been established, Jesus continues to dialogue with them, but he also begins to offer His own content. He opens their minds to scriptures. This is tricky of course, because this is the moment when we would want to push more content on people, but Jesus demonstrates that the time is not yet right. Instead, He focuses on building the relationship, understanding a subject (namely the scriptures), and walking with his disciples.

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus demonstrates something fundamentally important about relationship building that we lose at times in social media. We push content on the web: posts, blogs, sermons, images, tweets, etc. We push content in the hopes of gaining new followers and new “likes”. We purchase ads to further our reach and further the reach of our communities. But by doing so we can forget what Jesus talked about so long ago, and that is to come into relationship with people.

Pushing content seems natural to us. Having something new on our Facebook pages and websites seems critically important in a world increasingly based on consumption. Yet, I think that on that long and dusty road, Jesus demonstrates that instead of consuming, we ought to be coming into relationship with one another.

So while content is important, so also is it important to stop, engage and interact with those that like, comment, or share our posts. Take time in your day to read what others share on their social networks and work on building relationships. Enter into dialogue, discuss, and get to know one another.

In today’s media savvy world, it is critical to not only use social media tools, but to use them effectively. Social media is just that: social. Effective use requires two-way dialogue and engagement. And remember we count success not in number of likes, dollars on the plate or even growth. Success is best measured in spreading of the Gospel message and coming into real relationship with those we encounter.