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.

Encouraging Tech Ed while protecting and guiding our kids, Huron Church News December 2016

Youth spend much of their time online and with their eyes firmly affixed to a screen and with the growing importance of tech in education, social circles and professional demands, it’s unlikely that will change anytime soon. When was the last time your teenager actually used a phone to call someone?

Knowing these realities, how can we encourage the positive aspects of the digital world while still protecting and guiding our kids? Especially as the family computer in the living room disappears and is replaced by private devices that can be difficult to monitor or control?

It is important to note that the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in the United States prohibits sites from collecting information from or making available information about users under the age of 13. Since many of the most popular social networks are based in the U.S., these sites cannot legally allow those under 13 to open accounts. Either you or your child would have to lie, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach. (Ex 20:16)

Some sites, such as YouTube and Whatsapp have older age requirements to create an account (18 and 16 years old respectively) and some are more proactive about enforcing the restrictions than others. In many cases, it is very easy for a child to lie about their age. Aside from legal restrictions, many sites have mature content and the age restrictions should be considered when deciding if having an account on a given service is appropriate.

Beyond basic age restrictions, here are a few strategies to help you and your kids navigate the digital world safely and confidently.

  • Before signing up for any site, both parents and kids should understand how the platform works, how data is stored and shared, what privacy settings are available, and what kind of communication is possible.

  • Establish usage guidelines. Be clear about what kind of use is acceptable – including the kind of communication, communication partners, what kind of personal information can be shared, and the frequency or time of day that access is permitted.

  • Be aware of who your kids are communicating with and what kind of content they are viewing.

  • Trust but verify. Many parents require knowing account passwords or to be given access when requested as a condition for use of certain applications or sites. This requires a lot of two-way trust but it can be a good way to keep your kids accountable and ensure that you can check on them if you absolutely need to.


  • The digital world offers amazing opportunity to connect with friends, learn and share ideas and share our lives with others. As we read in Proverbs (20:6), “Start children off on the way they should go, even when they are old they will not turn from it.” A secure safe foundation for our kids will help develop technical skills and the confidence to navigate the digital world.

    Sharing photos, tagging and privacy issues, Huron Church News November 2016

    I am often asked why Facebook sometimes displays questionable ads because a friend of yours “liked” it. Except you know your friend has never played online poker, ordered foreign pharmaceuticals, or taken out a payday loan. Why would Facebook assume your friend, and you by extension, is interested in these things? Simple: “Like Farming.”

    Like farmers create Facebook pages and create content dedicated to collecting as many “likes” or “shares” as possible. A simple “brain teaser” that only “geniuses” can solve, a nostalgic image of the past, or fake contests that you have to like to enter are common fodder for link farmers. And since Facebook’s algorithms place a high value on popularity, highly liked and shared pages have a much higher chance of appearing in your feed and being seen by your friends and family.

    Once the farm has grown a high popularity rating, the farmer either removes the page’s original content and replaces it with something more nefarious (usually malware or scam advertising) or they outright sell the highly liked page to a third party.

    Now instead of liking a page for “your chance to win $5000 from Bill Gates,” you are now a fan of online gambling, for example.

    Many like-farmers rely on appeals to emotion: anytime you’re urged to “like” or “share” a post that pulls at your heartstrings there’s likely a like-farmer behind it. “This poor little girl with cancer lost her hair to chemotherapy — ‘like’ this post to let her know she’s still beautiful!” “This new government policy is outrageous — ‘like’ this post if you’re outraged, too!”

    If you are unsure whether a page or post is legitimate there are a few places to go to verify the pages information before hitting the like button. Snopes.com is a website dedicated to dispelling rumours and lies that spread online faster than the common cold. Another good site is facecrooks.com which keeps you up-to-date on Facebook scams and provides information about how to protect your privacy.

    While Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ On Facebook, it is a good practice to periodically look back and weed through your past “likes.” You might be surprised to notice you really don’t like some of those things at all.

     

     

     

    The insidious threats of “like farming”, Huron Church News October 2016

    The smell of lavender evokes powerful feelings for me. Simply passing a fragrant candle is enough to spark memories and bring a smile to my face on my worst days. That sweet smell can cast away any shadow. You see, lavender is the scent of the baby shampoo we use for my daughter, Hannah.

    Our senses can be a powerful means of evoking an emotional response. And this forms the backbone of creating a consistent brand. Create a smell, sound or sight that links to an experience and it becomes possible to evoke that memory again and again. Get that smell, sound or sight out in the world and it can bring people to your door.

    This association is part of the core philosophy of branding, the process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumer’s’ mind. The same techniques apply to the church and how we present ourselves to the world. Creating that association is key. And part of any branding exercise is, of course, having a distinguished and recognizable logo.

    Logos tell stories and can create powerful associations for people. In the blink of an eye the Golden Arches or the Nike swoosh are both recognizable and they evoke emotions, memories, and opinions. Just seeing the logo on a billboard can subtly influence your next shoe or dinner decision.

    stam_logoFor congregations, branding can be used to create a recognizable presence in your community. At my previous parish of St. Andrew Memorial, we chose a bold and modern St. Andrew’s cross to communicate that the community was rooted in tradition but has modern relevance.

    Once we had our logo, it was critical to put it everywhere. The goal was to make it instantly recognizable to our neighbours and anyone that came in contact with the community. From bulletins to vestry reports, from Web and social media platforms to outdoor signage, the logo permeated all of the parish’s communications.

    Any communication, signage, sponsorships or outreach that bore our logo contributed to the emotions or memories evoked by it later on. Seeing the logo sparked a memory about something the church had done – i.e. “oh yah, you are the church with the garden” – or of an experience with it.

    Seeing a logo everywhere can lose its appeal to the everyday parishioner or priest, but remember: the logo is not for you, it is about you. It tells your story and helps seekers associate the logo with the essence that is your church. In the end a logo is a symbol meant to convey the enormity of all you wish to communicate about who you are as a community. It speaks of your worship, your outreach and how you interact with the world around you.

    Each individual church ought to have its own individual logo. This creates an emotional association with parishioners, neighbours and those that are served. And we are wise to remember that such a simple image can have a profound effect and stir powerful emotions that will help to fulfill the Great Commission.

    Frequency of posting: how to create a consistent presence, Huron Church News September 2016

    Your church’s digital communication is like connecting with a friend. If you call infrequently, you tend to drift apart. If you speak too often, you might feel like the friendship requires too much of your attention. You may consider changing your phone number or letting the call go to voice mail.

    The same tension can be found online. While you want to stay in contact with friends and share events from your church and life, you also don’t want to spam your Facebook feed with too much too often.

    Consistency is key. Your church’s communication plan should consider the frequency in addition to the tone of your communications. Consider when content will be posted, and how often (daily, weekly or a few times a week), and what sort of content will be shared. Just as infrequent posting says something about your community so does posting too often.

    This can be a challenging task. Luckily, there are tools to help you schedule your social media posts so you can plan ahead instead of constantly considering when and what to post.

    The first tool at our disposal is the native built-in scheduler on Facebook. This simple tool lets you load a series of posts ahead of time – say before a vacation or the busy Christmas season. This tool can be found in the drop-down menu next to the publish button on your page. Instead of publishing the post, simply schedule it.

    Hootesuite.com has been my go-to for scheduling and managing social media accounts for years. I use the free version, which allows me to manage multiple social media platforms at once including Twitter and Facebook and schedule posts across multiple streams. The free version allows you to manage three different accounts through one convenient dashboard.

    Another solution that has recently appeared on my radar is Buffer.com. The free version of Buffer is wonderful for scheduling posts but the dashboard only manages a single Facebook account. Despite this limitation, Buffer is a great solution for a church as it can schedule posts for your Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram accounts. If you happen to manage multiple Facebook pages, Twitter or Instagram accounts, you will need to upgrade to a paid version.

    By scheduling posts in advance, you only need an hour or two a month to create consistency and an active social media presence. Much of the work of sharing content and promoting events can be scheduled in advance, freeing you from being tethered to your phone or computer daily. Think of it like mailing a letter, once you have placed it in the mailbox, you can walk away knowing it will be delivered, freeing you to focus on other areas of ministry while keeping your social media accounts consistently active.