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Arlington Website Creates Stronger Connections

January 15, 2010

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, VA (UUCAVA), has a new website that does a lot more than its old one. It uses a “platform” called Ning, software that allows for a lot of interaction by users of the site.

Take videos for example. On a recent week there were no fewer than three short videos one could watch from the front page of the site. One was a video referred to in a recent sermon (the sermon was also available on the front page), a second explained Unitarian Universalism, and the third was a “two-minute timeout” a regular inspirational moment by Arlington lead minister the Rev. Michael McGee.

On this week there were also no fewer then 10 small photos on the front page, telling a story at a glance of a congregation deeply involved in social justice work, church social events, and worship services. Members could also click on a front-page poll designed to educate them on the church’s structure and ministries.

It’s necessary to log into the website to take full advantage of it. After visitors have been at church for two months they get instructions and a “key” to the site, allowing them to post comments on blog entries, participate in discussion groups and online covenant groups, and get access to pastoral care news about congregants. The church holds regular after-church training sessions to teach people how to use the site.

“Our site really extends the church beyond our building,” says Sarah Masters, membership coordinator. “Our community is very transient because many people work for the government. We have people who regularly leave for a year or two for other assignments. They can log into our site and feel part of the community. They can watch sermons and keep up with people’s lives so when they come back they haven’t drifted away. When a youth member’s grandfather died, even though she had moved away she posted about it and she got a lot of support.”

The website is a priority, says Masters. “We see it as a key to our future. It’s a seamless connection between online and our building. If you miss church you can check in and see what happened.” Photos are posted from most services, in addition to an audio feed.

The church also has a Facebook page. “I love that I find out information there about people that I wouldn’t otherwise know, like the woman who made partner in her law firm,” says Masters. “And I use Facebook to invite everyone to UU events, including Standing on the Side of Love events in the area.” The congregation also has a Twitter account, “but we’re not using it. We haven’t figured out what we’d get that we are not getting from our own website.”

UUCAVA pays Ning less than $1,000 annually to use its service, says Masters. Ning can be free if a congregation is willing to accept ads. The fee pays for other modifications as well.

A large group of the church’s members worked to create the site over the spring and summer, at the instigation of June Herold, a former executive with America Online, an Internet service and media company. Herold, who joined the congregation in February, holds patents in social technology and social media, advises nonprofits, and also creates social networks for them. She recommended Ning for its interactive features and then heavily customized it. It went online in September.

“Our site represents a paradigm shift in marketing,” says Herold. “UUs typically have difficulty explaining themselves in a way that's easily understood by people raised in creed-based religions. We are accused of believing nothing. What we've done at UUCAVA is to show ourselves living our religion. We don't say what we have done or will do. We show what we are doing through blogs, discussions, video sermons, videotapes of social actions, polls, and many other ways of demonstrating our beliefs and how we practice them. Anyone who looks at our site before getting to our sanctuary doors, has a very good idea of what they will experience.”

With more conventional websites one or two site administrators may make most of the changes in content and that can sometimes result in delays. At Arlington, there are site administrators at several levels, including managing editors and photo editors. Church staff can make many of their own changes. Members can also add information, with approval from site administrators. “The beauty of this way of doing social networking is that our members are producing a lot of our content,” says Masters.  In the works, says Herold, will be an online ministry council to oversee the online church.

Are there results? After two-and-a-half months, more than 5,000 unique individuals are visiting the site at least monthly, looking at a total of 35,000 “page views,” meaning they’re going past the front page. “On the old site people mostly did not go past the front page,” says Herold. “Now there are a lot more reasons to go deeper.” The church community itself––members and friends––is around 1,400.

Herold presented a sermon in October on “sacred presence” online. She called it “Enter, Rejoice, Sign In and Commune.” When the site went live a month earlier, the Rev. Mary McKinnon Ganz wrote on her blog, “Our expectation is that newcomers and those who are hungry for our message and our community will be drawn to us by the vigor and the sparkle of the conversation they glimpse when they visit this new online home—and that every one of us will be enlivened by it.” Read the whole post.

The new site helps pastoral care to thrive at Arlington. Just ask Joan Holm. Diagnosed with cancer, she moved away to be close to a daughter. The website keeps the church community updated on her life and she in turn goes there to hear sermons and read about people she knows. “I get snail mail and email notes from people, and the website gives me an even bigger picture,” she says. “I still feel that my home church is there for me, only from afar.” The best moment, she says, was when she clicked into the site to find two videos of a group of her friends singing Christmas carols to her. “I felt very touched.”

For more information contact interconnections @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Friday, December 13, 2013.

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