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Why Your Congregation Needs a Digital Ministry

May 13, 2013

For fifteen years, as an executive with AOL and other companies, June Herold helped create some of the digital tools and toys that the world uses today, including instant messaging, online games, mobile applications, and an online billing system. She holds six patents on her electronic work.

In 2009 she joined the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Arlington, VA, where she created a top-of-the-line interactive website for the church that includes a self-contained social network.

All of that is only a prelude to what she hopes to accomplish—bringing every UU congregation fully into the digital world. She believes strongly that without an active and engaging digital presence, congregations will not be fully present in the world.

To that end, Herold has created a guide to help congregations in creating a comprehensive digital presence. REACH: A UU Digital Ministry Program is several hundred online pages designed to guide a congregation into its digital future. It runs the gamut from designing congregational websites to using Facebook and Twitter.

REACH was created to serve two purposes, Herold says. First, it offers a basic path for congregations of any size to get started with digital ministry. Second, she says it includes a strategic vision for Unitarian Universalism, showing how blended on-and-offline experiences can present a UU identity that is more easily understood by non-UUs.

An active digital presence is more than just a way to market a congregation to outsiders, she notes. It’s a way congregants increasingly are connecting with each other, primarily through Facebook, but also through interactive church websites.

And such a presence is increasingly a necessity when it comes to reaching seekers. Says Herold: “Digital life can’t be ignored if we’re serious about creating a world we want to live in. Two-thirds of adults in the U.S.A. use social networks and more than 85 percent of teens are regularly on one. If we do not have a meaningful religious presence online, we won’t be authentically present in the world. Digital ministry could save Unitarian Universalism from marginalization.”

In general, REACH covers online strategy, safe practices, content, intellectual property, funding and launching an online church, religious education, social justice, and inappropriate online behavior.

REACH includes a chapter to help ministers develop an online presence, including creating “compelling content.” It has worksheets on assessing current online practices and determining a strategy for digital ministry. Other chapters are on “Photo and Video Best Practices,” “Twitter: It’s About Reaching Strangers,” and “Intellectual Property Rights.”

There are four chapters about Facebook, including “Is Facebook a Gift or a Trojan Horse?” Herold emphasizes that she has reservations about Facebook because of its commercial and manipulative aspects, but it remains one of the best—and free—ways for congregations and individuals to share their UU values.  

Among the observations that Herold makes in REACH are these:

  • Recognize that many members will spend more time on Facebook than on their congregation’s website. It may be easier to engage them with a church Facebook page than to get them over to the church website.
  • Facebook manipulates us, but the things we post or respond to let others know that we live our lives according to UU values. It can help make Unitarian Universalism understandable to others.
  • The biggest hurdle to using Facebook is Facebook’s “whims and priorities.” It can be challenging, notes Herold, to keep up with Facebook’s changing rules, including those around privacy.
  • Twitter is not a place to make friends. Use it to share church announcements, social justice event alerts, and inspirational sayings. All under 140 characters, of course.

REACH has other tips, including how to add YouTube videos to websites, blogs, and Facebook. On a basic level, it explains the differences between “friending,” “liking,” and “sharing” on Facebook.

An active online presence allows people to practice a form of ministry, says Herald. “It mirrors back to us our connectedness when we comment on blogs, share what’s in our hearts daily, and post pictures of protests, memorials, and rallies for those who could not participate. At a minimum, online presence is pastoral care. It initiates acts of kindness. It’s also a way to let others know what we value, as well as to continue conversations that started at church.”

She disagrees with those congregations that have done away with Joys and Sorrows. “When people put on their Facebook pages that their cat or their mother just died, or ask for job leads, they get immediate responses. It’s the same principle as Joys and Sorrows.”

Herold cites examples of exemplary online usage by UU communities. “The Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA’s) Standing on the Side of Love campaign is a blended offline-online ministry. It reaches UUs where they are. It mobilizes us for demonstrations of support for local and national activism. It’s positioned as a public advocacy campaign that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression.” The Church of the Larger Fellowship, which has online interactive worship services, is another effective practice, she said.

She would like eventually to see the UUA implement an Association-wide “digital ministry platform” that all congregations and affiliated UU groups could use. Congregations could use it to create their own local social networks, all of which could feed information to the parent network.

Such a master platform would allow congregations to create much more interactive websites that would connect with Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Yahoo!, for example. In turn, seekers would be able to find us more easily and understand what we are about.

As an example, Herold cites Facebook: “Nothing unifies all our groups on Facebook. We’re splintered all over the place online. It makes it difficult for us to collectively do anything together. We can’t act in the blink of an eye, for example, when there’s a need to organize a protest event.”

She acknowledged that Facebook is not perfect. “It turns all of us into marketers. But it’s the only place that’s free and available to churches. If we had a denomination-wide digital ministry platform it could deal with this.”

Herold believes that the more we put sermons, blogs, and other religious content online, the easier it becomes for non-UUs to find and understand us. Explained another way, we will be more successful through demonstrating what we do than explaining what we are.

In another blog post she recently expressed little patience with those UUs who are unwilling to try social ministry online because of “invisible digital evils.” She notes, “Our (religious) ancestors gave their lives for their beliefs. It seems highly unlikely that a UU today would die from a piece of spam or from reading comments from fellow parishioners with whom they disagree or for whom the comments are embarrassing.” She adds, “There’s never been a better time for UUism to be the moral voice online and offline—to be an authentic, respected, impactful voice.”

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 Monday, December 23, 2013.

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