St. Paul's Episcopal Church
St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania is a welcoming and active congregation in the Pittsburgh area. When Membership Vision was first introduced to St. Paul's, Lisa Brown was the communications coordinator on staff. Lisa has since joined Membership Vision as our Director of Digital Ministry.
This case study reflects Merrill and Lisa’s thoughts on the development process. It also contains excerpts from an interview conducted by Kyle Oliver via eFormation. The full interview may be read here: A real website redesign: Working together to get it right.
Merrill: The Rev. Lou Hays, Rector of St. Paul’s, and I were both attending the Invite – Welcome – Connect Summit at Camp Allen in Texas. When we met, we discussed applying the ideas of being engaging and welcoming online. He was very interested in turning their website into something that could be fresh, current, and interesting.
Lisa: Our old site's WordPress layout was dated, more of a text-driven, blog-style format, not an image-based design. The WYSIWYG [what you see is what you get] interface no longer worked correctly because plug-ins had changed or had not been updated or -- it just didn't work.
The site didn’t interface with any of our social media accounts, we couldn't process online registrations for events, and our calendar could be published to the site but it wasn’t dynamic.
The site was time-consuming to update and it added an extra step to our communications/information flow rather than being an organic part of the process. Nor was the site responsive to mobile devices.
It. Was. Time.
But how? And who?
Lisa: I got a call from the rector saying, “I have found a solution to our website problem.” I am always leery when someone presents a “silver bullet,” all-encompassing technological solution, so naturally I was very skeptical. Amazingly, it turned out to be exactly what we needed, a proverbial rainbow unicorn.
Merrill: Even so, we were so far apart geographically! At the time, this project was going to be the furthest distance I'd ever been from a church I was working with. I believed it would be fine, but unlike most of our churches at the time, I couldn’t easily go visit. It turned out that the distance was no impediment and the whole process worked smoothly.
Lisa: Another big challenge from the St. Paul's perspective was that it can be difficult to move an established church community into new technology. The Rev. Lou and key staff members were on-board, which helped tremendously. Generally speaking, though, even if the "old way" of doing something is inefficient and not terribly effective, people are used to it and sometimes resist change - even when it’s going to create more impactful communications in the long run! I knew some of the changes we were going to make were going to cause a bit of churn before people realized how much better the new process and outcome would be.
Merrill: Like how you decided to go completely digital with your newsletter...
Lisa: Exactly! The challenge there was that a segment of our congregation wasn't digitally connected at all. For some people, the idea of receiving the newsletter via email just didn't compute, so to speak. As a parish, we had to respect that limitation and make sure not to lose people; but we couldn’t have two separate processes for print and digital newsletters. Fortunately, Membership Vision provided a solution -- the built-in, pushbutton ability to print a non-truncated version of the digital newsletter for the few people who need it. We press “send” to email the newsletter; and “print” for hard copies. It’s easy, it’s efficient, it meets everyone’s needs.
So yes, challenges, such as these were real. We also had other challenges that all churches face, namely: how to tell your story in such a way that is engaging and authentic to who you are. Your message needs to be accessible to people who aren't in the church while still being useful and appealing for those who are in the church. Every decision from menu selection, to the features on the home page, to how we organized our content -- not just dumping everything under "Ministries" for example -- to not using "insider" language; these things are considerations that inform the entire process. It's good to have people who have experience thinking through these sorts of questions.
Merrill: After some discussion, we had our aims and goals: good clean design, ease of use, sustainability, freshness, accessibility, responsive design for mobile devices, reaching visitors and seekers, improving communication with parishioners, and engagement.
We worked hard to address all of these issues not only in the system design but in working with St. Paul's to formulate a broader and ongoing communications strategy. In fact, the need for this approach is the exact reason we created a new website development platform to begin with.
A church’s website needs to tell a story that is living and active, told by many voices, and one that a visitor can take part in telling. Lisa and Rev. Lou Hays believe this as well, so our real effort then had to go into expressing this vibrant church community in such a way that it translated well to the digital space. We asked each other a lot of questions as to what that would look like, and the language of the site evolved out of those conversations.
That sounds like a heavy lift, but when you look at what churches are already doing—efforts in social media, in planning, in simply keeping a calendar updated—when all of these efforts can be harnessed and integrated to tell their story, then every task becomes part of an organic process that keeps a website current.
Lisa: In preparation, I spent a lot of time Googling “best website design,” “best church websites,” “font trends,” etc., to get a sense of what was current. Merrill and I had long conversations about our church’s culture, our role in the community, our demographics, our architecture, our defining ministries.
Merrill and I worked very collaboratively in defining the basic menu structure. Menu design may seem like such a simple, no-brainer kind of thing, but we wanted to minimize the number of tabs/choices for users, and to frame information in a way to shape the story we wanted to tell.
Everything on the homepage had to be very intentional and capture the most essential aspects of who we are as a community.
Merrill really validated my hunch that our communications strategy needed to shift away from us, as an organization, simply pushing information out. Our approach needed to be more conversational, engaging people organically to tell the story of who we are as a faith community in this particular neighborhood at this moment. Also, we needed to reinforce the stories of who we are as a denomination, and who we are as Christians.
Merrill: Really, it starts with listening. I’d say what we contributed more than anything is a harnessing and, when necessary, interpreting digitally all that St. Paul’s provided. When you are outside of a church and you really stop and look at everything that church is doing, you have the benefit of not being in the middle of it all.
Lisa: If I had to pick one thing that's really different now than when St. Paul's began working with Membership Vision, it would be: everything. Earlier I said: It was time-consuming to update and added an extra step to our communications/information flow rather than being an organic part of it. Well, we certainly slayed that dragon. Not only is our digital communication no longer an "extra step," the Membership Vision platform has allowed us to be more efficient with our time while doing everything we did before and more.
Furthermore, we now have tools that encourage us to do a better job of communicating outside of our walls rather than having such a high percentage of our communications efforts focused exclusively on existing members. The newsletter, rather than being just a way of reinforcing “insider” information is now a means to share our story with a new audience - we post every article to the site first and then use those posts to build the internal newsletter. Also, we're doing things we hadn't done before -- podcasting, for example. We're using our social media posts to tell our stories and to offer a glimpse into our community, and when we do, these posts automatically update the website, extending our digital reach even further.
And we’re seeing results. In the year immediately following the new website going live, we saw a marked increase in the number of new families joining our parish. They found us online and got caught up in our story. We are a dynamic and welcoming community and now people recognize that immediately from our website.
Like I said, it turned out to be the proverbial rainbow unicorn.