Ministry Sustainability in a Visionary Rich Environment

Anyone who has been involved in a successful church or ministry can understand the realities of a vision rich environment. “Vision Rich” is the term I am using to describe an environment when one of many people feel they have been given direction or insight by God to do great things. Vision rich environments are typically very fast paced and often entail taking on substantial risk in very short time frames.

The purpose of this White Paper is to discuss how to strategize for long term results in a vision rich environment. The scriptures tell us to “Consider the cost before we build the tower” and with this in mind we will build a strong foundation for planning how to succeed when following vision. This paper will specifically focus on implementations that have technological implementations but may also be applicable to areas such as counseling and engineering efforts.

As a veteran technologist, I have had the privilege to be exposed to many fascinating technologies. Over the course of the past ten years, we have witnessed one of the most amazing communication tools to be entrusted to a generation since the printing press. The Internet or World Wide Web is a vast network of interconnected computer’s and communications technologies. God has chosen this point in time to entrust such a powerful communication tool to our generation. With this comes an enormous responsibility to be good steward’s with this technology. The commercial world has certainly found many ways to embrace the Internet, building upon various business models to provide products and services through this almost instantaneous data stream. As Christians though, we must look at the web from a different perspective, web pages and email are great, but we should never build our ministry efforts solely upon the business models that corporations are using simply because they work. God’s plans move outside this realm all together, and his direction and inspiration to leverage such a powerful tool may appear to not always be conventional. This is exactly where we need to be.

Along come the visionaries, many with an entourage of followers ready to do anything that is asked of them. God gives vision to people today, I firmly believe this, but I also recognize an unfortunate trend in lack of perseverance when embracing technology as a ministry tool. Ministries are typically very dependent upon a large volunteer labor base. With this in mind, they can easily be persuaded to build a technology solution not upon best practices or even the leading of the Lord, but upon the talents of whoever has even the basic ability to build what they are dreaming about. As much as the intent was sincere, this has resulted in investing a substantial amount of time in proprietary and obscure solutions that tend to have very short time life cycles or that are awkward and cumbersome to use from the end users perspective. Prayer, analysis and consideration should always be put into practice before the first lines of code are written. Before you begin to build, consider issues such as licensing and support as well as architectural maturity and extensibility of the tools that will be used. “Considering the cost” before you begin to build! With the reality of little to no budgets available, some decisions can be fairly easy to make such as building upon high licensing cost products that will force the ministry to face moral decisions such as using multiple versions without paying for them or worst yet, building upon software that has not been purchased. Fortunately, God has also allowed this to be a time when entire technology models are based upon giving away some of the best Internet technologies at not cost. This technology model is best know as “Open Source” and often accompanies the GPL (General Public License) licensing model. This licensing model is based upon the concept that the software is freely downloadable, distributable and modifiable. The main source of revenue for participants of these products tends to be built upon providing support at a nominal cost. A very fair option when you consider that support is not required and many of these technologies such as Linux, MySQL, PHP, JSP and Apache are well documented.

Still, we are faced with another common dilemma, when the vision has been laid out, it may be likely that volunteer(s) will be waiting in the wings to build the technology solution, be it a webpage or application with little thought to long term sustainability. Unfortunately, this is the fate of many ministry websites that fill servers around the world; consideration had never put in place for how these sites would be maintained with fresh and relevant content. There is a myth amongst many web technologist, “If I will build it, they will come”. Nothing could be farther from the truth when it comes to the web. Internet sites and application like most everything else require time to mature and come into their own. On the average, it takes a web site twelve to eighteen months to gain notable maturity. These numbers can be skewed and misleading in the early days of a website release. Family members and word of mouth will bring a bubble of activity to a site typically once it’s first launched. This “Honeymoon” period usually only last a few short months and the content begins to become stale as less and less people keep coming back and no strategy is put into place to add new content. It’s important to not consider this period anything other than the “Honeymoon”, the long term work is still to be done.

Once a website in completed, an ongoing effort must be put into place to measure how people are using the site. Assuming the site was built with the target audience in mind, you should be able to identify if the target user is viewing the content you placed on the site. Incorporating a strong measurability model into your site and architecture design is very important. Most ministry sites and surprisingly many commercial sites never take this important aspect in mind and therefore have no effective way to measure site success. Hit counters should not be considered an effective way to measure success of a web site. Metrics (measurements) such as mean path, search terms, and length of visit all contribute to a better understanding of how the site is being used and how effective the taxonomy (navigation strategy) is working. Once these metrics are analyzed, new content can be written to act as a “Net” to gather more and more target traffic to the content and materials you want the end user to see.

So, what happens after 3-6 months and the “Honeymoon” period is over and site statistics begin to drop, this phase is what should be planned for from the very beginning. It’s critical to the success of a web site that someone or better yet, a team feel called to keep the vision alive. I’m afraid without this planning, the initial effort is likely to die an early death and should be delayed until dedicated person(s) are identified who can direct the site development and plan for it’s long term sustainability.

This list will help you keep in mind many critical points to consider before moving forward with your technology effort.

    • 1) Understand and write the vision down clearly as to what is being directed to be done.
    • 2) Pray through the vision to clearly understand who the target audience isand don’t stray from that target audience. Remember, this effort it to meet a specific purpose so fulfill that to the fullest.
    • 3) Pray through what the end user is to take away from your technology solution. Without a take away, the solution will seem vague and missing continuity.
    • 4) Consider the target audience level of expertise at understanding what you’re trying to communicate. Avoid jargon that is organizational specific, use common terms as much as possible.
    • 5) Pray in the technical, planning and sustainability team. They will need to have a good understanding of the vision, which should be written down. Don’t move to far until you have a good core of people.
    • 6) Do your homework and plan on understanding as much as you can about your target audience. Keep the focus on meeting their needs not your own. God has entrusted you with a vision to meet the needs of other so don’t cut corners or compromise.
    • 7) Know your competition and how they are targeting your audience. Remember, “Wise men win souls”.
    • 8) Write smart content. Most websites never mature because they lack in the very content they were created to deliver. Be committed to writing new and interesting content targeted toward your audience.
    • 9) Invest for the long haul. Successful web sites are successful not because you threw money at expensive ad campaigns but because you have invested the time to do it right and were patient enough to stick it out. Almost any website can do well from a search perspective if the content is relevant to the target audience.
    • 10) Avoid bells and whistles when not necessary to get your core message across. There is a big temptation to implement a lot of flash and bang into a site because it is thought that this will draw the users in. In reality, technologies such as Macromedia Flash can seriously impact the success of your site. While this is a very dynamic and interesting tool, it should never be used for site landing pages unless conventional navigation is also provided allowing successful spidering of web site content. Flash in particular should be used sparingly, keep in mind that the site is for your target audience and not fun and games in your development efforts.
    • 11) Content should always outweigh design. Practically, good site design will have a good balance of interesting content while still looking presentable. In reality, your target user is looking for some type of information not so much to be dazzled by your graphic design skills. Good graphical design is important but should never force you to sacrifice textual content.
    • 12) Taxonomy is the art of getting the user to the content they are looking for with the least amount of effort. As a rule of thumb, a user should be able to get to the majority of the content within three clicks. Implementing a variety of taxonomy strategies may be useful especially if you can include robust search functionality

Our hope is that this White Paper has given you some insight into creating a successful and sustainable project and that your efforts will produce an abundance of spiritual fruit.

Further information about this ministry can be found at…

www.MissionWares.com
or write
Greg Paskal – greg@gregpaskal.com
or
Mark Bentsen – mark@mandm.ws

This White Paper has been presented as a ministry of MissionWares in an effort to equip and encourage Christian ministries to their fullest potential

In His Service,
Greg Paskal & Mark Bentsen 

a white paper – written by greg paskal – april 2005
AKA: Best Practices Implementing an Effective Technology Strategy

Pitfalls of an email-centric Society

We’ve all been there, a curt, quick response in an email and were off on our next task. On the receiving end is some poor soul who is feeling more and more isolated by technology and is wondering what the world is turning into.

The e-mail-centric world is upon us, in fact, it’s engulfed us with memos, meetings announcements, spam and pictures of family. Can you remember that only a few short years ago we wouldn’t have had a clue what an email was let alone that we would be sending hundreds if not thousands of them to each other.
The early promises of email seem to have come and gone, many were true and many, like a science fiction movie, were wishful thinking. My first emails were to a handful of friends in the South Bay in Southern California. I was awed, that my simple text message would be delivered mysteriously within seconds all the way across town to a friend sitting at his desk. I, like many others, had no idea how much email would shape the way we worked in the future.
The very early days of email were very crude allowing simple text messages to be moved over a network of wires known as the Arpanet. Typical, these communications were between universities and government offices. It wasn’t until the introduction of the basic Internet Provider CompuServe and Delphi that consumers, (mostly hobbyist) got our first taste of email.
That was nearly 20 years ago and has the world ever changed. Most people not only have a single email account for work but one for home, maybe one through there internet provider as well. In fact, I hold no less than twenty email addresses these days, all streaming into my inbox each evening at the click of a button. This can’t be normal (help?)
Recently, I was on the receiving end of quite a pointed and might I say hurtful email. It was curt and to the point and I remember just feeling sick about it because it had made me feel like the best thing to do was to write back and worse yet, in an even sharper and pointed tone with full intent to inflict a sting that would hurt. To make matters worse, this email had been copied (CC) to other people who I respected and whom I felt I had a good reputation with. It was at this moment, I realized the best thing to do was simply delete it and move on. The hurt quickly dissipated and I barely gave it a thought the following morning. What I took away from this was an interesting insight about email as a medium for communication, at best it was a very delayed way to communicate between two people as the conversation must be bounced back and forth until its lifespan has been spent and it’s mission accomplished.

Lesson 1: Email is not a very effective way to talk back and forth with someone. It can be easy to say something you might regret only moments after sending.

The next thing I realized about that hurtful email was that if I had been in person with the sender, they would have not likely said the very words that were now immortalized in our companies servers forever. It seems obvious that if you have a conversation to carry out with someone via email or a face to face, the conversation will likely look much different. Email is such a faceless way of communication that it’s easy to fantasize a “bumbling idiot” on the receiving end much like we do while driving our cars to work when someone cuts us off. When we monsterize or stupidify the person on the other end of our communications, it’s easy to be harsh and condescending. When we include others in our correspondence it’s down right spiteful. Imagine for a moment that you have made a mistake in the office, your boss call you over and you know this is probably not a good thing but before he begins, he calls a few friends and peers over to listen as he corrects you with subtle, condescending tones. Isn’t this exactly what we do when we copy our bosses and there bosses on communications that in a face to face situation would only need to happen between two people. This side of email is probably one of the most dangerous and repulsive. It’s human nature to look for ways to prop ourselves up at the expense of others and email makes this social crime easier than ever.

Lesson 2: Remember you are communicating with a living person who has a family and stresses outside of the workplace. If you wouldn’t invite someone to listen to your spoken conversation then don’t include them in your email conversation. Remember your human nature is to make yourself appear better than others. Don’t fool yourself; you’re as individually unique as the person is on the receiving end of your email.

The sheer number of emails I receive everyday is staggering. Between my work and home accounts, I receive well over 200 a day. One area that does seem to justify a bit of righteous anger is in the area of SPAM. This useless email litters everyone’s email boxes and consumes more and more of our time each day. Spam is the junk mail and telemarketing phone calls of the internet, the average corporation handles more spam mail everyday than legitimate email and is spending more money trying to get ride of it at an alarming pace. However, what really is spam? We know obvious spam such as adds for lower mortgages rates, pills to increase of sex drive and cable TV descramblers, but what about business spam? Is it possible that we have become our own worst enemy thinking that everyone everywhere wants to know what were doing every step of the way? In the corporate environment, this is called CYA (Cover your %#@) computing and has been instilled in us that if we can prove we didn’t make decision or the mistake that cost the company a bundle, then we can save out job. Think about it, who was the last person you know was fired because they could not prove that had or had not emailed something. This is more of a myth than a fact and who would really want to work for a company of perfect people. By the very nature that we are people, we make mistakes, which we learn from and get better at what were ultimately trying to accomplish. In a recent meeting with an member of our upper management, it was refreshing to here comments from that they felt a face to face chat would be much more appropriate than endless bantering in email.

Lesson 3: Communicate with only those who need every detail. If you must brief everyone, take some time at the end of the day or week to quickly summarize what you have been discussing. Your coworkers will thank you for it.

When I was a kid, I had choirs to do such a mow the lawn and take out the trash, I can remember trying to find anything to avoid performing the choir at hand. It’s wasn’t until I was reminded over and over again that I needed to take the trash out, my parents probably upset by this time, that I got the job done. In the email world, this same situation exists, it’s known as the “pass the buck” email. I’m always amazed at how quickly a job that needs to be done can be shuffled off to some poor unsuspecting soul who then has to cleverly get it off his plate onto someone else’s. Call me a cynic, but more times than not, the communication in these emails get more short, direct and colorful and they move from one person to another. Managers throwing their staffs in a frenzy and upper mangers being more direct to get the matter finally taken care of. These emails typically evolve into a, “that’s not my job, I’ll send in on to the guy who does this” phenomenon. I can’t stand to let these go by me without looking at the initial email string that started the web of chaos to begin with. You have the classic telephone game problem here, no one reading the original problem and simply responding to the last guys comments to get it off his plate. I wish we could attach a device on an email like this to see how much effort, time and money these shipwrecked communications take to get the initial request completed. This is the epitome and pinnacle of wastefulness.

Lesson 4: Be proactive to resolve emails that have traveled across many email boxes. The poor guys who initiated it will really appreciate it and who knows he may return the favor some day.

In conclusion, I see a day coming, like the reawakening of a 60’s movement, when people will get rid of their email address and many other “necessary” technical marvels in favor of traditional, face-to-face communications with real people.

a white paper – written by greg paskal – jan 2005

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