In addition to practicing self-care by walking and resting in my hammock, developing an online learning platform is the place I am investing the most time, energy, and resources this summer. If the shape of ministry during COVID-19 is a teeter totter, the platform is the board that connects in person and at-home/online ministry. These platforms connect people and content, making faith formation possible 24/7. Many of us have known we need to develop our digital presence. COVID-19 has accelerated this need.
Start with Listening:
As we approach the work of online ministry, it is important to be aware that many parents are zoomed out and burned out. Anxiety around what school will look like in the fall is high. Both teachers and parents had little time to prepare for the pivot to e-learning in March. One of the biggest things I hear from parents is that there are too many apps and too many logins. Teachers are working diligently this summer to streamline the process should their classrooms be online or hybrid this year.
For all of these reasons, faith formation leaders need to be intentional about selecting the platforms that best fit the needs of our congregation. The information below, and this rubric will help you to do that.
Online Essentials- What do you need?
Outgoing communication, incoming communication, two-way communication (video chat, for example), and a place to get organized are the four must-haves identified by Jennifer Gonzalez, author of the website “Cult of Pedagogy.” Each of these must-haves are categorized as asynchronous or synchronous, terms which quickly entered our collective vocabulary in the last few months.
Take Inventory – What do you already have?
Take a moment to jot down all the digital tools you already use in your ministry and sort them into the four must have categories. Use this note page. Make a note about the use and effectiveness of these tools. Are you using tools that duplicate an essential function? Are there tools that parents aren’t using? What existing tools (like your church database) have features that are underutilized?
I’m assuming that you already have a communication system in place in the form of email, text, video conferencing, and/or social media groups. For more on scheduling and communications tools, please see the Youth Ministry 101 Webinar I did with Practical Resources for Churches.
Next, write down your current content management systems. Content management systems are tools that organize your content (lessons, videos, articles, playlists, etc.) for your congregation to access online. This kind of tool can be as simple as a shared Google Doc or a page on your website. There are tools for every size of church and budget. The rest of this post will focus on selecting the best tool for your church’s needs.
Define Your Priorities:
First, name the top 3-5 reasons people will access your content management system. Do you send take-home pages from Sunday School? Does your adult ed group need a place to find links to videos and discussion guides? Do you have lists of mealtime prayers and faith at home resources? It is likely that 10% of your content is going to be the “hook” that keeps people engaged. Naming your top use cases is a critical step, recommended to me by Dr. Carter Cast who talks about a Leading with a Start-Up Mindset in Ministry during COVID-19 in this series of webinars.
I will share that the church I serve named three priorities for our content management system:
- organizing class content, especially for the 3rd grade Bible year;
- sharing playlists and topics like Bible basics, book recommendations, and prayer;
- and having a forum for parents to connect and have conversations about parenting in faith. (yes, this is actually a communication function, but organized around topics and content)
Tip: Check your social media, email newsletter, and website click rates to see what content is engaging your congregation.
Evaluating and Selecting the Best Option:
Once you have named your priorities you also need to identify your budget, available staff or volunteers who will manage the platform, and your implementation timeline. In children and youth ministry, be very clear about who will be using this tool – is it for parents or kids? Do you have a digital safety policy in place? Talk with your leadership team to see what tools are already being used in your community, especially schools. Build a beta test or soft launch into your timeline so that you can iron out some of the wrinkles before on-boarding your entire ministry. I have identified at least three types of content management systems, listed roughly in order of complexity:
Type 1 – the Running List:
This type of tool enables leaders to post links to new content at the top of a shared running list of resources. Websites, Google docs, and smart .pdfs (I make mine in Beacon) are all examples of how to do this cheaply and easily. Pros: price, simple, easily accessible, easy to maintain. Cons: not as sophisticated an organization tool, few options for communication in the tool.
Type 2 – Classroom Style Tools:
This type of tool is organized around a school model with classes and lessons. Google classroom, Blackboard, and Canvas are a few examples. Vibrant Faith Catalyst has a list in this toolkit. In my experiment with Google Classroom a few years ago I realized that this type of content management system reinforces the schooling model of faith formation, while research has identified home and caring relationships as the biggest influence on faith development. If this type of platform is the best type for your church, I recommend looking into what your local schools are using. Pros: Price, familiar to students and parents, ability to organize content by groups. Cons: feels like school at a time when kids are exhausted from e-learning, can be tricky to learn to manage.
Type 3- Online Community Management
This type of tool is designed to build an online community through discussion and sharing. Businesses often use these tools to build community around a brand. Clearly, that is not what church is about. However, some of these tools (one list is here) are more conducive to creating a learning community. As I continue to shift my thinking away from the school model of faith formation, I imagined our ministry becoming a community of practice (a term I learned through my work with CEF). Sure, knowledge about the Bible and doctrine is great, but a life of discipleship is a life of faith practice – prayer, sacrament, reflecting on scripture, living in accordance with our values and beliefs. One of the functions of a church is to be a place where people gather together to encourage and equip one another as they practice their faith.
[If I haven’t given it away already, the ministry I serve has chosen to use a community management tool this fall. We selected Mighty Networks – here’s my quick video introduction because it does have the capacity to have courses, but is not as robust as a classroom system. It meets our top three priorities and fits our church size and budget]
Tip: Check to see if your church database has any of this functionality.
Pros: focuses on community, a variety of tools are available, offers an option for people who are moving away from Facebook groups, many options have mobile apps and a good user interface. Cons: can be pricey, investment of time for set up, it is another app for people to invest in.
Remember, there is no one size-fits all tool for online faith formation. Thinking intentionally will help you select the tools that meets your needs and your budget.
For more information on online faith formation, I highly recommend Vibrant Faith and Lifelong Faith. They have been encouraging and equipping leaders for online ministry for many years. COVID-19 has highlighted the need for their tools and resources.