A church's digital decision that's tougher than you'd think

Many churches face a choice businesses normally don't. And it's a harder one to make than you might think. Whom do you choose to build and/or manage your web site and social media presence, member/volunteers or paid consultants/contractors?

Why can this be a tough choice? Money can be a factor, but it's rarely the primary one because by the time you reach decision time, funds have already been budgeted to, at a minimum, launch the web site.

What really drives the decision is feelings. Not the feelings of the decision makers, but those of the member whose son or niece or cousin offers to do it for free. This has affected me and others I've spoken to who also work with churches.

Part of a congregation's function is to look after the well-being of its members. You are considering bringing in a consultant/contractor, but when that member finds out, he or she approaches you to say that either they or a family member knows HTML, Wordpress or Wix and is more than willing to take on the job to save the congregation some money.

The church leaders suddenly find themselves in a dilemma. "If we decline the offer", the thinking goes, "will we offend the member or hurt his/her feelings? And what if that insult is enough for that member to take his/her family and contribution elsewhere?" Many churches accept that offer, and apologize to the consultant/contractor, asking "what else can we do?"

I can understand the issue, to a point. But is it possible to do it to the detriment of the congregation's objectives? In this case, I say the answer can be yes.

Trade-offs

Putting feelings to the side for a moment, what are the trade-offs in contractor vs volunteer? I can think of four.

Financial cost. Let's deal with the easy one first. Clearly, that's a win for the volunteer. How can you argue with free labor when your primary source of revenue is the weekly (and also voluntary) contributions?

Expertise. This should be driven by decisions already made while determining how your digital presence should fit into your church's overall objectives. Depending on what you are trying to achieve, you may need experience in planning, effective web site layout, social media strategy, writing for the web and social media, photography, audio/video, and perhaps more. Does your volunteer already have the skills you need, or will s/he learn as s/he goes?

Ongoing commitment. This is one I and fellow consultants see lacking in volunteers. It's often fun at the start. Maybe your name is announced during a service. If your web site is more than an online brochure, and you want an active social media presence, the week in, week out nature of this can wear thin, especially for a volunteer. In addition, other personal commitments can easily intrude. Even with good intentions, a week late becomes a month late becomes ...

Accountability. This grows out of the ongoing commitment. When a site security upgrade, a sermon posting, new event promotion or updated content is late, how far can you really go to hold the feet of a member/volunteer to the fire? You can't penalize her by requiring a double tithe or force him to sit on the front row for a month. This can be a particular problem if the volunteer is related to a congregational leader.

Or the volunteer is a congregational leader. I know many a congregation that has had problems getting current ministry information from ministry leaders and deacons that needs to be posted. One client of mine decided, after a significant delay waiting for ministry leaders to submit content, to put "under construction" on all of the ministry pages in order to launch its new web site. It's been nearly a year since the launch, and nothing has changed.

A consultant/contractor, on the other hand, probably does not attend your services or activities. There's no friendship or membership at risk because it's a strictly professional relationship. That usually makes it easier to deal with poor performance. Plus, s/he is getting paid for his/her work. An acceptable level of service is at least implied, and I would hope is explicitly agreed upon. Failure to deliver means what it means for any paid service used by a church, or even a family or business.

Consider a probationary period

Volunteers are not, by definition, something to be avoided. Remember, though, whichever choice you make, it should be clear that it is a professional arrangement, with expectations.

Regardless of which way you go, I recommend setting a trial period for your new digital team (or person). After all, this is not a decision that, once made, is eternal. Define clear objectives and timelines that you and your team agree to. For launching the web site, exactly what content and features you want, and should include a target date (be sure to include time for the leaders' review).

For ongoing upkeep, I would set the trial at four to six months. Define time frames for new and updated content. If your plan includes online sermons, photo galleries and social media posts, how soon should those be posted after the events? If plans include posting event info, and possibility registration forms, how far in advance of the event dates should they be posted?

Even if you do have paid help for web site upkeep and social media efforts, you will always have to rely on members and ministry leaders for much of your content. Their timeliness affects the ability of your digital team to meet their schedules, so you should get commitments from these volunteers as well.

At the end of the trial, assess how it went. Did your team consistently meet the schedules? If so, excellent! You made the better choice the first time around. But if the team did not measure up, choose again.