Story Highlights

In which an immature but enthusiastic young developer learns a few things about working with people.
by Adam Wood

Perhaps it wasn’t the best way to endear myself in a new town. Perhaps it wasn’t the best way to get my hands dirty with the business of working in my adopted church. In hindsight, I sometimes wish I had been a little less brash (some would say rude). On the other hand, things ended up working out (more or less).
I’m speaking about my first interaction with anyone in leadership in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. I was at a diocesan picnic at All Saint’s School. Not knowing anyone, I singled out the only one of any obvious authority- the guy wearing a bishop costume- and introduced myself.

“This diocese needs a new website.”

The Right Reverend Wallis Ohl introduced me to Demi Prentiss, who introduced me to Katie Sherrod, who introduced me to Elinor Normand and the Communications Committee. If this blog had a “sarcasm font” I would now write “…and everyone lived happily ever after.”

My point of view on the situation at that time

My wife and I had recently moved to the Fort Worth area, and had decided that along with that move, we needed to “swim the Thames” (so to speak) and become Episcopalian. Being of the age and temperament that we are, we started doing research on possible parishes to join months before moving. And, of course, we did that research on the internet.

But wait. Something was wrong.

In trying to find an Episcopal parish in the Fort Worth area, search results were odd. Some parishes seemed to have two different websites with completely different information. Many parishes seemed to radiate a weird sort of old-world sexism (completely at-odds with why we planned to become Episcopalian). Some used the Episcopal Shield, some did not. There were ominously important-looking, but completely unhelpful, statements about identity and membership.

Something on one website or another finally connected with me to something I had heard about troubles in the Anglican Communion over the ordination of women and the full inclusion of LGBT Christians, and (with the help of a few Wikipedia articles) I finally put the pieces together. Eventually, we got our bearings straight and were able to find the diocese and parishes still aligned with the Episcopal Church.

But I knew that if I was having this problem, other potential Episcopalians might be also. And, of course, getting better information onto the web would go a long way toward solving those issues. Oh, and I just happen to be a web developer.

So, of course, the people in the diocese would be thrilled to have me come and redesign their website and modernize everything and make it better for Google and it’ll be great. Of course.

All the things I didn’t know (or, the other side of the story)

Along with the initial enthusiasm toward my involvement, there was (it seemed to me) a bit of defensiveness about the accomplishments of the diocese and the committee that oversees the website. Who does he think he is?

What I hadn’t considered, what I couldn’t even have known about at the time, was the hard work that had gone into the online communications work already undertaken.

Where I initially saw a simple website without enough content, there was actually a storehouse of information- hundreds, perhaps thousands, of files. Documents, images, pages upon pages of content detailing the work and life of the Diocese of Fort Worth before, during, and after the reorganization.

Where I saw a lack of social media engagement, there was actually a long-term and concerted effort to reconnect the scattered members of the diocese via Facebook and other tools.

Where I saw an inability to talk directly about the divisive problems facing the diocese and the church, there was actually a deeply pastoral, and often painful, struggle to communicate the values of this Church in a way that wouldn’t alienate those who disagree with us.

That is not say that there weren’t issues – real problems – with the diocese’s online presence. There was still a strong need for a new site design and a reorganization of how online content was managed and presented. But I had gotten the root cause all wrong. And, of course, I had gotten the solution all wrong too. The last thing this diocese needed was an outsider with some snappy design ideas and a pocketful of Social Media buzzwords.

That point finally dawned on me in a particular way later when, after two years of being here and being involved, the prospect of hiring-in a professional web design firm was brought up. No, I argued. It has to be us, we have to do it. No outsider will understand our needs and particular problems. No outsider will care about what we care about, or be as passionate about our mission as we are.

Oh, right. That’s what I was missing when I first got here. I didn’t get it, even a little bit, back then. Now I get it. I once was blind, but now I see.

So, then it was smooth sailing all the way

Well, not really, but the Holy Spirit does have remarkable long-term planning capabilities.

It turns out that just about the time that I had wrapped my brain (and heart) around the issues and needs facing the diocese, the then-webmaster Elinor Normand had reached a point where she felt the desire to retire from that aspect of her ministry. Despite my initial rudeness and overly-critical assessment of the website (Elinor’s work), we had managed to become friends by this time. I don’t know how much my new readiness to do this work influenced her new readiness to let go of it, but the timing seemed just about right. Sometimes I worry that I somehow “pushed” her (and others) to the side. Aside from apologizing (which I have done), I also take comfort knowing that Elinor is a strong enough person that pushing her aside would have taken a lot more of a fight than I’ve experienced over the last few years.

Once the path forward (me taking over and rebuilding the website) was cleared, the more obvious phase of the work began- figuring out not just what the site should look like, but how it should be organized. This diocese has a lot going on, so many moving parts that we have never managed to get a decent picture or complete list down onto a single piece of paper (and yes, we tried). It’s also in the nature of this community that everyone likes to know, or needs to know, what is going on. Making sure that news, resources, documents, and information is sorted out well enough to keep it organized, while at the same time making sure it isn’t squirreled-away where no one can see it, is a pretty daunting task. My early complaints about the way this had been done previously came back to haunt me. My goodness! No wonder they had to do that. While I’m taking a different approach, I hesitate to say it’s better. The complaints in my email inbox are proof at least that it isn’t perfect.

But we keep moving forward. I was taught growing up that the life of the Church was the life of pilgrims, that the work we do can be thought of a as a journey towards a destination we will never arrive at. I thought, as a kid, that this was primarily metaphorical. I have realized in this recent leg of the journey that it is very much not a metaphor. I try to remind myself of that whenever someone asks when the new website will be done. Done? I’m not even sure what you mean by that.

Lessons, and looking ahead

This is the first post in what I hope will become a regular series of articles about this website and the work of technology and communications within the Church. The idea here is to be an educational and inspirational resource for people within this diocese (“users”) and also people doing similar work in other dioceses or religious communities (“developers”). I thought about starting with some cool techie tutorial about how to integrate some cool new technology or somesuch. I do plan to write those articles.

But whizbang features or cool design, while sometimes necessary, are never sufficient. Social media gurus like to talk about how we need to be better at telling stories, and that is certainly true. Moreover, we need to understand what story we’re in the middle of, so that we tell the right one.

This essay is my attempt to set the techie mumbo-jumbo into that context, to place all the cool features and (hopefully) trendy design into the story we’re actually living, not the story invented and sold by web-dev types with snappy design ideas and pocketfuls of Social Media buzzwords.

That’s my story, anyways. What’s yours?