October 29, 2014

Bag of Marbles

I keep getting in trouble with my snarky rejoinders to the endless blogs and advice columns exhorting me to keep my church website up to date. Some people dismiss careless website management as inexcusable sloppiness. Others patiently explain once again that they are not asking for that much, just accurate service times and directions.

Let me clarify. I would love to have a website that is up to date. I even understand why it is important. When I was working in a non-parochial job, I once walked twenty blocks with a three-year-old only to discover that the church “wasn’t doing the family service at 9” anymore. I look for information on the web all the time. I get it.

Here are the points I am trying to make. One, for many struggling churches, the resources at hand are simply insufficient to do even all the things that are clearly important and urgent. Website maintenance is an ongoing thing. It requires the continuous presence of someone who knows how this particular website works, remembers to check it, and has the right information to put on it. If that sounds simple, you don’t live in my world.

Two, there are many things that are urgent and necessary in the life of the church. If I have to make a choice between appearing organized to web browsers, and being present in the non-virtual lives of my parishioners and my community, I will choose the latter. I’m not convinced that most of my neighbors find their churches on the Internet. And if they are fatally turned off by outdated web information, it is only a matter of time before the real live chaos of urban church will overwhelm their limited patience.

I have often described urban ministry with limited resources as being like dropping a bag of marbles at the center of a round table. Everything is in motion, and rolling very quickly toward the edge of the table in every possible direction. Some things we catch. Others we lose track of. Others we keep an eye on as they fall, so we know where to look when we have time to pick them up.

That marbles analogy accurately describes the lives of many of the families in the neighborhood around my church as well. One third of the adults in our community are undocumented. The median family income hovers around $24,000, and apartments rent for well over $1000 a month. Things that seem simple and are important fall through the cracks for real reasons: getting the kids to school on time, not feeding the family Doritos for dinner, getting regular dental care, keeping the car insured.

Maybe I’m just making self-righteous excuses for the website woes that seem to follow me from parish to parish. Maybe the historically wealthy Episcopal Church has limited capacity to understand its own less privileged churches and increasing numbers of its neighbors. Most likely both are true. I will resolve to learn the basics of changing the website, and will try to remember to check it. The next time you wonder at someone else’s ability to keep simple, important things together--and are tempted to scold -- imagine the marbles, rolling towards the edge of the table.

If you haven't already, subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive 12 issues of Vestry Papers as well as the monthly Vital Practices Digest full of articles, tools, and resources by and for congregational leaders, all for free.