Free blog facilities to help Mothers’ Union develop and debate

I’m chuffed today to find Mothers’ Union Diocese of Winchester featured as the first ‘Website of the Month’ by Corbin Featherstone of Mothers’ Union enterprises.

When I started www.muwinchester.org.uk nearly two years ago, I had become convinced by friends that WordPress, or other blog formats, was the most sensible way for Mothers’ Union diocese and other charitable groups to create an internet presence that was both professional and cheap/free. I spoke about this to colleagues at the Mothers’ Union conference in 2009 using a brief summary of how I did it and what other options there were Blog Based Content Management 4 MU (most of which is still accurate). This was despite having been told by staff at the time that  a blog wasn’t a website.

However, we live in a fast moving world and that view has changed, which is why I’m particularly thrilled to see that Corbin (the central Mothers’ Union ‘webmaster’) is now not only encouraging Mothers’ Union individuals and groups to use WordPress, but making it very, very easy to do so…

By completing the simple on-line application here, Mothers’ Union diocese that don’t yet have a website, or wish to update what they have, can make that possible using WordPress, which has an incredibly straightforward ‘backend’ or ‘user interface’ that the complete novice can use easily (that’s why I’ve been using it for nearly two years!).

To provide even more help and encouragement, to the Mothers’ Union diocese who think that they don’t have the expertise to create anything on the web, Corbin has also started to produce a series of website tutorials. Reviewing them, I think they are particularly good, and yes, I’ve learnt a couple of tricks I’d not spotted.

Corbin said to me today that he’d “really like to see all the disparate sites collated into one great big web presence” which would be great. To make that useful we need Mothers’ Union supporters to be using the ‘comment’ facilities on these sites (which WordPress provides automatically). This will enable feedback as to how different ideas and activities have worked at local level, and start a wider debate about some of the more difficult issues that Mothers’ Union leaders are grappling with. I’ve been particularly impressed by what Trevor Jordon is doing for MU Scarborough Deanery. This includes a debate about their proposed Diocesan re-organisation here and here.

All this means that we need a generation of computer using, web aware Mothers’ Union supporters willing to make good use of the technology available, and publicly debate the issues. That’s the rub – from the fear of both I encountered at our conference this year, I’m still not convinced that there are enough of us here to make this work. But I’d love to be proved wrong!

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Is it me, or is the programme?

OK I’ve been having a problem recently, as you will have been able to tell from the layout of the last couple of posts, with getting things to layout clearly, with all the gaps and paragraphs I want.

If I paste something in from a programme like Pageplus X2 (which is what I write my sermons in, so they print out as a booklet) then even when I use the “full screen” mode with the “kitchen sink” nobs and whistles, when it’s published I lose most of the paragraphing etc… which is REALLY irritating.

Now I am quite willing to believe this is caused by my ignorance, rather than WordPress (and yes I’m up to date) but I’d really welcome some guidance please – if you understand this and think you can help!

Make over

These beauties were in buckets ready to be arranged for a wedding on Saturday!

To celebrate the success of the final essay and the fact it is spring, and inspired by the new WordPress theme ‘Twenty Ten’ I’ve given the blog a bit of a make over.

The new header photo was taken by big G this evening in the churchyard of St. Peter’s where there are currently blue, white and mauve bells (not, I fear, native).

There are various features I think are better, like the footer widgets, though whether I’m making best use of them I’m not sure. If I use more pages, the drop down from the page links will also be good – currently only visible under ‘Theology’. Behind the scenes, the fact that the Editor now gives you an accurate visual representation of what the finished post looks like, is also a really helpful improvement. As yet I’ve not decided whether to customise the fonts – for the moment I like the default; its certainly larger and easier to read than it’s predecessor.

So, please let me know what you think and tell me if there’s anything you’re used to seeing that I’ve missed, or that you want moved up from the footer widgets.

Should I write more permanent pages, and if so what about? One idea would be to feature the wildlife of specific areas, and another the theology of specific things that interest me (stuff on marriage perhaps)? Or should I create a feature page of my essays from the training course, rather than making folks trawl through the archives or the tag cloud? I’d welcome your thoughts please!

Blogging to build community

For the seven years I have been involved in communicating on behalf of Mothers’ Union, I have used the following as my inspiration:

“Proclaim the mystery of Christ… clearly. Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.”
(Colossians 4:3-5)

Back in early July I was startled to find that the central Mothers’ Union marketing dept couldn’t get it’s head round blog based content management – and the feedback from my posting on the matter (A blog isn’t a website?) was significant, particularly Adriana’s comment about “marketing not building relationships”.

There are many examples of individual, good Christian blogs — ones that build a community of readers. I currently follow five of them: A Man Breathing (in training for ministry), Gathering Grace (a rural parish priest), Maggi Dawn (college chaplain and musician), Bishop Alan, and fellow WordPress user Bishop Nick.

In all cases I feel I am learning something about them as people, what they are passionate about, what makes them tick, what irritates them, what their social concerns are, and in some cases how they cope with that thing called ‘life’. Frequently I am prompted to consider with what God wants me to engage.

All this contributes to being part of their community.

Bishop Nick is the Bishop for the Church of England’s Diocesan Communicators and in his Diocesan news when he launched his blog he said:

The brilliant thing about blogging is that it gets conversations (and occasional rows) going in the most odd places… I love the edgy engagement that it allows and am glad the Church can get stuck into this space.

The idea of using blog software as content management for a community therefore seems a logical next step, which is why I took it when it was suggested to me. My hope is that people from all over the world will use it as a way to engage directly with what Mothers’ Union does. I want them to be inspired and resourced, and yes, perhaps commit to supporting it long-term.

This is, in part, marketing, but more than that it builds relationships and communities of like minded people. To use the jargon of an (ex) CEO at the sharp end of computing, I want MU (and Christians generally) to be active members of the new Participation Age — not just passive members of the old Information Age.

It’s a pity then that some of those who’ve been inspired to use blog software for content management on a community website often don’t enable comments and therefore aren’t building a participating community. Fellow Mothers’ Union WordPress users in Manchester are one example, and I look forward to discussing with them at our September Marketing Conference why they do this! I’m sure you can find other examples.

It’s also a pity that web software has created a generation of users who don’t, and are perhaps scared to, interact with a website. Perhaps that in part is the reason why the Mothers’ Union site I maintain is not generating comments – yet I am sure that people do have views about Mothers’ Union work in social policy, overseas development, or family life which they would like to express.

I have heard Christianity condemned as a means of controlling people, telling them how they should think, and why they should think it. If Christians use blogging software without comments enabled, are we feeding the mis-conception that we peddle a command and control mentality? Where is the freedom in Christ and the boldness of the Holy Spirit in the power of which we are called to witness (Acts 5:29)?

I do wonder how many Christian communities using the web are really making the most of every opportunity to inspire participation in the Gospel? It may be a step outside our comfort zone, just as any other form of ministry, but I do believe using the full capabilities of blog software for on-line Christian communities is definitely a “space” that those of us doing the building, need to get “stuck into”.

Where we lack knowledge

Two things happened yesterday which involved me simply not knowing enough to have avoided the problem.

Firstly, a call from my son Chris’s school explained that the reason I had not had an invoice for his Grade 3 Oboe exam anticipated in the next 3 weeks, was because an administrative error meant he hadn’t been entered! If I had know that not receiving an invoice well before half term indicated there was a problem, I could have created the appropriate waves to rectify it before it was too late. Instead, Chris is a bit deflated, though he took the news quite calmly, and will move straight to Grade 4, hoping to take it by the end of the year.

I give the Head of Music her due, she was incredibly apologetic and worried about demotivating Chris, and very grateful I didn’t throw a wobbly – she wants to meet me because she thinks I’m incredibly calm and understanding. Not a picture of myself I normally see in the mirror – and perhaps down to the fact she phoned me on the mobile when I was walking the dog, probably the calmest part of my day!

More frustratingly my lack of technical knowledge led last night to the discovery that there is a difference between storing and hosting a website, so I need to get Mothers’ Union to spend a little more money with Zen to make the porting of the Diocesan website happen. It explained why the nice man at Zen was a little confused when I ordered the cPanel Bronze! It is though still only £5 more than Claranet, with far better facilities – the wordpress stuff is all there and the control panel appears to be easy for the numpty like me to use.

The biggest dent is probably to my pride, as asking for more money will show I didn’t know as much about what I was doing as I gave the impression of to people who know less than me. This mornings reply from the MU Treasurer to my rather embarassed email last night, is encouraging though… so more news soon hopefully.

In the mean time, Alec got me organised last night so I can start writing the new pages before they ‘go live’, so that will be a good way to spend an afternoon and evening. It’s rather nice thanking God (literally) for the friendship and expertise of one of my favourite atheists, but I really do 🙂

So, as I dash off to morning service in my placement parish, what have I learnt – that pride goes before a fall? I knew that already and it’s probably more frustration that I don’t understand things. And yet, none of us understand everything, especially not things of God. If we understood everything about him, and how we relate and work with him, there would be no need for faith, and isn’t developing understanding (whether of technical matters or spiritual ones) the exciting thing that makes our journey through life such an adventure, if not always a joy?!

The Ascension

Here’s another sermon, this time dated from 13th May 2007, back in the first year of my Reader Training.

This one is an audio file, which usefully comes including the Bible reading that preceeded it: Acts 1:1-14 Ascension – waiting and being transformed

In case it’s of any relevance it was a Communion Service at the 9am Congregation of St.Peter’s Church, Yateley. It was also the first sermon for which I wore trousers – daft I know but previously I’d always felt I had to wear a skirt!

It has taken me a little while to get this upload to work.
Firstly I had to subscribe to WordPress in such a way that I could upload audio files ($15 for a year was OK to see if it was worthwhile – I shall know in a years time whether to repeat the subscription that allows audio/video files) .
Secondly my first upload attempt hung during the ‘crunching’ stage, since when life has been busy. This attempt worked easily and I managed to hang the washing in the process!

I shall be interested to see how this comes out and whether anyone listens to it.

Does it have legs?

My vicar is an engineer and likes to operate electronically to the extent I knew he read various Christian blogs. I also know he wants to update our parish website when the webmaster isn’t doing Reader Training like myself, and wanted some thoughts on what we might do – I wanted him to look at the WordPress concept as an idea.

So I sent him the url for this place, explaining the two reasons for it (a dummy attempt for a new MU one, and my own contribution to Christian blogging) to see if he thought the concept “had legs” as I referred to it – in other words was it worth keeping going or was I wasting my time? His response by email, was as follows (I think it is positive, and I’ve put on the widget for RSS feeds – the other things I really want to look at, but not today, as I have a tutorial tonight!):


hi
yes, the last couple of years would suggest that i’m more likely to read a blog and occasionally post a comment
than generate my own online “extroverted thinking” (tho’ i’d love to shift my time-priorities to alter that)

i do think a community of blog-based theological reflection is a good thing
– tho’ i’m not sure if we can educate “our lot” to the discipline of engaging in it regularly
(i’d love something like this to be a forum in which to feed back and further reflect on one another’s sermons / teaching / seminars etc

the two that i follow regularly are
http://gatheringgrace.blogs.com/
and
http://maggidawn.typepad.com/

and both have – as you do – a combination of their humanity and their ministry/role-based reflections
howard is a rural vicar and maggi a college chaplain

how it fits into parish / mu based stuff – not sure
– it lends itself well to reflecting on news and fast-moving events etc
but requires a discipline (and/or a newsfeed reader) to keep up to date with the conversation threads

as for design of sites – tho’ it’s busy, i like the st barnabas one
– i like the “click here for more” links to “soundbites” – esp the “mike says ….” bits
– which might have read-across to mu?

….. more of a ramble than a help, i fear ? ……