Ministry Excellence – DJ Turner interview, Director of Communications, Denver Seminary

As part of our ongoing research on Excellence in Online Ministry we are interviewing different ministry leaders to understand what role they believe excellence plays in their ministry. We recently had the privilege of speaking with DJ Turner, Director of Communications for Denver Seminary. Ms. Turner has lead the seminary’s effort to transform how it engages online, developing and implementing a comprehensive set of strategies for reaching students, alumni, and other supporters.

Ms. Turner was very enthusiastic about the value of bringing ministry leaders together to discuss excellence in online ministry. “For me personally, opening the dialog and causing ministry leaders to think about excellence is beneficial. It helps to be able to articulate these things and to stimulate strategic conversations. It also increases the chances that we’ll be able to dialog with other ministries so we don’t feel alone and so there will be continual growth in the Kingdom of God. There is a lot we can learn from each other, so just being in dialog will benefit the Kingdom of God as well.

Below are some highlights from our discussion with Ms. Turner about excellence in online ministry. The outcome from this research will be presented at the 2010 Christian Leadership Alliance’s Ministry Internet and Technology Summit next April in San Diego, CA. To get more information and to register, visit the Ministry Internet and Technology Summit website.

Tell us about Denver Seminary and some of your goals for your online ministry.
We’ve been wrestling with how we’re trying to do ministry online because Denver Seminary has been in a transitional period with the departure of our previous president. We provide theological education to students so that they can go out and change the world. Within that there are three main constituencies: student (prospective and current); alumni; and financial supporters.

For prospective students, our message and mission to them is very clear cut in our mind – we need to bring students in. For current students, historically, for the most part the interaction with the students has been in the class room, so interacting with them outside of that is a little different. That’s what I’ve been taking risk in, engaging them outside of the classroom through the web.

For alumni, we’ve had a hard time figuring out what we can do with them online. The difficulty there is that our mission is already accomplished because we have given them the training. But there is also the expectation that our training and support would continue. I think that’s an option for us online.

For our donors, while we are the most far removed from them compared to the other constituencies, it is easier to connect them online because they align highly with our mission in that they also support the students.

It’s difficult to say all the ways that we do ministry online because some of the excellence we’ve experienced has been just by the grace of God because we haven’t had a clear cut plan.

What’s the balance between intent and responsiveness?
My gut says it’s mixed and the two go hand in hand more that some people would like to think. My experience is that things never work out the way you expected because there is always a human element that you can’t control for. You can only control what you can control. Most of what happens online are things that we can’t control. You have to be able to roll with the punches and think intuitively about how to respond to the types of things you can’t control.

Tell us about your own ministry’s successes and failures using the Internet.
Denver Seminary is in the process of shifting our vision because we recently got a new president. Two and a half years ago, responsibility for the Internet was entirely under the IT department. When I came onboard, my first project was to overhaul website and to move it under the Communications Department. This move reflected our shifting view of the website as a tool for reaching prospective students and donors. The new president sees the value of the website and of expanding it so that it’s not just a resource of information.

Much of Denver Seminary’s web success has been with main website. We worked with Monk Development on a complete redesign and have received many design accolades. As a result we saw a significant increase in traffic and our search engine results went up. On top of that, the publicity that we received because of the quality of our design brought more traffic. This success has translated offline and while the Internet is not our sole source of enrollment, we have seen record increases in enrollment in the period after the launch of our new site. We’ve also had an over 500 percent increase in online giving, but I must say that proportionally online giving does not represent a huge chunk of our total giving.

To you, what is online excellence?
I don’t know if I have a good answer as to what online excellence is. For Denver Seminary, as I think about trying to articulate our web strategy, I see online excellence characterized by an extension of who Denver Seminary is, that the brand is continued online. It is important that what people will say about us will be consistent both online and offline because we have a lot of integrity. If you believe and understand what God is doing in you and through you, to the point where other people can grab on to that as well, then excellence allows that to continue to spread online.

So, even if you’re a “mediocre” organization, you can be excellent online?
Yes and no, even if the organization is mediocre and doesn’t operate with integrity, it is possible to have an online presence that is “successful” as defined by a large number of followers. But that isn’t necessarily excellence. Excellence may not always look like what people may classify as success. Excellence is measured by the quality of the relationships that you develop with people, not just the number of relationships.

What are the one or two key things that a ministry must do to achieve online excellence?
First is having a clear sense of identity. If you don’t have a clear sense of that you might not know what to do with once you’re online. Second is having an idea of what you’re trying to accomplish and being able to focus on that in light of our identity. Third, I would say, is understanding where your constituency is and going where they are online.

In your experience, how does having the support of your ministry’s leadership contribute to online excellence?
If you don’t have the support of your leadership you may face roadblocks. Having people who understand the value of the web to a ministry can open doors and create opportunities. I find I’m constantly painting pictures that our online presence is just not an extension of our offline activities. Let me just say that support is enough to get started online but buy-in is the only way you can really move toward excellence. It’s a vicious circle; you have to start something in order to show results that demonstrate that it is worthwhile. While online hasn’t become part of the fabric of the institution yet, we are moving in that direction.

How important are financial resources in achieving excellence?
I’d put it toward the bottom of the list because there is a lot you can do with limited financial resources. If you have time resources you can put into things, financial resources are less important.

What about having someone with technology or web experience on staff?
It really depends on how your system is set up. For me, understanding CSS or XHTML is not important because we have a developer who as done that. Expertise is important but it depends on what your structure is. I will say that having someone with web experience – in that they understand how it works, what the intention is, and understands how people interact in the different areas – is very important.

Are you interested in achieving excellence online for your ministry? Click here to participate in the Excellence in Online Ministry project. Participating ministries will get access to the full research findings and will receive a discounted registration for the Christian Leadership Alliance 2010 Conference in April in San Diego.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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