Martin’s List was a mess.
Created as a place for youth leaders to upload different resources to the ELCA Youth Ministry Network, the website hadn’t exactly been designed with growth in mind. The site — database and all — was still connected to the organization’s main website.
Now it had outgrown its original home.
“The database was messy and it was hard for anyone to use,” Shannon Savage-Howie said. “No one used it.”
Savage-Howie knew she needed to create a new website for the resources, but couldn’t find a developer who could take her ideas and make them work. She spent two years searching for someone to take on the project.
Finally, she found Faith Growth.
Reverend Todd Buegler, director for the ELCA Youth Ministry Network, connected with Christopher Harris at the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit where they worked on the communications team.
“We were chatting and he talked about the work Faith Growth was doing,” Rev. Buegler said. “I mentioned what we were trying to do and it went from there.
Savage-Howie said she knew right away Harris and Faith Growth were the right group to partner with for the project.
“They were way well more equipped to deal with what we were asking for,” Savage-Howie said. “They had problem solvers and knew what they were doing. They knew web stuff and ministry stuff and caught the vision.”
Harris and Savage-Howie went through an extensive discovery process in order to figure out what the site needed. The two had weekly meetings for several weeks to hammer out the details for the new site.
“It felt like he knew what I was saying,” Savage-Howie said. “He had energy about it. He was the first person I talked to who said what I was imagining could be done online.”
In the end, the site design came down to four key processes.
First, the site needed to be easy to maintain.
“We have to make it easy for people to share, easy for people to interact, but at the same time we’re not going to build the next Facebook or something,” Harris said. “It’s just her on the whole network board that maintains that site.”
Second, Martin’s List wanted the different resources to be able to be divided into different categories and for there to be a way to add more categories if the need arises.
Also, each of the resources needed to have a place for discussions where other could comment with tweaks they made to the resources that worked for them. Harris said it’s something they got from recipe websites.
“They always have the recipe and then there’s a long discussion of ‘I tried this,’ or ‘You should try it this way,’ or ‘Add a little bit of cinnamon and it gives you this flavor,’” Harris said. “It’s kind of what customizations worked for them, what worked for them and what didn’t work type of things.”
Finally, instead of being able to “like” resources, the Harris and Savage-Howie decided that users can “nail” items to their profiles similar to Pinterest, a callback to when Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the church door.
“I knew were going to want something as a signal,” Harris said. “All of the sudden I just had this idea that it needs to be a nail. It’s Martin’s list; it needs to be a nail. I’m a Luther fanatic I guess.”
While the site looks like a typical website, it’s actually more of a web application. Instead of just viewing a site, users end up interacting with a site, uploading resources, commenting on others’ resources and searching the site for resources. Harris and lead developer Jon Campbell also had to come up with different algorithms to make it all work.
Harris said creating the site as a web application was the toughest part of the process.
“We had to figure out an algorithm for how, if we’re going to say most recent, what does that really mean,” Harris said. “Is that what’s happening last week? How is that going to display? So we have an algorithm that’s doing most recently, and it’s taking into account when it was uploaded, how many nails it has and how many comments it has.
“It was a fun challenge.”
The site went live on February 5, 2016, just in time for the ELCA Extravaganza, a four-day conference for adults who with youth in ELCA churches to network and share ideas. Savage-Howie said that was the most rewarding part of the whole process.
“Seeing it come to life and people finally see what we were talking about … it was finally a real thing,” Savage-Howie said. “People were excited about it. They were excited to see that it was usable and accessible.”
Rev. Buegler said seeing the final product after so many years of trying to make their idea really was the most rewarding part of the whole process.
“It had been an idea that we had been floating for a couple of years, and we hadn’t found a mechanism to make it happen,” Rev. Buegler said. “To release it was a huge thing for us and the organization. When you have a vision in your head and you have an idea in your mind and then you actually see it on the screen, that’s just a real joy.”
Harris, who spent some time as a youth minister, said being able to help out an organization that helped him earlier in life was the best part of the whole project.
“This project was really special to me,” Harris said. “I went to the second ever Extravaganza and when I was serving in the parish, I went every year. It was an organization that always supported me and my ministry when I was in the congregation and it was always very important to me.”
“I saw the potential for Martin’s List, and it’s very rewarding to know that Faith Growth played a part in many other people with their ministries.”
While it might not be the best approach for every group, Harris said a web application site like Martin’s List has some definite advantages.
“Web applications are going to allow their user base, whoever it is, to access data or maybe even crowdsource data,” Harris said. “Websites by and large are a one-way medium. Web applications start letting us be a little more two-way collaborative in including the users and giving the users something to do.
“It takes the website to the next level of interaction.”
Meanwhile, Savage-Howie said the new site has completely revitalized the organization.
“It’s so much more usable now,” Savage-Howie said. “It helps people share resources who may not have been otherwise connected. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You can see what’s happening around the country and pull from there.”