Lutheran schools and churches have always gone hand in hand. Martin Luther, all the way back in 1530, wrote “A Sermon on Keeping Children in School,” and he was quite the revolutionary as he called for the education of not only boys but girls as well.
This desire to educate our children was kept by the Saxon (and other) immigrants who would form the Missouri Synod. In Germany, religious instruction was a part of the public school curriculum. In America, however, the public schools were much more secular, or the Christianity that was taught in them was generic and watered down. So in many places, Lutherans established their schools first and then, a few years later, built their church.
Today, many of these churches and schools still exist as is, while others have morphed into something slightly different. As a perfect example of what I mean, let’s look at the histories of St. John in Alma, Kansas, and St. John’s in Topeka, Kansas.
St. John, Alma, was established in 1870 and started St. John Lutheran School in 1873. To this day, St. John runs St. John Lutheran School in Alma.
St. John’s in Topeka was actually started by St. John, Alma (it is getting confusing with the names, but hang in there!). St. John’s, Topeka, was planted in 1874 and opened a school the same year. However, in 1952, St. John’s Lutheran School (Topeka) was turned into an association school and renamed Topeka Lutheran School. It still operates under that name today, and has invited other LCMS congregations to become members and hold a stake in the school.
Neither of these stories is unique. Most Lutheran schools are either directly owned and operated by a single congregation or run by an association of churches. Each management style presents distinctive opportunities and challenges, and one of these challenges is websites.
Church/School Combination Site
The challenge for this type of website is to clearly distinguish between the school and the church. Using the above example of St. John, Alma, both the church and school are known as St. John, but one is St. John Lutheran Church while the other is St. John Lutheran School.
To bury the school information within the church website or the church information in the school website will cause frustration for various groups within the community. Church members could get frustrated trying to find when the next potluck is, while school parents could get frustrated trying to find the girls’ basketball schedule.
The easiest (and cheapest) solution is to create and maintain a clearly divided website. In this scenario, because the church and school share the same name, it makes sense that the church and school share the same web address (for example, www.stjohnalma.org). This would be true for any type of educational facility (e.g., daycare, high school) that is run by one church and shares the same name.
So how do you get the right people to the right place? The most effective way is to create a clear landing page that has a link to the church part of the website and another link to the to school part of the website. In a large number of cases, landing pages are just an extra and unneeded layer to a website. But in this case, they work and are worth the extra click they create. If you couple a two-option landing page (“Church”; “School”) with a clear header menu, it is hard to go wrong. Simple, effective, clear: the three goals of a website.
The main thing to keep in mind is that you likely have two separate and distinct audiences looking for the same website, so create a domain name that makes sense and that both entities can share—and then direct users to either the school or the church part of the website.
Association School Website
A website for an association school is easier to build than is one for a church/school combo. Most association schools do not share a name with a local congregation but have a distinct name. Take, for example, Topeka Lutheran School. There is no “Topeka Lutheran Church.” So the website, www.topekalutheran.org, is never confused with a church in the area.
The challenge for an association site is to incorporate information about the associate churches. Do you include a few links? Does each church have a dedicated page? How much or how little church information do you put on the site?
The answers might seem simple, until you start thinking about all the variables of association sizes. A small association of three to five churches can include much more church information (even dedicated pages) without overwhelming visitors. But a Lutheran high school with twenty-five congregations as a part of its association? That is another scale entirely and not one easily managed. Considering that most websites are maintained by volunteers, principals, teachers, or office administrators who already have full plates, having these busy people also keep track of the major events of multiple churches would be asking too much.
Another factor to consider is that the primary target audience of an association school is not usually looking for information about the association churches. Instead, they want to know about the school. However, the school can act as an introductory means for nonassociation families to join association congregations. Therefore, information should be clearly marked (nothing beats a well thought-out header menu). And some specific information about the association churches should be on the school website.
Multicampus Association Schools Website
A multicampus association school website is, in my experience, the most difficult website there is. Topeka Lutheran School (TLS) serves us well again for this example. TLS operates a K-8 school, a preschool, and a childcare center (infant through pre-K). They all have slightly different names: Topeka Lutheran School (TLS), Topeka Lutheran School Learning Center (LC), and the Topeka Lutheran School Center for Young Children (CYC). TLS and the LC are both housed in the same building. The CYC, which is the childcare center, runs out of a building about a mile away from the other campus. So there are three schools operating on two campuses, and each of the three schools serves a unique population demographic. Add to that the complexities of association churches. How do you build a website for something like that?
In redoing TLS’s website, we wrestled with this. The website went through no fewer than three major layout redesigns as we refined and tested it. The first iteration utilized a landing page that directed the visitor to either the TLS, LC, or CYC webpage (along with a couple more options that were more school specific). It was simple, clean, and well-functioning. Although my team ultimately decided against it, it does not mean that it would not work for a similar situation.
After deciding against using a landing page, we next tackled the heading menu navigation. We tried numerous options and made major menu changes. The tension (as with all heading menus) is to not have too much or too little. In other words, too many options can make a menu overwhelming but too few will lead to frustration as people trying to find information must hunt through the website to discover it. One menu option we tried led to long drop-downs. Another led to too many main options and so always collapsed the menu (you might say it was too long horizontally). Finally, we found a happy medium by putting each campus as a separate link under the “Explore” drop-down, which we felt would be the most navigable for visitors and the easiest to use.
Every school website is going to have challenges. The best way to overcome any challenge is through simple, clear, and concise menu options (I am including landing pages as a part of this). Whether or not you hold to the myth of the three-click rule—the idea that a website user should be able to find any information with no more than three mouse clicks—making information easy to find should be one of the overriding rules of your website design. Effective navigation is the best asset a website can have. Putting in the time and effort to address your school’s situation (church/school, association, multicampus association) is worth it. It will lead to better user experiences, which in turn means fewer headaches for you.
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