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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Church Websites: Outreach vs. Privacy

Most of us are dealing - both personally and professionally - with how to take advantage of emerging technologies in the most appropriate way. Sometimes our dealings with such technologies has unanticipated negative consequences. We probably all have internet horror stories we could share. Today's question deals with the difficult balance between using the internet to broadcast what a church is doing and protecting individual church member's privacy.

Recently, a church member called the office to say that he was disturbed to discover that information about himself and his children was readily available through an old church newsletter archived on our website, easily discovered through a google search. He asked us to remove the information, which we promptly did. The information was basic information that you might find in any church newsletter - the date the family joined the church, where the parents worked, the names of the children - but I feel terrible that we are responsible for putting information out on the internet that he would have wanted to keep private.

We have recently done a lot of work to update our church website (we hired an advertising firm for several thousand dollars), and we are thrilled with the results. In addition to publishing our bi-monthly newsletter on it, we keep an archive of old newsletters going back several years. I am concerned now that we ought not be doing this. The committee responsible for working on the website felt strongly, as I did, that we ought to have current and new information going up on the website on a regular basis, and that the newsletter was an important vehicle for that. But now I am left wondering if we should not publish our newsletters on our website, since they often include personal information about families in our church. Options include taking the newsletter down entirely, only publishing the first page (the pastor's column), only publishing a condensed version (without any personal information), or making the newsletter a "members only" feature. I believe that the newsletter is an important resource for people seeking a new church home, so I am hesitant to remove it or make it only accessible to members, but I am also concerned about protecting the privacy of church members. I am curious if others of you have dealt with this issue, and how you have handled it.

Mompriest writes:
I think it is a good idea to make the newsletter available online to as many people as possible. Newsletters are one way that churches share with the community a bit of its identity, beyond just calendar data. It is however a good idea to remove from the published edition any personal info: parishioner phone numbers and addresses, names and ages of kids, things like that.
I also think it is a good idea to have "members only' info available on line via a password, or something like that, but even then I'd be careful with what info is included. Passwords have a way of getting out.
Lastly, to avoid any potential missed, old data, I'd just remove everything and start from scratch....that is unless you are really certain you have eliminated it all.

Sunday's Coming offers:
My previous church had a discussion around this very issue: how much information to release on the website.
In the end, rather reluctantly, we erred on the side of caution: the only part of the newsletter which was available online were the ‘non-personal’ - the church calendar. At first this made me unhappy – I wanted all the information out there, but we live in a naughty world and I came to realise that if people from outside were looking at the site with a view to attending, they would be more interested in the fact that the scouts were having a car wash than the fact that Beryl Bliss had celebrated her 90th birthday.
We did however have a short ‘news’ section where, with permission from the individuals, a photo and short item was included – just to give a more personal touch. We also decided that we would have sermons on there from time to time, when they seemed particularly appropriate, rather than a regular ‘slot’ which might not mean much outside the community.
I’m not saying we got it right – but that’s the way we went.

If you want to see the finished article, it’s at

What about the rest of you? Is this something you are dealing with or have dealt with? Please share your wisdom.

Also, we currently only have one more question for the matriarchs in the queue. So if you have an issue you'd like the group to discuss, please send us an email at


  1. You could also:
    1) have the newsletters hidden on a "members-only" page
    2) have a stripped down web version

    I think it is important to consider what is posted on the web. We removed some of our information about small group leaders when some of them were uncomfortable.

  2. I agree no personal info on the internet - not even with a password..I wouldn't even put the newsletter online - I'd have just up to date news on the web page.

    I tend to think of the web site as more for advertising and telling the world about your church, or devotional material...not a place for members only.

    Also you should get signed releases before putting photos of children (NEVER IDENTIFIED!) on your web page. Other organizations have to do this and I don't know why the church things they are exempt.

    This may seem obvious - but do make sure the CHURCH ADDRESS is on the web page. I was out of town and looking for a place to worship- found what seemed like a lovely church - nowhere anywhere was there an address

  3. We recently began sending out our newsletter by email, which was our way of dipping our toe in the technology creek. Our administrator found out the hard way that she needed to make the address group a 'blind' group because one person did not even want other church members to have his email address.

    St Stoic is situated in a very small village where the tradition was for many years to publish church members' birthdays in the village weekly shopper. We had to halt that when one person was afraid of identity theft.

    This shows me that there is plenty of anxiety out there. And some of it is justified. Proceed with caution, I suppose.

    When I look at the websites of other churches and come across a "members only" page with a password, even though I understand the why of it, if I were looking for a church I might find it to be rather overly "secretive", and might wonder what the church is "hiding" from the public.

  4. We haven't gone with a members only section; however, I think putting a brief explanation on the public page about protecting the privacy of members might be one way to not seem secretive. I can't say that I like it, though.

    Most of us have something in our newsletters now and then that says, "if you are interested, call Hidegarde @ 555-5555." I would simply replace those references with a "call the office" tag instead.

    We put pictures of kids up when they are sent by members but I know we need to get permission. And, as already mentioned, no one is identified. In fact, my picture is the only one on the site that is.

  5. Even though we don't post our newsletters on our website (we send them out via email to those who request them), I think this is a great question. And the "outreach vs. privacy" frames it exactly right.

    Even if there is not a newsletter, there are lots of opportunities to be thinking about just what is appropriate information to share on the net.

    We have a "prayer concerns" page, for example, with an option for people to share, either with "appropriate prayer group" or "everyone can see this."

    I can think of lots of other areas on web sites where we need to consider what to share.

  6. This is also a great opportunity for us to model thoughtful, appropriate practices!

    I decided for myself when I started my blog that I would only post prayers for groups and general concerns, rather than specific people. And I post photos of things related to what I'm talking about, but not people. In a world with facebook in it, where the whole point is to use personally identifying information (!), we can help our folks by showing that there are ways of setting up appropriate, healthy boundaries, even on the Internet.

  7. Our "members only" area is for people to log in and do on-line giving, for leadership to send bulk emails to helpers for Sundays, etc. It is just not open to anyone. Also, the info that you can see on a particular person (unless you are a staff member) is controlled by them. We let them set what is viewable. The default is name and email. It actually has been wonderful because people update their own info real-time.



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