How This Association Re-Energized Itself and Its Membership with Online Connections

This association professional learned that it is never too early to innovate.

In the summer of 2019, The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) was in the process of identifying its strategic priorities. Member engagement emerged as a key theme. That fall, ATS turned to Higher Logic to launch an online community called Engage ATS for its members to network and engage in peer learning.

This move proved to be serendipitous—it enabled the association to be uniquely prepared when, just months later, the pandemic changed the world as we knew it. Engage ATS soon became essential for the organization and the 272 North American graduate theology schools comprising its membership. “The timing could not have been better,”notes Lisa Kern, manager of member engagement at ATS.

“Our members were very appreciative that this community existed so that they could quickly and easily turn to one another to figure out a game plan in the middle of this unexpected crisis,” says Kern. “Theological education is a unique niche. “You cannot currently participate in webinars or virtual business events to easily find other people who do the exact same thing that you do. Our members have said, ‘My gosh, I don’t have this anywhere else. It’s so great to connect with people who speak my language.’”

Engage ATS consists of 15 hyper-focused communities, ranging from areas of work to specific topic interests, plus one big open forum community that any registered member can participate in. Engagement, Kern reports, began with an organic need for members to communicate during lockdown, but it has stayed strong in some of the focused communities ever since. “Members continue to reach out and learn from one another,” Kern says. “It has helped us learn a lot about our members too— their needs, their successes and their outlook,” especially while in-person meetings and business travel remain limited, she adds.

While organic growth and enthusiasm are great, Kern has started to initiate strategies to ensure that these communities continue to thrive. “I’ve been trying to work with my staff members to incorporate Engage ATS into our events and other offerings,” she explains. “For example, we recently asked event presenters to post established discussion threads for their specific topics into an Engage ATS community before their event. Once the event ended, presenters reminded attendees that the conversations continued among those discussion threads that they started in Engage ATS.”

For many associations, the ultimate goal of increasing member engagement is to increase renewals. But for a unique association serving a unique membership like ATS, the goal is, not surprisingly, outside of the norm. “Our goal is to learn from, for and with our members by continuing to provide accreditation and to offer them resources and tools like Engage ATS to enhance the good work they are already doing at their schools.”

For Kern, helping theological institutions connect in an online member community has been rewarding. “With the pandemic shutting down many office spaces and many in-person events ATS used to host, it’s been very difficult,” she says. “I’m energized by the presence of people around me, so I am very empathetic toward the people working for our member schools who may be feeling the same way. With Engage ATS, our members can have real-time conversations with their peers facing the same challenges, and they can share resources and success stories others may learn from. I’d like to think that this platform can make them feel like they are not alone in their work. That also energizes me.”

Higher Logic, the industry-leading, human-focused engagement platform, delivers powerful online communities and communication tools to engage members at every stage of their journey. Higher Logic provides a robust engagement platform and strategic services with over a decade of experience in building personalized and scalable community engagement programs. We serve more than 3,000 customers, representing over 350,000 online communities with greater than 200 million users in more than 42 countries worldwide.