Clover Sites—which does easy-to-use attractive websites for churches at a reasonable price—has been a great sponsor of Between Two Worlds. This isn’t a sponsored post, but I wanted to ask Jim Elliston (the co-founder) about his own story and a couple of questions about Clover.

Oh, and next week, Clover has graciously agreed to give away a free iPad (the 32-GB, Wi-Fi version)—a $600 value—to a reader of Between Two Worlds. So check back here after Memorial Day and I’ll give you a few more details.

Tell us a little bit about how and why you left the pastorate to begin a start-up web company.

It’s funny—ever since I started really following Christ in high school I felt called to the pastorate. Through college I lead major area-wide ministries, went on mission trips (sometimes for months at a time), and saw the Lord better define my calling in the area of the arts and worship in the local church. After God lead my wife and I down to Los Angeles, through a series of events I ended up as worship pastor at Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley (which lasted for around 5 years).

Ever since taking the role of worship pastor at Cornerstone, I wrestled with the concept of the role of “Worship Pastor.” Although I discipled people (mainly musicians) and lead worship each weekend, the role itself felt nothing like a pastoral role. More than anything it felt a bit like a glorified event planning position. I would oversee the musicians, ushers, parking lot attendants, cafe workers, greeters, and everyone else who was involved with weekend services, and make sure everything worked together to convey the church’s vision and direction. Although this is great (and every church needs this to pull off weekend services), I never really felt called to anything other than discipleship and leading worship.

Right about this time is when our church started to give 50% of its income away to the poor. I knew our church’s current budget, and salaries were by far the largest percentage. With the conviction I was feeling about my position as well as our church’s new direction (and although I was halfway through my MDiv), I began seeking council from Francis Chan (my pastor) as well as the elders of our church. It took about a year, but through a ton of prayer and faith, God lead me to stop taking a salary from Cornerstone, but still lead worship over the weekends (which was what I’d always felt called to).

Although I felt called to quit, I had know idea what I was called into. It kinda freaked me out, but I thought to myself, “What good Father would call me out of ministry (with confirmation from my elders), just to abandon me?”

I didn’t really know how to use Photoshop or Illustrator at the time (end of 2006), but I always loved graphic design and art. So I decided to start asking everyone I knew in graphic and web design about the industry, and grabbed any and every piece of info I could that might somehow help me start freelancing in graphic design. Through this process I met Ben Rugg (who is now my business partner).

We started a custom design company (The Regime) that mainly did print and high-end custom, interactive Flash websites for creative folk. God gave me a super-quick learning curve with the tools, and hooked me up with Ben who was (and still is) the best programmer I’ve ever met. As our custom design shop progressed, Cornerstone began planting a ton of churches in the end of 2007, into 2008. We looked for weeks trying to find a website solution for our church’s new plants, and realized there was nothing available that was 1) current-looking and 2) easy and intuitive to update.

We decided at that point to put all our custom work on hold to start (what is now called) Clover. We thought if we could help our churches and maybe a few more, that’d be awesome. God seemed to have other plans!

I still lead worship for Cornerstone (now I’m right around 2 weekends a month), but I’ve realized that ministry and vocational ministry are 2 totally different things. I know it’s scary, but I think those in vocational ministry need to examine whether or not they are truly called to take a paycheck to do their ministry. I know that if I would have stayed in vocational ministry, I would have missed out on so much of what God has really called me to.

What’s your vision for Clover? Why do you guys exist?

Our goal as a company since the beginning has been to help churches/ministries show their face to the world. We want to help ministries accomplish what God has called them to do. We wanted to provide an immaculate web presence that anyone (really, anyone) can manage.

Because our goal has always been to equip the church, we have made every aspect of our company reflect that. We are very transparent about our pricing ($1000 one time fee, plus $20/month for hosting) because we’re sick of people ripping off the church. We probably could have made it $999, but the truth is that if we priced our product this way, it might be communicated to leadership as costing “around $900.” We feel that is a bit dishonest—so we are over-the-top to make sure no one feels taken advantage of.

We also let everyone demo everything for free before they purchase. We actually create a completely new website when you demo online, so you get the exact feel of our websites. I hate purchasing something and finding it’s not all it was said to be. We feel that is the most honest approach to presenting our product.

In the same way, we don’t up-sell anything. For instance, someone who purchased a Clover website on May 15th, 2008 (the day we launched), just received the new Greenhouse (our content management system) for free when it was released last month. No extra charge—it was just given to them automatically. We just feel that’s the right way to do business with the church!

What’s next?

As far as the next phase of our business goes, we are actually looking at opening Clover up to small businesses. There have been a ton of business owners who have found us and ask if they can use Clover for their company’s web presence. We’ve realized that there is nothing available that is beautiful and easy to manage for the majority of business owners without paying an enormous amount of money or knowing how to program. We are planning on launching this to the rest of the world in the next couple of months.

What are some of the new features in the Greenhouse platform?

The major features of the new Greenhouse (our CMS) that was released last month can be found at www.cloversites.com/greenhouse-updates. I’ll just highlight a couple:

New Media Player: You can house all your audio/video sermons in one sophisticated, customizable player.

You can Podcast any media player you’d like which will allow people to subscribe to your sermons. It’s actually the easiest way to Podcast on the web. Literally.

Password Protect Your Pages:
This will allow you to have “Members Only” pages, or even restrict access to resources, schedules, etc.

There’s really a ton more, but demo it all to see the power of the new Greenhouse. We’re pretty excited about it, and after about a year of development we couldn’t be happier.

Some folks wonder about the use of Flash. Will Clover Sites work on iPhones, iPads, etc.? Will search engines find your site?

One of the interesting things about Flash is that the debate about it is almost as heated (and emotional) as the debate over healthcare reform.  And like many politically charged issues, the truth sometimes gets hidden behind the polarized arguments.  In our view, Flash allows the most creativity and the most power to create beautiful sites on the web.  We leverage that power to do many things that aren’t possible with any other web language.  Many of the types of animation we create, or the fonts we use, or the tools that we’ve created for editing photos are far beyond what HTML is capable of.

For the parts of flash that are inherently limited, we’ve created other tools that work in addition to Flash. For example, every site we create has a Flash version and an HTML version.  The HTML site works remarkably well on iPhones and iPads, and is always updated in sync with the Flash version.  Because we provide both sites, our customers (and their visitors) get the best of both worlds—a specifically designed experience for both desktop and mobile browsers.

The same goes for search engines viewing our sites.  Every piece of text on our sites (and every picture, calendar item, video or media item for that matter) is optimized for search engines, and we take that very seriously.  We even provide specific tools to help our customers manage their SEO settings.

The bottom line is that we’re always trying to use the best and most cutting edge tools to do what’s really valuable.  Despite what Steve Jobs says, Flash isn’t going away any time soon, but if it ever does become irrelevant, you can bet we’ll be ahead of the curve in creating new fantastic experiences on the web.

Thanks to Jim for answering these questions. Again, stay tuned next week for the iPad giveaway.

Here’s a video of Jim and others talking about Clover’s new content management system: