Do Welcoming Parish Websites Exist?

by Sr. Susan Wolf, SND on April 14, 2015

in parish, website

Young woman is playing on laptop, indoor shootRecently I searched Google for “catholic parish website design.” Then I reviewed the design samples of two companies that were listed on the first page. I was interested to see if the parishes that are updating their website designs are also updating their home pages to be more evangelizing or welcoming. Here is what I found.

The first company I looked at was Connecting Members. Their template designs are clean, simple and attractive. Basically, they provide different configurations of Mass schedule, announcements, links and calendar information and other information such as address, phone number, Facebook and Twitter links. Some contain ads for the businesses which support the website and others include links to online giving. The choice of content comes from the parishes. I saw three websites where the word Welcome appeared and a few others where I’m New was a menu heading, but these were not typical nor were they remarkable in their welcomes. No evangelization stars here. (Note: At the end of 2015 and early 2016, I worked with Connecting Members to create a welcoming website for St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Strongsville, Ohio. I think we were successful.)

The second company was eCatholic®. There is some variety in the sample websites displayed. The background frames are attractive and the main menus are clear and easy to read. The structure of the home pages below the menus vary in quality. Most likely, this reflects on the skills of the parish web master more than the skills of the professional web designer. Two websites, St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A & M University and St. Gerard Catholic Church from Lansing Michigan get stars for evangelization, three others were on the way, but the rest are in-house websites focused primarily on announcements, calendars, links, etc. (Note: After this article was written, I worked with eCatholic to create a free evangelizing parish template.  It is called Bethany, in case you are interested in using it.)

These two companies and other website designers are giving the parishes what they want. Unfortunately, most parishes do not see or want their websites to be part of their evangelizing ministry. It is hard for me to believe that Church ministers and those charged with the development of the parish website and social media sites do not see the website as a way to welcome visitors, new-comers, seekers or inactive Catholics who may wish to return. This is a missed opportunity. The first place “outsiders” look to find out about our parishes is the Internet and their needs are seldom addressed.

Here are a few other exceptions to that reality. These are attractive and welcoming parish websites created by other designers: St. Edward Parish Family; St. John Bosco; Cathedral of St. Andrew.

The good news is that more parishes are paying attention to their online presence and updating their website designs. The less-than-good news is that while more attractive, most re-designed websites have home pages that are announcement boards that ignore the world and the people outside the walls of the Church. However, the few exceptions that I have found give me hope that someday all parish home pages will be communicating the welcome that visitors, new-comers, seekers and inactive Catholics are seeking.

If you have an example of a welcoming parish website where the home page speaks to visitors, new-comers, seekers and inactive Catholics who wish to return as well as to active members, please give the link in the comments below.

What do you think?

Note:  This article was updated November 15, 2016.

 

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Fran Rossi Szpylczyn April 14, 2015 at 7:14 am

Hi Sr. Susan, thanks as ever for your posts. As you know, I posed a question about Catholic parish websites on Facebook last week, not sure if your search was related to that. You replied and I thank you for that.

As you also know, I am a bit obsessed with parish welcome via technology. Primarily in person – real presence 🙂 – but seriously, people look online first so very often. It is essential to offer a welcoming and dynamic site.

I’ll be interested in what others have to say… And these are interesting examples. Prayers for us all as we go out there figuring out what to do and how to do it!

Dianna April 14, 2015 at 10:03 am

Happy to see our Cathedral website listed 🙂 I shared your blog post with one of the creators.

Caroline Cerveny, SSJ-TOSF, D. Min April 14, 2015 at 10:22 am

I love your focus – I was interested to see if the parishes that are updating their website designs are also updating their home pages to be more evangelizing or welcoming.

As I was reading Website Magazine, I discovered the article “THEY SAID WHAT? Conversion-Killing Copy Habits to Avoid” – http://www.websitemagazine.com/content/blogs/posts/pages/they-said-what-conversion-killing-copy-habits-to-avoid.aspx . Business groups are learning the Power of words! I wonder if parishes are reflecting on how copy is or is not welcoming to those who arrive on their electronic pages. Copywriting is the basis of evangelizing online! Are we good at it?

Joyce Donahue April 14, 2015 at 10:47 am

You are so right that websites should be evangelizing. However, there are other limiting factors for parish websites, based on providers. You may also want to look into two of the major ones that parishes use. Some are using the templates (and some content) provided by Our Sunday Visitor. In that case, OSV provides the “canned” evangelization content instead of the local community.

Others, like my parish, are using the templates provided by Liturgical Publications (LPI). No content is provided, but the front-page format is somewhat restrictive.

Another related issue is that sometimes the person doing most of the site updating is a parish secretary, with no training or awareness of evangelization, and the parish staff is only looking at the website as a “bulletin board” for information.

Bob Lucas April 14, 2015 at 10:54 am

Thank you for this article.

I have been concentrating on what our viewers access most and perhaps lost some of that welcoming presence on our home page.

We have a very open and welcoming parish, and these example websites have given me several ideas for improving our website to be more welcoming.

Bob

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND April 14, 2015 at 11:22 am

Joyce,

I am not finding the website design areas of OSV or LPI, so if you have the urls I will be happy to look at them.

You have in fact identified what I think is part of the problem. Many “providers” are not offering templates, support or options that encourage parishes to use their websites for evangelization. The only way we can change that is for parishes to make that a requirement when they select a company. A welcoming design supported by clear and welcoming copy writing (to echo Caroline) can have stable content that does not need to be changing daily or even weekly. A parish secretary can upload events to the parish calendar, but a ministry person needs to be overseeing the sections that may be changing seasonally or around important events (Ash Wednesday, Easter, Christmas for example).

What parishes don’t get yet–is that the website can be a powerful tool for ministry, but that requires leadership from qualified ministers (who too often can’t take on one more thing or feel inadequate, etc.) There are many issues here: choice of provider, choice of copywriter, choice of ministry focus, and choice of investment. The pioneers are the ones making those choices in favor of evangelization. As a whole the rest are not there.

If we care about this, we have to work with what we have, but keep on the look out for opportunities to move further. We also need to affirm the pioneers every chance we get.

Digna Vela April 14, 2015 at 11:27 am

Thank you for your insightful and helpful article. I use eCatholic for my website http://www.disciplesonthejourney.org and it is really helpful for a person who knows little about web design.

I look at many parish website and some are very difficult to maneuver or to find information. I like the websites that list their staff (pictures) and contact information.

I got some ideas for my web page from the parishes you highlighted as good.

Thanks!
Sr. Digna Vela

Fred Johnson April 14, 2015 at 12:22 pm

We are getting close to revising our site again. It has been up in its current version for sometime. It is a good platform for us but perhaps a little freshening up is in order. When we did this we did most of it in house. We found a $64 template and then met with a web design company to edit it to our liking. From there we created content and style as desired. One thing that we learned was that to have a good website each staff person needed to create the content for their area and then be responsible to keep it fresh. We started the process after Holy week and we launched it in October of that year. The total investment we have because we took such a hands on approach was about $2000.

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND April 14, 2015 at 1:39 pm

Note: Fred Johnson is referring to the Cathedral of St. Andrew website mentioned in my post.

Thanks for your comments, Fred. It is a good sign that you are monitoring your website and conscious of keeping it fresh. I also appreciate your sharing your methodology and investment. There are many methods to get to a website that is well-designed, easy to navigate and attentive to all of its prospective audiences. My experience is that developing such a website could cost $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the professionals involved.

Tim Doppel April 14, 2015 at 5:32 pm

question: how often does a web site need to be “refreshed”. We try to be diligent to be current, but does a page need to be totally transformed in its appearance annually?
(Note: I am intrigued by this article because we are in discussions currently to change our landing page to be more about welcoming non-Catholics and non-parishioners. So, thank you!!)

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND April 15, 2015 at 8:22 am

Tim, I don’t think there is one answer to your question. It is important to keep your blog current in content and images. A design that no longer meets your needs (i.e. is not mobile ready or sufficiently welcoming) may need to be replaced by a totally new design.

Frank Nunan April 16, 2015 at 12:50 am

I am about to start work on preparing new website for our Diocese. Do you have any suggestions about Diocesan websites, and can you point me to some of those you like?
Thanks for a great blog – I am an avid reader and follower from here in South Africa

Dave Gambino April 16, 2015 at 1:31 pm

Sister,

You are so very right. As one of the project planners for http://www.catholichurchwebsites.com, I have really tried to take your insight and get my customers to think this way as well.

While they all seem very excited when I mention the need to allocate space a for new members and those “hurting” it normally just ends up as an “I’m New” tab.

The problem seems to always comes down to content. It’s not just the welcoming home page message , but what is on the landing page after they click on “Welcome”.

It’s almost like the person responsible for the project is the wrong person…… much of the time it is a technical volunteer, business manager, secretary, etc…..and they all seem so over whelmed when trying to plan the website because they are doing their regular jobs at the same time.

I think there needs to be a library of content that these people can easily have at their disposal for welcoming messages and these supporting pages. What if we dedicated an area of your site to providing ideas for quality content that falls in line with your evangelization and welcoming messages? Thoughts?

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND April 17, 2015 at 9:27 am

Frank,
I have not reviewed diocesan websites to be able to give you an analysis of what I think is best, but here are two websites that I think are well done: Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida and the Archdiocese of Washington. Blessings on your endeavor and thanks for following Catholic Web Solutions from South Africa.

Chris Nunez April 17, 2015 at 1:31 pm

The two that you were impressed by took too long to download. That’s a problem with some of these really nice websites even non Church websites. The last one looked simple and easy to navigate with good use of the left column focused on the readings.

I don’t bother with our own parish website, the first time I went into it it was boring and cluttered with ‘stuff’ from marketed materials for families. It did not reflect who we are as a parish.

I was, however, impressed by the website for the UCSC Newman Center. I was the director a few years ago. It’s been through another one or two directors, and the young UCSC students who participate with the Newman Center’s activities and Sunday evening Mass have put together a very nice website. It’s simple, it’s easily navigated and actually reflects what they as a community are doing. I highly recommend visiting the UCSC Newman Center’s web site! Fr. Justin is the current director who seems to have given the young folks carte blanc to do this work!

Larry Jurcak April 20, 2015 at 6:23 pm

Sister Susan,

Great article – followed by some wonderful discussion. Thanks. I appreciate both.

Karen Bailey May 1, 2015 at 4:08 pm

We are using eCatholic and it’s been a pretty good choice. We get enough templated resources so that we do not have to spend a lot of time fussing with creation but enough flexibility to customize some aspects of our presentation. The back end is a little bit kludgy to work with but not terrible. Their tech support it very responsive and helpful.

Let us know what you think! We strive for welcoming on all fronts–physical church, website, FB, and bulletin. We have had a few people say the welcome statement on the front page was an important factor in contacting us and joining the parish.

Thank you for encouraging the discussion!

Fr. Paul May 11, 2015 at 5:16 pm

Hi Sr. Susan,

I put a lot of time, effort, and prayer into the website for St. Gerard and I just wanted to say thanks for the encouragement. And also, thanks for posting some other links to good Catholic sites…I have already stolen some good ideas from them in order to try and improve ours!

We’re still new at this and we kind of made the whole thing up as we went. Any further feedback would be much appreciated!

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND May 12, 2015 at 8:35 am

Dear Fr. Paul,

Your efforts are paying off. The design, tone and language of your site are very warm and inviting. As I said above, I give St. Gerard’s you a “star for evangelization.” Keep up the good work. The best websites are always a work in progress. We listen, we learn and we implement.

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