Four Areas of Parish Website Development

by Sr. Susan Wolf, SND on April 21, 2015

in parish, website

airdoneDollarphotoclub_74990366In last week’s blog, I observed that while many parishes are updating their websites to more attractive designs, they are not upgrading their websites to be channels of pastoral ministry or hospitality to visitors. A number of readers commented on the blog and I have grouped my reflection on their comments into four areas.

1. Audiences and message priorities

The audiences of an evangelizing website are visitors, new comers, seekers, inactive Catholics and members. This last group is the only one that will easily click into the site to get the information they need. The others need to see what they are looking for or a direct link to it on the homepage.

A close look at the homepages of parishes indicate that most are addressing members and often members only, and that their message priorities are usually one of the following:

  • Repeat, expand, re-enforce Church/bulletin announcements
  • Promote online giving or other fundraising
  • Recruit volunteers or participants for parish activities

Less often I see parish websites provide original content to enrich the faith of their members. And even fewer welcome visitors, new comers, seekers or inactive Catholics in a way that is truly warm and engaging.

2. Staffing and management

Most parish websites are built using CMS (content management system) which allows people at the parish to input the content. The choice of who will provide content to the website is very much related to the audiences and goals. If the website is an online version of the parish bulletin or an outlet for ministry announcements, the parish secretary, business manager or volunteer usually copy and post the content from the bulletin or the weekly announcements.

If the parish website is seen as part of adult formation and evangelization ministries, then a person trained in pastoral ministry oversees, creates and sometimes even posts that content. These are often pastors, pastoral associates, and deacons, directors of adult faith formation, religious education and liturgy. The parish secretary, business manager or volunteer still posts the calendar content and announcements, etc.

3. Functionality of the website

The organization of the website and the menus also reflect how the parish intends the website to be used. The language and the logic determine how user friendly a parish website is. Some parish websites are not user friendly. They are confusing. Often they are organized to serve the parish staff and ministries rather than to quickly address the needs of the visitor.

4. Selection of provider/designer

Finally, the selection of a company or an individual designer (professional or volunteer) depends on cost and vision for the website. A website can be an investment in outreach to welcome and invite others to Christ and this Catholic community, a resource for members who want to grow in their faith and expand their involvement in the Church. An attractive website needs a financial investment. An attractive, engaging and evangelizing website requires more time and effort than one that is not. It also requires a design template that serves this purpose.

That’s enough from me. Thank you to everyone who took the time to comment on last week’s blog and I welcome more comments this week.







{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Travis Gear April 21, 2015 at 9:55 am

Sister – I think you have some very astute observations.

Here’s what I believe is the key to the equation: Convince parishes that the websites is as important (probably more important) than their dead-tree media forms of communication. If parishes spent as much time and money on the website, and digital communication, as what they do on bulletins, newsletters, flyers, mailings, etc., then we would see evangelization and engagement at a whole new level on the Digital Continent.

So, to anyone out there trying to convince a pastor, business manager, principal, or any other decision maker, I have two suggestions (I actually have more than two, but this comment is long enough…):

1. Tell them if they don’t believe in the need for digital communication, then read this short article:

2. Give concrete examples of a tangible effect of embracing new technologies. Have them talk to the Stewardship and Development Office at the Archdiocese of Seattle, to find out what happened when their pastors asked their people to pull out their smartphones during the homily at Mass and make a pledge for the diocesan annual appeal…. the response was tremendous.

Having worked with hundreds of Catholic parishes, schools, dioceses, and other organizations (yes, a bit of shameless self-promotion –, I think your post is spot on. Thank you for being a voice of reason and enthusiasm for the New Evangelization!

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND April 21, 2015 at 2:21 pm

Travis, Thanks for your comments. I, too, believe that parishes need to be more engaged digitally. I also believe that we still need to be in the print world as well. Most (not all) older people (the majority of those who are in Church) are still most comfortable getting their news in print. Most (not all) younger people (many of whom are not in Church) get their information online. Those in between tend to be more online than not. We are in a time of transition and we need to be welcoming and engaging in both print and online. Online has the greatest reach especially to those many people no longer in the pews. That’s why, unlike print, we need to make a greater effort to be welcoming and accommodating to visitors, new comers, seekers and inactive Catholics online.

Thomas Miner, President Bartleby Press April 21, 2015 at 4:01 pm

Compliments to both of you for making bold suggestions to a complicated and mysterious decision making process; as in church communication.

There is no argument here with your valid points with the exception to “dead-tree media”. Websites to bulletins is what TV did to radio. It captured a market share.

Excuse me for using business terms for evaluating evangelization. This is the kind of talk that John the Baptist would enjoy.

Embracing the website and mobile communication doesn’t mean dismissing proven media like the bulletin. It requires modification. The bulletin should drive curious minds to the website to get all the details. The bulletin is headlines, images and a direct call to action to visit the website to register, tithe, gather forms and get detailed ministry and event information. Let me throw another twist in this conversation and say that your website better be mobile ready. No pinch and stretching.

What pastors and administrators will and should invest in when adding a communication specialist to their staff is a writer/editor. CONTENT is the solution. Thomas Miner,

Travis Gear April 21, 2015 at 4:45 pm

Sister and Thomas – You both have a fair point about the proper place for print media, such as bulletins. I tend to use the phrase dead-tree media more as a shock and awe term than anything else (although I do think the amount of bulletins that get printed versus what is handed out at some parishes is too wasteful). Thomas – I think you hit the nail on the head that the bulletin requires modification. Eight, twelve, sixteen page bulletins are too much to digest. People now live in a world of streams of content where they choose what they care about. So, your point about content being the solution is great! Then that content needs to be made into accessible streams for people to conveniently access (or have pushed at them) on more days than just Sundays.

Jane April 22, 2015 at 11:26 am

I follow this conversation with great curiosity. I look at our web site through my eyes – those of a 65 year old pastoral minister. I think there are some welcoming aspects to it but then again I could be prejudice. I use our Facebook account for announcements and the website is more static.
I know that it is time to update/revise/redo our web site – which has been my responsibility. I also know that I do not have the expertise needed to do it. I can maintain it, but creating from scratch is much more difficult. Money is always an issue – and I am thinking about looking to our local high school for a student.

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND April 22, 2015 at 11:51 am

Dear Jane, Thank you for your comment. I know that there are other people who would find this conversation curious or even confusing. My goal is to encourage those responsible for parish websites to look at them through the eyes of visitors, new comers to the area, people seeking a faith home, and inactive Catholics and ask if such a person looking at the website would feel welcomed and find the information that they most likely are looking for. Would they see the love of God being shared with them? The website and social media are excellent vehicles to bring the Gospel to people who may want to join us. Taking the time and making the effort to be friendly to them specifically could make a difference in their decision. You may find a high school student who can help you with the technology, but you will need to construct the messages of welcome. Blessings on your work.

Thomas Miner, President Bartleby Press April 22, 2015 at 12:59 pm

Jane, I totally agree with sister and Travis and would add the old saying goes ” you get what you pay for.” Our church has always been a champion for social justice but when it comes to staffing parishes its pay scale is still a third world level. Investing in quality communication specialist will have a greater return than you can imagine both sharing the Gospel and with tithing.
Also FB is fading with millenniums…twitter(mobile) is where its at.
Thomas Miner,

Travis Gear April 22, 2015 at 1:07 pm

Jane – I hope you don’t mind me challenging you here a bit. I think Sister’s Fourth Point is very applicable to your situation as you look to select a designer. I hear from parishes every week that say money is an issue. I used to work as a youth minister in a rural parish with a school, and money was an issue there, so I certainly can relate. I don’t know your exact situation, but here’s my (unsolicited) advice: at least look into what a professional design and training might cost. Volunteers like a high school student will come and go, but a website design company will hopefully stick with you (and you with them) for the long haul, and give you better results. There might be firms in your local community, or if you’re looking for an authentically Catholic option, then I know someone who can help: (full disclosure: I’m a bit biased…)

Trish April 26, 2015 at 2:11 am

Thank you for this forum. It is time to upgrade our parish website. I did the original one and it was a labor of love. However, I would like to add that there are many constraining policies that went into our website construction.
The parameters that I was given were: the CMS had to be free (a bunch), but it also had to be hosted by the company that currently hosted our former website, a constraint that I still do not understand, and every word had to be approved by our business manager (not a media person).
I did ask for input from our ministry leaders (Evangelize!) and I found 3 problems there: 1- they wanted to write a book. 2- they talk about events that have past. 3- the change in ministry leaders can lead to a LOT of work on a regular basis. So while their input is great, it is also not good to be told I have to put all their writing in- when I know the reader will be clicking somewhere else in a minute (probably less).
I look at our media contact in this way:
Twitter is for short, emergency and important news. I don’t want to flood people’s twitter but I do try to add links there to either Facebook (expanded information) or to the website.
Facebook I do try to add some uplifting and inspiring posts to along with the regular info that is in the bulletin, for homebound and those that don’t attend regularly.
Bulletin- we offer in an electronic form that can be emailed each week to the parishioner, as well as a downloaded one that can be found on the website.
Thank you again Sr. Susan, and I would also love to hear your thoughts about video content to be posted on the website and Facebook. I find these also do not get to the “heart” of the message, but have long intros that people do not want to wade through or the message itself is longer than it needs to be.

Sr. Susan Wolf, SND April 27, 2015 at 12:46 pm

Thank you for your comments and for sharing the challenges you (and many others experience). I can’t respond to all that you have said in a comment, but I hope to write about some of this in future posts.

However, I want you to know that you are further ahead than many parishes. You have a website that you are looking to update and you have active Facebook and Twitter accounts. Your frustration comes from knowing how much better all of these platforms could serve the evangelizing mission of the Church (again, something very few parish ministers know).

Most people including those on your staff are not where you are and it will take patience and gentle leadership to help them move forward. It is not easy and it will not be quick–but knowing where you want to take your online presence is a big plus. Do not give up. Your parish is blessed to have you, even if they don’t know it.

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