By Richard J. Mammana, Jr.
— You Shall —
1. Use .org
The internet uses a clear and useful system of classification for websites. The suffix .org was one of the original six “top-level domains” used in this classification system, and it is intended for use by nonprofit organizations such as churches. (For the curious, the other five were .gov for governments, .mil for the U.S. military, .net for internet service providers, .edu for educational institutions, and .com for commercial websites.) Parish web addresses should end in .org whenever possible. An address like saintswithuns.com is intended for use by a company, not a church.
2. Make links to stable, responsible sites
If your parish website includes links to external sites, learn something about the organizations behind these links. A small number of useful outbound links is better than a large number of links that are poorly maintained and may misrepresent your parish’s commitments. Always include a statement on your links page like this one from Ascension and St. Agnes, Washington: “These links were selected on the basis of their potential interest to those who visit [our parish website]. Comments and suggestions will receive careful attention. When using this and any other portal, however, be sure to read with critical attention and careful judgment.”
3. Share information about making and managing the site
If there are login names and passwords involved in publishing and maintaining your parish website, make sure that more than one person in the parish knows them — and that they are available to the rector or vicar. Sharing this information with a small group of responsible people makes it less likely that someone will forget how to update the site, or that a parish will lose access to its web presence if your webmaster moves away, becomes ill, or just loses interest.
4. Make accessibility your highest priority
A flashy website that’s inaccessible to people without special internet applications — or that only people with PCs or Apple computers can use — is worse than no website at all. Gear your parish website to the broadest possible audience by making sure that it can be used by people on slow dial-up connections as well as those with fast cable modems. Test it in a few browsers, making sure that it works reliably in an old standby like Internet Explorer as well as newer versions of Firefox, Chrome, Safari, or Opera. If brevity is the soul of wit, simplicity is the soul of a good parish website.
5. Thank your webmaster
Parish websites are almost always made by volunteers — parishioners who draw on their personal time to help make information about churches available as easily as possible. Unlike vergers, acolytes, church journalists, church archivists, and other groups of lay ministers, webmasters generally work in isolation from one another and do not have church guilds or associations for mutual encouragement. Acknowledging the work done by people who maintain our churches’ online presence is important, and so is communicating with them openly and effectively about what they do well and what they may be able to improve. Church webmasters are the people who shape a church’s public face, and their ministry can be truly evangelical in the effectiveness with which they invite new people to “come and see.”
— You Shall Not —
1. Impose music
Some parish websites open with music on their homepages. This is almost never a good idea: the sound quality is generally poor, and the barrage of visual, textual, and audio information can be a significant annoyance to new visitors. Music embedded in church websites often freezes web browsers, and may require restarting a computer. If your parish must use music on its website, include it in a way that allows visitors to turn it on or off easily; the default setting for such features should always be “opt-in.”
2. Violate privacy
Everything on a parish website is public unless it has been password-protected. Anyone anywhere with a computer and internet access can use it. From photographs to acolyte schedules, parish directories to weekly intercession lists, some of this information will be considered personal by parishioners. Never post online a parish directory with addresses and phone numbers. If you do post parishioners’ email addresses or phone numbers for any reason, obtain their clear permission beforehand.
3. Forget your street address
Sometimes even the most attractive church websites omit very important information like a street address, a phone number, whom to call in a pastoral emergency, or the times at which services are held. Always include this minimum information on the very first page visitors will see: the church’s street address, a phone number, and an email address that is in regular use.
4. Neglect your diocese
Most diocesan websites include directories of local churches with contact information. This increasingly includes links to parish websites, which helps inquirers wondering if there is a church near their cousin. Also, don’t forget to tell your diocesan communications director when your web address changes; a broken link from a diocesan website to a parish website short-circuits what should be an easy and informative search.
5. Disregard updates
If service times change, make sure that information is updated immediately on your parish website. The facts and figures in this Sunday’s service leaflet should never disagree with the ones posted online. Most website visitors will not call to verify the online information associated with a parish. Someone who visits a parish website wants to know more about a church’s life and worship, and it is a webmaster’s responsibility to make this as easy as possible for the inquirer. One important thing to monitor is the dates on the front page. If it is 2013, your homepage should not say “Happy New Year 2009,” or offer Easter service information from 2007. It may be worthwhile to have a note at the bottom of the page: “This page last updated on February 1, 2013.” This gives visitors a sense of how up-to-date the information presented on the site really is.
Richard J. Mammana, Jr., is founder and director of Project Canterbury.