By Kirk Petersen

Go to any diocesan website, find their list of churches, and start clicking on church websites. It won’t be long before you find a homepage that lists the upcoming service times for Holy Week – for last year.

There are lots of possible reasons for this, none of them good. The parish administrator left, and the church can’t afford a new one. The parishioner who ran the website got mad at the rector and left, and wouldn’t turn over the password. Nobody has stepped up to take charge of the website, and the only church employee is a priest-in-charge working full time for a part-time salary.

Someone needs to say, “here I am Lord, send me.”

If your church has no website, or has a crummy one that everybody hates, the most important question to answer is not about technology or navigation or design. The most important question is: Who is going to sweat the details to create the website and – more importantly – who will maintain it after it’s up?

The parish administrator, you say? Well, maybe. He or she definitely should be involved, but probably already has too much to do. Best bet is to find a parishioner who wants to own the website and drive it and love it – and then don’t make that person get every decision approved by a committee.

If you can’t identify an enthusiastic champion for a new website, either on staff or from the pews, consider the possibility that you don’t really need a new website.

What is the best (or simplest) software platform?

Barry Merer, web services manager for the Episcopal Church, told TLC “We’ve learned long ago that every single church location, large or small, is different. … We’ve found it difficult to provide any kind of one-size-fits-all or template solution.”

He added, “There are any number of pretty good DIY [do it yourself] platforms out there, whether it be Weebly, or Wix, or free WordPress, or Squarespace.” Regardless of platform, there will be a learning curve, limitations, and frustrations. “It’s a challenge-rich environment,” Merer said. Of the platforms Merer mentioned, WordPress is probably the most robust, the most flexible, and the most complicated.

Where can I turn for help?

Merer can be reached at bmerer@episcopalchurch.org. Yes, he said it was OK to print his email address.

Another possible resource is your diocese. Larger dioceses usually have a communications professional, at least part-time, who may be able to provide advice or assistance. Several years ago, Nina Nicholson, director of communications and technology for the Diocese of Newark, started a Church Website Project for churches in her diocese. She designed a template and maintains the robust open-source Drupal code base on a diocesan server. With design and technology out of the way, a church is responsible only for content, and nearly 20 churches are currently part of the project. (Disclosure: she’s my wife.)

There’s a reason, by the way, that Drupal is not included on the list above of simple DIY platforms. Merer and Nicholson both have been using Drupal for years, and both are considering alternatives. Drupal is a powerful engine and it’s reasonably easy to make routine updates once a site is built, but creating and maintaining the code for a site requires some serious technology skills.

If your church can afford it, you could consider hiring a freelancer to design and build out your website on a popular platform like WordPress, and then turn it over to you to maintain. Be aware that the cost will be measured in thousands of dollars, not hundreds.

There also are church-oriented CMS (content management system) providers with names like Ministry Designs and FaithConnector, which will build a site with their template and provide support for a monthly fee. This would be less expensive upfront than getting someone to build you a WordPress site – but if you stop paying the monthly fee, your website will no longer be available, and you can’t take it with you.

Curb your enthusiasm (and everyone else’s).

Possible is not the same as practical. The options are essentially limitless, but every additional feature will be more work than you expect, and will get outdated just as quickly. Shortly before or after you find the previously mentioned website featuring last year’s Holy Week schedule, you’ll find a link for a Rector’s Blog that includes only two or three posts from 2016.

Even for the simplest of websites, there are a lot of things to consider. “Does the church have branding presence? Does it have images? Are they the right size? Have they taken any time to think of what their ministry or mission statement is? Have they taken headshots of their clergy, if they’re blessed to have any? There’s so many moving parts,” Merer said.

Start small, and when someone says “you should include such-and-such in the new website,” here are two possible responses: “That’s on the list for version 2.0,” and “Welcome to the website committee!”

The author has been both a parish administrator and a website content developer for two multi-national corporations. He didn’t build the TLC website, but he uses WordPress to help maintain it.

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