Building Catholic Parish/Organization Websites

I don't know how many times I've now been contacted about building custom Church websites for various parishes, organizations, and ministries... and most of the time I am unable to accept these requests. I think our Church is finally at the point where the greatest hurdle is not necessarily pastors/leaders misunderstanding the importance of a good web presence, but the lack of great tools for building that presence.

Ugly and not so ugly websites.

I've seen site-building services such as www.eCatholicChurches.com, www.CatholicChurchWebsites.com, and www.ChurchAddress.com, but have a few problems with them (note: please read through the comments below this post for some good discussion about the issues at hand):

  1. The expense of running a website through one of these services — it often costs $30-80/month! A lot of parishes simply can't devote $500-1000/year to a website.
  2. The need... still... for a parish 'webmaster' (someone to update the content).
  3. The lack of any kind of recognition by the Church; I can't even tell if there are any Catholics affiliated with these organizations. (Again, see responses below). Do they truly have what's best for the Church in mind, or are these sites simply trying to make as many dollars as they can and taking parishes for a ride?
  4. The sites often are very 'cookie-cutter-esque,' and are not very well made for searchability, accessibility, and usability.

Granted, many parish websites are horribly bad when they are set up for free by some self-assigned parish 'webmaster' (I really dislike that term; seems so early-90s!), and the aforementioned services are leaps and bounds better than the ugly animated-GIF-infested parish pages. But I think we can do better.

Parishes as Communities of Faith

If parishes are truly supposed to be devoted and faithful communities in real life, why can't we turn that community-mindedness over to parish websites as well? And can't we find a way to help parishes—many with little to no budget for a website—have some sort of parish community site?

Essential features would be:

  1. A calendar of events; anyone can add an event, and the event can be approved by whomever the parish designates with that authority.
  2. Organization/Ministry pages; able to be updated (news stories, calendar items) by whomever is in that parish organization or ministry.
  3. Pastor's Blog (and associates, if need be); able to be easily updated by the Pastor, and with podcast capabilities if he so chooses. Comments can be on or off. RSS feeds are a must.
  4. An informational page, with Mass times, contact info, and other Sacrament times (ideally, this page would also automatically generate an XML or JSON file which sites like FlockNote and MassTimes could use to automatically update their databases.
  5. Easily buildable online forms - for registration, baptism, etc.
  6. Donation systems (or an integrated donation system for Archdioceses) — able to use PayPal, eAuthorize, or some other standard and trusted system.
  7. Photo Galleries – parishioners might be able to upload their own photos from parish and school events to share with others.
  8. (Possibly:) A way to integrate a school website... although school websites are a whole different beast, in many ways.

To set up one website like this, using Drupal, would take a few hours at least, and then a few more for a custom theme. However, if we were to make a Drupal installation profile (like the Open Atrium project does), we could have a quick and easy site setup for multiple parishes, and the only concern would be hosting and bandwidth... which I would hope (Arch)Dioceses, and possibly also bishop's conferences, could help pay for.

Open Atrium Sample - Calendar Screen
Open Atrium is a project management system / Intranet powered by Drupal and is very easy to set up using an installation profile.

With Drupal, we could maybe set up one server/VPS for each (Arch)Diocese, and have a Drupal multisite installation, with a site for each parish (if nothing else, you could set up something like parish-name.archdiocese.com for each parish).

Any takers? If not, I will keep this on my back-burner for a while until I get more time to work on it ;-)

Comments

Mary D Hoerr's picture

Yes, this is a good idea. I have some further thoughts that I'll post later.

Valerie's picture

There are also free website opportunities out there like Catholicweb.com, which also has a paid part which you mention.
My concern would be in certain part's on the country in this hard economic time Dioceses are downsizing and could not afford to pay for hosting.

I agree with your list but I would like to see the Religious education become not a list of book oriented classes but interat=ctive digital catechesis opportunities for the families. How do you think this could occur?

Aaron's picture

I'm the self-assigned free parish "webmaster" for http://www.saintrosequincy.org/, so I hope it isn't too bad. :) You've given a lot of good ideas here for making it more interactive, though. At this point (less than a year in) people are still sending me photos and calendar events, and I'm the only updater. I need to make that more open, like you talked about, so they can get involved in creating the content directly themselves.

Drupal definitely helps. It gives you a framework for additional features, so when someone says (as they most certainly will), "Can we have a calendar/photo gallery/news feed/contact form?" it's far easier to plug in those modules than it would be if you started with a few static pages and had to add standalone programs for every new feature. There are also lots of ready-to-use themes for it, which save a lot of time when you're trying to keep a site cheap/free.

Darren Hale's picture

I maintain a web site for my parish's athletic association. The idea of having a content system with a standard feature set that can be used to generate sites is compelling. Unfortunately, I think most of the issues/headaches that arise from these types of sites are related to people rather than technology.

Most people involved with these sites are volunteers (including the administrators). These people don't have the time available to update content and keep sites maintained. If volunteers do have the time, they probably don't have the expertise needed, and technology people are rarely good teachers.

Another concern is that because the people involved in these web sites are volunteers, the "authority" to modify or approve content changes. Priests are even rotated among parishes. This presents an issue with how to maintain the access rights to a site. Making a parish/ministry site more open to updates is problematic at best, because there are a lot of bad people that would exploit open sites for posting material that is inappropriate for a parish/ministry site.

In my opinion, we need to encourage more technology professionals to volunteer their services to the parishes/organizations that need technology help. This gift of time and talent would help parishes and ministries better embrace technology and be able to use it to its fullest potential.

Carson Weber's picture

I personally know the founder and CEO of http://eCatholicChurches.com - Josh Simmons - who was a parish DRE in College Station, TX and his side-work in website creation/maintenance eventually became a full time job.

Josh is definitely in it for the ministry, while supporting his growing Catholic family, and his vision is one of helping parishes obtain an easily update-able yet good-looking website.

---

What are your thoughts on Joomla? With the (free) K2 Component (unlimited categories and a very good ACL), it seems like it would be a good fit, especially with themes as beautiful as those found at http://rockettheme.com

Dave Gambino's picture

I am the owner of www.catholicchurchwebsites.com.

I am a lifelong Catholic and one of the founding members of the Catholic Men for Christ Conference for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. www.catholicmenforchrist.org

I am not sure what you are hoping to achieve with this website, but so far you haven't acturately portrayed CatholicChurchWebsites.com or eCatholicChurches.com either.

If you truly are going to provide a valuable service for Catholic Technical People so they can help their parishes, why don't you reach out to our companies and find out more about what we are really providing.

I am free to talk anytime you wish.

Dave Gambino

Open Source Catholic's picture

@Dave Gambino: I am very sorry about that; I don't want to anger you, and a quick glance at the website-production companies listed doesn't provide too much information about the background/structure of the company, so I hope you don't frown too much on my cursory thoughts. I would love to talk (heck, if you'd like to meet sometime, I think that would be very productive, and maybe we could both learn a bit/find some opportunities!), and find out more about what you do.

My two main concerns, though, are very pertinent and valid: 1. The cost—especially for less-affluent parishes, and 2. The parish's reliance (still) on a sort of 'webmaster.' I really think that, working together, we can overcome these problems... what is the solution to these problems? I don't know (yet), but I'm working to find that solution.

Be assured that I don't have any kind of vendetta against your company, or most especially you yourself—everything I do, I try to do it with the Church's best interest in mind. I am willing to edit this post to reflect the reality of the situation...

And as regards the mission of this website: It has one and only one purpose—sharing tech/web solutions so that we can better spread the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. Nothing less, nothing more. Because sharing is good for everyone, as our home page proudly proclaims. Read more on the about page.

Advancing the faith.

Craig Berry's picture

@Dave Gambino
I am not the developer of the site, but a contributor.

This site was developed in Christian Charity as a resource for the 'technical staff' of the Catholic Church in general and to provide a community for this 'staff' in our effort to help the Mission of the Church in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The members of this online community bring a high degree of skill and experience to an area of the Church which quite frankly has fallen behind the secular world.

This site certainly is slanted towards open-source solutions, but the reality is many projects large and small benefit from a mixture of open and closed products.

I visited your site and from what I could see, you charge for setup but thereafter, there are no hostings charges...is that correct? A correction to assertion #1 in the original post might be in order.

I have to say that, in general, I agree with those assertions...in the general sense. :) For example, I've seen some that have a very cookie-cutter approach to design...but I've seen some that are very impressive. I didn't see any of your work on the site, but your site is well-done so I'm assuming you have a good portfolio.

I hope you do participate on the site! It could be a great opportunity to share with others your experience and possibly learn from others as well. Like Jeff mentioned earlier, we're trying to do all this with the Church's best interest in mind.

Dave Gambino's picture

Thanks for the reply and I wasn't assuming a vendetta, it simply took me off guard when I found inbound traffic from your site and then when I looked the post wasn’t necessarily a positive one.

Our entire vision is to solve the website problem for Catholic parishes, not just put a band aid on it.

We are not about a “specific software platform” but about packaging a solution.

I was previously the president of www.ebackups.net where I had many churches as customers across the country. My time at www.rcig.net was spent building and running various ASP models for close to 10 years. Every time a new church would come on board with one of our services, I would notice the condition of their website. Most were not very good, very outdated and had little practical use.

As I began to look deeper, the common problem was the dependence on a SINGLE web volunteer. Inevitably at some point in time, the volunteer could not contribute as much time, was relocated or simply stopped maintaining the site.

Most of the time the volunteer built the website using Dreamweaver, Frontpage or some other technical tool the average Joe could not use. The end result was an out of date website that sat broken and outdated.

As we began to layout the foundation of our company we knew that the real answer to the church’s problem was not to just build a new website for them but rather provide a true service that could stand the test of time. As we began to dream, the vision was only item the church would need is a domain name.

This service would need to address the long term ability to maintain a site and allow MANY web volunteers to participate from the parish. It would focus as much on functionality as it would on “curb appeal”.

That is why the name of our service is “Connecting Members” and not “Church Website Builder”.

The service would need to include at a minimum:
• Upfront Web Design and Consultation – we do that
• Instructor Led Training – we do that
• Live Phone Support – we do that
• Remove all technical burden from the church –we do that
• Allow ministry leaders the ability to keep their ministry updated – we do that
• Bulk Email to groups - we do that
• School can incorporate their teacher pages – we do that

Because our service was built from the ground up specifically for parishes we have shaped everything we do around the ongoing support of the parish.

This is what we are all about. We are staffed more like a “service provider” than we are a Web Design firm.

• 1/3 or our solution is Custom Web Design
• 2/3 or our solution is Training and Ongoing Support

We are technical friends to our customers, not just their one time web designer.

We know that the true solution to this problem is providing lasting training, technical support and a real means to train new volunteers as they come on board. All of our web volunteers can distribute permissions to others to update pages. The church secretary can upload the Sunday bulletin. The parish council can update the Parish Council pages. The lead church admin becomes more like a traffic cop, than just someone who can put content on a page. PSR teachers can finally have their own page to communicate with THEIR parents.

The end result is that many people in the parish become comfortable with our sites protecting the parish from the “death of the site”.

If anyone would like more information they can contact me directly at dave@connectingmembers.com or visit www.catholicchurchwebsites.com 1-800-980-0906

We are 100% Catholic owned and operated.

Open Source Catholic's picture

Every time a new church would come on board with one of our services, I would notice the condition of their website. Most were not very good, very outdated and had little practical use.

Yep - and, unfortunately, such is still the case! I will support your mission in my prayers, then, and I would love to help you and your company continue to improve your effectiveness and product offerings—whether for profit or not, parishes having good websites is a very important thing for our Church!

Advancing the faith.

Mark_AKA_WebGuy's picture

I have found that google applications is an easy way to roll out many of the features listed above. You can integrate google documents, calendar, picasa web shows, google video, etc. You just have to pay for the domain name. There is no hosting cost if you sign up under the "standard" edition. They too have a pay service however, it is offering features not needed by our church (or most churches for that matter!)

http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/group/index.html

Now on to what I find to be the biggest challenge facing websites for parishes...

As a "self appointed volunteer webmaster" I find the hardest thing is getting information to post. I remind the parish counsel and leaders of other ministries that I am the "tech guy" not a pr director/advertising consultant/writer/etc. Everyone says we need a page on ? name a ministry ? I can create the page and come up with a basic layout or a pic or two to go on it...but I need CONTENT from that ministry. It does not matter how many parish counsel meetings I attend, nothing changes.

I have also met resistance from the pastor, I would like to integrate a pastors blog, he could post homilies, or letters, etc. But he is so PR conscious that he is afraid to post to a blog. Then after a meeting he will give me the "we need to improve the website" talk because I want the parish to look like a vibrant, young, cool, tech minded community! BLAH! Stuck in a rut!

Craig Berry's picture

@Mark_AKA_WebGuy

I'm feeling ya man. I'm wrapping up a Parish site redesign, but the actual layout/design phase ended months ago. Been waiting on a staff member (who's already over-worked) to post all the little tidbits about the ministries and contact phone numbers.

I'll be curious to see how much fresh content they post.

RE: your website...have you hooked into any social media (e.g. Twitter/Facebook). There may be some parishioners who would be interested in helping to build the online 'community' aspect of your site. Just a thought.

Mark_AKA_WebGuy's picture

We did hook up to a facebook page. The integration of Facebook has been very interesting at our end. I was really excited about it at first. We set up a facebook group and advertise it on our webpage. I thought it would take off and it would help highlight more aspects of the community. However, it has not. I think we have about 30 fans/group members and the page remains mostly blank! I still have high hopes for it. I put a few comments out on it to try to see if I can get some people posting to it...! We will see what happens.

One person decided to invite people to an event at church using their personal facebook events. I contacted that person and suggested we set it up on the churches facebook page and was met with little to no excitement...just a..I guess we could...oh and that person was added as an administrator of the facebook group when the page was set up...I guess that can fall under the lack of training on my part. But I was hoping to get a bit more excitement around the entire idea.

Ok...enough of this negative talk. Thanks for your feed back. May God bless us and guide our mice to publish / present / this new technology in a way best to serve him and the congregations of His church.

DebG.'s picture

Great discussion!

I'm in the middle of revamping our Parish site which is just bad... http://www.sacredheartprescott.com and also our school site http://www.sacredhearteducation.com
There are also at least 6 other sites by various ministries that are floating out there - that I know of, at least, with no accountability. Talked with our Pastor yesterday about defining more the goals for my position and one was to bring everyone under the umbrella of one Parish site with one vision and one look and one "branding" of our image, if you will. Should be interesting. :)
I know the site I designed (first time out!) back about 5 years ago http://www.sacredheartyouthministry.org has content, but lacks good design and functionality.

I've been doing tons of research regarding Catholic parish sites and have come to pretty much the same conclusions as Jeff.

LOL, at first I was given a 1 1/2 week deadline to do a from-the-ground-up overhaul of our current site. Now, some that realize what's involved, it's been shifted to the better part of a year to get it really u-to-snuff - looks-wise, content, interactivity, active community, multi-user content updating, etc.

I'm avidly open to suggestions. Several Catholic (and Protestant!) techies/webmasters have been very generous as I use the contact forms on the sites I find most admirable. I was already familiar with Wordpress & Dreamweaver, so for our Parish purposes, I feel that Wordpress would be the way to go and I'm actively exploring the Thesis theme right now for various reasons.

Also, especially interested in effective ways to use Facebook, Twitter, etc. as engaging tools of Evangelization. Any successes out there?

Again, great discussion :)

New Media for the New Evangelization!

David McAfee's picture

I took over a website that was badly out of date, and moved it to a different provider. The provider costs 5 dollars per month which I absorb as part of my contributions to the church. The DNS costs about $125 for two years.
I tried to involve all ministries in the development but found zero interest in doing a design or redesign, so I did the best I could and published to the ministry what I thought they wanted (embedding a few drastic errors), if the errors were pointed out I knew they at least read it. Taking any markups of the ministry write up, I made the corrections. Embedding Google products (calendar and Picasa albums get a pretty good easy to maintain interface.
Generally there is no back up so if I move (or die) the website will get out of date real soon. To alieviate this I have all my day to day revisions very localized (pastor's column, spoken word, bulletin) so the changes can be done in about a hour a week (based on 4 updated (pushdown) html (generated out of Word)pages a week).

I would appreciate a critique of my site by any one willing to spend the time.

I have been unable to get a volunteer to help with the maintenance though I am willing to teach them what I know about the web.

I use freeware extensively, most of the navigation is in html but I am tending more to using Word as the authoring choice (that way others can do the work).

Open Source Catholic's picture

Can you please send a link to the site, so we can check it out?

Advancing the faith.

David McAfee's picture

Sorry, if you click on my "signature" below, it goes to the homepage, but it is at
http://www.presentationparish.org

Thanks ahead of time.

Open Source Catholic's picture

Thanks! See my reply in the forum posting (for 'users introducing themselves') --> link

Advancing the faith.

DebG.'s picture

Sorry to bother you all again, but...

I've just updated the "look" of our Parish site and would love feedback: http://sacredheartprescott.com

The Pastor asked for an immediate bilingual splash page even though there's no Spanish translations yet. Most pages are dead links right now, but I'm adding content every day.

Also, just read Jeff's other post about simplicity/limitation of navigational choices and would love feedback on what to cut back on in that regard.

Thanks all!

GOD bless, Deb

New Media for the New Evangelization!

Open Source Catholic's picture

I'm liking the site layout/design, but wonder what the 'Memorials' section will be - it just doesn't seem to fit in with the other navigation options.

Also, you might consider making it so people see the english page by default, but they can switch to Spanish as they see fit...

Advancing the faith.

DebG.'s picture

Yah, I think I will take down the Memorials page (especially after reading your "Fear of Apples" blog.

Sadly, our Parish has an average of 3 funerals a week and since this Summer, we've been posting the funeral info on the doors of the Church and Office with good response. People were always wondering whose funeral was coming up or currently going on. I thought a Memorials page that had that info online plus a chance for the families to "memorialize" their family member would go over well.

I had the English be the default until yesterday's meeting with my Pastor :( He wanted it simple, clean, & clear right off the bat as to where somebody had clicked to and then a track to English or Spanish. I didn't think it was the best option, especially since there are NO translations yet! I had also suggested researching widgets (top right corner placement) that would do a good job of translating the site with a click, but was shot down on that one. It seems he's had bad experiences with those kind of things. Any suggestions there?

Also, currently it's a static CSS/HTML site, but I'd like to move it over to Wordpress so that various staff & ministries would have an easier time updating their sections. I have NO experience in that regard as I'm pretty much a high beginner/low intermediate user of Wordpress so any referrals/suggestions would be appreciated.

Thanks for the feedback, Jeff! At this point, I appreciate brutal honesty rather than to have to go back later and fix things :)

New Media for the New Evangelization!