Creating a Parish Website – a how-to guide

It has often been said that the first evangelist in any parish is the parish secretary. This is because it is usually the parish secretary who answers the phone or opens the front door of the parish office (or presbytery) and so she or he becomes the face of the parish in its interaction with the wider community. Many of our secretaries have done a most remarkable job in welcoming, informing, inviting and pastorally caring for so many people who have been away from the church, or those who have recently moved into the parish as well as the many faithful who are regularly part of the life of the local church.

To some extent, this role is now being supplemented or even replaced by the parish website as the first point of contact that many people – probably already the majority – have with the parish. That it is imperative for a parish to have a website is presumed: so if you have decided upon this course of action, how does a parish go about creating an excellent website within the standard parish budget – ie, as cheap as possible.

This article will begin a series of blog posts on this subject.

Static or Dynamic?

One of the first choices that a parish will face is whether to create a website that is comprised of a series of static pages, or to embrace one of the many Content Management Systems (or CMS) such as WordPress or Joomla. Although a static website – comprised of a series of basic pages that are manually linked together – is easier to build for a very small website and may fit the initial requirements of a smaller parish, the day will quickly come when even the smallest of parishes will outgrow the very limited functionality and extreme hassles involved in keeping a static website maintained – particularly when you wish to add additional features or sections.

So I recommend as strongly as I can for every website to use a CMS. There are many of these that are available, and the best ones are available as Open Source projects – so the main programs are freely available and do not cost anything to download or use. The two most popular of these, which between them power over 100 million websites – are WordPress and Joomla. Each program has its pros and cons; I have developed websites with both programs and both are very robust and developed solutions. Although the relative merits of each program are debated by their enthusiastic fans, I think it is fair to say that WordPress is easier to learn and use, but that Joomla offers greater flexibility. WordPress is more suitable for a blog – or a series of news stories; Joomla is more suitable for something more complex, such as a website which has different kinds of content. So I use WordPress for this website; I use Joomla for my resource website, as well as the Diocesan website.

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These articles will help you to consider the benefits of each system:

Website hosting and domain names

Whichever way you go in terms of choosing a Content Management System, there are a few other considerations, namely:

  1. Website hosting
  2. Domain name
  3. Website creation

For most parishes, although there are free website hosting solutions, these are strongly advised against because these options usually feature advertising that may be morally offensive. At any rate, website hosting is now very competitive, and basic website hosting packages (all that most parishes will need) begin at just a few dollars a month. It is generally cheaper to find hosting in the US (especially given the current strength of the Australian dollar), but local hosting has many advantages, including speed and customer service being located in the same time zone – unless you want to wait up until after midnight for the office to open in the US!

Choosing a domain name is much less crucial then it once was. Many people arrive at your website through a search engine, so getting the right name is less crucial. However, having the right name helps in the search rankings and search results, so it is still very important. Having a name that is intuitive and easy-to-remember is also important; as also is a name that is easy to spell or say over the phone. Domain names themselves are quite inexpensive – names in the space, which any not-for-profit incorporated entity such as a parish is eligible to register under Australia’s strict domain registration rules are available for as little as $12.50/2 years (plus GST) so if you cannot decide between two available names, then it is something of a no-brainer to decide to register both. Having a spare domain name comes in very handy at times – but more of that in a later post.

Probably the hardest problem to deal with is finding a suitable website designer. Although the skills necessary to maintain a website are readily attainable, there is a steep learning curve involved in creating a new website. Some parishes are fortunate in having willing and skilled parishioners, IT or design students or teachers available to help in the initial creation of a website; many are not so graced. Calling your local chancery office may provide some assistance, or calling in the services of Catholic Communications in Sydney or Melbourne, or one of the freelance Catholic designers may be just the ticket.

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