October 2, 2015

Ignore These Details and You Might Lose Your Church's Website

All websites need a domain name and a web host. These are easy to acquire, but sometimes churches have a hard time keeping track of them – and end up losing them, with dire results. They could find themselves locked out of their own website, or the website could vanish altogether. Here’s what you need to know to prevent this from happening to your church.

First, some definitions. A web host refers to space on a server accessible via the World Wide Web, on which the files making up your website reside. Using the analogy of a house, the webhost is like the lot on which the house is built.

Each “lot” on a web host has a numeric address called an IP address (where IP stands for Internet Protocol) written as four numbers of one to three digits, separated by periods. The IP address of the [Diocese of Newark] website is Since a meaningful name is easier to remember than a number, a domain name is registered to refer to the IP address. The diocese registered dioceseofnewark.org as its domain name.

You can register a domain name for a small annual fee, and obtain a web host for a somewhat larger annual fee. You can get both together from the same company, or separately from different companies.

Here’s where the potential problems come in.

Unlike traditional utilities such as the church’s phone line or electricity provider, which are tangible and linked to the church’s address, the web host and domain name are more intangible – in the cloud – and not necessarily officially linked to the church at all. Here are some scenarios in which things can go wrong.

A member pays for the web host and domain name on their personal credit card

The member who maintains the church website may have paid for the web host and domain name using their personal credit card, and either considered it a donation or asked for reimbursement. If that person leaves and forgets to transfer the accounts to another member (I've seen it happen), the church will have to track them down to get access to the accounts. Failing that, it may find itself locked out of its own website.

The person who receives the church's bills doesn't know what they are

Another scenario I’ve seen is that the accounts are set up by the church, with a church email as the contact – but no one informs the person in the office who receives the bills. Then when that person receives the invoices for renewal they don’t understand their significance and disregard them. The renewal date passes – and then it’s discovered the church website has just vanished.

I’ve fielded phone calls like this more than once:

Person from a church office, panicked: “Our website’s gone! It was there last week, but when I came in today, it was gone!”

Me: (After a quick check on whois.net) “I just looked it up, and your domain name expired over the weekend.”

Person from the church office: “What’s a domain name?”

Often the accounts can be quickly restored, but in one case a few years ago, before the folks at the church realized their domain name had expired it was snatched up by someone else who used it for, if I recall correctly, a gambling website. This church had to register a new domain name – and then change every document and website that referenced the old one.

The church's contact email changes

Finally, a church may do everything right in setting up and keeping track of their web host and domain name accounts – but then for some reason the email associated with the accounts changes and no one remembers to update the accounts, so the renewal notices go off into the ether, unseen – and once again the accounts expire and the church’s website vanishes.

Don't let it happen to you

So, you’re a clergy person, warden, parish administrator or other church leader or member of the office staff with a vested interest in making sure your church’s website doesn’t suddenly vanish, and you're not locked out of it. What steps should you take?

First of all, make sure you know who set up the accounts and is paying for them. If you don’t know this, start by looking up your church’s domain name on whois.net. This will definitely tell you the domain name’s expiration date, and with any luck (as long as the person who registered it didn’t pay extra to keep their identity private) will also tell you the name and contact information of whoever registered it. Then if you scroll down to the bottom, the “Nameserver” reference will identify the company providing the web hosting.

Second, make sure the pertinent information about the web host and name server accounts, including how they’re paid and their expiration dates, is recorded in the church office, just like a traditional utility, and that they’re on the radar screen of the person responsible for processing the church’s bills.

Third, make sure the contact information is kept current, especially the email, since renewal notices are most often emailed, not snail mailed. (It is the internet, after all.)

Stay on top of these details and your church won't suddenly lose, or be locked out of, its website.

This article initially appeared in The Episcopal Diocese of Newark’s 9.10.15 The VOICE Online newsletter and is reprinted with permission.

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