July 2008
Parish Communications

Your website: A communications hub

You do have a parish communication strategy, don’t you? Planned and intentional communication, properly budgeted, is the best, perhaps only way, to encourage and enable full participation of your members in the life of the church and to serve the community as well, showing that yours is a welcoming, hospitable congregation. Now that’s a mouthful. But it’s the place to begin. Selecting communication methods and tools should start with a focus on the people you want in the conversation — and how they already are communicating with others and where they feel comfortable encountering new ideas and discussions.

Make the website the centerpiece
With that as a starting point, it is easier to understand why a parish website should be the focal point, the centerpiece, of a parish communication strategy. “Centerpiece” means that all news, calendars, event details, education materials, liturgy resources and multimedia communication are gathered in one place in a comprehensive way. The information is online and available 24 hours a day to your members and visitors at their convenience wherever they are.

The goal is to reach and stay in contact with as many members and others as possible and to encourage their continual feedback and input of idea and questions. That kind of church “information loop” engenders true conversation and interaction on a very personal level. Even a quick scan of the Internet horizon shows that a huge portion of the population finds online interaction attractive (and, conversely, may feel that churches that are not open to such visibility are simply not open to them). There is immediacy and currency in posting your information first to the website. And from that step it is quite easy for volunteers or the church office to use the word processing documents or digital photos and to “copy and paste” and format them for printed materials. It usually takes days if not weeks, and postage, to get the printed news out.

Vestries must learn as much as possible
To make the parish website work effectively in this way the vestry must learn as much as possible about the new communication environment of our culture. Because the vestry has an overall responsibility for the health of parish life, it must be the central place for communication effectiveness to be evaluated and structured and budgeted. Isn’t it always easier to gain budgetary support when there is understanding and commitment of a project by the church’s leadership?

Your 24/7 website provides virtually unlimited space for content: announcements, news articles, photos, homilies, music and other special events. Online, these items present no technical problem.Producing these media materials has become well within the grasp of the nonprofessional. Your web commitment and visibility will itself speak volumes about how your church takes seriously evangelism, nurture, outreach and other ministries. This is no less than the joyous proclamation of and witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Some practical tips:
✙ Some web hosting services offer free web pages for churches. Be sure you can add the amount of content you want and with your preferred choice of headings. Check whether advertising adjacent to your content will be appropriate.
✙ A few paid web publishing services offer special church plans with predesigned pages and that do not include advertising. You want to be able to customize the look and feel of the site to your liking. Be sure to ask if the service can publish blogs and multimedia material and at what cost.
✙ Keep in mind your overall communication ministry and who needs to be served. Then look for the most appropriate web publishing arrangement and budget accordingly. A quick and cheap website will not represent you well.
✙ Ask for help from those in your parish or community who are communication specialists who understand the importance of blending media to be effective.
✙ Have a look at parish websites in your community. Go to one of the “search” sites like www.google.com and type in “Episcopal” or “Episcopal Churches (in your town),” for instance. It will present you with links to sites.
✙ Include several “welcome” messages on your site. A welcome to the church. A welcome to the website. And a distinct and separate welcome that is in the form of a direct invitation to visit the church and meet the members and clergy.
✙ Add a web link to your diocesan website and also to the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion-wide news sites.
✙ Design and presentation are key aspects of communication effectiveness. The quality of the content is essential but people must be attracted to it. The perception of how important the content is to either a member or community visitor is strongly affected by visual presentation principles. It is a wise investment to use professionals to help with design and layout.

The Rev. Canon Kris Lee is canon for communication for the Diocese of Long Island and assisting priest at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York. He has also served as information networking director at the 1988 and 1998 Lambeth Conferences and has developed websites for the Anglican Dioceses of Southern Malawi and Botswana.

This article is part of the July 2008 Vestry Papers issue on Parish Communications