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Collage of parish websites

Parish websites

The parish website is your opportunity to tell visitors about your parish, where the church is, what happens there and when. It is a crucial first step in inviting newcomers to become part of your church community. If your church does not yet have a website, this information is provided as a guide to help you get started.

This guide is for anyone needing help in how to set up a brand new site or guidance on how to evaluate an existing one. The parish website is an essential feature in any communications strategy. For many people Google is the first place they look for information. So a website is your opportunity to tell visitors about your parish and a crucial first step in inviting newcomers to become part of your church community.

In this guide

  • Getting started: planning your site, thinking about the audiences you want to reach, who will update you site and what you will call it
  • Making it happen: choosing how to build your site, writing content, things to include and some things to avoid
  • Evaluation: how to measure the number of visitors to your site and make it easier to find for search engines
  • Your site and the Law: keeping in mind copyright and data protection
  • Next steps: further reading about parish websites fit into your mission, and how to plan, build and maintain them.

If you have no website: A Church Near You

Church of England logo

A Church Near You — www.achurchnearyou.com — is a directory listing all Church of England places of worship. If you have no website at all, this is a good place to start to make sure people can find out essential information about your church. The site enables people to find the church nearest to where they live (or for visitors, nearest to where they’re staying) and provides a map of the parish indicating where the church is. Parishes are responsible for identifying an editor, to maintain the parish’s profile, and the entries vary in the detail that parishes have provided. It is a robust directory resource, and it is very useful to maintain your profile here. However, a directory listing can only provide a fraction of the content of a parish website, so it is a starting point not a complete solution.

Getting started

What is the point of your website?

The answer ‘to tell anyone anything they want to know’ needs to be refined! Best practice: simple and up-to-date is far better than complicated and neglected. Spending time thinking about your website is an important first step. What is the key purpose of the site? Many try to put ‘everything’ on the website which makes it hard to navigate, maintain and keep control of content. At the very least you need to establish the following:

  • Who are the key audiences for your site?
  • What do you want to tell them and how does this differ for different groups?
  • Who will co-ordinate the site?
  • How will it be reviewed and evaluated?

Audiences

Your ‘audience’ — the people that would read your site — is made up of a number of different groups. Regular churchgoers and people visiting for a wedding need different information. It should be easy for people to find what they need — this makes the site welcoming.

Who fields enquiries for your church? Ask them what they’re asked most frequently, and by whom. Chances are it won’t be “how do I find faith in Jesus?” but something more practical, like “does your church have a toilet?” or “where can I park when I come to a wedding?” You could hold a short meeting with your administrator, vicar or youthworker — anyone who has regular contact with people asking questions to find out what’s most requested in your context.

Sketching out who might read your site, and the information you can provide for them (even if only a back-of-a-napkin exercise) will help you shape the site and make decisions about where to start. It can also save you money and time, and avoid creating pages on the website that are never read.

Who will update your site

Churches sometimes struggle to keep their sites up-to-date because they rely on one person to do all the work. That might be the vicar — who wants overall control of all content, but has never quite got time to make the updates; or it might be the keen technical person who does not want to share the workload.

Equally difficult can be attempting to write the site by committee. If you are lucky enough to be able to identify perhaps two or three people to work as a small team, this can work well both for sharing the responsibility and ensuring continuity if the one and only webmaster is no longer available.

If you’re the vicar or priest-in-charge it is tempting to want to vet absolutely everything — but do be aware if you find yourself being the cause of delays in updating content once the site is up and running.

Domain names

Your website should have a web address (also known as ‘domain name’ or ‘URL’) that reflects the name of the church. You can choose and register these through a number of different registries for a small fee. You only need register with one.

Churches tend to use the org.uk extension but you can have more than one, so you could be www.stmatthew.com as well as www.stmatthew.org.uk. Remember that this name will appear in print, noticeboards, pew sheets etc, so the simpler and less easy to get wrong it is the better.

Best practice is to register the domain to the PCC and not an individual, which saves problems later on if you want to transfer the registration or make a change. Nominet.org.uk oversees the way UK addresses are registered and there’s useful guidance on their site on how to choose a registrar.

Making it happen

You have several choices, and the best path to choose will depend on the time, people and money you have.

If you have finances, but no time or volunteers, a commercial enterprise can put a site together for you. There are some that are specifically Christian, or any local business may be able to help.

Be clear on what you want — off-the-shelf packages can sometimes contain many bells & whistles you won’t need. You don’t need to create a second Facebook for people. Facebook already exists.

If you have volunteers and limited finance, you can either create a site from scratch or use one of the free, or cheap systems for doing so. Squarespace, Weebly, Wix, Blogger and WordPress are all ways to use pre-defined building blocks to put your site together.

Many churches use one of these as they remove the need for detailed technical knowledge, but do allow a degree of personalisation with various widgets and themes.

A third related way is to use a web hosting company which installs a WordPress framework, allowing more flexibility and email addresses/mailboxes.

One way to find the right one for you is to find another website you like and ask the owners who they engaged and how they built their site.

Church Edit is a powerful website management system with good customer support, designed specifically for the needs of churches. It can be used to manage church rotas and membership groups. Prices start from £175 a year. Similarly, CPO Website Builder offers a range of templates, backed up by support for a low monthly or quarterly fee.

Content

It can be very tempting to jump right in and plan a site that does everything you have seen on other sites, and then more. It is best to start with the vital content, and then consider what useful features you could add later and then move on to the ‘nice to haves’, but only if you have the resources — not just right now, but also in the future.

Vital (do these first)

Location: a Google maps link. Add your postcode too for those using sat nav

Contact details: if you use a web form, who will respond to enquiries?

Service times and brief details including whether there’s separate children’s work

Brief information about what else goes on during the week

Link to your social media accounts

Parking, toilets and other practical information (wheelchair access/hearing loop etc)

The fact you’re a Church of England church.

Useful (add later)

Introduction to what happens in church for visitors or the terrified

How to get married or request baptism/christening

Parish news — but only if you can keep this up to date

Longer detail on weekday groups or meetings

Pictures of ministry team/key staff

Links to the Diocese and Church of England sites

What Christianity is all about – there are lots of sites for ‘seekers’ you can link to, which saves you writing the content from scratch. For example, rejesus.co.uk.

Nice to have (needs resource)

Sermons

Church history/records available

Articles from parish magazine

Charities you support

Links to other local churches / places of interest

Any interesting architectural features or anyone’s pet project e.g. a catalogue of your silverware.

A few words about words

Keep your site as jargon-free as possible. For example, what does ‘a traditional Eucharist’ mean to someone who’s never been to church before? When you’re familiar with church words, it’s easy to forget how obscure some (many) of them are to the wider public.

Hints and tips

The church building might be beautiful but what the people do is more important than the fabric.

It’s harder to show a sense of community or the work of the Holy Spirit than it is to show nice stained glass windows — but at least try.

Weekly updating is fine. That might coincide with the day your pew sheet is prepared, for example. Some systems like WordPress allow you to schedule updates in advance to appear automatically.

Short sentences and paragraphs are easier to read on screen. People won’t scroll through reams of text.

Less is more… If you’re writing a vicar’s letter for the website, aim for 150-200 words maximum.

A picture really does speak a thousand words. It’s fine to put pictures of children on your website as long as you (a) have parent/carer consent and (b) don’t name the children. Make sure you follow your parish’s safeguarding policy.

However your site is produced, make sure it works as a mobile site too — so many people use smartphones or tablets now.

A few things to avoid

Publish pages once they’re ready — not with an ‘under construction’ image.

‘Click here to enter’ or animated or musical landing pages annoy people.

Pictures that are squashed or stretched or pixellated look silly. If the picture isn’t the right size, don’t use it.

Hit counters are unreliable and they’re very 1990s.

If you use WordPress or similar, stick to the fonts that are installed with each ‘theme’ (overall design). They will render well on different devices because they are scalable.

Evaluation

Once your site is up and running you will want to know how it is being used. Google Analytics provides a free way to measure the way people use the site — a far more robust method that the ‘hit counters’ you see. There are comprehensive instructions on how to get started at www.google.com/analytics. You can see which page people go to first, how long they spend on it, where they go next – and perhaps also importantly, what isn’t being looked at.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

SEO is about making sure people can find your site when they search for it. You may be offered a paid-for service, but you probably don’t need to do this. There are good instructions on how to submit your site so it appears in search results.

Your website and the Law

Your website is subject to various laws, as you would expect, and each PCC should satisfy itself that its website complies. (In other words, this is not legal advice.)

There are some general areas to consider.

Copyright

Make sure you do not use anyone else’s creative work or intellectual property without permission. This includes images and video, music and text. Read our fuller guide to copyright to find out more.

Data Protection

Make sure you are using personal information you collect through your site only for the reasons it was supplied. Include a section in your site’s privacy policy explaining how you use personal information. Find out more about data protection from the Information Commissioner’s Office or see how we notify users of this site through our privacy and cookies policy.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file that is downloaded to your visitors’ computers when they access your website. Cookies are used to remember a visitor’s site preferences, or to track which pages they visit. (This sounds a bit intrusive, but is how website owners see which pages on their site are popular, and which are not.)

You should tell your visitors if your website uses cookies. You can find out if your website uses cookies using the cookie checker.

Find out more about cookies from the Information Commissioner’s Office and see how we list the cookies we use on this site through our privacy and cookies policy.

Church online - websites - book cover

Church Online: websites

This short book, written by CPO’s Director of Innovation and published by Bible Reading Fellowship, is an excellent primer or refresher for churches who need some guidance with reaching their communities through digital media. Church online: websites combines missional vision with practical advice.

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100 Ways To Get Your Church Noticed

This invaluable book includes sections about social media, responsive websites and mobile apps alongside more traditional publicity techniques such as noticeboards, posters, websites, parish magazines and media relations. The accompanying website has more details about the book and great examples used by churches across the country.


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