Parish web sites

For Catholic parishes, simply being present on the Web can no longer be enough. 

That was the essence of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 World Communications Day Message, issued Jan. 25, 2010. 

In the message, the pope urged priests to embrace all that the Internet now has to offer and “proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites).” 

As it turns out, that message was more than necessary. 

Last month, the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova School of Business in Villanova, Pa., released the results of its nationwide study of parish websites. And they weren’t good. 

According to the study, the vast majority of parishes included in the study have woefully inadequate sites. Although most do pretty well at the basics — 96 percent list parish Mass times and 75 percent offer a link to the Sunday bulletin — few take advantage of the types of Web technology most Americans have come to expect. 

For example, only 12 percent post sacramental forms on their website, and only 2 percent provide interactive forms that can be submitted online. Similarly, only 14 percent allow parishioners to sign up for events via the Web, while just over a third allow people to register at the parish online. Barely half of the parishes even have a calendar of events online. 

Even fewer parishes have embraced what’s now commonly referred to as Web 2.0 — the types of interactive technology of which Pope Benedict spoke — with only 10 percent of the parishes featuring blogs and only 8 percent offering podcasts. Online Bible studies and links to good Catholic content on the Web are almost equally rare. 

Need to interact 

To Catholics of a certain age, those statistics might not seem all that troubling. But according to Eugene Gan, communications professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, they spell big trouble for the Church when it comes to young people. 

“This generation expects a two-way street,” he said. “They expect interactivity. They’re not just looking for information, but also wanting to give feedback. They want to dialogue.” 

Charles Zech, who directs the Center for the Study of Church Management and headed up the study, agreed. 

“As a Church, we need to be concerned,” he said. “Things that most Catholics under age 40 take for granted can’t be found on parish websites. We’re not doing all we can to connect with them, and that’s a problem.” 

On one level, Zech said, that problem stems from the fact that as much as 80 percent of younger Catholics visit a church’s website before deciding whether or not to actually visit the Church. If the website is difficult to navigate or fails to communicate a sense of the parish, many of those Web visitors might very well never become real visitors. 

“You only get one chance to make a first impression, and for many younger Catholics the first impression they get of a parish comes from its website,” said Zech. 

Online evangelization 

On another level, outdated and inadequate websites are a problem because it means parishes aren’t doing all they can to spread the Gospel and form their parishioners. 

According to William Wagner, who worked alongside Zech on the parish study, when younger Americans have questions about the faith, the first place they usually head is to the Internet. 

“One study concluded that there are over 5 million Google searches for ‘God’ a day,” he said. 

Through blog posts, podcasts of homilies and links to good Catholic content, parishes can help those searchers find the answers for which they’re looking. And by creating conversations online, they can continue the formation that begins in the Mass throughout the week. 

Gan explained: “In his last World Communications Day Message, ‘The Rapid Development,’ [Pope] John Paul II outlined three tasks for social communications: formation, participation and dialogue. By creating dialogues online, we encourage participation, and that leads to formation. ” 

But again, as the Villanova study indicates, that’s not happening right now, at least not in the vast majority of parishes. 

The reason for that, Zech believes, is twofold. 

“First, parishes are strapped for money, and to do a really good website you need some funding. Second, most parish leaders don’t seem to understand the importance of a website in reaching parishioners.” 

Gan also sees some level of fear at work: “There’s a fear of online conversations getting out of hand, of people posting things that might be inappropriate or too negative. They don’t want to have to spend a lot of time policing forums or comment boxes.” 

But that fear, Gan said, is mostly misplaced. 

“The answer is simply to have more than one person moderating the forums and to encourage some self-policing,” he explained. 

Wagner also believes the cost concerns are inflated. 

“You can find some really good Web templates for under $50, and software features such as interactive calendars are available for as little as $10,” he pointed out. “Parishes can also look for volunteers from their members. One Web savvy parishioner can do a lot to improve a parish’s website.” 

For parishes to really step up their Web game, however, Zech believes it’s going to take some pushing (and funding) from the higher-ups in their diocese. 

“Dioceses need to take the lead and help parishes develop good websites,” he said. “Many dioceses currently host a very minimalist page for parishes, but its just not enough. We need a more concerted effort. Until dioceses provide more support, most parishes just aren’t going to get where they need to be.” 

And they do need to get there. 

“We can’t ignore Web 2.0,” said Wagner. “That’s where the people are.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

The Basics (sidebar)

When it comes to parish websites, simply listing the Mass times and posting the Sunday bulletin is no longer enough. So what is enough? 

Our Sunday Visitor put that question to Eugene Gan, communications professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and William Wagner, who teaches courses on Web design for the Center for the Study of Church Management. Here’s what they recommend. 

When it comes to design, websites should: 

  • Avoid flash animation whenever possible 
  •  Be well-organized and easy to read with a top menu and a sidebar menu on the “Welcome” page 
  • Offer features that make it easier for people with disabilities to use 
  • Include pictures of people, not just buildings, to show a sense of community 
  • Not include advertisements 

When it comes to content, in addition to Mass times and bulletins, the ideal parish websites would feature: 

  •  A mission statement that describes parish worship, life and community 
  •  Directions to the parish and contact information 
  •  An interactive parish calendar that can be updated by multiple members of the parish staff, as well as key volunteers 
  •  Interactive forms that allow people to register for the parish as well as parish events online 
  • Sacramental forms that can be downloaded or e-mailed (such as forms for godparents) 
  •  A password-protected “Members Only” section for committee members to share information, post updates and obtain feedback from others 
  •  Online giving tools 
  • A page for visitors 
  • A page for Catholics returning to the faith 
  •  Pages for the various age groups in a parish (children, teens, young adults, families, and the elderly) with age specific content (games, faith formation materials, resource links, and events) 
  •  Podcasts or print versions of the Sunday homily 
  •  A blog maintained by the priest, DRE, youth minister, catechists or all of the above 
  •  Forums for comments or discussions 
  • The ability to submit prayer requests or purchase a Mass card
  • Bilingual content when appropriate

Other Findings (sidebar)

The Villanova School of Business’ Parish Technology Summit also found: 

  •  While there has been an increased emphasis on parish transparency and accountability within the Church, only about half of the parishes post their parish mission statement on their website and fewer than that (41 percent) post parish financial information. 
  •  Parishioners typically have the opportunity to pay most or all of their bills electronically, but only one in six parishes provide the opportunity for online giving through their website. 
  • Only one-sixth of the parishes post their priests’ homilies on their websites, and only 8 percent provide webcasts/podcasts of Sunday Mass. 
  •  In spite of the recent growth in the number of non-English speaking Catholics, especially Hispanics, only about 20 percent post multilingual content.
  •  Parishioners who are accustomed to communicating through social networks or who regularly blog find that only 10 percent of parish websites provide blogs or online forums for responses by parishioners, and only 14 percent provide the opportunity to submit prayer requests.