Fishermen mending nets

Conversions for the Web and the Soul

Fishing for men in the digital age

Dear Fr. Zagloba,

I've been thinking about the Church's website. Online donations have been slowly but steadily increasing, which is great. Unfortunately, we still don't use the web to do much of anything. Our site is just an online bulletin board with some useful information posted. The beauty of the web is that it can be interactive. What I want to do is re-imagine what the website can do. We have a big opportunity here, but we really need to have a vision for it.

The basic idea that I have for the websites is that we use it to drive engagement at the parish. Engagement is marketing word that means the two-way communication and interaction between an individual and an organization. Right now, the Mass each week is the primary way people have contact with the Church. Some might 'engage' by joining the Knights of Columbus or the Council of Catholic Women. Let's try to think of engagement as the level of connection people have with the Church and the degree to which their faith affects their lives.

Starting a conversation that leads to conversion

Think of engagement like a conversation between the Church and each individual parishioner. Each conversation is unique, because each person in our parish is in a different place in their journey of faith. Our job with the website is to create something that comes alongside them and walks with them.

In the world of web design, the word 'conversion' means that a person who comes to your website does something that you want them to do. For a news site, conversion might be signing up for a weekly newsletter. For an online business, conversion means that the visitor makes a purchase. For our website, conversion means…. You guessed it…. conversion. We want people who come to our website to experience conversion and begin to either live the life of faith or live their faith more fully.

How to we use web conversions to bring about spiritual conversions. We have a couple of different groups of people, or audiences, that we should keep in mind. The first and biggest are members of St. Catherine's. A second audience is people who are new in town that are looking for a Catholic Church in their area. A third audience is people who have been invited to check out St. Catherine's but are not currently Catholic. A fourth audience is Catholics who have left the faith and are interested in returning. A fifth audience is members of the parish who have pastoral needs that they need to be addressed.

Looking at these different audiences, I can see a few different places on the 'journey of faith' where we can meet them with the website and engage their interest.

Stage 1 - Welcome - The first stage is welcoming them to the Parish and getting them either registered if they're already Catholic or connecting them with faith formation if they are interested in being Catholic. The web conversion here is to get their e-mail address and contact information.

Stage 2 - Initiation - The second stage is bringing people to an understanding of the faith that is sufficient for them to enter into the sacramental life of the Church. The web conversion at this stage might be to take a survey about where they are in their sacramental life. Another web conversion might be to sign up for sacramental prep classes.

Stage 3 - Discipleship - The third stage is enabling church members to grow in their life of faith through prayer, study, and works of mercy. This stage should include learning resources as well as invitations to participate in (or even create) ministries that reach outside the walls of the Church carrying the light of the Gospel. A web conversion might be getting them to sign up for a Church ministry or linking to a website with faith formation resources.

Stage 4 - Pastoral Care - The fourth stage is for folks who are in need of help or assistance in either their lives of faith or are going through a time of crisis. This might be people who are in the hospital who need the sacraments brought to them, or it might be people looking for resources that can help them save their marriage. The web conversion here is for them to give us their information and tell us what kind of need they have so a person can follow-up.

Tools and templates

Our website can be a place where people come to learn about their faith, connect with others, and get involved in the mission of the Church. We should probably scrap what we have entirely and start over. I think our current website was written in HTML about 15 years ago, which is the computer equivalent of racing Nascar on a donkey.

There's a tool out there called 'WordPress' that will allow us to build the website for free, or mostly free. I know that we don't have the money to hire a web developer, but perhaps if we ask during mass, we might have one in the parish who knows how to build WordPress websites and would be willing to serve.

I've been learning to use WordPress, and it is great fun. One of the best parts is that you can search through hundreds of free themes to find one that looks the way you want and does approximately what you want. The theme determines what the main page and all of the secondary pages look like, add places where you can put your pictures, what kinds of fonts you use. It gives you a basic layout structure that you can then fill with content. If you want to add additional cool functionality, WordPress also has thousands of plugins that you can then use to make it do cool things.

So for starters, Google "Best WordPress Church Themes." It will bring up an enormous number of different Church themes for you to sort through. Most of them allow you to try it out so you can see if you like the functionality. Find two or three designs that you like and we can sit down and talk about them. Once you find three or four that you like, we can start talking about our next steps forward.


The Almoner

P.S. Realize that this is a long-term project. Even with a professional web developer, building a new website can take 6 months to a year. We'll be moving slowly, because it's an all volunteer effort, but we'll get there.

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