As more Catholics and future Catholics turn to the Web for information and guidance, it’s essential for every parish to be right there with them, informing, enlightening, consoling, guiding, and preaching the Word at all times.
Failure is not an option.
“There’s an information revolution taking place around us,” said Ashley Wiskirchen, director of parish communications for the Jefferson City diocese. “We have no choice but to be a part of it if we’re going to be true to our mandate to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with all people.
“Fortunately, I think most people in our diocese get that,” she said.
Since coming to work for the diocese eight months ago, Mrs. Wiskirchen has been helping parishes throughout these 38 counties strengthen their online presence, using some of the most up-to-date web design and technology available.
The process melds the timeless elements of unity, beauty and truth that have been hallmarks of Catholic evangelization for 2,000 years with the cutting-edge digital marketing practices of this age.
“Parishes deserve good websites that are user-friendly and easy to navigate for Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” said Mrs. Wiskirchen. “Data from our diocese shows that many parishioners prefer to be connected digitally, by text messaging, social media and/or email.”
She said the parish website project builds on that preference by providing a digital hub that translates fruitful parish life into an invitation for parishioners and community members to “dive in.”
The updated parish websites position parishes to begin expanding their communications with parishioners and community members to electronic newsletters, Facebook groups and other social media channels.
“We’re meeting the faithful where they are online and enriching our digital experiences by bringing the Church into what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI referred to as ‘the digital continent,’” said Mrs. Wiskirchen.
There are other benefits, most notably regarding Bishop W. Shawn McKnight’s emphasis on strengthening the Church through better collaboration.
“Our bishop’s vision of a diocese that is ‘better together’ is the driving principal behind the development and organization of this project, as we seek to design not just one well of information in a digital space, but a network of parishes that are connecting and engaging with the faithful online,” said Mrs. Wiskirchen.
While these new parish websites are owned and operated at the parish level, they also connect back to the main diocesan website.
“This connection allows us to interweave the parishes in ways that were previously impossible,” she stated. “Information can flow freely between the diocese and parish websites, keeping important topics up-to-date and creating an atmosphere of co-responsibility between both parties, to ensure the faithful have accurate and relevant content to explore.”
Her favorite feature of these new sites is the capability for the diocese to provide in-depth articles on faith topics, Church teaching and diocesan policies — which relieves the parish website administrators of some of the burden of checking the diocesan website for updates and ensuring that accurate information is coming from the diocese directly to parishioners on their website.
“While every parish is unique, they often have similar goals and similar challenges,” she noted. “From the big-ticket items like providing an interactive and current parish calendar that promotes community-building events, to the nitty-gritty — and oftentimes stress-inducing — tasks, such as collecting time and talent information online and exporting that data in a meaningful way for parish staff to engage parishioners, these websites can overcome hurdles that have, in many cases, slowed or stalled progress in advancing the mission of the Church in evangelization and service.”
Waves of energy
With support from the diocese’s Catholic Stewardship Appeal (CSA), the parish website project is being carried out in phases through tight collaboration between individual parishes and the diocese.
The first “wave” includes transforming the websites for 23 parishes and Catholic Charites of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO).
Of those, nine parishes are actively building their new websites, with two nearing the finish line.
The new site for Ss. Peter & Paul parish in Boonville is in test mode and is set to be launched before the new year.
“I am very excited for Ss. Peter & Paul parish to launch their website,” said Mrs. Wiskirchen, “because I can feel the momentum building as our parishes continue networking together to share the Gospel both online and in person as centers of charity and mercy.”
Sixteen parishes are signed up for the “second wave,” which is set to begin early spring 2020.
Step by step
People involved in building their parish’s website from the ground up say it’s challenging but rewarding work, individually and for the parish as a whole.
It starts with parishes contacting Mrs. Wiskirchen at the Chancery and appointing a parish website administrator to spearhead the project locally.
Website administrators receive in-person training; professional support services from Blackbaud, the company the diocese is working with to build the parish sites; and ongoing, helpful guidance from people in the diocesan Communications Office.
The diocese is committed to not only the completion of a new parish website, but to its long-term success and effectiveness to enrich parish life.
As director of parish communications, Mrs. Wiskirchen sees her role as a support person, building the capacity of parish communicators and providing further training, recommendations and insight from her own experience as a website developer and visual communicator.
“I enjoy telling parish staff, ‘Please, ask any question!’” she said. “I’m getting great feedback from them on how we can improve upon what we’re building as we walk together.”
Once they’ve learned how, the administrators go about customizing their parish website.
“While the parish websites come pre-loaded with a wealth of great information built-in, parishes are encouraged to really make the websites their own,” said Mrs. Wiskirchen.
She said it’s important to understand the parish’s goals online — and then provide them with the easiest path to achieve that goal, both for the staff working on the website and the parishioners who are visiting it.
She cited as an example the annual process through which parishioners commit to sharing their time and talent.
“In many parishes, paper forms are mailed to parish families, filled out and returned to the parish office,” she noted. “Parish staff members then input that data back into a digital system, and sometimes have limited ‘next steps’ to getting that data processed in a meaningful way.”
The new parish websites include a built-in feature allowing visitors to fill out information digitally, and store that information so it can be exported into a useful format for the parish.
“So ‘Time & Talent’ information can be downloaded in a spreadsheet and shared automatically with the relevant offices or volunteers that can reach out to parishioners to help them dive into the ministry, organization or volunteer role they’re signing up for on the form,” said Mrs. Wiskirchen.
She called that kind of digitally facilitated collaboration “the sweet spot between being ‘user friendly’ and ‘usable.’
“This could be a game-changer for some parishes who often feel a tension between what they would like to accomplish in their parish and the limitations of some of the technology available to them currently,” she said.
After parishes complete their content development and implement it on their website, the site is reviewed and any necessary revisions and additions are made.
Multiple users can then be trained on the website’s capabilities and functions, allowing parish staff to collaborate appropriately with ease.
Mrs. Wiskirchen has received steady feedback from parish website administrators at every stage of the process.
“Just like any new project, a certain learning curve comes with using a new software or technology,” she said, “but many of them are making great headway on learning how to use the user-friendly builder to publish their content and are finding the process useful and relatively easy.”
Darlene Kraus, as the administrator for Ss. Peter & Paul parish in Boonville, did the work of creating and migrating all of the parish’s digital content into the newly designed template for parish websites.
“The training videos provided by Blackbaud were very helpful, and I appreciate the help and support Ashley gave our parish,” said Mrs. Kraus. “She took the time to look through all of our content and make recommendations that helped us organize information so that visitors to the site can find things easily.”
Mrs. Kraus appreciated Mrs. Wiskirchen’s support and feedback.
“It’s great to have a professional’s input on this but still have the ability to make this our own parish website,” said Mrs. Kraus.
Mrs. Kraus, who was raised Christian but did not become Catholic until 35 years ago, said the pre-loaded content for the parish websites is helpful both to Catholics looking for a refresher on what they’ve already been taught and non-Catholics who want to learn more about the faith.
Helen Osman, director of diocesan communications, noted that the new websites contain a wealth of information for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
“Having a process built on best practices and a template filled with standard content for our parishes allows our website visitors to experience the diversity and unity of the Catholic Church,” said Mrs. Osman.
The new websites “provide a visually beautiful presentation of the faith, as Bishop Robert Barron so often urges parishes to do, while providing a full expression of the Church’s teachings,” she said.
For more information on the diocese’s work in this area, please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.