Walk into any Anglican church, and some elements of the service will feel familiar, says Catherine Pate, communications officer for the diocese of British Columbia.
Anglican churches “are in countries all over the world. So, if the liturgy resonates for you, you can find us in lots of places—and each time, it feels like coming home,” she says.
It is this feeling that Pate has sought to emulate through a new diocesan-wide strategy for redeveloping parish websites in the diocese of British Columbia.
Pate’s position was created out of a visioning process, which concluded that effective communication would be an important goal for the life of the diocese. When Pate was hired, one of the first projects she undertook was revamping the diocesan website. But this project soon turned into a diocesan-wide strategy to give parishes websites that are aesthetically pleasing, function well and point back to the Anglican church at large.
Pate has made sure the sites include information on “what Anglicanism is about,” and highlight the parishes’ place in the diocese, the national church and international communion, helping to create the spiritual equivalent of a strong brand affinity.
However, she also wanted them to be inviting. “Most people these days, I think, are not shopping for an Anglican church; they’re looking for a local church,” says Pate. “And one of the first ways they find that local church is online. We want to be as inviting and welcoming as we can be when they find us.”
Pate discovered Ascend Collective, a company that offers web development services specifically geared to churches, and began working with them to design the diocesan site. She soon realized the potential for parish websites. “If we have a similar platform, and it’s controlled by the same company, my whole branding strategy within the diocese is given a huge boost. I can create some consistency on all of those websites,” she says. With sites on the same platform, parishes can also send events and news items easily and automatically to the diocesan site.
Matt Morrison, founder of Ascend Collective, says he was excited to set up an entire diocese on the platform. It “just made sense,” he says, to recommend solutions to parishes across the diocese, rather than “making every single church reinvent the wheel and fight this battle on their own.”
It was his experience volunteering to set up a website for his home church that inspired Morrison to found Ascend. Churches, he realized, had a unique set of needs that most businesses didn’t have—and unlike most business websites, a church site had to be updated constantly with new events and notices. The site was built, but Morrison was still fielding calls about how to update it. “I’m getting all these phone calls, thinking, ‘OK, I’m happy to help my church, but there’s a bigger problem here,’” says Morrison. “What is a church doing that doesn’t have a professional web developer willing to volunteer their time to help them out?”
He founded Ascend Collective (originally called Church OS) to meet the needs of churches that are often operating on tight budgets with volunteer help.
Ascend provides training and is available for support after the website is set up, another key difference from typical web development companies. Because all the churches they work with are on the same platform, Morrison says, his team can be continually updating and making improvements.
The company also aims to be church budget-friendly. As the company has scaled, they have also been able to reduce costs. “The heart of this company is to really help as many churches as we can, not maximize the profit as much as we can.” He says that while initially it cost each church $2,500 to set up their website and $50 per month going forward, Ascend is now able to charge $39 per month, with an initial fee of $499.
Static to active
When the Rev. Craig Hiebert became the incumbent at The Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oak Bay, B.C., three years ago, the church’s website had not been updated for a while. “It was a static site, so it meant you really had to rebuild every page, including the whole menu structure and the different sidebars,” Hiebert remembers. It took him about a month to even track down the access information for the site, he says.
Hiebert’s background in web development made him eager to find a better fix for the site, though he says he was wary of “boxed solutions.” Since he had “a very clear idea” of what he wanted in a church website, Hiebert says, Pate invited him to sit in on an early meeting with Morrison.
As Morrison outlined the features available for churches on the Ascend platform, Hiebert says, “I changed from…sitting back with my arms folded and my legs crossed, skeptical, to leaning forward and anticipating and asking the next question and being quite happy with the next answer.”
Hiebert says the new site is easy to use even for those who are not tech-savvy, and he is able to add multiple users who can update certain areas of the site, so that the brunt of the work doesn’t fall to him and the parish administrator. He says one of his favourite features is the platform’s security maintenance, which offers him peace of mind.
The Rev. David Chillman, rector of St. Philip by-the-Sea Anglican Church in Lantzville, B.C., says he likes the “unified look” for the parish websites across the diocese. “There is a much stronger sense of us being one family rather than a vague grouping of independent churches,” he wrote in an email, noting as an example the statement of gratitude to First Nations that each of the websites now has at the bottom.
A new ministry of presence
Chillman says he likes how easy the site is to use; it also has a “clear and simple design.” St. Philip’s website can now be updated frequently with church events, he says. “Whereas previously, people might sometimes grumble that they didn’t know that particular events were taking place, now all the information that people need should be easy to access.”
The new site has also made it easier for local community groups that rent the church building to check availability before booking. “And we know that people moving into our area have found us via the website and come to services to check us out,” he adds.
This has also been the case for St. George’s Anglican Church in Cadboro Bay, B.C. Having a comprehensive site where “folks who want to get to know us, but aren’t quite ready to attend a service” to find out about the church has been the biggest impact, says parish administrator Tara Saracuse. “Our parishioners are proud to give out our website URL to their friends and family.”
As parish administrator, Saracuse makes most of the updates to the site, and she says she feels “assured that the website will never suffer from broken links or widget glitches” because Ascend monitors the site and keeps it up to date. “Maintaining the website has transformed from [being] a nuisance and a stress to an easy side-task that brings me joy,” she says in an email.
She says one of the church’s favourite features is the sermons’ section, where they can post audio files and transcriptions of the weekly sermon. “I know that many parishioners will send a link to their friends…with a sermon that has particularly touched them.”
The new websites are clean and uncluttered, with large photos and the parish logo prominent in the left-hand corner, a stylish look that conveys the sense of a church that has kept up with the times. While there is a sense of unity in the layout and formatting, elements are customized to show each parish’s personality—like the photo of a seaside Eucharist on a rocky beach on St. Philip by-the-Sea’s homepage, or the dove and crossed-keys insignia on the Two Saints Ministry page.
Pate says that 43 out of the diocese’s 45 parishes are developing new websites on the Ascend platform, and that she hopes to eventually have all parishes on board.
The Anglican church is “an aging church in lots of places, so the way that we do things in our physical locations speaks to the people who are already there,” says Pate, “But there’s this whole other demographic that we aren’t reaching, and they are online.” In order to have a ministry presence in their lives, she says, the church must reach out through the Internet. She says some people may “attend” a church without ever stepping through the door—listening to recorded sermons, watching videos and interacting through social media.
Pate believes it is important not to miss these opportunities. “I think the bottom line for me is, if we’re all about spreading the Good News, then we better not forget that that has to happen online as well as in the physical world.”