Heal Your Church WebSite

Teaching, rebuking, correcting & training in righteous web design.

Front Page Back End Issues

Not surprisingly, yesterday’s review of the Ridge Point Community Church website yielded some good comments. One that particularly caught my interest was made by Frank Ramage, the talented webmaster over at Burtonsville Baptist Church just a 20 to 30 minute drive from where I live. Frank hit an issue I bet is a sticky one for all of us when he wrote:

Like the three-column format… bet it requires considerable time to keep it fresh…

Wonder if Mike needed releases for the “talent” in the banners (e.g., church members/visitors)?

Can I hear an Amen from the choir? Now from the congregation?!

Yes my friends, brother Frank has brought to the forefront the ugly back-end issue of maintenance to the our discussion. An issue that even plagues me over at my beloved Redland Baptist. An issue that dogs all of us, no matter how well we can Perl together MT-plugins or render perfect tableless cross-browser CSS frontpages … maintaining that dynamic compelling content on your home page that keeps people visiting and pushes your site atop search engines is a royal pain in the ‘patootie.’

Personally? I’ve entertained the thought of allowing trained church staff to use client-based blogging tool such as w.bloggar to post to our MovableType-driven church web site. A thought that has yet to come to fruition because I’m too busy working a paying day job to install and train the staff on the software. That and I’ve been burned once too often by training someone who leaves … or loses interest.

That said, my youth minister is pretty good at posting his own content. Perhaps I could train him to train others? I dunno. One problem is that some of our printed matter is developed using Microsoft Publisher … a rather nasty piece of software that imports various documents just fine, but exports … well that’s another story for another long winey post. Another thought is to build a macro into MS-Word to post to the site using XML-RPC, but all my experiments with it ran afoul with unicode issues.

Recently, I’ve been thinking that perhaps what I need to do is convince the church staff that OpenOffice is the way to go, then build scripts that would post documents, spreadsheets and data into the system, again via XML-RPC … or even SOAP at this point … I just want a solution.

Honestly? The way it goes down now? If I see something in a bulletin or newsletter I want to put online, I have to contact the staff to cut-n-paste the text and email it to me … or handjam it.

Similarly, the calendar of events, I have to ask for a comma-delimited dump from their Outlook-based schedule … then run some nifty Perl to clean-up the inconsistencies and shove it into MySQL.

What about you? What are your back-end issues? Moreover, what have you put in place at your church to overcome them? I’d like to know.


  1. Very good discussion topic. I’m afraid my responses were buried in that book I wrote as a response..;)

    The current stuff on the RP home page was gathered exactly as you Dean – by me reading the bulletin and re-keying the good stuff in. At some point I plan to make it part of the bulletin-printing process to also update the site – the pMachine interface is really quick to learn. Or there’s a “email your post in” function I could play with. Or the bookmarketlet.

    FOr stuff past the “housekeeping” items currently on the site, I’m lucky in that I have a tech-savy pastor who wants to do what he calls “instant visioncasting”, which is what we call blogging. He saw Willow Creek doing an email-based thing from Bill Hybels, and got really excited about doing the same. Those posts will go to the homepage and also go out the “get updates via email” route.

    RP also has a semi-retired pastor who wants to keep a connection to the church. In the past he’s written little blurbs in the newsletter that would make great blog entries – short, pithy, and thought-provoking.

    But the entire reason I developed on pMachine was the utter simplicity of updating the site by filling in 2 or 3 fields in a form, choosing from a drop-down, and clicking a button.

    Now the technology isn’t a constraint, so it’s just people, interest levels, and time…;)

  2. I’d have to agree totally with the training and being “burned” I’ve tried to train a guy in my church to know how to update my church’s website and it’s various contents (indeed the calendar is a big part).

    Currently the calendar is done done in Word and with a little MS Paint magic we make it look decent. For the most part, our biggest issue seems to be keeping the content fresh. The calendar, for example, is difficult enough every month.

    Some day I hope to have it run on a CMS because then the pastor and many members of the church site would be able to update the site. God willing something will work out. Right now the PHP backend is tableless and quite powerful considering the lack of database-driven support.

  3. > allowing trained church staff to
    > use client-based blogging tool
    > such as w.bloggar

    w.bloggar is very cool — I use it — but it still requires patience (it’s a little finicky) and some basic knowledge of HTML — especially when dealing with tables and other special markups.

    I would just have people e-mail info to one trained person who was in charge of adding it to the site — of course, this might make for a full-time position if you really wanted people to contribute!

    Being that most churches don’t have budget for this, the most common workaround is a message board. The problem with this is that it’s not [front page] content…

    What if there was a plugin that stripped message board content and added it as front page content? The message board could be private (i.e., not a public page on the site anyway). It would be accessible to users, though. This way, peple could post things in categories (i.e., News, Prayer Requests, etc.) and this plugin would take it, format it and place it on the front page. Then, the author of the message board content could even update it and change it in (near) real-time!

    Another idea might be an RSS agregator-type setup, where the aggregator posts to the front page and not the person. I don’t know why this would be any different than posting to the front page, but it’s a thought.

  4. I’ll add my congratulations to Mike for his Ridge Point Community Church website. Very well done. I do find the front page a little too visually dense for my taste, though. I have this problem with many blog-based sites.
    On to Dean’s point of the day. Site maintenance is absolutely my biggest headache. Mike also identifies this problem in his article at http://www.boyink.com/portfolio_more/105_0_4_0_M11/
    This article is an excellent case study, by the way.
    In my experience, there are two big obstacles to having the website content owned and maintained by the church staff and lay leadership.
    First is cultural: print (ink on paper) is viewed as the primary communications medium, and the website is secondary. So the staff and pastors spend lots of time producing beautiful printed material – inserts for the bulletin, monthly newsletters and the like (they use WordPerfect!?).
    The best I can do (given my time constraints) is post PDF versions on the website. Not very web-friendly. For the calendar, we use a calendar service hosted by churchartpro. This is updated by the staff. Works pretty well, but the *real* calendar is a large paper calendar hanging in the church office.
    The second obstacle is the lack of adequate, affordable web tools that would allow the staff to move from paper to the web. Take the calendar, for example. I’ve looked at lots of web calendaring tools. All are deficient in minor, but annoying ways. If I am to convince the staff to move to the web, the web has to be significantly better than the old paper system.
    Enough whining for now. We will always need printed communications, but in my ideal world, the web would be the primary medium, and print the derived medium, rather than the other way around.

  5. We struggled with this issue for a LONG time, and even suffered from it terribly with the previous version of our web site, which was almost *never* updated with news from the staff or ministry team leaders. Our primary goal with the recent re-design/rebuild of Apex Community Church web site (http://www.apexcommunity.net/) was to make it as simple as possible for non-technical people to be able to submit content to keep the site up-to-date.

    We’ve taken two major steps to accomplish that: 1) We bought pMachine (http://www.pmachine.com/) and modded the snot out of it to make it fit our needs for moderation and content control, so that things wouldn’t get out of hand, and 2) we’ve pushed and pushed and pushed leadership to “put it on the web site”, “put it on the web site”, “put it on the web site” and finally to “put it on the web site.”

    We made a MAJOR push to try to get people in the mode of thinking that if they want the body of the church to know about something, putting it on the web site is the best way to go. We’re still doing that.

    As far as making it easy, we also modified the roles and privileges that pMachine offers built-in, and made “author” and “author/events” roles. When someone registers for the site that needs to have the ability to make updates to the site, we assign the appropriate role to their account. Once they have that role, we wrote code that allows an extra link to the control panel to show up on the main menu of the web site for those users. So now, all they have to do is make sure they’re logged in, and the control panel link is available all the time. All they have to do is click on the CP link, click “new entry” from the menu they have in control panel, type in an entry title, a short blurb/teaser for their entry, and then type it in in the body field. It’s easier than sending an e-mail (that’s what we like to tell them….because they *all* know how to send e-mail).

    From there it goes through our 5-step moderation process where we edit it for spelling and grammar, check the content and ensure that it’s not something that would reflect negatively on the church in any way, do a web-edit, or “webify” the entry with hyperlinks to Bible Gateway for scripture in an entry, links to similar articles and/or profiles, etc. Then final approval from a staff member, and voila, it appears on the site where we told it to go.

    The system seems to be working like a champ now five days after the launch. It’s generated a lot of good content from leadership, and is continuing to catch on with people. We’ve generated our highest number of hits for as far back as we can remember, and community is being built up as people share from their hearts. It’s been an exciting experience so far.

    We’ve done our part to make it easy to keep the content fresh and new. Now hopefully if we can keep things that way beyond the “fresh, shiny and new” period hopefully it will only get better.

    So that’s how we’re doing it now.

  6. >> Some day I hope to have it run on a CMS because then the pastor and many members of the church site would be able to update the site.
    Is it me, or is the web the absolute ideal medium for contributing material from multiple sources (people) in multiple geographic locations and schedules? Seems like we have a powerful tool for this task, at least.
    >> From there it goes through our 5-step moderation process where we edit it for spelling and grammar…
    Close to full circle! (sigh) VERY GOOD POINTS (if you want a clean, professional image).
    >> First is cultural: print (ink on paper) is viewed as the primary communications medium, and the website is secondary.
    In an ideal world, the same mechanism that produces the printed page would produce the web page.
    I’ve bought the http://www.bosdev.com calendar (nice guy, GREAT support), but haven’t gone into production–one thing it needs is an Outlook import (thanks for the link, Dean! [g]).
    Since it has a “Print-friendly” format option, I’m hoping that the staff will use it for both printed and web-based calendaring. Since it’s web-based, no one needs to be in the “office” to work on the calendar.
    >> … the talented webmaster over at Burtonsville Baptist Church
    Would you like that via PayPal or should I just mail the check? :-)

  7. >>five days after the launch.

    Whoa! DIdn’t catch that the first read-through. Congrats on the launch…I’ll be back for a closer look!

    >>From there it goes through our 5-step moderation process

    Can you talk more about what site content goes through this process? This area has been under discussion at RP – whether all comments/forum posts from site visitors should go through an “approval” process. I have some pretty strong feelings in that area, but wonder what others think.

  8. I’ve created an entire web portal from scratch, it’s been in development for one and a half years now. The calendaring system was the first one to be created. Originally, it just pulled data from the database, but I created a quick and dirty web form to create a calendar item. Our secretary who puts together the buletin is the one who updates. Typically our website has more information than our buletins, and a whole lot more content.
    Getting the devotion content was a bit tougher, but with some pushing on the pastoral staff, we have been able to get a devotional every week (and some weeks we were 4 weeks ahead). I’m the one that copies the word document and puts it into the database (I also created a parsing function so that I can add <VERSE>John 3:16</VERSE> <VERSION>NIV</VERSION> and <LINK>John 3:16 </LINK> <VERSION>KJV</VERSION> . VERSE displays the full verse with formatting on the page, and LINK displays a link to the verse(s). VERSION tells it what version of the bible to use. This is all done through biblegateway. This has helped with devotionals and bible trivia).
    All of our audio is done by our sound engineer (who is pretty much our QA person, did I mention that we are now using a bug tracker for our tech team, pretty sweet). There is also a quick and dirty web form for adding audio messages, so that is updated twice a week.
    Everything else is updated by me, but it’s rarely more than 5 minutes of content updating (my full time job is programming).
    This project from the beginning was designed to become open source, and hasn’t yet because I haven’t programmed the login interface for updating the site (It’s my senior project). But if you are an experienced coder, it should take less than 30 minutes to get up and running on your site (contact me if you’d like to take a look, but it’s not really ready for the public yet). Keep your eyes posted for Paristemi (project name).
    Overall I’ve found that the more people get exicted about the website, the more that gets posted (and more new ideas people come up with). We’ve gone from 400 hits a month to over 40,000 in a year and a half, and we get people from all over the world. Letting our staff know these statistics energizes them to provide content.

  9. In regards to approval process by other users. We have an approval process in place for Prayer Requests (that are public – there is an option to be private, that just sends emails). When the user enters a prayer request, it is sent by email to the prayer partners that it selected (a group of people). With every group there is a person (or persons) who have the right to approve the prayer. They are given a link that has an auto generated number (stored in the database) that allows them to approve. They are also given a link to modify the prayer (again with the auto number) if they think that there is anything inappropriate. So far it has been working well.

  10. It seems to me like most of us are in the “Early Adopter” stage for church websites. The people driving this is us–website designers/developers. I think most people in a congregation would accept with open arms a great interactive church website (like Ridge Point), but they don’t realize what goes into a site like that.

    So, at this point I think the best method is the do-it-yourself method (copy what’s in the bulletin to the website) until that staff sees the benifit. Then they’ll probably take more ownership of it.

  11. We’ve been using PHP Event Calendar from http://calendar.codewalkers.com/ and it seems to be working pretty well. You can customize it quite a bit by playing with the CSS & the header & footer includes. Non-technical people have been updating our calendar – http://www.solomonsporch.com/calendar/calendar.php – for about a year without any problems. I’m hoping that installing the new version will fix some of the little annoyances, such as the inability to use apostrophes in event titles.

    I wish it were as easy to keep the rest of the site up-to-date….

  12. @Boyink -

    You asked … “Can you talk more about what site content goes through this process? This area has been under discussion at RP – whether all comments/forum posts from site visitors should go through an “approval” process. I have some pretty strong feelings in that area, but wonder what others think.”

    ALL site content goes through this process, with the exception of comments on entries (discussed further down).

    Our moderation process is mostly just so that we can ensure high quality content on the site. At the moment we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 different members that have author privs (hopefully we’ll start getting a bit more content with that many authors), and we basically allow them to submit *anything* that they want to see on the site, even if that includes static content.

    Based on the content submitted, we administrators make the determination where the content would best fit on the site. We assign it to a particular blog (each blog pretty much corresponds to a certain “section” of the site – i.e. /ministries/worship has it’s own blog), and then assign it a particular category as well, which will determine which “block” on a particular section/page the entry will show up in. Those two identifiers determine where the content will be displayed on the site. Step 1) Author Revision (if necessary) We review the entry for it’s content to determine if it clearly conveys something that we are comfortable with displaying publicly on our web site – no, we don’t censor stuff or anything like that, but we do feel strongly that we have a responsibility to ensure that no content that conflicts with our beliefs or core values is allowed on the site. If something doesn’t jive quite right, or could be interpreted in a negative way, we contact the author and request any necessary changes to the content. Step 2) Content edit – Editors (someone, may or may not be an administrator) reviews the entry for spelling and grammar and make any necessary corrections. Step 3) Web edit – hyperlinks and web formatting is added (bolding for emphasis, etc). Step 4) Final Approval – everything in the entry is reviewed by a final approval authority. During all of this time the entry is not visible on the site yet, based on the entries status. If the entry passes final approval, it’s status is changed to “Open” and it becomes visible on the site.

    If the content submitted is static content, we basically copy it from the entry dialog, and then paste it into the appropriate block on the appropriate page where the author wants it to be. We’ve requested that people do this, as it simply makes for an easy way for people to submit content to us. That way they get into the habit of using the system to submit everything. Makes it easy for us to get their content from them too. Works very well for us.

    Comments on entries require membership with the site, but they are *not* moderated. That would just be way too much work. But, we have implemented a system that allows us to “hide” comments very easily. If you’re logged into the site as an administrator, each entry’s comments has a link next to it labelled “Hide.” If a comment is even questionable, all we have to do is click the link to hide it and it will not be publicly visible. Clicking the link just toggles a status code for the comment in the database. This also highlights the comment for administrators to identify it as a hidden comment, and the link changes from “Hide” to “Show”, which would allow us to simply toggle the visibility of the comment to public again. Works *very* nicely.

    Thank you all for the generous feedback. Other feedback is also welcome.

  13. I agree that some tool which would allow others to update the site would be great; however, I am a compulsive editor. Many wise, godly people have terrible writing skills. Am I the only one who is a little scared by this? I think I would spend so much time editing that no time would be saved at all.

    I was very amused by the comment someone made about getting content from the weekly bulletin. I have begged and pleaded to get content. I frequently see where people make up beautiful publications which could easily be “ported” over to the site. I am almost uniformly greeted with a puzzled look and the ever-present “oh yeah” when I gently remind those who should know that visitors of our site, too, would benefit from seeing their publications. My pastor, who is usually in his office working on Friday nights, needles me constantly about my Friday Night Bulletin Raid. Such is the life of a webservant. My wife keeps encouraging me that what I do isn’t for now – to keep working, because there will come a time when a church without a website will be as much an oddity as a church without a telephone.


  14. Please don’t take the upcoming thoughts as accusatory, they’ve just been on my mind lately as I deal with a staff member with a radically different viewpoint.

    “but we do feel strongly that we have a responsibility to ensure that no content that conflicts with our beliefs or core values is allowed on the site.”

    Does this mean those beliefs or core values can’t be questioned via the website?

    Or at a higher level, what’s considered “negative” in a comment? And should church sites be devoid of negative comments?

    These are the areas I’m struggling with. It seems like if the church site is putting a “happy face” on church we’re doing a disservice to our visitors. I’m also struggling with the notion of someone internal or on staff being the “keeper of what’s appropriate” on the site, when the site really belongs to the church – the congregation.

    It seems like comments/posts that initially are taken as negative could be discussion starters that lead to growth and community.

    From a user’s perspective, once the word gets out that posts and comments are getting moderated/edited, I think I’d look for an online forum where I could speak openly, without fear of moderation. Cost of switching is low, right?

    I just wonder sometimes if we (myself included, right up front) take too much of a corporate approach to church websites, worrying about branding, image, and happy talk and lose the potential for teaching and growth via a church website.

    But then again, I’ve been questioning everything about organized church these days…..

  15. Boyink,

    Discussion groups as a whole are no fun and not useful when they are too heavily moderated. With a church site, I would almost question the wisdom of having a discussion forum. Would I really want to have to warn our visitors that “Parental Discretion is Advised” when their kids visit our site? I don’t think so. Unless ideas can be exchanged freely, there’s really no point in even having the discussion. In a venue where teens and little kids can see what non-church types are saying, we need to be so careful that, in my opinion, it wouldn’t even be worth the effort.


  16. That’s too defeatist for me – there’s a world of valuable conversations that could take place via a discussion forum without moderation. So much so that I would question *not* having one – at least for RidgePoint ( younger church with an focus on outreach to Postmoderns). Not having online ways to connect would quickly show us to be irrelevant.

    And frankly, I can only hope that “non-church-types” show up and start talking to us via the forums.

    It’s why Ridge Point exists.

  17. > With a church site, I would almost
    > question the wisdom of having a
    > discussion forum.

    Our church’s discussion forum is one of the most vibrant, thought-provoking, conversation-engaging forums I have ever been a part of — enough to be mentioned in our sermons many times!

    The church dies without community. Forums extend the community.

    I’m all for ‘em!

  18. Boyink – Man I’m feelin’ ya with your struggle there. We wrestled with that issue throughout the development of the new site, and went back and forth many times. There are valid arguments for allowing and not allowing discussions. It’s a fine line between allowing discussions and not. We ran into some problems with the actual “forums” that we had on our previous site, in that it eventually became just like just about any other forum out there. If you had taken the labels and name off of the forum, and removed the “praises and prayer requests” forum, I’d have wondered if an outsider would have even known that it was the forums of a church web site. The conversation just got so out of line and non-spiritual that we had to question the benefit of it. And staff didn’t care for it at all. So we made the tough decision to not incorporate forums into this current revolution of the site, yet to allow comments on entries. We made this decision in the hopes that we might be able to keep conversations more focused on the things above, and not on the things below. We also required all users to re-register with this new site, rather than attempting to transfer existing accounts from the previous site to the new one. We did that because we wanted to make sure that everyone who used the site for discussion had a clear understanding of what our vision for the site was. The only way that we could ensure that they did was to force them to re-register so that they would get our confirmation e-mail for account activation, which included our “covenant” in which we ask people to think about the things they say, and to keep the focus of the community (to build community and extend the Kingdom of God) in mind when participating in discussions. So far it has worked out OK. We’re hoping that trend continues.

  19. For our church, (see link on my name) I took up the same task as Dean – the site runs on MT. The calendar, however, is a PHP script I found – and modified slightly – which was easy to explain to the church secretary how to enter the information. I have been posting all the entries, but I am looking forward to turning this over, as well, and leaving only the graphics work to myself – the church purchased a digital camera which creates images too large for the web. I would agree, though, that the backend of any web site is the hardest part to get turned over to the staff.

  20. Forum vs. edited comments:
    If my hosting provider (BellSouth) didn’t charge an arm and a leg for PHP and MySql access, I’d put a forum on my website today. If I were looking for a church, I’d be very drawn to one that permitted a free and open exchange of ideas. And I’d be put off by one that edited my comments. Since the main pages represent the “corporate face” of the church, I don’t think I’d allow comments at all.
    If you want to experiment with the forum idea, consider an email discussion group – e.g., on yahoogroups. We have one for discussion of the current week’s lectionary, with about 30 people. It has “rules of conduct” and I have to approve all members. Posts are not moderated. It has worked very well. If it doesn’t work well for you, at least the whole world doesn’t get to see your dirty linen.

  21. I worked with Yex on the project he mentions.

    We decided to take the approach that our website was an extension of Sunday morning and Wednesday night. Just like we wouldn’t just hand the microphone to just anyone then, we don’t just hand the “keyboard” to anyone on the web. And, in reality, we do. We just take time to approve it. Any issues that arise from this aren’t just swept under the rug, we just deal with them offline.

    Another picture I keep in my head is that I wouldn’t want to see two congregation members having a knock-down-drag-out at Starbucks about scriptural issues. When I was a “seeker” I had a very intellectual pursuit of God. The level of disagreement on issues between Christians was a major stumbling block for me.

    And, ultimately, as a body of believers there are so many things that we agree on that we should be encouraging each other on, that I can’t even begin to see much value it debating some of the finer doctrinal issues. Let’s be about encouraging men in their battle over lust. Let’s be about encouraging teens on the battle over peer pressure. Let’s be about encouraging each other to reach out to a dying world. When we have a grip on some of those things, then maybe we start debating the finer points of echatology.

    So, my take is we need to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit” and sometimes I think that means working out disagreements in a less than public forum. Not hiding, not running from, but a focus on the bigger picture of presenting the body as holy.

  22. David,
    Where did you find that PHP script? I’m working on a site for a church that’s been asking about calendaring (not the one that’s linked below) and that looks like it just might work for them. Thanks!