Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Messiah Website Relaunch

The last few weeks have been a time of heightened productivity for me. Lent has always been a good time for me to knock through a bunch of projects, and part of that comes the place it occupies in the church year: things have settled in after the fall (when people come back to more frequent attendance), and the congregation has gotten through Christmas. By the time Lent comes around you, as the Rector or Pastor, know pretty well who you've got and what they are capable of. Also, you see the spring unfolding before you are realize that summer will be here before you know it, and advancing projects then will be difficult.

So.... for a long time I've wanted to re-do my church's website. The original website, while not bad, was "hard-coded" in HTML/CSS. That meant that in order to change the site, someone (me), had to manually edit each page or stylesheet. That wasn't a problem for me, I have Wordpress and know HTML well enough that I could easily make the pages do what I wanted, especially when I used Dreamweaver to do it. However, I quickly found the limitation to this approach: only I could change the site! So much for involving the people, let alone having another staff member do it, let alone delegating the various parts of the site to the people that might be passionate about them.

For several years the solution has been obvious. What I needed was a Content Management System (CMS)--preferably one that was open source and free. I considered Joomla for a time, but then Brian Bukowski (web manager at the Anglican Church of Canada) told me that I should look at Wordpress and I've been hooked ever since. It's dead-easy to install and customize, and there are tons of pre-designed "themes" available at all price points (including free). Modifying such themes is pretty easy, as well, as long you know HTML/CSS and a little PHP.

The problem, I found, was that my church's website was hosted by Bell, and their standard business webhosting package for medium-sized companies doesn't give you a database. In order to get that feature you have to upgrade to an exorbitant package. I asked a sales rep about purchases this service a la cart, and the price was similarly ridiculous given that most webhosting companies (like GoDaddy or iPage) throw that in with even their most basic plans. In general, Bell's webhosting sucks, anyway, with antiquated tools and interfaces. Even their webmail interface is terrible.

So I decided to switch the hosting over to iPage and I'm glad I did. I've used GoDaddy to set up websites in the past, and they are fine and very cheap. But I don't love the politics of their advertizing campaign (too sexist) and I've heard some rumblings around the web about some of their business practices. Ipage, on the other hand, had very good reviews on the web, and is said to be particularly good for non-US customers. I've been pleased with the results so far, and found the set-up to be straightforward. Like GoDaddy, iPage has a feature that allows you to automatically set up a WordPress installation on your site without having to upload the package and execute it manually.

After that I picked a theme. After spending a few hours looking at various themes--many of them developed especially for churches, I went with Epic Church by Organized Themes. Key features for me for this theme (and the others that made the final list) were these:
  • Responsive design: it must display beautifully on any screen (desktops, smart phones, tablets, etc.)
  • Built-in podcasting: it must have a sermon-media management tool
  • E-mail newsletter support: it must have a way for people to subscribe to the parish newsletter
  • Social media integration: it must have a way for people to like or share almost anything
Epic had all of those things, plus a neat little widget for "contact us," an attractive slide-show feature for the homepage, and a few other goodies. Not bad for only $50.

Some other themes I liked:

Once I had the theme installed I had to spend a few hours uploading content. In a few cases I was able to copy and paste some content developed for the old site, but most of the time I simply rewrote the copy to reflect our community's current situation. I have quite an archive of photographs, so I pulled out some new ones for the new site. I had to a little work in Photoshop in a few cases, but not much. Mainly that was just to get the photographs for the "slideshow" into the correct sizes. I created a macro in Photoshop to make batch-process files a snap.

I had to do a bit of troubleshooting to get a few features to work like I wanted, but it all did. So, presto, we have a new church website. I still have some features to implement and, of course, I'll need to add a lot more content. But at least we now have a workable platform. Now I can create separate logins to allow various members of the church to add content. They can even do so using apps on their smart phones!

The old Messiah site

The new Messiah site
You can check out the current site and see how it's coming along. Of course, if you are reading this sometime in the future, than the site will likely have gone through yet another face lift!

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