Websites are the front doors to our faith communities, so it’s important to have an attractive, helpful and welcoming one! As someone who makes this point to congregations all the time, I thought I should take my own advice and try out the UUA WordPress theme, which I helped create through my UUA job, and use it for my home congregation. I made my UU congregation’s website using the UUA WordPress Theme, and rescued it from certain death, all in an afternoon.
Our story today is in four acts.
Think of your website like your building (or physical space). It’s absolutely as important as your building for interacting with the wider community. It requires land to sit on; that’s your hosting service. The WordPress platform works as your building’s foundation, and the UUA WordPress theme creates outside walls, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, all the structural stuff. Once you’ve got your building/site up, you still have to decorate and arrange it with furniture, paint, lighting, etc. That’s your site’s content (and we give you a recommended setup and some furnishing examples with the draft content). The menu operates like internal walls that are really easy to move around and reshape your rooms depending on your furniture/content.
The UUA WordPress theme is like a prefab website house for our congregations, one built using best practices and great design. But to use that prefab house you still have to get the land (hosting), and, like any construction project, you still have to know how to wield a hammer.
I would say I can use a hammer, though I’m definitely not an architect or a general contractor. I’m not a tech guy. But I’ve been working on this website theme project for months, so I wanted to test it out and see if a guy who does some home improvement/website work on the side can pull this off.
My home congregation in Malden has an ok website, but it isn’t responsive, isn’t screen-reader accessible, and it’s hard to get multiple accounts to edit it. Plus, we are paying a lot for hosting, and not even using the full range of services we are paying for (e.g. a custom social network). We decided to switch to the cheaper, easier, more flexible, more accessible and generally more awesome UUA theme. I set aside some time, and rolled up my sleeves to get started.
Act I – Hosting
First, I signed up with Blue Host. I picked BlueHost because they are cheap, reliable, have a solid reputation, and do good work with nonprofits. They also offer easy integration with webmail as part of their hosting package, something we don’t currently have in Malden (that means you can get accounts like email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). Plus, using a third party hosting company and setting up a new site meant it was easier to meet the technical requirements for using the theme.
BlueHost requires payment for hosting up front, but I got a year of hosting for $60 (side note – be careful what you subscribe for! I actually picked the $4/month option first, which turned out to be a 3-year package, and had to call them to switch my plan). This is WAY cheaper than our current hosting fees.
As part of signing up for Blue Host, I had to pick a domain name. We decided to change our domain name as part of the process, but you can transfer an existing domain name. If you want to use your current domain name, you will probably want to create a sub-domain to use as your staging/development site (maybe www.dev.yourchurch.org), which you do through your “domains” section of the control panel. From there, you can also add a new registered domain name to your BlueHost account later and transfer your original URL.
Act II – Installation
Now that I was logged in to my BlueHost account with a domain set up, I went to the “hosting” section of the control panel and clicked “install WordPress” and then followed the instructions to install on my domain (no need for any of the paid options to help install).
Perfect! Now I had my WordPress site set up. I’m familiar with WordPress from other blogs and sites I mentioned, but if you don’t know WordPress then I recommend the WordPress Support site: https://en.support.wordpress.com/.
I logged in with my BlueHost account (login at yourchurch.org/wp-admin) and went to the Appearance > Themes section of the Dashboard. I had already gone to uuatheme.org and downloaded the theme, which comes as a ZIP file (don’t do anything to it, just let it be zipped!). I clicked “Add New” and uploaded my zip file and BOOM! I was in business. I followed the prompts and installed all the recommended widgets.
Act II – Setup
The theme requires some setup, especially for the custom options. So I followed the guidance on uuatheme.org and adjusted the theme options (colors, header, etc.), available once you click into the UUA Theme. I followed all the steps listed the initial setup instructions.
Next I installed the Demo Content to get started (I declined to import all the images, since they weren’t specific to my congregation). But the demo content gave me enough to work with to start managing and organizing the site.
I then set up the homepage by going to the Appearance > Widgets menu and added the widgets to the appropriate Homepage boxes (the homepage uses a couple of different widgets to make all those fun options work). This was the trickiest part so far, just keeping track of which widgets go where. But it’s all laid out on the theme documentation site.
I looked at my site. It was beautiful! I stepped back to admire my work, and I was all ready to get started working on my content. But no one’s perfect, eh? Everyone makes mistakes. I’ll tell you about my mistake here so you don’t make the same one, but there are plenty of other mistakes out there for you to explore :). That’s why we’re building up a community of users to help each other.
I got a third cup of coffee for the day.
Act IV – Climactic Disaster
My misstep started when I noticed that the domain was not directing to the actual homepage, it was just giving me the most recent blog posts. Then I thought what all non-techies who are on a roll with tech stuff think, which is “I can figure this out on my own!” I proceeded to poke around and try to fix this by changing the Site URL on the Settings > General menu, which actually means I redirected the site’s directory. Bad move, bro. Suddenly, all the formatting was stripped out of my site, and I couldn’t log in or access any page but the homepage. I had put the site in an endless self-referential loop, like looking into a set of facing mirrors.
Undoing this, or even figuring out what the problem was, involved an hour-long detour through WordPress help forums across the internet. Eventually, magically, I discovered I could log into the PHPMyAdmin listing through my hosting service and replace the directory link with the correct address. Phew! I had made it through the Mines of Moria and out the other side. Then I found the true answer to my question, which (for some reason I don’t understand) involves going to Settings > Reading and changing your “Front page displays.”
Act IV – Denouement
Yes, I set up the site in 90 minutes. And then it took me another 90 minutes to totally break it and fix it again. I should be clear, though, that populating the content took much longer, because truly there’s always more content development to do. I didn’t try to import anything from our old site, I just copied and pasted by hand (we only had 20 or so pages). I spent a solid afternoon just uploading photos, rewriting pages, and adding previous Sunday services through the fantastic custom services plug-in.
Gee whiz, it’s amazing what we can do with technology these days! I hope my story helps inspire you to give the theme a try. If you feel comfortable working on websites, and want to get some practice in with that hammer, I believe you can do it too. Huge thanks to Chris Wulff, the developer who made this project happen, and thanks to all the work of my colleagues at the UUA, especially Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, who helped shepherd it through. Appreciation for the congregations who beta-tested the theme and provided supporting documentation last summer, the theme was made better by your efforts. And a big high-five to all the congregations who are already using the theme, your sites are fabulous!
I’ll post a link to the site here once our new Malden site goes live.
Carey McDonald is the UUA Director of Outreach, total data geek and trend-spotter, as seen in his presentation Future of Faith.