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Adventures of a UU Web Master

November 30, 2003


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Adventures of a UU Web Master

Ted Pack in a wizard's hat
(Ted's e-mail alias was "Wizard")
Good morning. I am your congregation's Web Master. It is an odd post; I can do all of the work from the comfort of my home. Back when Don Strachan was the mainstay of our Buildings and Grounds Committee, I used to tell him:
"Ha ha ha, Don, I can do my work for the church in my underwear."

I've always been hesitant to use that line with Jack Lackey, our current Buildings and Grounds mainstay, for fear he'd try to one-up me.

My talk this morning breaks into five sections:

  1. Why I'm giving the talk this morning
  2. How our web site got started, and how I got to be the web master
  3. What we try to accomplish with our web site
  4. How the web site works
  5. What I've learned by doing it

1) Why I'm giving the talk this morning.

This is the first time I've ever given a sermon. I narrated my Peace Corps slides once, but they don't count; a slide show is not the same as a sermon. Four weeks ago Phyllis Young told me the speakers scheduled for this Sunday had fallen through and the worship committee was at a loss. I volunteered to talk about my post. Several people have asked me about our web site, and I hoped some of you would be interested enough to interrupt your holiday weekend to come in.

My first concern was the service; how was I going to organize a whole service? It turns out we have a committee for this, the worship committee. Barbara Rouse volunteered to do the introductions, chalice, opening words, opening hymn, joys and concerns, middle hymn, closing words, closing hymn and announcements if I would come up with a sermon. Thank you, Barbara.

That still left the sermon. How long is a sermon, anyway? How would I know I had enough to say? More to the point for you all, how would I know when I had said enough? Lucky for me, we have a collection of sermons on the web site; three from guest speakers, ten from Reverend Grace. I opened them with Microsoft Word and asked it to count for me. Our guests average 3,193 words per sermon. Reverend Grace averages 2,418. I decided to take my lead from Reverend Grace. She is, after all, a professional.

2) How our web site got started.

Turning now to how our web site got started, I'm reminded of the saying - in the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king. I am not the most talented of all possible web masters. I'm proud to call myself a computer geek, but I'm a one-eyed geek in a congregation of non-geeks. We have a few more now, as our congregation has grown and old members have become computer literate, but in 1999, there was just one of me. There are better geeks out there; by the "eye" standard, some congregations have web masters who are two, three or even four-eyed geeks.

I've been a computer programmer for 30 years. The basics of HTML, the language we use in our web site, are not particularly complex, at least by my standards. Of course, things you are used to never seem complex. There are thousands of 8-year old children who speak French with a perfect accent, for example. They live in Paris.

As more and more people in our congregation got connected to the web, they realized we could probably use a site for our congregation. Like a lot of our volunteer positions, there wasn't a cut-throat competition for the post. How I got to be web master was a lot like how I got to be here this morning; there was a need, I realized I could probably do the job, and here I am.

Our site debuted on April 17, 1999. We started out with five pages in black text on a white background with no pictures. We now use warm brown text on a light parchment background. We have a fancy almond blossom graphic and we've grown to 56 pages. I cannot take credit for all of them. Delores Niemi sent me an electronic copy of our church history, which she wrote in the 1980's. Reverend Heyboer wrote the preface to the Adult Religious Education section, and the people who give courses contribute course descriptions. Debra Heins sends me the Sunday Service descriptions. Ellie Lopez sends me the children's topics. Reverend Grace contributes sermons on a regular basis. We have three pages of guest sermons. Several people have contributed photos. I take credit - or blame - for the rest.

3) What we try to accomplish.

What we try to accomplish with our web site, in one sentence, is invite guests to visit us in person. There are several levels of web sites for churches. At the very bottom, a one-page site with the name, address, a location map and meeting time. These are sometimes called "Yellow Page" sites, since they are just the electronic equivalent of a quarter-page ad in the telephone book. They are simple to maintain because they have no links and no time-critical content. Livermore, our closest neighbor to the west, used to be like that. At the other end of the scale, some churches have everything we do, plus virtual tours, recorded sermons for shut-ins and interactive calendars. They have password-protected areas for members only. These areas have membership directories, discussion groups and on- line newsletters.

Our site is towards the bottom of the scale. It has more than one page, and some of our pages do have timely information. We have a couple of pictures. Our site is not a dynamic, ever-changing panoply of delight for members and guests.

Our site is outer-directed. It is more for people who are not members than for members. One of the things we could do, had we world enough and time, would be to expand the member services.

4) How the web site works.

How the web site works won't be a mystery to some of you. A web site like ours is merely a set of pages, much like you can create with any text editor. Each page has words, pictures or both. Each page has one or more links. Links are words or pictures with magic behind them that tells your computer to bring up another page when you click on them. Our site lives down on 15th street, next to the A&W Root Beer stand, in bank of computers run by InVision. Their computers are linked to the World Wide Web and, unlike yours and mine, do not get turned off at night.

When I update our site, I change the page on my computer, then connect my computer to theirs and copy the pages to InVision. I change the Sunday services, Children's topics and news pages every two weeks. I change, add or delete others as the need arises.

We get ideas for our pages from all over. I looked at dozens of other UU web sites when we were planning our first draft. Members of our web committee suggest pages or sections. Members of our congregation have suggested pages or links. We're always open to suggestions, within limits.

As a side note, years ago a lady who no longer attends our fellowship told me she had some wonderful ideas for the children's program, but not to ask her to implement them because she could think up more ideas than four people could implement. I was amazed. How, oh how, did she come to be so dreadfully limited? Most UU's I know can think up more ideas than five people can implement - before our first cup of coffee, in our underwear. After that, the sky's the limit.

My own best idea involves making Jerusalem an international city, policed and governed by a neutral force. Hinduism, with its billions of Gods, is about as far as you can get from mono-theistic Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and you wouldn't want to fool around with second-rate soldiers, so I figure I could implement my idea with three brigades of Gurkhas. I should tell you I came up with this after two cups of French roast - and I was wearing my brown corduroy thinking pants.

Back to the web site, we have made some technical advances. Tracy Herbeck has set up a mailing list for us. I hope the "New Facility" section will have lots of pictures. But, given our time, budget and resources, we are not going to rival the UU church in Toronto on the web. So, if you make a suggestion, keep our limits in mind.

Some of our ideas flop; our "committees" section, for instance, languished for two years before I pulled the plug on it. Our Frequently Asked Questions page, on the other hand, was so popular that three other congregations copied it, completely or in part. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there are a lot of flatterers out there in cyber-space. We are one of them. Our home page looks a lot like Yahoo! did a couple of years ago. I got the chalice graphic on our "Beliefs" page as a gift from the church in Fresno. The parchment background was a swap for a frequently-asked question.

For the background on a web page, you give the computer a little square picture, which it 'tiles" - it puts as many of them on the viewer's screen as will fit. The ideal tile is designed so the edges of each square blend seamlessly with their neighbors. It is harder than it looks to get it right. A UU Web Mistress in Oregon liked my joke about the agnostic. I liked her background, and we swapped.

For those of you who haven't seen it, one of our FAQ lines is:

"Does your congregation have diverse beliefs?"

The answer says we have some mild differences of opinion, and mentions the fact we have members who were or are still Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, agnostic, atheist, Wiccan and Buddhist.

The next question on the page, triggered by that list, is:

How can an agnostic go to church?

And the answer is:

By private automobile, bicycle or on foot.

It does go on to say even agnostics believe in a deeper search for meaning and like potlucks.

5) What I've learned by doing it.

I think the two greatest things I've learned from this job are patience and humility. I, for instance, normally check my personal e-mail five times a day. I answer about half of my messages within 15 minutes of seeing them. Not everyone does that. I've learned to wait for people.

A minor triumph, before I get to the humility. I've learned that you can overcome vagueness, which I sometimes feel is our denomination's greatest sin. The web committee has been wonderful that way; they support me, sometimes by as much as six to two, in my one-man crusade against it. Our first frequently-asked question, for instance, is "What should I wear?" We tell the prospective visitor to "wear whatever makes you comfortable", the same as virtually all FAQ pages in our denomination, but then we add "If you are a gentleman who feels most comfortable when he looks like the rest of the guys, then navy blue Dockers, a white shirt and no tie will put you right in the middle of the crowd."

The committee let me add a section to our beliefs page. Years ago I was on the Religious Education committee of the UU church in San Francisco. A young man who was new to town stopped for a sermon, liked what he heard, and returned. Six weeks and six services later he still liked what he had heard and decided to do something to help. He had helped with the Sunday school program back home in Indiana, so he signed up to help for it there. It wasn't until we started laying out a lesson plan stating our beliefs for third and fourth graders that he realized we weren't exactly Christians. My section tells people that most of us believe in evolution, just under half of us believe in a supreme being, and very few of us believe in original sin, salvation by grace, or transubstantiation.

Humility comes next. I thought the web site was the most exciting thing we'd done in ten years. I showed it to my friends and relatives. We tried to tell the whole congregation we had made the leap to cyber-space. We put our web address in the Sunday program every Sunday. Bev Warren, who was the newsletter editor at the time, let me contribute in a paragraph titled "From the Web Master" in every other issue. After six months of this, members would still tell me "I didn't know we had a web site". Most of our members now know we have one, even if they don't use it.

About a year ago I put a counter on every page on our site. It was a humbling experience. The counter tells us how our last 100 visitors found us. I check it every once in a while.

OK, I lied. I check it every weekday on my 10 am coffee break. Obsessive-compulsive behavior is considered a virtue in my profession. It turns out 80% of our visitors don't want us at all. 60% are looking for a map of Modesto. We come up in the top five hits when someone searches for that. Another 20% are looking for news of Modesto. We come up in the top five hits for that argument, too. Our daily average goes up, sadly, every time the Laci Peterson case makes the front page.

A web site can be magnanimous and accommodating. Our map page has a link to MapQuest, for people looking for a map, and our News page has a link to the Modesto Bee. The map page has the line "We hope you find what you are looking for, be it spiritual fulfillment or a hardware store."

We get other visitors by mistake. My favorite was an anonymous person. I don't know her name, or even if she was a lady. All I know is what arguments she used in a search engine, but I think of her as "Daisy Mae at Redneck.com." Our children's page has the phrases:

"free child care",
"not all little league pitchers go on to the majors",
"even in 1833 our denomination didn't put much emphasis on memorizing the Bible"
"Links for kids"
"The glory of the infinite cosmos in full color".

She found all her words on our page, but what she was really looking for was:

"free pitchers from the bible for kids to color".

The other 20% of our visitors really are looking for us. They spend five or ten minutes, view three or more pages and sometimes show up on Sunday. I haven't made any converts out of people who found us by accident yet, but if someone starts out looking for a UU church in Stanislaus County, they can find us.

Not everyone in the congregation feels the way I do about the site. Not everyone in the congregation appreciates the web site; not everyone has even seen it. In that way I'm not any different from a lot of other people who work for the church. Jack Lackey and Victoria Caldwell work in the parts of the garden some people have never seen. Carol Lackey coordinates a circle dinner program some people never join. Ellie Lopez and Ted Huering run Religious Education programs some people never use. Rev. Grace must sigh every time a storm blows through on a Sunday morning, because she knows she's spent 10 to 15 hours on a sermon many people will never hear. It sounds trite, but you do have to focus on the good things and ignore the disheartening ones. I know it is a basic, simple site; it serves a purpose and it is the best I can make it. That is enough.

[Delivered 30 November 2003. Many things have changed since 2003. I'm no longer the web master, and the site has been completely redesigned. The Children's page and counter I mentioned are gone. Laci Peterson's body has been found and buried, and her husband Scott convicted of murder; she doesn't make the front page any more. Some of the people I mentioned have died, or retired, or changed jobs. When I was web master, I used to put a very brief personal fact about each of our guest speakers at the bottom of their talk. For myself, for this one, I wrote about myself in the third person:
When his daughters were younger they were in the Girl Scouts. Ted was an Assistant Troop Leader, which made him the only Girl Scout in the Muir Trail Council to have a beard and a tattoo.]

Read an Insider's list of the little things I do to make all of my web sites better, even though it takes more time.

This is one of a series of homilies I wrote for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County, in Modesto, California, from 2003 - 2014.

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This page updated: April 01, 2016