When I was a parish director of communications a few years ago and worked in diocesan communications before that, I recognized the importance of the weekly church bulletin. But that recognition comes with some caveats.
The National Catholic Register in its latest issue discusses bulletins and their ongoing relevance. This was brought home to me in my work in the parish. Apart from the homily, the bulletin is the number 1 communications tool in the Church. It’s the primary means by which most people know what’s going on in the Church, and especially their parish, but beyond it as well. Yes, social media and the the website are vitally important, but so is the bulletin.
But there’s an important point to be made here: What’s important isn’t the piece of paper. What’s important is the content.
What really matters is what the parish has to say. The bulletin, Facebook, Twitter, the web site, emails and texts are just the channels for saying it. Sure, the channels shape the form of the message, but the message is what’s important. Read More and Comment
I’ve been banging the drum for years now in work in Catholic social media (as have many others) that how we speak the Gospel is as important as what we say when speaking the Gospel. The Catholic Church is inherently a conservative organization and since the written word has been the privileged form of communication for, oh, since the dawn of civilization, new forms of communication have had a tough time getting traction in the Church. But if we want people to hear our message, we need to put it in a form they will hear.
Oh sure, the Church has used radio since Marconi and TV since Fulton Sheen. Pope Benedict XVI started a Twitter account and Pope Francis has expanded that to Instagram and YouTube. But the foundation is still primarily in the written text. Go to the Vatican web site and everything is words on a page.
Which isn’t to say that this is wrong. Few forms of communication are as immutable and enduring and authoritative as letters and books. But we must acknowledge that the content of the Christian faith was not something written from the beginning. Jesus did not hand out pamphlets. Instead, He conveyed truths by speaking them to individual and to crowds alike. At Mass, the priest doesn’t hand out the text of his homily. He preaches it from a pulpit.
At the most recent meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Ft. Lauterdale, there was a discussion surrounding yet another document on an important subject. Bishop Robert Barron reported on an effort by a group of bishops to encourage their brothers to consider a different way of delivering that message, a medium appropriate to the way the people they’re trying to reach will want to receive the message. Read More and Comment
Fr. Roderick Vonhogen is getting ready to record the 1,000th episode of his podcast series The Break and he’s asked people to record and send in some testimonials of how his work has affected them. Albert Little at the Cordial Catholic blog wrote out his:
remember being immediately drawn into the conversation and the life of the host of the show. He was dynamic, interesting, and insightful. He was obviously a geek, through and through, and didn’t have to fake a thing.
I listened for about a week before I made two utterly shocking realizations.
First, that this host was not an American. In fact, I learned, he was Dutch. (In fact his English is impeccable.)
But not only that, he was a Catholic priest!
I didn’t realize it at the time but then, as a university student, I was on the cusp of what would become a long journey into the Catholic Church and The Daily Breakfast (Ed: the original name for the show) would play a pivotal role.
There is definitely a role and a place for explicit preaching and teaching theology and dogma in the work of Jesus Christ, but there’s also an important role for being an interesting Christian, the sort of person who can show that following Christ doesn’t mean you become boring and closed off and uninterested in the world around you. That’s what Fr. Roderick does and I hope what we continue to try to do at SQPN.
In Jesus’ parable, the two men simply crossed the road and ignored the dying man. In today’s world, we do something worse. We give the impression of caring by endlessly talking and posting about the situation. But does anyone stop? Does anyone stop and touch the wounded, listen to their plight, or pick them up?
In our debates, we dehumanize our opponents, I think because we don’t see them face to face. And so we deny them the benefit of the doubt, while ignoring the real pain and woundedness they carry.
Late last year, I was happy to join the Starquest Production Network (SQPN) formally after I’d worked with them in various capacities over the years, and have been the executive director since November 2015.
I’d been a listener to Fr. Roderick’s podcasts from the beginning, catching his original “Catholic Insider” series as he tracked the last stages of St. John Paul’s life and the election of Pope Benedict. In 2010, and again in 2013, I was on the team from the Archdiocese of Boston that brought SQPN’s Catholic New Media Conference/Celebration to Boston and got to know the great people behind the microphones then and at the CNMCs in Kansas City, Dallas, and Atlanta. And then later I joined Fr. Roderick on the microphones for the Secrets of Star Wars and Secrets of Doctor Who podcasts.
Since I came on board, we’ve been working to re-orient the mission of SQPN, or more precisely to review where we are after 10 years and set our sights on the future. So much has changed in media since 2006 with the rise of social media, the explosion of video, the easy accessibility of streaming video, the creation of smartphones. So much is different and we need to make sure we’re adapting to the changing landscape, so that we can continue to explore the intersection of pop culture and faith in a fun and entertaining way.
One of our first initiatives was to tweak the format of the longtime podcast Catholic Weekend. CW’s download numbers had been slowly declining and the hosts and regular panelists felt like an injection of new ideas and a change of style would help. So we re-branded the show “Let’s Talk”, and now we bring together 3 or 4 people at a time to discuss one very focused topic for 30 minutes, while incorporating questions and comments from our audience into the show, whether live or given in advance.
Madison Avenue has discovered Pope Francis. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say Silicon Valley has. Vanity Fair chronicles the path being beaten between the Bay Area and the Vatican as a tech giants gain audiences with the Pontiff, from Google’s Erich Schmidt to Apple’s Tim Cook to Instagram’s Kevin Systrom. Now even Spotify is using Pope Francis in its latest series of TV ads. Part of the reason is obviously the Pope’s enormous public popularity. But part of it may be how he has raised the profile of Twitter by his presence there. When he joined Instagram in March, he broke the record for fastest to 1 million followers and undoubtedly brought in many new users.
Lest you think this is a one-sided relationship, with companies using all the good will surrounding the Pope for their marketing gain, the Pontiff is the first to tell you how much he gets from the Internet, which he once called a “gift from God.”
Thanks to my friend Angela, who linked to this interesting chart. It shows Google search trends over the past decade for the term “catholic church”. Notice the regular pattern of spikes, usually three, but sometimes two? Those correspond to Christmas, Ash Wednesday and Easter.
It tells us that around those three days Google searches for “catholic church” go through the roof. Now try this: Search Google for “catholic church” and the name of your town. How does your parish do? If your Catholic parish isn’t one of the first two or three entries you have some search engine optimization to do.
This article written by me was originally posted in June 2012 to the Pilot New Media blog. After leaving that position, Pilot New Media was folded and the website is now defunct. I am republishing here some of my content that remains relevant.
If we consider the Internet as a customer service medium, it provides a unique opportunity for priests, and especially pastors, to create meaningful relationships with parishioners. Rather than just another time sink, social media and websites can be a way for pastors to connect in a personal way in the midst of a busy world in which they are pulled in more directions than ever.
Let’s first explore what it means for the Internet to be a customer service medium, and then we can see how that connects with parish and priestly ministry.
Paul Ford writes in an essay on his website that The Web Is a Customer Service Medium, in which he contrasts the Internet as a medium against old media like print, radio, television, and movies. Ford says you can define a medium by the question it answers. Movies answer the question, “How can I entertain myself outside the house?” TV answers the question, “How do I enterain myself at home?” Radio: “How can I be entertained and informed while I’m doing something that keeps me otherwise busy?” Newspaper: “How can I find out what’s going on locally and in the world, at length?” Magazine: “The same, but in-depth and longer.” You get the idea. And each medium doesn’t have to answer only one question, of course. So what is the Internet’s question?
Ford claims that the Internet is the response to “Why wasn’t I consulted?” What he means by that is that the Internet allows real participation by the audience, not just after the fact as feedback, but as a true contribution to the creation of content. Ford spends a lot of time on how that takes form on various websites, but he concludes by saying that unlike the old media, the web is not a publishing medium; it is a customer service medium. He advises publishing companies, in particular, to throw out their old expectations and create a service experience around what they publish and sell. Passive readers become active members.
Whatever “customer service” means when it comes to books and authors, figure it out and do it. Do it in partnership with your readers. Turn your readers into members. Not visitors, not subscribers; you want members. And then don’t just consult them, but give them tools to consult amongst themselves. These things are cheap and easy now if you hire one or two smart people instead of a large consultancy. Define what the boundaries are in your community and punish transgressors without fear of losing a sale. Then, if your product is good, you’ll sell things.
So how does this apply to pastors and their parishes? Similar principles apply for parish websites and social media. Some pastors have said to me that they’ve spent a lot of time and sometimes money on a new website only to see it get very little traffic. Why? In many cases it’s because it doesn’t foster a conversation that builds community. Providing Mass times and downloadable copies of the bulletin will always provide some traffic and be a real service, but in order to see the parish website become a major part of your parish’s communications strategy, it has to provide a reason to come back and participate. Let parishioners, visitors, and seekers talk to one another in a forum related to your parish, building up that parish identity. Let them talk to you and give you much needed feedback while also helping you get buy-in from them on your priorities.
Likewise with social media. Often priests will wonder what they will say on Twitter or Facebook, especially when they have so much else to occupy their time. But that’s misunderstanding the medium, I think.
A pastor on social media should almost be listening more than talking. It’s nearly impossible for a pastor to get to know his people in 10 minutes after Mass, as he greets them in 30-second conversations on the way out of church, and that’s just the ones who stop to talk at all. But if he follows his parishioners on Twitter and Facebook and other social media during the week, he’ll learn more than he ever did before: Who’s having a baby? Who lost a job? Who’s struggling with questions of faith? What’s on the mind of people in his community? And that’s even without saying anything himself on the social networks. Imagine what he could learn when the conversation starts, a real dialogue begins.
If we were to compare social media to another activity that priests and pastors engage in, we could say social media is less like a homily than it is like confession. In a homily, the priest speaks at length about a topic that he thinks is current and relevant to the congregation. But in confession the good confessor does a lot of listening and then speaks to what the penitent is saying. Likewise, in ministry in social media, it’s important to listen more than talk. It’s not that the priest can’t write about what interest him and other topics. In fact, he should so that he’s a full participant in the medium. He needs to have an authentic voice in social media and not give the impression that he’s just there to listen in.
Of course, as I said before, some priests will respond legitimately they don’t have the time for all this social media following and tweeting and updating. But then pastors don’t have time for a lot of elements of evangelization in general because they’re spread so thin and they’re so busy with administration and sacraments. But that’s more a problem of priestly ministry in the 21st century in general than with social media in particular. However, a priest may get more bang for his buck with an investment of time in social media. After all, knocking on all those doors and making home visits is even more time consuming than reading and writing tweets and status updates. (Although that face-to-face interaction is in most cases to be preferred where possible.)
If a priest wants to find a means to engage in meaningful conversation and build relationships and community at a modest cost in time and attention, turning to the the “customer service medium” with an open mind and an open ear can pay big dividends.
It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway, that the investment would be wasted if the parish and priest did not promote the website and social media presences at every opportunity–in the bulletin, during Mass announcements, on signage, on letterhead, etc. ↩
This article written by me was originally posted in February 2013 to the Pilot New Media blog. After leaving that position, Pilot New Media was folded and the website is now defunct. I am republishing here some of my content that remains relevant. Given the even bigger record-breaking winter of 2015, this post becomes even more relevant now.
The record-breaking blizzard over the first weekend of February, 2013, showed how far we’ve come in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since the Blizzard of 1978 in terms of preparedness and response to major snow events. In 1978, people were stranded on highways and roads and it took weeks to clear them and return to normal. While the 2013 blizzard was significant and caused major disruptions, they were comparatively minor (which is small consolation to the hundreds of thousands who lost power, the hundreds on the coasts who were flooded out, or the handful who died, may they rest in peace.)
Part of the reason for the better result was the improvement in communications in the past 35 years, especially Internet communications through mobile devices that stay connected even in a power outage. Cities and towns had emergency response centers on Twitter and Facebook and the City of Boston even had a website that showed where all their plows were at any given time (until the site was overwhelmed with traffic and shut down.)
Churches, too, can and did take advantage of these communications tools. In fact, these tools–-Twitter/Facebook/Google+/email lists/web sites–-can be valuable in any kind of emergency or urgent response situation. For example, many parishes canceled their Saturday afternoon anticipatory Masses because of a just-expiring statewide ban on road travel or because the parking lots and walks weren’t plowed or because there was no heat or electricity. Just as many parishes did have their Masses for the few brave souls who ventured out. Many also canceled religious education on Sunday or other events over the weekend.
In the past, parishes would have to rely on the scrolling tickers or closing announcements in the news coverage on TV and radio, which didn’t allow for much detail at all. Or they’d have to answer dozens of phone calls to the office or rectory asking if Mass was cancelled.
But this time many parishes were able to post up-to-the-minute information on Facebook or Twitter and put notices on their websites. (Those using Our Sunday Visitor’s Faith in Action websites could use the announcements function.) Parishes with email lists were able to push their notifications to their parishioners who were checking their email. Those using a service like Flocknote.com were able to go one step further and send text messages to those who had signed up for them.
We’ve all become more connected than ever and when a major event unites us, we gather together on social media to share information and talk about it. It becomes water cooler, bulletin board, and news ticker all wrapped in one. If we want our pastoral ministries to receive the same amount of attention and if we want our information to get out to as many of our people as possible, we would do well to take advantage of these new and low-cost tools.