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.
This article written by me was originally posted in November 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.
One of the thorniest and most confusing topics when it comes to the use of new media by not just parishes and ministries, but everyone on the Internet, is copyright. What is copyright? How do I know what images, music, writing I can use on my website? If I find it on Google, does that make it fair game? If I’m not making money off of it, does that make a difference? The answer to the latter two questions is No, which surprises many people. This post should explain why.
Let us first stipulate that we’re not lawyers nor have we studied law and we are not offering legal advice of any kind. This post does not constitute endorsement by the Archdiocese of Boston or its associated organizations of any of the websites or pages we link or their explanations of copyright law. If you’re not sure what your legal rights are, please consult a lawyer. Parishes and ministries of the Archdiocese of Boston can contact the General Counsel’s office at 617–746–5672.
With that out of the way, let’s discuss some general information about copyright and copyright law. Since we’re most concerned with copyright in relation to websites, we’ll focus on photos, images, and written content.
What is copyright?
The current law governing copyright is in Title 17 of the United States Code, first passed in 1976 and amended many times since. It’s complex and long and suitable for lawyers. We’ll get in how copyright works in a second, but first let’s answer why we have it. Here is the brief explanation for why we have copyrights in the first place from a court ruling:
“the economic philosophy behind … copyrights is the conviction that encouragement of individual effort by personal gain is the best way to advance public welfare through the talents of authors” Mazer v. Stein, 347 U.S. 201 (1954)
In other words, the reason we have copyright is so that people will make new things and get paid for doing them. In Christian parlance, we would quote Christ in the Gospels and say “the worker is worthy of his wages” (Luke 10:7; Matthew 10:7). People are entitled to benefit from their work. The incentive to create new works comes from the guarantee that the creator will receive remuneration for his work and craft. In addition, just because you have a good purpose for that person’s copyrighted work or you’re a nonprofit or can’t afford it or because other people are already violating their copyright, you still don’t have the right to use it without their permission.
The copyright owner has exclusive rights to control his work, even if he chooses not to sell, but that those rights are not all-encompassing. There are exceptions to those exclusive rights as defined by the law.
One of those exceptions to the copyright owner’s exclusive rights is the concept of fair use. While there isn’t a concrete definition of fair use in the law, William T. McGrath provides some guidelines in his article Copyright Issues in Today’s Church:
“…[T]he statute provides as guidance some illustrative examples of types of use that might be fair (such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, and research)…”
“… [F]our “factors” that must be considered. These are: 1) the purpose and character of the use (i.e., is it commercial or nonprofit? is it transformative or is it very similar to the intended use of the original?), 2) the nature of the work, 3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used, and 4) the effect of the use on the market for or value of the copyrighted work.”
McGrath tells us that all four aspects must be considered. No single one is determinative, so for example that fact that you’re nonprofit doesn’t trump the other considerations.
Public domain isn’t really an exception, but it refers to all the material not under copyright. It could be the copyright expired and wasn’t renewed (or eligible for renewal), there was never a copyright on the material in the first place for whatever reason–such as some materials produced by the U.S. Government–or the material was released by the creator into the public domain and he explicitly refused any copyright.
Creative Commons is a relatively new approach to the use of original works online. Creative Commons encompasses all forms of copyright and public domain through various licenses that owners can place on their works. The licenses can be anything from public domain to attribution-only to noncommercial-only and several variants in between. The idea behind Creative Commons is that it takes into account the reality of the Internet-age and digital copying, allowing creators to make their works available for use but still giving them ownership and control over how the material is used, if they wish.
Ignorance is no defense
It’s also very important to keep in mind that ignorance of the copyright is not a defense according to copyright law and precedent. A plea of “I didn’t know” likely will fall on deaf ears in court. You also shouldn’t assume that no one will notice your use of the item on your website or Facebook page or in the bulletin PDF that you upload to your website each week. Copyright owners have new technology at their disposal that crawl the web relentlessly searching out examples of their work that are being used without their permission. The first time you’ll hear from them is when you receive a letter in the mail from their lawyer with a demand to take it down and to send them a check for your allegedly infringing use.
How do I know the copyright status?
The short answer is that in the absence of a clear copyright or public domain notice, the safest assumption is that it is under copyright. Otherwise, look for a notice right on the photo, in the caption, or somewhere on the page referring to the copyright. Sometimes the whole website will have a copyright notice on it. Keep in mind that the presence of a copyright notice is not required for someone to maintain or assert ownership.
Keep in mind that just because what’s depicted in the photograph is old, it doesn’t mean the copyright for the image is expired. For example, the courts have ruled that a photograph of a painting cannot be copyright because there is not enough originality in thought or expression. A photograph of a portion of the painting plus additional content (e.g. a room) can be copyrighted, unless it is a derivative work of an existing copyrighted work. See how confusing this can be?
The rule of thumb is that for anything made before 1900, copyright had probably expired. Between 1900 and 1978, copyright may have expired. After 1978, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.
Finally, certain pieces of fine art or even architecture are themselves copyrighted and thus any exact photographs of them cannot be used without the original owners’ permission. An example of that is the famed Flatiron Building in New York City.
Proper credit and attribution
There is no one correct way to provide proper credit and attribution for photos that you have permission to use, although if the owner of the work gives you text to use, you would do well to use that. Sometimes you can put the copyright notice right on the photo itself using an image editing program or you can put in a caption field or someplace on the page that makes a logical connection to the image. If the owner asks for a link to a website or page, then include that. And always provide the proper language for the license, whether it’s “Public domain”, “Used with permission”, “Creative Commons”, etc.
Where can I find images to use on my site?
All that said, there are sources for images on the Internet that won’t cost you an arm and a leg to buy the license for. Some are free and some have a nominal cost.
If you click on “Use this file on the web” next to the photo, Wikimedia will give you the HTML code you will need to either embed the photo on your site with proper credit and at a variety of sizes or, if you prefer to download the file and manipulate it and embed it yourself, the proper language (in HTML, optionally) for correct attribution. (Click on the image to see a larger screenshot of the Wikimedia page).
Flickr is a large community of photographers who post their photos online and includes everyone from parents taking snapshots to the Archdiocese of Boston to the office of the White House photographer to the Library of Congress archives. Flickr was one of the first major photo sites to incorporate the Creative Commons license into its service. To search for photos that you can use, sign up for a free account then enter your search in the search box and click the button. Now, on the next page, click on “Advanced Search”.
On the subsequent page, scroll down, click on the checkbox for “Only search within Creative Commons-licensed content” and click the “Search” button. The resulting images should all have Creative Commons licenses. You just need to pay attention to licenses to make sure that it gives the proper permissions.
The results of a Flickr seach can be uneven. Some photos are of low-quality. Some are obviously copyrighted works that others have posted in violation of that copyright. Use prudence and good judgment when using these photos, but you should be all right.
Pixabay is another resource for public domain photos and graphics. These tend to be more conceptual images rather than topical, so for instance, you’ll find general clip art when searching for “pope” but nothing when searching for “Pope Benedict”. (You’ll also see offers to for paid images from Shutterstock.com in your search results. We’ll discuss those services in a moment.) If you search for, say, “Advent” and find an image of candles and a wreath, you can then download the image and use it as you wish.
When you just can’t find the right image from all the free sources, sometimes you just need to turn to the professionals and pony up some cash. There are many commercials stock photo services available, some very expensive ones that cater to the professional publishing industry and others intended for those with a much lower budget. Here are a few that we’ve used at Pilot New Media that we’ve found useful:
In most cases, the photos you’ll get from these services are professionally shot. Most of these sites also provide stock music, sound effects, and/or video clips to use in various multimedia projects. Prices vary from $1 for a photo and up while a few also offer subscripton services. In general, you’ll only need these for very specific purposes, when you need that perfect image to illustrate a concept, perhaps for an event or a seasonal celebration.
A very specific kind of stock photo house is Art Resource. This company owns the rights to sell images of hundreds of thousands of pieces of fine art, including many famous masterpieces of Christian art, from . If you really must have, say, Caravaggio’s “Calling of St. Matthew”, you can license it, but it will cost you a pretty penny.
Finally, you could just hire a professional photographer or find a talented and willing volunteer in your parish to take photos, if what you need is photos from parish events or people in the parish or the like. A professional photographer can be a good choice if you need staff headshots for the website, for example, because they usually know not just how to shoot the photo, but how to make the people being photographed at ease so the shot comes out best. Just be sure to talk to the photographer about copyright and your usage rights. Remember, the photographer usually retains copyright unless you and he explicitly agree otherwise in advance.
What not to do
We’ve covered this a bit, but it bears repeating: Just because you find an image (or poem or other work) in a search engine doesn’t mean that you can just use it. It is likely still under copyright and even if it’s on a dozen different websites, unless you confirm otherwise, those websites either confirmed their right to use them with the owner, determined the photo was available for them to use, or they ignored their obligations under copyright rules.
Likewise, if something is labeled “royalty-free” it’s also not free for the taking. Royalty-free means that once you acquire the license to use the image (whether through purchase or permission), you won’t have to pay for each additional use.
Also “free clip art” doesn’t mean free. The images on clip-art CDs and clip-art websites are the property of their original owners and are often copyrighted, but the owners of the artwork have allowed it to be distributed freely. However, that art often comes with restrictions on use. For example, they may allow you to use them in your parish bulletin but not on your website. Be sure you understand any restrictions before using any image from them.
The Internet has given us access to professional-quality media to improve our websites and other communications like never before and at prices that are often in the reach of the tight budgets that Catholic ministries often work within. Yet, the ability to easily capture and copy digital media opens us up to the potiential to misuse that content like never before. We have not just a legal duty, but also a moral and ethical duty as Catholics involved in ministry to uphold those standards both to protect the Church from liability, but also as examples and role models for others.
There are many options available to us for inexpensive or free digital media that respect copyright. Are there any I’ve missed? Do you have questions about this area that we–as non-lawyers–might be able to answer?
There are a number of variants which you can read about here and here. ↩
A quick related tip: If you have trouble finding exactly what you want in Wikimedia, then do the same search in Wikipedia and click on the image found in the Wikipedia article. That’s what I had to do when searching for St. Francis de Sales for this post. ↩
One great resource on Flickr is the artwork of Fr. Stephen Cuyos, MSC, who produces graphics suitable for the liturgical season and made freely available for anyone to use. ↩
As we’ve said, it’s not just photos and artwork that are subject to copyright, but any creative work, including poems, news articles, books, recipes, and so on. Each has its own requirements and examples of fair use, which we don’t have the time to address right now. If you’re interested, please consult the general counsel’s office or an attorney, or Google “fair use” and the type of work involved. ↩
As I have mentioned before, I am the communications director for a collaborative of three Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston. Our name is the Matthew 13 Catholic Collaborative. My job includes finding ways to communicate effectively in all available media for both information, but also for evangelization.
Last Advent, I had the idea to send out postcards to everyone on the three parish’s databases with information about everything happening during Advent and Christmas, including the new Christmas Mass schedule this year. That was pretty successful so we did it again for this Lent. One of the pieces of information that we included was the special additional times for Confession as part of the seasonal The Light Is On For You initiative of the Archdiocese of Boston.
We’re in our third week of The Light Is On For You, which takes place on Wednesdays of Lent, from 6:30 to 8pm. We have had a steady flow of confessions and they have increased each week. The penitents have been telling the priests that its been 5, 10, 20 years since their last confession, and the priests have started to ask the penitents what prompted them to come now.
Almost universally they have reported that it was the postcards in the mail! Seeing it there in print as a soft invitation was enough to motivate many of them. Now if we add a few more invitations in a few different ways to a variety of occasions and we’ll really be cooking.
It’s not the end-all and be-all of evangelization, but this little direct mail effort is certainly bearing fruit.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add that the postcards were designed by Parishdesigner.com, a small firm that specializes in graphic design services for Catholic parishes and ministries at a very affordable price point. Definitely check them out. They have been awesome.
Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome is not a book first and foremost about social media or new media and definitely not a how-to manual for best practices in Catholic media. It is a survey of the Church’s teachings on social communications since Vatican II’s Inter Mirifica with an eye primarily toward how pastoral workers–ordained, religious, and lay–could be formed both to use media and to help others use it well. This is a theological and academic book (the author consistently refers to the book as “the study”) whose audience includes those who teach in seminaries and Catholic colleges and perhaps those in dioceses and parishes intent on training others to be Catholic communicators and/or literate media consumers.
If you want to understand a theology of communications, if you’re involved in preparing others for ministry, this is a good book for you. Walking through the various documents on social communications, starting with Inter Mirifica, then Communio et Progressio and then other works through the 80s and 90s and finally into the Internet era, we see the Church’s idea of the use of media for evangelization grow beyond specialized training for broadcast and print work into generalized ideas about media literacy and universal participation in the whole spectrum of social media.
If you want to understand a theology and history of Catholic social communications, Connected Toward Communion is a good resource. If you’re a professional or volunteer Catholic communicator at the national, diocesan or parish level, a good overview of the Church’s teachings and reflections on communications is helpful. Don’t get caught thinking that just because you focus today on web sites and social media that documents that predate them aren’t relevant. But if you’re looking for a book with practical tips and techniques, then you’ll want to also look at some of the other titles out there on the subject.
What if churches contracted with social media specialists who not only published tweets and Facebook posts for them, but engaged in dialogue with people online and analyzed the effectiveness of their social media efforts? The Boston Globe today profiles a small consultant business that provides that service to the restaurant industry and, in the meantime, provides some lessons for churches’ social media.
What Front Burner Social does is assist restaurants in connecting actual and potential customers on social media, extending crucial word-of-mouth marketing online. Most restaurants are staffed to the minimum necessary to serve food and don’t have a dedicated marketer on staff to send out tweets and post photos to Instagram, never mind have the expertise to provide ROI analysis. Such work can be vital to success, which is why some restaurants to an outside consultant to do the work of creating posts, measuring results, and finding the “voice” of the restaurant, creating a personality that customers can identify with. The article provide the example of a restaurant about to have a busted Saturday night because of an impending snowstorm. A few strategic tweets and suddenly the place is bustling with locals willing to walk through a little snow.
“The big mistake that most inexperienced marketers make in social media is to blast messages out into a digital void where no one is paying attention and no one cares,” said Boches.
Ain’t that the truth? It’s what most Catholic parishes do, mostly because they just don’t have the time or expertise for anything else. Social media becomes an extension of the bulletin, just sending links to print content on the website, occasionally linking to an interesting article online.
What parishes need is a communications strategy, which is in fact an evangelization strategy. That communications strategy would grow out of a pastoral plan for the parish, a plan for advancing the Gospel over a two or three year span. The strategy would map out messaging over the liturgical seasons, messages that all ministries would find ways to incorporate into their work. These would be campaigns complete with their own internal goals and clever tag lines and the rest. For instance, for Easter season, the campaign might be built around the idea “From the tomb to the Upper Room: Journeying with the Apostles from despair to missionary zeal.” That’s just off the top of my head, but you get the idea.
From that would grow the social media strategy, including both scheduled posts over a period of time as well as organic relationship building, and of course measurable goals. Those goals aren’t just numbers of followers, but clicks to the web site from social media, clicks from non-followers who clicked on re-shares and re-tweets, email addresses collected from followers onto mailing lists, responses to invitations to events, and so on.
If it sounds like I have a complete idea of what this looks like, I don’t yet. I’m still thinking of what this all involves. But one thing I’m realizing is that most parishes have neither the expertise on staff to do all this nor the funds to hire someone full time. There is an opportunity here for Catholic social media experts to step up their game, to learn from the best practices of industry as reflected in the linked article, and to offer their services to parishes.
Both restaurants and parishes have parallel goals. They want to reach out to both “regulars” and “newcomers” to keep the regulars connected, to entice the newcomers to try them out, and to help both become part of a community that grows to a critical mass with a buzz that brings in even more people.
I’m just scratching the surface here and would love to continue the conversation with others around this topic. In the meantime I need to start studying social media metrics and analytics.
Automation Is Great, But Nothing Tops The Human Touch
Rely On Reporters To Help Curate The News
Have Protocols In Place For Breaking News
Clarity Over Cleverness: Rethinking Headlines
Let’s start at the top. Certainly, Catholics should know as well as anyone that the human touch is paramount, given the Church’s constant refrain about the dignity of the individual person. But it’s also about the compassion and intelligence and insight that a person can bring that no algorithm can ever.
The example from the New York Times involves a function that autotweets headlines. In this case, the original headline “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Casualty Who Became A War Hero” was tweeted and then a human editor tweeted a link to the story again, but with a new text to accompany it: “He got kicked out of both Nirvana and Soundgarden. Then he became a war hero.” The latter got many more hits than the original because it was a much more human-friendly sentence.
The second lesson is to “rely on reporters to help curate the news”. Parishes don’t have reporters but they do have priests and lay ministers. The New York Times has an official Twitter account that acts as the official source for all the newspaper’s stories, but individual reporters and editors have their own Twitter account. Those individuals frequently break news or provide on-the-ground color that the main account can re-tweet. That helps the main account provide good content without linking to a story on the main site, while the invidual gets the exposure and cachet from the Time’s retweet to it’s large audience.
Parishes and dioceses could do likewise. For example, when the parish sends a group to World Youth Day, the main account can selectively retweet the best content from the youth minister leading the pilgrimage and even the pilgrims themselves. That way the parish gets the benefit of new, compelling content while being selective about what to share. (We don’t need every selfie that 16-year-old pilgrim took with girls from every country represented at WYD.) Like the newspaper, the parish gets to stand on the credibility of the individuals it’s retweeting.
The third lesson is to have protocols in place for breaking news because when something important is happening newspapers have competing needs to get information out fast, which is what Twitter is good for, while also ensuring that the information is correct. Parishes don’t always have breaking news, per se, but they do hsave critical information that needs to be disseminated both quickly and accurately. If there’s a snowstorm and there’s a change to the Mass schedule or religious education schedule or a dinner is postponed, that information has to get out, even if it’s after hours on a Saturday night. Whose job is to send out that information? Are they on call 24/7? If the director of religious ed calls the person responsible for the Twitter account to ask them to make an announcement, does the social media person need to clear a change in schedule with the pastor? Should they make sure other staff members are in the loop before the public is informed? If a parish has mutliple Twitter accounts (main account, pastor, youth minister, etc.), how do you ensure that everyone is disseminating the same information?
These are all questions that should be asked before it’s crunch time so they can be considered rationally and coolly and when all the participants can be asked for their input. Formulate a policy, make it known to staff, and then review it occasionally to make sure everyone knows what to do.
By the way, this is the place to point out that if you use scheduled social media updates, using a tool like Hootsuite, when something happens be ready to turn off the flow of auto-tweets. You don’t want happy, chirpy tweets to be posting from your account in the aftermath of a national tragedy. In April 2014, I was in charge of the social media accounts for the Archdiocese of Boston. When the Boston Marathon bombing occurred, it was a state holiday and I was at home with my family. As soon I saw the news, I got on Hootsuite and suspended all automated tweets. Then as news trickled in, I posted measured updates such as open-ended calls for prayer, and avoided using inflammatory language like terrorist attack until there were official confirmations of events. When you tweet from an organization’s account, you are its official voice, so be careful.
The fourth lesson is that the standard pun-riddled or stilted headlines that work in print don’t always work as tweets. Writing for the digital context isn’t just about figuring out how to write your message in 140 characters, but it’s also about providing clarity in whatever space you have. On Twitter, too much cleverness can result in misunderstandings, hurt feelings, or just disinterest in your tweet. Be clear, be clever to a point, but if you’re linking content, let the reader know as quickly and transparently as possible why they should click.
The final lesson is to repeat yourself. As they say in the article, even the most addicted Twitter user isn’t on 24/7 and if they’re following more than just a few people then their timeline is usually too crowded to go back and read everything since the last time they were on. Thus it can be useful to repeat tweets and to vary the times of day and days of the week you send them out. If you have a big event coming out in four weeks, post a link this Tuesday at 2:30pm, then again next Wednesday at 6pm, then the following Thursday at 9am, and so on. And be sure not to miss the weekends. You may not be working, but that’s when a lot of people have the time to read Twitter and when they may be thinking about church-related matters. That’s where scheduling tweets à la Hootsuite comes in.
Of course, that’s not an exhaustive course in how best to use Twitter in a Catholic context, but those are five good lessons that a very large and old media company can teach us. What other lessons should we take from them or from anywhere else for that matter? Please contribute your lessons either below or on social media links to this blog post.
There are a hundred blog posts and articles that want to tell you the best time to post your social media updates. What’s important is to do it when it’s the best time to reach your audience. That’s a topic for another blog post I think. ↩
I’ve been binge-watching the British version of the reality TV series “Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” on Netflix lately. It’s really a different beast from its American cousin with a lot less ginned-up situations and a little more gritty reality. It’s also a fascinating look into British culture surrounding food and eating out. But something that’s really stood out to me is how the problems that these failing restaurants face are similar to those faced by struggling parishes.
The premise of the show is that successful and famously foul-mouthed chef Gordon Ramsay is called in to a restaurant on the brink of shutting its doors forever, helping the owners to diagnose the problems and develop solutions. You realize after just a few shows that the common thread in all these situations is people who are blind to their own failings; who got into their bind not all at once, but over a long period of time; and yet are highly resistant to changes that might save them and their business. You also find that while Ramsay often finds awful food, poor service, and a lack of hygiene, those are usually just symptoms of the deeper problems which have nothing to do with food and everything to do with relationship problems or internal problems of the chef or owner.
In episode after episode, we see owners who think everything is fine when to an outsider’s eyes–whether Ramsay’s or a regular customer’s–they are clearly not. When asked to rate the food, they consistently give themselves high marks, but when Ramsay is served, it’s often barely edible. And it’s not like they don’t know they’re cooking for him! Likewise, the kitchens are often a dirty mess and the walk-in fridges and freezers are full of rotting food and are ground zero for cross-contamination. Yet it’s only after Ramsay points out the problems that they suddenly see it. I can sympathize. When things begin to slide, it’s easy not to notice. There are times when I step back to look at my home office, for example, and wonder how did it get to be such a mess. I just didn’t notice it happening.
Meanwhile, when Ramsay begins to make changes to the decor, to the service, to the menu, many owners and chefs balk at them. “We can’t alienate our customers,” they say. “These are popular dishes.” To which, I always want to respond, “What customers?” If those customers were so valuable then why is the restaurant so empty all the time? Maybe it’s time to find new customers. Maybe the old customers will like something new. Maybe the dishes will be better for those customers.
Think about the struggling parishes you may know. In my long experience I’ve seen a number of them and they all seem to share characteristics like these. Mass attendance is a tiny fraction of what it once was, but nobody seems to notice or act very concerned. The same small handful of people come to everything, volunteer for everything. The financial health of the parish is dependent on a shrinking pool of people who are being asked to carry more and more of the burden. The programs being offered by the parish, whether liturgical or formational or social, lack a sense of passion from those who prepare them. And the parish itself is showing evidence of a lack of passion or concern, whether it’s the decay of the physical plant or decay of the outward facing aspects like the parish web site or bulletin. A real attempt at evangelization of the community around it hasn’t occurred in ages, if ever.
In “nightmare parishes”, the pastoral ministers are happy to run the same programs over and over for the same small groups of people, regardless of whether they’re actually making a difference. and yet, when asked to evaluate themselves or their parish, you hear lots of happy talk. We have X number of programs and Y group did that, and we have raised Z dollars. Sure, but have you made any disciples of Christ? Not just baptized kids and run them through the sacraments of initiation, but created disciples who have a personal and intentional relationship with God, seeking to do His will and establish His Kingdom? This isn’t limited to parishes either. I’ve seen this at every level: happy talk about program after program from people who rarely leave their offices.
But it wasn’t always this way. In the restaurants, Ramsay always tries to find the spark from the owners and chefs that got them involved in the restaurant in the first place, the passion that drove them to take on something as monumental and all-encompassing as a career in the food service industry. Likewise, priests and lay ministers alike entered into ministry out of a sense of passion for the Lord; they certainly didn’t do it for the pay! But somewhere along the way, they got waylaid or had it ground out of them or pressed out by bureaucracy or limited success or the demands of a need that surpasses their ability to supply what is necessary.
So what do we do? Ramsay’s formula is essentially the same from restaurant to restaurant: Simplify, get back to basics, start something new, stay within your abilities, get back to what you’re passionate about. It’s the same with parishes.
Let’s get back to basics. We need to evangelize. That’s our first priority.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19–20a)
Evangelize your neighborhoods, bring the Gospel to the people, show them the beauty of Christ. Energize the parishioners you have left. Priests, rediscover your passion for preaching, for teaching. Laity, rediscover your passion for gathering together in a community of joy and faith and hope. Don’t settle for mediocrity, for good enough. Become intentional disciples of Christ, ones who actively seek out the Lord’s will for them, rather than accidental disciples, who are Catholic because our parents baptized us or we feel a sense of obligation.
Husbands and wives: Is it enough to be passionate, to be fully in love with your spouse for one hour a week? Then how can it be enough to be passionate, to be fully in love with God for one hour a week? How can you make God the center of your life? How can you make your parish the center of your family’s, your community’s life? Because if you do, then others will see it and find it attractive. The best marketing plan is happy customers. The best evangelization plan is engaged and faithful parishioners.
Of course, all analogies limp and this one does too. For one thing, a restaurant or any business for that matter can decide that it no longer wishes to serve a particular segment of the population. Or they may decide to completely switch their product offerings. In high-tech, this is called a pivot. Parishes can’t “pivot”. They can’t stop offering orthodox Catholicism. They can’t decide to stop serving the people in their parish because most parishes (apart from a few specialized parishes designed to serve groups with special needs like immigrants from a certain nation) have a mission to all people within a particular area.
But the larger point remains. We need to break out of the complacency and blindness which hampers the success of the Gospel. We need to rediscover our passion and re-light it in our brethren. We need to evangelize our communities. Gordon Ramsay won’t be showing up to give us a kick in the behind, take our blinders off, and show us the way. Instead we have the Holy Spirit to do it. We just need to start praying for His help and be open to the way He points us to.
To be clear, not even just to all the Catholics in the area, but everyone. That too is part of the Great Commission of Matthew 28. ↩
Because of my work in new media for the Church, especially as I have advised parishes in the past on various tech tools to use, I sometimes get asked by developers who wish to put their skills at the service of the Kingdom of God what kind of technology solutions parishes need. I’m afraid that they might be hoping for something cool like a new Confession app for the phone or some new Catholic social network. Unfortunately, parishes’ needs tend toward the more prosaic. On the other hand, these are the sorts of things thousands of parishes might be interested in buying from you.
If you are a developer, here’s what I think parishes need most: an online event/project registration and payment system. They need an easy way to sign up and track children for religious education programs and to allow parents to pay for it online or in person, using check or cash or credit card. Parishes need an event system that lets them run, say, a parish trip, to sign up people easily, receive their payments, and communicate with them effectively. A system that would be flexible enough to accept payment on a smartphone or tablet in the nave of the church after Mass for tickets for a parish dinner and to have a page on the parish website where people can do that same.
So what’s the business model? Well, you could sell your product with a service plan model or you could sell monthly or yearly subscriptions to it, but what if instead you gave it away and took a small bit of each transaction? Taking religious education alone, in the US in 2013, there were more than 3 million children in non-parochial school religious education. A piece of every one of those transactions is a pretty good business. Then add in all the other event and ministry registrations.
Heck, throw in online giving for good measure. And do a combination of a low-cost subscription and per-transaction fee.
Yes, there are registration and payment systems out there. A parish with a halfway talented techie could cobble together a simple registration form on the parish website with a Paypal account. But that’s exactly what it would be: a cobbled-together solution that relies on the person who made it to maintain and whose user experience would probably be so bad that no one would use it.
To be frank, I’m tired of half-assed Catholic tech solutions. I want to see the kind of care and attention put toward software and hardware aimed at the Catholic market as I see coming from Apple and the best Apple developers. Some are already there now. The latest stuff coming from eCatholic is pretty impressive. Little iApps started the trend with their awesome iPhone apps. I’ve had private demonstrations of other software that show a lot of promise too.
So, developers, there’s your answer. Event and organization relationship management isn’t sexy, but it’s needed. So who’s willing to step up?
For Bl. John Paul II, the phrase was “culture of life.” For Pope Benedict XVI, it was “dictatorship of relativism.” But for Pope Francis, the phrase that might just sum up his papacy is “culture of encounter.” That’s the keyphrase we find in his first Message for World Communications Day, which is entitled “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter.”
A culture of encounter is one in which we seek opportunities to fulfill the question of the scribe in Luke 10:29, “Who is my neighbor?” What can we do to be Christ to our neighbor? In the context of the World Day of Communications, the Holy Father considers how the various kinds of communications can aid in this “neighborliness”. As in previous messages by his predeccesors, the Holy Father says modern media, including social media, can be both good and bad, with promise and drawbacks.
Among the drawbacks is the speed with which information spreads and how little time is afforded for people to stop, consider, and think before they’re bombarded by the next bit of information. We see that in the reactions to the various messages and interviews of the Holy Father, how quickly the long knives have come out and the doubters have attacked. He also notes that the vast variety of opinions and sources of information, while democratizing communications, can also lead to confirmation bias.
“The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests.”
So how are we to respond in the face of these pitfalls? With deliberateness and calm, time and silence, listening and patience. “People only express themselves fully when they are not merely tolerated, but know that they are truly accepted.” How often have I been in a conversation with someone else, barely listening to what they’re saying because I’m already formulating my response, waiting for them to pause so I can launch my next salvo? Is that communication that honors the root of the word: communion, community, fellowship, sharing in common? Or is it merely debating in order to win?
A Culture of Encounter
Instead, in a communication at the service of a culture of encounter, we listen, we are attentive to the other, we want to know the other, we are interested in the other as a person. Pope Francis offers the Parable of the Good Samaritan as an example of this kind of communication.
Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours. The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him. Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other.
Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression like that suffered by the man in the parable, who was beaten by robbers and left abandoned on the road. The Levite and the priest do not regard him as a neighbour, but as a stranger to be kept at a distance. In those days, it was rules of ritual purity which conditioned their response. Nowadays there is a danger that certain media so condition our responses that we fail to see our real neighbour.
He goes on to warn us that it’s not enough for us to be connected to others online, to be Facebook friends, Twitter followers, to be in the each other’s Google+ circles. Connection is not an authentic encounter unless it grows into an exchange of selves. “We need to love and be loved.”
This is what I was saying, albeit in a poorer form, in my recent blog post “Catholic social media isn’t really media at all”. The important part of the term “social media” is “social” because what’s important in Catholic social media is the relationship among persons.
The Christian faith isn’t mere content. It isn’t even just the message, the deposit of faith. If that were so, all we’d need is a book and we could go off alone into our room to be Christian.
The essence of the Christian faith is relationship, a relationship with God in Three Persons and a relationship with our brothers and sisters in the world. We must know our faith, yes, but we must live our faith and share it too. But for those relationships to work, they must be reciprocal. There must be a willingness to speak and to listen on both sides.
All media must be at the service of bringing people together in relationship.
The Holy Father also continues his teaching on the need for the Church to be present in the streets, not just simply as a megaphone for Christian messages, but by entering into a conversation that addresses people’s concerns, their questions, and their lives.
One line that is sure to cause some consternation involves the importance of dialogue.
To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.
The Holy Father is not rejecting the reality of objective truth, nor is he saying that Catholic doctrine is any way negotiable. He is simply acknowledging the long-held understanding that truth subsists in its fullness in the Catholic Church, but that elements of the truth can be found in many places. For instance, perhaps there is value in considering a way of prayer or a form of evangelization or even the reverence for Scripture found in certain Christian churches and ecclesial communities.
In the end, the Holy Father calls us to a kind of presence in the media that we know we should be providing: “Let our communication be a balm which relieves pain and a fine wine which gladdens hearts.” It’s left for us to consider whether our communications online and in other media do just that.
It’s somewhat gratifying to see that the Holy Father also references the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus as an analogy of the kind of relationship we must have with people we encounter as we share our faith, which is what I did in my post. It confirms that I’m on the right track. ↩
Preface: I have been remiss. I should have written and posted this months ago, but such is the state of things. Hopefully, it will inspire some latecomers to pick up the book themselves.
I’ve been listening to Fr. Roderick Vonhögen’s podcasts for more than eight years now, since his first recordings from St. Peter’s Square as Pope Bl. John Paul II lay dying in April 2005. Since then I’ve seen him start the Star Quest Production Network (SQPN), a network of Catholic podcasters; branch out into videos; become a nationally broadcaster in his own country of the Netherlands; and lately began working closely with him on the Catholic New Media Conference when we held it in Boston last year and started co-hosting a podcast with him about Star Wars.
In all that time, I’ve been struck by how very similar we are, almost like brothers from different countries. We were born just six months apart in 1968 and so we experience much of the same pop culture phenomena. We both became huge Star Wars fans in 1977, read the same science fiction and fantasy novels, watched the same scifi TV shows, and basically trod similar paths. Even our faith lives were remarkably similar, our Catholic faith blossoming around the same time in our teens. While Fr. Roderick’s vocational call took him to the priesthood, mine obviously went in the other direction.
But Fr. Roderick doesn’t just tell you his life story in the book or how he came to become one of the foremost authorities on Catholic use of new media in the world. He also includes some handy lessons we can learn about how to use new media in the Catholic context that he draws some the major themes in his life.
His Star Wars fandom–which led him to become one of the foremost Star Wars bloggers on the Internet– taught him lessons on finding common ground with people of all kinds; the importance of doing something based on what you’re passionate about; and more. He relates superhero comics and movies to the communion of saints and their origin stories and secret identities to his own quest to find his God-given vocation and then figuring out how to tell family and friends.
Similar stories and lessons emerge from Disney movies and vacations; his fitness and health regimen; going back to school at a pontifical university in Rome for a graduate degree in communications; using the popularity of Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and even Dan Brown to connect with people from a Catholic perspective; and seven things he’s already learned from Pope Francis.
“Geekpriest” is an engaging and quick read and Fr. Roderick is a wonderful storyteller. This book is for any Christian who wants to connect with people in social media, to bring a “soul to the internet”, as Pope Benedict said, not by giving people the hard sell, but through connecting with them on a personal level about what they already love.
If you want to reach an audience, you have to make sure your message is relevant to them and corresponds to what they are searching for. If you want to pass on information about your faith, which, in itself, might not appeal to the people you try to reach, you need to wrap it in an attractive package.
This has been Father’s winning formula for evangelization. Don’t try to force the Gospel on them. Instead, find out what they love; talk about it with them with genuine enthusiasm; find the truth and beauty in what they love; show them how that truth and beauty connects with the Infinite and Divine Truth and Beauty.
Pop culture, social media, and the media-saturated world we live in doesn’t have to the enemy of the Christian life. It can be made to be a tool to serve it.