If your church website doesn’t work, you’ve obviously gotta fix it…
…but have you ever seen a faith-based organization or church use the same templates year after year — not only for websites, but for the bulletin, administrative documents, and even internal processes within parish groups, programs and event planning? Have you noticed that, even though some improvements are needed, no change is made because “we’ve always done it that way,” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?
My experience working with dozens of Catholic organizations has informed the following opinion: Many people working in Church circles want to see improvements in communication, participation, and loyalty, but few people challenge themselves to improve an existing item, process, or structure.
Maybe Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations isn’t a perfect teaching text for these situations, but I’ve had many conversations with Catholics who are also frustrated about this phenomenon, and our conversations often include this point: Within ministry environments, the lack of perceived 1.) personal gain, or 2.) competition, tends to lead to…
little to no discussion about current pro’s and con’s
little to no consultation of professionals or leaders from outside the community
little to no research of other parishes / apostolates for inspiration and ideas
The general exceptions to these trends are capitol campaigns and major fundraisers. Why? There is obvious financial gain on the line and clear competition for that gain.
“Competition” may have negative connotations — including ill will toward one’s competitor, an unhealthy desperation, dishonest / immoral conduct, etc. — but Saint Paul taught that we should live our faith with such dedication, that we “run so as to win” (1 Cor. 9:24).
How could we settle, then, for “the way it’s always been done,” or “we’re getting by”?
We shouldn’t; it’s downright unbiblical.
Imagine my twenty-year-old self, nervously sitting across from the Creative Partner at an advertising agency near downtown San Antonio. I’d applied for an internship with nearly every agency in town, and this one had been the first to respond.
After a few questions about my personal background and experience, I started to relax. Then, my interviewer asked me, “Who are some artists, graphic designers, or ad agencies that inspire you?”
My brain went blank. Stunned silence.
I’d been trapped in a bubble. Mostly self-taught and primarily interested in Catholic communications, I had never researched commercial marketing, influential graphic designers, or branding campaigns.
Although I was accepted, one of the first lessons my mentor taught me was the importance of researching other successful professionals and projects. I was tasked with creating a competitor analysis chart, comparing our advertising firm to others in our area and the nation.
Dear fellow Catholic communicators, most of us live in a ministry bubble. Most of the people you work with are probably fans of yours, and praise most of what you do — especially if you’re the only graphic designer / desktop publishing pro / video editor / photographer / webmaster / etc., in your organization.
You are in a dangerous situation. Your ministry bubble is contributing to your own high opinion of your work. You aren’t challenging yourself enough. You aren’t comparing your work to other churches’ projects. You aren’t comparing it to what church-goers see in their ‘normal lives’ (at the office, at the mall, on TV, online). Your skill set is falling behind the times, because your technology is ancient, and you’re smugly dealing with it. You have no one to challenge you.
We must rise to a higher level. Here are 5 ways I challenge myself to aim higher:
Subscribe to news websites, blogs, or online journals in your field (outside of faith-based circles). Read them. Find webinars in your field (outside of faith-based circles). Take them. Learn from lectures & podcasts in your field (outside of faith-based circles). Get the picture? Learn from people who are competing to be the best at what you do.
Do you know the science behind color? Did you know that certain colors have certain effects on the human brain? Did you know that there are lots of free resources for color education, inspiration and usage?
You will become a more effective communicator when you know how to properly put color to use. Check out the following links, and let me know what resources you have to share!
By the way, my favorite color is RED. What’s yours? - Angela
The parish began preparing a strategic plan to boost stewardship (generous giving of time, talent, and treasure among parishioners), and the staff needed some way to develop greater understanding of ‘stewardship’.
Max recalls their dilemma: “Stewardship is often poorly understood in a consumer society, so (the parish) needed to convey a clear message to our parishioners through a series of articles, reflections, events and homilies.” He suggested making better use of the parish bulletin.
“What made the bulletin particularly relevant to the stewardship message was its recurring nature,” he says. “We knew that becoming stewards would take time, and incremental steps would be achieved, so we needed a recurring outlet that could accompany that transition.
“Even though parishioners cannot always attend Mass, all registered parishioners receive the bulletin by email. If they read it, (the bulletin) would help build a continuous momentum” toward strengthening stewardship, Max explains.
Exercising his own stewardship muscles, Max offered his marketing expertise to improve the bulletin.
Here’s how he did it:
1. Get Parishioners to Take the Bulletin Home
“The first challenge, as one pastor recently put it,” Max explains, “was to add some curb appeal to the publication.” He switched from the original Microsoft Publisher platform to Adobe Creative Suite, added photos of parish life, and infographics.
Adding Curb Appeal: January “call to stewardship” bulletin cover is an actual word game!
2. Make the Content Relevant
“Beyond the regular stream of announcements from the ministries, other parishes and the Archdiocese of Newark,” says Max, “we started creating contents internally and sourcing relevant materials.”
For example: Parish staff members with theological training contribute interesting articles about topics of faith, book reviews, or Scripture reflections. The parish pastor reviews the content, and contributes his own column.
This weekend’s Gospel reflection (Peter as Rock) becomes more relevant when framed in a modern-day situation (hiring / job application) and more interesting with a headline, 3 columns, bullet points:
3. Engage Parishioners in Stewardship Goals
A. Use the bulletin to explain and expand on stewardship in general, and stewardship initiatives in particular
B. Provide regular updates on how those initiatives are being implemented; facilitating regular transparency and accountability
When the parish needed to begin a construction project, it launched the fundraising campaign with a video. During the following months, the bulletin featured explanations of the new space, the architectural plans, the funding progress, etc.
Max says these bulletin items were key to building stewardship: “By reporting in detail and regularly on this project, parishioners felt involved, and many got involved financially or through their technical expertise. Then we could report on the electrical setup, fire alarms, painting, furnishing, the well-attended inauguration and then on how we were using it.
“That’s transparent reporting to the stakeholders, and I think that providing a regular, almost systematic forum for that accountability is a very valuable asset of the bulletin.”
Weekly bulletins also include a financial stewardship infographic:
End Goal: Building Up the Parish toward Evangelization
Today, Max is Director of Marketing and Communications at his parish. For him, stewardship is not an end, but a means to the ultimate end:
“One of the biggest challenges of stewardship,” he observes, “is to make parishioners own the parish, but if they feel it is their parish, then they get engaged, and stewardship happens. The bulletin provides that recurring window of visibility, accountability and call to responsibility, and that’s how the parish gets strengthened.
“Now that our bulletin is read, we have a more effective channel to support our mission and stewardship. Often, parishioners pick up a few copies of the bulletin to share with friends, which helps us evangelize.”
There you have it: Invest in your bulletin, engage your parishioners, build up your parish, and your parish can become a stronger source of evangelization.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on parish bulletins! Has there been a particular “part” in the series that you felt was most beneficial to you? Please let me know in the comments, or on Facebook.com/InspiredAngela. I’m always open to hearing what inspires you!
Many thanks to all the personnel at the various featured parishes who so generously shared their knowledge and experience; you made this series inspiring. – Angela
I was so impressed by Eden Prarie’s Pax Christi parish communications staffer-extraordinaire, that this week’s post is devoted entirely to her professional approach to parish communications — and how your parish or ministry can benefit!
Melissa Nault is the Communications Specialist for Pax Christi, and that title is fitting: 20+ years in graphic design, and 10+ years with the parish. Her responsibility is to provide creative services for the parish: “Logo design, posters, flyers, books, ads, ….you name it,” she says.
Having also worked within the corporate communications and advertising environments, I can immediately recognize a pro like Melissa, because she won’t settle for ‘just OK’.
She told me right off the bat, “Every two years, I like to redesign the website and bulletin to keep it fresh.” That’s someone who holds herself to high standards.
Speaking of standards, Melissa has applied her knowledge and experience to her parish’s creative needs. “I come from the corporate world, so I bring with it ‘guidelines.'”
She has devised procedures and documents that allow her to provide the best creative services possible, amidst a growing and varied workload.
The best part? She’s sharing some of these tools with you!
A Parish Creative Staffer’s Toolbox
Melissa’s typical workflow begins with a parish event: “For each event, I require staff to complete a marketing event form. This gets the ball rolling leading to info for the weekly eNEWS, slide announcements at Mass, announcements on flat screen monitors around our building, social media, web/online registration, etc.”
For particular pieces, such as a worship aid, sign or poster, the responsible party will submit a Creative Services Request Form to Melissa. This handy document allows the parish ministry or leader to indicate exactly what Melissa needs to know about the desired piece.
What’s my favorite tool that Melissa is sharing with us today? Hands down: the Parish Communications & Style Guide. If you’re unfamiliar with style guides, I highly recommend reading this piece by Cameron Chapman. Style guides are standard procedure in any brand’s marketing materials, but I have (unfortunately) never seen one for a Catholic parish!
Since today’s blog post is, in fact, part of an Inspiring Parish Bulletins series, check out pages 16-18 of the Style Guide regarding the bulletin. (There’s even an instruction to use the Oxford comma! Bravo.)
Finally, get an overall ‘Big Picture’ view of Melissa’s projects and how they begin by browsing her simple Job Flow Chart. This is something any parish can create, and will help define an individual staff member’s responsibilities — thus reducing that classic parish dance move, “Stepping On Each Other’s Toes”.
Lest anyone dismiss Pax Christi’s emphasis on professional standards as unfitting for a parish (ie. Parishes don’t sell products! What is marketing procedure doing in a parish office??)… let’s consider the general state of parish communications. I can’t be the only Catholic who has volunteered or worked behind-the-scenes and has seen any of the following:
Confusion due to a vague or poorly-written bulletin announcement
Poor event attendance due to lack of planning and (appealing) promotional efforts
Ill-will generated between parish volunteers because Guy Who Volunteered to Make the Posters forgot a detail
Wasted staff / volunteer energy, time, and resources because one or both parties involved in a project made assumptions about what was needed
These are just a few scenarios; I’m sure you have your own! The point is: When parishes lack boundaries, guidelines, or procedures for communication projects — whether the weekly bulletin or Facebook page — there exists a higher risk of disappointment, confusion, frustration, stress, and wasted resources.
Melissa’s tools empower both the parish communications staff member and the individual parish ministry leader (etc.), because these tools allow both parties to communicate clearly with one another, and put both their sets of talents to proper use. Many thanks to Melissa for so generously sharing her ‘toolbox’ with us!
NEXT WEEK: Look forward to some insights on the bulletin, communications and stewardship, from Max Colas — Director of Marketing and Communications for Sts. Peter and Paul parish in Hoboken, NJ.
I’m so excited to share these stories with you. Please share your thoughts — I’d love to hear from you! - Angela
I’m following up on last week’s Inspiring Parish Bulletins post, because there is SO much more to discover about these bulletins and parishes! We’ll see that parishes with beautiful bulletins don’t just have great bulletins.
All of the bulletins featured last week were designed by persons with some combination of…
Let’s “zoom in” our view from macro to micro.
Function AND Form
Patti Wienclaw, Coordinator of Communications for St. James in Novi, Michigan, explains the common problem with bulletins: “I know a lot of parishioners will either walk past the bulletins completely, or grab one and then never read it.”
After seven years working professionally in advertising as a graphic designer, Patti opted to put her gifts to work for the Church. “I’m a practicing and serious minded Catholic and quite honestly didn’t like the high pressure world of ad agencies.”
Once hired for the parish, she set out to re-design the bulletin. “The parish is very active and the bulletin was FULL of great information, but wasn’t arranged the most effective way, and used a lot of 90’s clip art. I tried to arrange it in a way that was easy for parishioners to find the information they were looking for.”
With improved functional capability, Patti applied her advertising savvy to add interest to the bulletin’s appeal. “My hope was that by adding pictures and flair throughout the bulletin, it might encourage more readers. I try to incorporate scripture passages from that week’s gospel, as well as images that go along with it.”
Patti’s professional experience had also formed her “design conscience”; the bulletin wouldn’t be her only re-design. St. James needed a cohesive visual identity. She went about making the parish website more functional and beautiful.
Says Patti: “I love being able to put my education and experience to work for the Church!”
Pair Your Bulletin with a Strong Website
Each of the parishes featured in last week’s post also has an attractive, helpful website. On last week’s blog, one commenter asked how the bulletin enhances the parish website, or vice versa.
Many parishes create digital versions of their bulletin for easier browsing online, such as St. Benedict in Phoenix, Arizona. However, you may be surprised to learn that their online bulletin came first!
Tyler Bartlett, Music Coordinator of St. Benedict, is a graphic technology student at Arizona State University — making him the ‘go-to creative’ staff member. He explains the parish’s recent brand identity re-vamp: “We have a very small but very dedicated team at St. Benedict that has embraced technology in all areas of our parish office life. We redesigned our website last summer and have spent the past year moving our content there and making it a valuable resource to our parishioners.”
Let’s look at this story “Before” and “After”… (like one of those makeover shows!)
Tyler paints a picture of where St. Benedict was before the redesign:
“Communication was primarily distributed through the use of a paper bulletin, targeted email blasts (Constant Contact), announcements after liturgy, and slides shown on projectors in the Worship Space prior to mass. We had an active Facebook page and website, but they were not being utilized to their full potential.
“Following a complete redesign of our logo and website last summer, we began to examine our modes of communication and looks for ways to improve.” He makes a keen observation: All of the parish ministries would submit bulletin blurbs separately, resulting in a variety of different authors’ “voices” rather than a cohesive, unified, “parish voice”. St. Benedict remedied this with their Online Bulletin. “With the Online Bulletin, the head of any ministry — or the leader of any event — can submit a post, which then goes into an pending state until it is approved to be published. Once published, the editor of each (parish) communication mode can refer to the Online Bulletin for articles their readers may find useful.”
Tyler says one of the greatest benefits to an Online Bulletin is searchable content. “Keeping an updated PDF of our paper bulletin on our website is helpful, but locating a specific new item is cumbersome and tedious. By converting all articles into posts, all of our content is now searchable and available at our parishioners fingertips.” (Not to mention the search engine optimization boost.)
The Online Bulletin also encourages interactivity with the content; social media buttons are embedded on each article, allowing parishioners to “Like” or “Share”.
“Similarly,” Tyler notes, “the person in charge of our Facebook page can now link directly to the source of the announcement they are posting about. We have seen great turn out in announcements where action is required to be taken, such as sign ups. […] We can embed registration forms, payment modules, RSVP forms, and up-to-the minute updates into posts for our readers.”
This user-friendly approach carries into a real-life, after-Mass application: “We have even gone as far as making iPads available at designated places after Mass for folks to sign up for various things. Of course, we provide a short and descriptive link (such as stbenedict.org/rsvp) that can be accessed at home, in the car ride, or by clicking a link in our email blasts.”
Wanting a professional, single visual identity, the parish decided to re-design the paper bulletin to “reflect the style and aesthetic of our online bulletin,” says Tyler.
Fascinating, isn’t it?
Your parish may consider following a similar process: After having the website re-designed, ask a local design student to re-configure your paper bulletin in harmony with it. This will set visual parameters for your bulletin designer, upon which everyone has already agreed, so you’ll have (hopefully!) less stress and used resources during the project.
User-Friendly Means Mobile-Friendly
When it comes to serving his flock online, Father Ryan Humphries — rector of the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Natchitoches, LA — doesn’t mess around. One-fourth of his parish website visitors view the site on a mobile device. “Of them, it’s two-thirds iOS, one-third Android. That’s really tough to design to directly,” he explains, “because the screen sizes and the browsers change device to device. So can layout — portrait or landscape.”
What’s a parish to do? Use responsive web design; cater to all screen sizes at once. “It’s easily in the top three priorities on any one page of the site,” he says.
As he set out to re-design the website, Fr. Ryan researched his options. “There are a few companies that do hosting and use a responsive templating engine that is really beautiful. I pay $16 per month at Squarespace.com and it’s very worth it.”
How does Squarespace allow him to easily serve website visitors regardless of their screen size? “Each picture I upload is actually optimized into seven sizes that can be arbitrarily inserted as the size of the screen changes. Whenever I design a page, I drag the right side of the browser and I can watch as it gets to be laptop size, iPad size, iPad mini size and finally phone size.”
What does this have to do with the bulletin?
First, Fr. Ryan told me he believes in the power of a good first impression. Whether someone’s first interaction with the parish is via the bulletin, a personal visit, or the website, that interaction (and subsequent experiences) will inform their impression of your parish.
Second, all parish communications should serve by meeting real needs. Fr. Ryan calls this quality “Real Usability.”
“Real Usability is when someone is at a barbecue or a crawfish boil and they remember something from a sermon or the bulletin,” he says, “and they know immediately that my website is like IMDB for their parish. They know that they can get out their phone, tap two or three times and be in the right place for their content.”
How does a parish determine HOW to serve real needs with its communications pieces? Fr. Ryan advises not to keep the brainstorming within the parish office or staff. “Office staff and designers live in a bubble that the faithful at large don’t. If the content map is created in a vacuum, then big, obvious holes will start to develop.”
His tips for this process:
Engage your community
Don’t take offense when your ideas don’t match what’s really needed
Here’s what he discovered: “My people LOVE having the recorded sermons online & podcasted. They LOVE the ebulletin (because they get it before everyone else)! They don’t really care as much about the history online, and had zero interest in the gift shop online. They don’t want an iOS app. They want the school website (SmsTigers.org) to be tightly integrated.” …etc. etc.
I’ll leave you with his conclusion — which applies to any piece of parish communication: “The magic is finding out what those real or perceived needs are, and then finding a faithful, beautiful, engaging and efficient way to meet them.”
NEXT WEEK: Look forward to some practical resources for more professional and polished parish communications, from Melissa Nault — Communications Specialist with Pax Christi parish in Eden Prarie, MN.
I’m so excited to share these stories with you. Please share your thoughts — I’d love to hear from you! - Angela
Dom Bettinelli recently got my attention by asking for examples of well-designed, “beautiful” parish bulletins. (One commenter quipped: “Those exist?”)
We may poke fun, but let’s face it: Bulletins are generally template-based publications created using outdated or sub-standard software, by parish secretaries, overworked pastors, or volunteers. I daresay 98%(?) of these folks aren’t trained graphic designers.
A select few parishes, however, are making communications a priority, rising above the norm by hiring talented personnel for the job. Let’s see what a difference this can make.
After some “power Googling,” I came across the following noteworthy parish bulletins. A few parishes responded to my requests for more background information about their bulletin editors; you’ll see some of this below. Click the sample images to visit the parish websites, and check out the bulletins yourself.
In the following weeks, look for some additional posts here at the blog, including…
Why parishes with beautiful bulletins don’t stop there
How Sts. Peter & Paul in Hoboken, NJ’s beautiful bulletin improved stewardship
How Pax Christi in Eden Prarie, MN applies professional graphic design practices
For now, enjoy these inspiring samples!
Immaculate Conception in Malden, MA
Bulletin by Scott Morin, Coordinator of Youth Ministry
Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Natchitoches, LA
Bulletin by Parish Director of Evangelization Ashley Hebert, who studied journalism and graphic design at McNeese University.
Sts. Peter and Paul in Hoboken, NJ
Bulletin by Parish Director of Marketing & Communications, Max Colas, whose previous job was senior marketing executive for a global company.
St. James and St. Philip in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, LA
Bulletin design by Fr. Christopher Decker, whose hobbies include art and design.
St. Stephen in Anoka, MN
Bulletin by Parish Marketing Coordinator Julie Gerads, who has been bulletin editor for 13 years.
Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach, CA
Bulletin by Bulletin Editor Kay Flierl, who has twelve years experience in advertising and graphic design and continues her passion as a fine artist in oil painting.
St. Benedict in Phoenix, AZ
Bulletin designed by Tyler Bartlett, student with Arizona State University’s Graphic Technology program.
St. James in Novi, MI
Bulletin by Patti Wienclaw, who holds a BA in graphic design and seven years of professional experience prior to her current position as parish Coordinator of Communications.
Pax Christi in Eden Prarie, MN
Bulletin by Melissa Nault, parish Communications Specialist, who has worked for the parish over 10 years and in graphic design for over 20 years.
This one is especially for all of you who work with teens — or if you love new applications for digital media in the parish setting.
We belong to a parish named after the Apostle to the Apostles, St. Mary Magdalen (Germanic spelling), and help with the teen faith formation program. Eighteen teens returned home from Steubenville Atlanta conference last week, and our parochial vicar gave a few of them a chance to speak on Sunday.
One girl said, “My experience really made me want to stay close to my faith and to the Church.”
My brain gears started turning, since I was scheduled to lead a formation night for them that Wednesday. I hadn’t decided the subject matter — a rare last-minute lack of planning on my part. However, I came to see that God was working.
Monday morning, I recorded a “plea” video to my Facebook friends, asking them to record a short video introducing themselves, and sharing one way that they stay in touch with their faith in everyday life. By Wednesday, I had received eighteen videos from across the United States and even Brazil.
“…the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may”. – John F. Kennedy
I borrow this remark to begin my little reflection since I’ve just read it in a book I’ve just borrowed: The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light. The author quotes Cohen’s remarks about his infamous song:
“This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled, but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’ That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say, ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’
That’s the point I’ve reached.
You know, we bloggers stress over this (in my case) unpaid gig. We look at the onslaught of emails in our Inboxes asking for favors, and the flies hiking up the mountain of dishes in the kitchen sink, and the reflux-inducing stress of work and life, and we think: “How am I going to blog this week when I’ve barely introspected?”
At least, that’s the life of an introverted blogger. Me. When I’m short on words, you can guess that I’ve also been short on sleep and prayer and every other quieted exercise.
Funny enough: A few weeks ago, God altered my life with — what I described to my spiritual director and a few close friends as — a miraculous healing. Not of my physical ailments, but of spiritual, emotional, and psychological ones. I had a prayer experience which, after I opened my eyes and lifted my head, left me with a sense of peace I cannot recall feeling since childhood. Hallelujah.
Then, the Machine called Life cranked along. Human frailty kicked in. Those lovely, feminine hormone cycles worked their magic. I did not feel a ‘Hallelujah’ — nor did I feel much at all. I couldn’t even think of feeling. Prayer became a constant, tiring struggle that I engaged because I knew I’d be worse without it.
And blogging? Well, blogging was impossible. My personal standards forbid me from blogging when my interior life is wreathed in a thick haze. (Who wants to read a blog post that feels like intellectually skimming through someone else’s thought-vomit?)
Back to JFK: Just as in poetry, music, and painting, blogging requires that the blogger ‘remain true to himself’.
Authenticity is why Heather King gains instant fans by writing a single paragraph or speaking for two minutes. The woman oozes original, honest thoughts. That ‘remaining true to himself’ is the success of almost every well-read blogger on the digital continent.
On the contrary, when a blogger’s life is as I’ve just described — clouded, cluttered, and noisy beyond comprehension — ‘remaining true to himself’ means, in my view, not blogging. And that’s when ‘remaining true’ can be the kiss of death.
So, God bless you who read this; who’ve stuck through it. My blog once appeared dead, but has come back to life. For now.
Despite that Machine called Life, that human frailty, those hormone cycles, the mountaineering insects, and the Inbox…I’ve been blessed with moments to reflect, read, and stare into space. So, in the midst of the mess, here’s my somewhat warm and broken