social media in the Church

social-mediaIn the light of two conferences of significance for the Australian Church this week – the inaugural Catholic New Media Conference and that of the Australasian Catholic Press Association – I thought I would offer a few remarks about the role of social media within the Church’s mission.

Many Catholics, including older generations, would readily agree that the Church’s embrace of social media is important, even necessary. Consulting 2,000 Catholics last year, there was a palpable enthusiasm and agreement that the Church as a whole commit itself to this technology. However, I suspect there is not always a great degree of clarity on why this is so other than reference to motives that are ambiguous to say the least (e.g. ‘relevance’).

It is important to articulate the reasons for social media as a normal part of the Church’s mission because diocesan bishops, parish priests, parish councils, heads of religious institutes, boards of management and other forms of Church leadership need to be convinced of its value if they are going to make an investment in that direction (our own Diocese of Parramatta has employed a Social Media Coordinator, @socialmediaparra, and I am aware that other dioceses are on the way to doing the same or similar).

And it is an investment. Consider your typical dioceses with its various church agencies – adult education centres, liturgical office, youth ministries and the like. While a Facebook page or a Twitter account is not difficult to establish with appropriate disclaimers, considerable thought needs to be given to message, audience and integration of that media within the ordinary work of that agency and the diocese or parish as a whole. This often requires the training of staff in the effective use of this media and time dedicated to the maintenance and driving of its message in public space. Unfortunately in the province of the profane, ‘time is money’ and so churches and agencies need to budget for that time and work if it is to be an ongoing concern. Helpfully, budgeting for the use of such media sends a signal to stewards of church finance that ‘this things matters’.

As well, my learning from a past life as a media buyer for Mitchell & Partners is that content is expensive to generate and it is important for the Church to recognise time and resources are needed to deliver this proclamation and foster dialogue in the digital realm.

542379_lowWhile the ‘content’ of Catholic media is perennial and freely given – the revelation of Jesus Christ made known by Scripture and Tradition and declared by Church teaching, liturgy, and the Church Fathers – it is not sufficient for Church media to tweet from Proverbs or even the Gospel alone. Social media in the Church, indeed communications more generally, consists not only in the confession of faith – that basic affirmation of St Peter at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ” (Mk 8:29) – it also calls for testimony that communicates the witness of Christian lives.

The reason to consider the role of social media in the Church in the context of testimony is this. Most of people’s beliefs about the world depend on the testimony of others. For instance, I have never been to South America but trust that it exists on the basis of the testimony of others who have. In fact, most of our beliefs of the world are formed on the basis of testimony because our experience of the world is inevitably limited. However, it is testimony that may draw us to travel to Rio de Janeiro if we believe in the credibility of the pilgrim that has returned from that destination.

pewsThe testimony of discipleship is what social media offers the Church’s mission. As Sherry Weddell recognises in her fine work Forming Intentional Disciples, it is not merely a curiosity but truly frightening to acknowledge that Catholics have come to regard it as normal (even deeply Catholic!) not to talk about discipleship. Indeed, for too long the cultural pressure within our parishes and communities works against the overt expression of discipleship, including an account of a personal relationship with Jesus, which can be viewed, absurdly, as Protestant rather than the foundation stone of Catholic identity (see pages 56-70). For existing and new generations of Catholic believers, social media is one vehicle that provides for Christian testimony with credibility, an opportunity to give witness to a journey travelled.

While we have come some way in past decades – moved past the prayer card, sent by email and complete with kittens, butterflies and trivial uplifting thoughts – there is some way to go to embed social media within the ordinary life of the Church’s mission and outreach. The very fact of separate conferences in Melbourne this week – one for new media and one for press – speaks to the integration that still awaits to take place in the Church’s communications effort and its self-understanding and organisation as bearer of the Word.

Of course, there is a risk that individuals and organisations, in their embrace of new media, develop an obsession with novelty which distracts rather than deepens. In a populist and throwaway culture, and given the Church’s insecurity amid current challenges and a devastating loss of public credibility, we can risk becoming eccentric faddists who are in love with anything just because it is new.

gospel of markHowever, it is the work of those leaders in social media who are emerging in the Church to school themselves not only in algorithms of rank and filter but the theology of revelation, missiology, and ecclesiology that will underpin, extend and even challenge their work. Documents such as Dei Verbum (1965), Inter Mirifica (1963), Redemptoris Missio (1990), and Pope Benedict XVI’s messages for World Communications Day in 2010, 2011 and 2013 are good starting points in this direction, underscoring that the authentic development of humanity and human culture is not a technological achievement but one that stands in relation to what has been revealed, the one who, in revealing God, has revealed us to ourselves.

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dolan

This week I read an interesting article by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York. You can read the full version here.

Dolan is a prominent figure in the American Church and a rising star in the universal Church, having made a big impression at the recent conclave (a journalist pointed out that if the cardinal-electors had elected Dolan as pope the other 5,000 bishops of the world might as well have taken the next 15 years off, because they’d never be seen or heard from again. In short, Dolan is incredibly articulate and he also doesn’t have an “off” switch).

Dolan’s article stood out because it provides a helpful insight into the complex issues involved in administering a diocese. Among other things, he underscores the need for parishes to support themselves financially (i.e. pay the bills) and to plan responsibly for their future life.

It makes for good reading. Whether you’re an ordained or lay minister, pastoral life coordinator, finance committee or pastoral council it provides a ‘bigger’ picture of Church than is often kept in view. While all dioceses and parishes differ in their financial resources and arrangements, there are a few points worth noting in Dolan’s article for all Catholic communities.

1. As a general rule, dioceses cannot be expected to carry parishes that cannot carry themselves.

coinIt’s simply unsustainable. Think of your typical (if there is one) American, European or even Australian diocese. There are probably more churches than needed (perhaps stemming from an earlier ‘one village, one parish’ approach) and attendance is likely declining which diminishes financial contributions as well (unless those who remain pick up the slack). Meanwhile the costs of church maintenance continue to increase as historic buildings and facilities degrade. Obviously dioceses do not enjoy an endless supply of funds and risk the patrimony and viability of other ministries if it were to prop up every parish in need. Most dioceses expect their parishes to be largely self-sufficient for these reasons; religious orders usually expect their regional communities to do the same.

It was interesting to read in Dolan’s piece that the Archdiocese of New York has established Inter-Parish Financing (IPF) which enables stronger parishes to aid those in need. This seems like a good idea in principle, a form of distributive justice, just as the Vatican itself redistributes finance from established churches to developing ones. However, it appears from Dolan’s remarks that the IPF has not proven sustainable over the long term and needs reform in their context. Keep in mind that the NY Archdiocese also carries the costs of the upkeep of a great number of schools which is not the scenario for all dioceses. The upshot for Dolan’s archdiocese has been an operating deficit which he intends to address through the measures he outlines in the article (NB: the operating budget of the NY Archdiocese  is $87 million which is far beyond the reality of most Australian dioceses!).

2. Dioceses balance significant demands which are not always recognised.

parishWhat do dioceses do with the financial contributions of parishes and its investment income? Dolan’s archdiocese is typical in providing pastoral services and resources that parishes cannot provide for themselves, at considerable cost.

There are the expenses of training seminarians and deacons for pastoral ministry, the employment of chancery staff, the financing of social support services not only for Catholics but for the wider community as well (think of our own CatholicCare closer to home), the need to support adult faith education, family and liturgical support, human resources and legal advice for parishes, the support of schools and the need to provide adequate housing for retired priests as well as healthcare, marriage tribunals, evangelisation initiatives, and loan facilities for the establishment of new parishes and the maintenance and upgrade of existing ones. The list goes on. Again, this makes it all the more important for parishes to fund their own activities to the extent that they can so that all can benefit from the greater resources that a diocese holds in trust.

3. Church revenue is a function of the quality of community life

dioceseWhile not addressed in Dolan’s article, it is a well-established fact that dynamic and missionary parishes attract larger and more consistent financial contributions than staid or listless ones. People contribute their time and money to communities that are life-giving, intentional in their mission and that value their belonging in explicit and tangible ways. People also contribute to communities that have transparent, credible and accountable leaders. It is no surprise that the crisis of legitimation experienced by the Church in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis in particular and poor pastoral practice in general has resulted in a weakened sense of belonging and, with that, a decline in the financial resources available to the Church to exercise its Gospel mission. Want to increase your parish revenue? Become a community that people value.

I’ll be keeping an eye on developments in Dolan’s archdiocese as it is a communicative and dynamic one and will share further news as it comes to light. Dolan’s article underlines sound financial governance as a must for every community of faith.