Everybody loves a good story. Stories of faith engage listeners differently than a list of facts or good ideas. When people share their faith journey with others, it offers powerful encouragement to both the storyteller and the recipient. I’ve been there too. We’re in this together. Parishes that limit their stewardship discussions to theological discussion and ignore the personal connection will have a difficult time fully engaging everyone. Finding and telling the right story is possible for every parish.
We all feel the pinch, don’t we? The relation of income to outflow is a tense conversation in many parishes. It feels like churches cost more than they used to, with aging facilities, competitive salaries for necessary lay ministers, and new programs to enliven faith amid a world where many find it easier to have none. Where does that leave the average Catholic parish? For many parishes, running an increased offertory program is the best solution to relieve the tension. Even so, a new name and new mailings isn’t quite enough.
What started as a basement prayer group now draws around one hundred weekly attendees from up to sixty miles away. ARMEE is what happens when a community doesn’t wait for ministry to come to them.
Back in 2008, California native Josh Madruga would pray on a regular basis with some of his friends in their hometown of Turlock. As they continued to pray and do youth ministry together, they realized God wanted to do something bigger.
I am drawn to school supplies – I can’t help it. I love the little areas set aside at the local stores for parents and their progeny to sift through, mark off lists and look for just the right folders and notebooks.
I have no reason to be there, but I find myself looking at Sharpies and Mr. Sketch markers with excitement and locker decorations with nostalgia. While I peruse the aisles, I often notice my fellow shoppers and they are not shopping leisurely like me. They are harried, stressed, rushed and a little annoyed at those lists that get longer every year. I overheard one woman say, “ Seriously, three boxes of tissues? Who are these kids and why do they blow their noses so much? And a protractor…do these wear out or something? Why a new one? How new and improved could they be?” I am sure there is a really good reason those are on the lists, but in the midst of all the getting ready for the new school year the list is one more stressful thing.
An antidote to the rush and crush for families? A parish community that understands, supports, and knows just how to remedy the craziness of their families at this time of year. So I give you five ways to reach out to your families this fall to welcome and lead them gently and compassionately to Jesus who desires to be at the heart of every person and every family.
Where were you on 9/11? Most of us reading this can tell a vivid story our experience that tragic day. Ask a teenager that same question. Most of them won’t have an answer because they were far too young to remember or weren’t even born yet. From security to the way we consume media and information, there have been seismic shifts in the culture since most of us were teenagers. While the culture seems to change in dramatic ways every year, the way we minister to teens has changed very little. I had to humbly face the fact that I had been running the same youth group for eight years with only cosmetic changes. Worse, I was running the youth group I went to when I was in high school.
In the midst of identify this problem and my own soul searching and Google searching, I discovered YDisciple, an online platform designed to enable parishes to engage and train other adults in the parish to mentor small groups of teenagers with training, videos for discussion, well-crafted discussion questions, and more. Through five basic steps, God turned my entire paradigm of youth ministry on its head.
This blog is Part One of two pieces. Part Two will post on Saturday.
Like many Youth Ministers, I was hired in my early twenties and fresh out of college. Zealous, energetic, and immature, I was handed a floundering youth ministry program in a parish with over 450 high school students on the books. After nine years in that same suburban parish cluster, I still I loved my job. I loved putting on my weekly youth group that we had grown to reach over 100 teens. I loved working with my Core Team of young adults. The mission trips, the World Youth Day pilgrimages, the retreats—I loved it all. But after nine years of watching the vast majority of even our most engaged teens go off to college and stop practicing the faith, I had to honestly ask myself: “Is my work as a Youth Minister effective?”
The school year is filled with a predictable rhythm. It’s easy to settle into a routine, even when families are balancing multiple children and a diversity of activities. When summer hits, things can get a little disjointed, especially when it comes to the practice of faith. The family is the first place children experience the love of God and formation in the Christian life. Vacation Bible School is a great place to for children to grow, but what about when the week is over?
- Take a Family Pilgrimage
Looking for a day trip with a little more meaning? The United States is filled with unique shrines, basilicas, and historic religious sites. Check out this Top Ten list or search sites by state. If the location is a bit of a drive, cross-reference the location with campgrounds or state parks to experience the beauty of God’s creation along with the beauty of the Catholic faith!
- Make Mass a Priority
Every day in Catholic churches around the world, the same Mass is being celebrated. If you’re away from home on a Sunday, the Internet makes it easy to find a Mass near you. MassTimes.org has a helpful mapping feature. To ensure that the Mass times are accurate for the summer months, check out Parishes Online where you can find downloadable weekly bulletins.
- Get Creative with Crafts
Pinterest is a gold mine for ideas about faith crafts and Catholic activities for kids. The next rainy day, don’t break out the iPad or start streaming Doc McStuffins or Daniel Tiger. Give the time indoors a deeper meaning for young children.
- Serve Together
There are clothes that need sorting, community gardens that need tending, and meals to be served. Many nonprofits have tasks for all ages or specifically designate a “family day” with age-appropriate responsibilities. Grow in giving by volunteering for a local nonprofit as a family.
Though summer may be half gone, it’s not too late to inspire your family or your parishioners in faith!
I really love hospitality and try never to take it for granted. When someone takes time to create a beautiful environment or greets me with a warm welcome and a smile, I am hooked. My name is Jane Angha, Director of Ministry Blueprints, a little company all about radical hospitality and welcoming in faith communities.
Leading with Beauty
People often think hospitality is a luxury or an option if you have time, money, and volunteers. Others think it is a waste of resources to fuss with hospitality and things such as décor, environment, food, and how the room looks for an event or gathering. They swear it doesn’t matter to most people and that no one will even notice. I beg to differ. Hospitality is an integral part of setting the stage for an encounter with Christ. Leading with beauty touches our hearts, minds, and souls.
We assume that in order for our parish to build a new church building or even for our community to make the budget, it will require much more than we have to give. What is the true value of our treasure?
Jesus tells us in the parable of the mustard seed, that if we have “faith as small as a mustard seed”[Matthew 17:20], we could move mountains. In stewardship, we oftentimes neglect to see that amazing things can take place due to the generosity of even the smallest gifts.
Let’s Face Facts
True Stewardship extends to all forms of gifts and talents, but how we view and use our money can be a key indicator of how we practice stewardship in all aspects of our life. The typical Catholic household donates 1.1 to 1.2% of their income. 1 In 2013, 24% of all parishes in the US were operating at a loss. This begs the question, how can we effectively engage our faithful in this important discussion?
Most of the parishes LPi works with use Mass attendance and offertory as indicators of their overall health. Unfortunately, both of those occur too late in the process of the parishioner deciding how to practice their faith. If attendance and offertory are declining, the real damage has begun and your parish is behind the trend.
We Are Called to Mission
When a parish can demonstrate to its members that it has a defined a clear mission that reflects the Kingdom of God, people don’t need to be repeatedly pressured to give. LPi began offering our Sustainable Offertory Program, a unique approach to increased offertory programs, to affect a sustainable change to parishioner giving habits and create within them new patterns of generosity. The feedback from our partner parishes demonstrates three aspects of successful programs.
When we begin discussing a future campaign, the conversation is always about the positive aspects of the parish and how parishioners can change the lives of the people the parish serves through investment in ministry. A diocesan leader that has worked with us likes to say, “No one wants to give to the Titanic!” With a focus on the positive and the understanding that God is still in control, the message in an LPi Sustainable Offertory Program creates a desire on the part of the parishioner to invest in something that makes a difference.
Articulate Your Long-term Vision
This desire to make a difference leads naturally to a focus on the vision and mission of the parish. Parishioners want to know that their parish community stands for something important, and that parish leadership is leading them on a mission to make a difference. At LPi, we are seeing the parishes growing and engaging their people most effectively are those that have a clear mission articulated and invite people to become a part of something greater than themselves.
The Mission is the Main Thing
Often, as soon as money is mentioned, people turn off their ability to listen. LPi offers several forms of stewardship coaching that influence our approach to working with a parish on a Sustainable Offertory Program. In fact, we have actually advised some parishes that a financial campaign was not in their best interest at the time. In those cases, we begin their journey with visioning exercises, basic stewardship catechesis, or honing another aspect of their mission before embarking on the actual Sustainable Offertory campaign.
From Seeds to Pearls
In a Sustainable Offertory Program, you gain the advantage of asking your parishioners to sow mustard seeds. If a parish is at the average weekly giving level of 1.1% of parishioners’ incomes, then with simple mustard seeds we can make a tremendous difference. We begin with small seeds in the hopes that one day each of us can possess nothing and be possessed by nothing other than the love of Jesus Christ.
1 – Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century. Charles E. Zech, et al. Oxford University Press. 2017.
Some tips to make it easier to search for your church online
People rely on the Internet to search for and find information about their community. For your church, this can be the perfect opportunity to connect with and make a good impression on new members.
Typically, an Internet user searches for something online and looks at the first ten websites suggested. This is only one page of website suggestions offered. If your church website is not showing up in the first page or not at all, your potential parishioners or visitors may never even know you exist online. So how do you make sure they find you?
There are two practices you can try, SEO and SERP, to get started. Let’s break down each of these terms and review some tips and tricks you can try on your website to make it easier to find your church website online.
What is SEO?
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. A search engine is the place where you type in what you want to find online. The most common search engines include Google, Yahoo, Bing, and AOL. Optimization is the act of making something as effective as possible.
Simply put, SEO is the process of making your website as effective as possible so search engines find your website and list it in the results, making it more likely new members in your community will find your church website.
What is SERP?
SERP stands for Search Engine Result Page. It is a list of suggested websites. The websites are collected based on your keyword. Your keyword is the word or words you typed in to your search engine.
How do search engines get their results?
Search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing, and AOL have all written a mathematical equation that looks at the following things in your website:
- What words are in your website?
- How often is your website updated?
- What kind of images are on your website?
- How fast does your website load?
- How easy to read is your website?
- How often is your website visited?
- Are there other websites that link to your website?
Then it looks at the history of the person searching: where that person has been online, and where he or she is located in the world.
From there, the search engine compares your website to every other website that might relate the keyword that someone searched for. Then, it ranks those sites in order of relevance. Remember, it is very unlikely that someone will click past the first page, so it is important that your church is ranked within the top ten.
How do you make your website easier to find?
Make sure your church name, address, city, and state are all on the home page. Put your church name at the top of the website. This will make it the most important bit of text, and also be part of the title in the list of results. Then put your address with city and state in text on your website. Search engines look for this specifically, so where you put it is up to you. A good practice is to place it at the bottom of the page, in the footer. That way it shows up on every page of your website. Keep in mind, having your church name and address as an image does not help—search engines do not analyze PDFs or images for content.
Use keywords that people search for online in your text.
Don’t forget, a keyword is the word or words someone typed into a search engine to find something on the Internet. In order to pick out keywords that you think will help your site be found by search engines, first look at your church. What is your church about? What message do you want someone visiting your church website to take away? What words might you use to look for a church website if you were new to a community?
Now make a list of those words and type them into your search engine. See what the results are. Does your church fit into that list? Narrow your list down to two or three keywords. When you have decided what keywords you think are good for your church, use them in page titles or throughout the text on your website.
You can also check to make sure your chosen keywords are ones people actually use when they search online. There are websites that will let you test a keyword. For example, SERPs Keyword rank checker. On this website, you can type in any keyword and it will show the top ranked websites and an average number of times that keyword is used by searchers in search engines every month.
Use images to engage readers.
Search engines look for images. Images are more appealing and engaging to the reader on your website. This means people will spend a longer time on that page, which translates into the search engine ranking your website better than other websites that don’t have images. Note that if your website visitors land on your website and then click off right away, the search engine views the website as less trustworthy, which will cause your website to slowly move down the list.
Plus, visitors want images. When someone visits a webpage, they are more likely to continue reading and scroll to the bottom of the page if there is an image visible at all times. A good idea is to place your images every two to three paragraphs to keep a reader’s interest. The image needs to relate to the content on your page. When you load it into to your website, make sure to add a title and description. The title needs to have a keyword, and it needs to be honest. If your image title does not match the image and content, you will hurt your SEO.
Claim your online listings.
Search engines also look to see if your website links to other websites and if other websites link to your website. One easy and trusted source of links to your website are through things like Google My Places, Yahoo Local Listings, Bing Places, and YELP. You’ve seen these listings if you have searched for a business. They usually appear with an image, map, and often a description of that business with links to its website.
Your church may never have claimed these, but they probably already exist. Test it out in different search engines and see what shows up. If there isn’t a listing you can create one, and if there is, you need to make sure your church controls what is on there. If you don’t claim it, someone else can.