In December, 2015, Catholic creatives from all across the United States, each from different industries, gathered together to solve the bulletin problem. Here are the insights and conclusions that they gathered. To find out more about the meet up and the brainstorming processes that they took to generate these insights, click >here<.
I. Ask “Why?”
A bulletin is a part of a communications strategy, but before you can even talk about whether or not that communications strategy is effective, you need to ask why your parish is communicating in the first place. Why does your parish exist?
If you answered “to bring people to Jesus,” again, ask “why.” When you’ve answered that, ask why again. Don’t stop asking “why” until you’ve been able to gather around a vulnerable cause that moves you.
Learn more about why asking why is important: Start With Why Ted Talk
II. Ask “Why the bulletin?”
Once you know what your message is, ask “why a bulletin,” why does the bulletin exist? Most bulletins suffer from a severe split personality disorder.
Often times the bulletin includes every detail of parish life, from Tuesday’s prayer shawl knitting group to the pancake breakfast next month.
Tucked between these calendar updates, however, is Father Don’s short meditation on the gospel.
Before the ads, there’s a half page story of how the youth group went on a mission trip and built a house for a family in need.
These are three separate purposes.
Is the bulletin an event calendar meant to inform parishioners of the parish’s activities?
Is it meant to be a method by which parishioners are fed spiritually?
Is it meant to be a way for visitors and parishioners to connect with the rest of the parish by seeing faces and reading stories?
Ultimately, through discussion, the Creatives at the meetup decided that the bulletin should be focused on the latter.
The Bulletin Should Be Outreach, Not Updates
We decided this because it is far easier and more effective to keep parishioners updated about parish events via other communication methods such as an email newsletter, social media, a parish app, and the parish website. Furthermore, there are already plenty of resources for spiritual growth that parishioners can be turned on to. For example, Word on Fire, Crossroads Initiative, or Dynamic Catholic are great. Finally, the only audience in your parishes that you cannot send these resources to through other outlets is the group of people who are not already involved in your church.
What we concluded, then, was that the most efficient use and purpose of the bulletin is to connect new people-- specifically, visitors or those who are on the fringes-- into the life of the parish.
III. The Three Principles for Effective Bulletin Outreach
Here are the standards to which a bulletin should be designed in order to most effectively connect new and fringe parishioners into the life of the parish:
In order to connect people into the life of the church, the church must have a life of its own, and it must be willing to feature that life in a personal way. This means it must feature pictures and stories of its people living and acting Christian community. If you don’t get any of the rest of these right, you can still have a very effective product if you get this first principle down.
To be connective tissue between the parish life and visitors, the bulletin has to be absolutely local to the parish community. This does NOT mean that it should be filled with pictures of the church building. We want people connected to the life of the parish, not its bricks or its crucifix or its statue of Mary in the courtyard outside. To be local, it needs to tell the stories of members.
For instance, think of the kind old usher who is there at the 9:30 am mass every week-- that greeted the visitors when they came in-- has a story. The bulletin should contain the stories of parishioners who are living out the faith. It should personalize the pastor, and contain the pictures and names of parishioners. One Catholic Creative at the meetup kept repeating the mantra: “Names, names names.”
WHERE WE WENT WRONG
Most of our bulletins, however, are the furthest thing from local. Most of them look indistinguishable from one parish in Pensacola to another in Columbus Ohio. This is because most parishes are using a bulletin printing company to get their bulletins printed for free in exchange for the adds in the back. If you are currently using one of these companies, our meetup suggested rethinking that business relationship, or at least taking control of all design in house. These companies' value offer is free printing, but they are not experts on design or on contemporary communications. Some members of the meetup questioned if the exchange is really worth the money saved, saying that it would be better to not have the bulletin then to give visitors something ugly and impersonal.
Beautiful design is far more about structuring information than picking the right fonts or getting the right margin. Good design is more a function of cutting away unnecessary information and clutter than anything else. Only the information that is absolutely necessary for executing the purpose stated above should be included. Everything else should be communicated with other mediums (email newsletter, social media...etc), or simplified and relegated to a place of lesser prominence.
Once that has been done, here are some guiding principles for good design:
Speaking of clutter, don’t be afraid of white space. Let whitespace happen. Embrace it.
Pick two fonts. One sans Serif, and one Serif. If you don’t know what Serif or Sans serif means, then pick ONE font. To give the text visual hierarchy vary the size and utilize the bold, all caps, and italics that font has available in its “family.”
Let visuals and pictures tell the story. Pictures are worth much more than your text. Put the detailed text on the website or in the email.
The dates of your events, the times of your sacraments, and even the stories of of your parishioners will not be read and retained if the reader doesn’t know why they are important. Again, you need to know your “Why,” your mission; and that mission needs to be specific to your parish. If this is done well, then every piece of information that you place on your bulletin must be chosen in order to draw people into your parishes “why.” With that in mind:
Meaningful communication is linear.
It starts with an introduction, develops into a body, and then closes with some sort of call to action. Each section of the bulletin should move the reader deeper into your why and lead them towards some action step.The sections, then, should make sense, not just on their own but in relation to each other.
IV. OBSTACLES TO GOOD BULLETINS
This conclusion list would not be complete if we did not acknowledge the challenges that any parish faces in making changes to their communications strategy. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but we believe these are the two greatest challenges to a local, beautiful, and meaningful designed bulletin.
1) Many churches do not have anyone in charge of any of communications or anyone with the technological training to understand them.
If someone is in charge of designing the bulletin or updating the website, the odds are that they are also in charge of booking rooms, answering phone calls, and managing Fr’s calendar. They are most likely not trained in digital communications; wordpress and flocknote are most likely uncomfortable to them, and they are mostly designing on microsoft publisher. Facebook is probably the last thing that they want to think about. In order to really change the bulletin, these other mediums of communication need to be given time and consistent effort. Most parish offices need to be reorganized such that the job descriptions and titles make more sense. The administrative assistant should not be in charge of designing bulletins, and the communications director should not be in charge of taking care of all of the parish’s IT- i.e. if the server goes down, call some one who fixes those professionally. The right people need to be hired and given the resources and support they need to make the changes that they need to make in order for truly effective communication to take root.
2) Many parishes are incapable of managing complaints
Selecting an audience and a purpose for the bulletin means simplifying, reordering, and hewing off information that is not relevant to the audience which you have selected. In short, it means excluding some information that some people want to be included. In parish life, complaints tend to grind any change to an immediate halt. When you stop using the bulletin as an event calendar, there will certainly be parishioners who will not be happy with the change.
In order for any significant progress to be made with the parish bulletin part of the strategy for its implementation must include a plan to communicate the reasons behind the changes to the parish. Perhaps a strategic move to stave off favoritism complaints would be to totally do away with the bulletin all together and then to re-institute the new communications tool later. However, whatever happens, the decision makers & staff have to be prepared to hold their ground when parishioners complain.
In conclusion, the most important issue with bulletin design is not the clipart or bad font selections, but it is the lack of intentional purpose behind church communications. This is a systemic problem that needs to be fixed in the staff of a parish before the bad bulletin problem can be clearly addressed. However, for parishes who are ready to use the bulletin effectively, we hope that the principles outlined above -namely, local, beautiful, and meaningful, can act as a helpful guide for a new compelling approach to bulletins.