The Parish Bulletin: A Faith-Formation Resource
Effective strategies for upgrading your most cost-effective evangelization and communication tool.
When I arrived at the Parish of the Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ five years ago, the parish bulletin was astonishingly dull. There really wasn’t much worth reading: a list of intentions, a report on collections, and a jumble of news bits about meetings, crusades, and things to pray for. If I were a tree in Oregon, I would be reluctant to be chopped down for even a holy cause in these circumstances.
I wanted to develop the bulletin into a means of evangelization and catechesis. Perhaps because of the suffering of the local Boston- area church due to the abuse scandals and my own candor in chronicling my experiences and thoughts in my weekly Pastor’s Note, the bulletin began to catch on as more than a log of events and meetings.
I negotiated a deal with a local printer for a weekly run of 500 bulletins folded, collated, and stapled for about $75 a week. Most local parishes used bulletin services, which came with considerable perks, free copying machines and the like, yet requiring a Tuesday deadline. My arrangement allowed a Friday deadline, which permitted a certain freshness to the writing and announcements. In those dismal days in Boston, I had a chance to comment on a late-breaking newspaper story in print and sometimes to do some rumor-control.
I discovered Printshop for Mac as a great resource for the cover publication and eventually settled on Pages for Mac as a well-designed layout program. Around the same time, I shifted the printing from the local print shop to a newly established bulletin publisher, Parish Communications Services in Topsfield, Massachusetts. A local company, they assured me that the creative and design work could remain in the parish, while they would provide high quality printing on good stock, preserving a Thursday noon deadline. It would be funded entirely by advertising, and the digital printing would allow for extremely sharp and color-rich covers. The directors of the company are mission driven, and their convictions about the tiredness of parish bulletins connected with mine.
Adding faith-formation elements
As we made the transition, the new software allowed a fuller liturgical calendar that was far more than a list of “Mass intentions” and provided a key to the feasts and fasts of the year. As we moved into lifelong faith formation, we included brief biographical sketches, artwork, and wisdom from the saints. We added feasts and fasts, customs and sacramentals, and calendar notes about Jewish life.
I had a pre-defined marker of success: I would begin to see our bulletin in places other than the parish grounds. Soon, I was noticing it on refrigerator doors around the parish; once I saw one on the Starbucks bulletin board downtown; a business man said he always posted it on the office bulletin board. Other markers of success emerged before I had a chance to define them. People started coming to the office door on Mondays asking for the bulletin since they had been out of town over the weekend. When I spied a lady sneaking three bulletins into her purse one Sunday she sheepishly gave me an excuse that has become a motto for us: “I’m sorry, Father, we need one in every bathroom.” Luckily, I understood her to mean for literary purposes only, unlike the Sears Catalog of old.
Probably 80 percent of the bulletin is faith formation driven.
- It is mostly catechesis, meditation on the word, recommendations for novels to read and movies worth seeing, or charities and ministry opportunities.
- The phone numbers, schedules, directories that occupy the covers of other parish bulletins are in the back pages, and the more engaging and interesting elements are in the front.
- There is a fresh, full-color cover every week, almost always tied to the Scripture.
- The bulletin also includes the Pastor’s Note, prayers and milestones, stewardship opportunities (finance and ministry), a calendar, traditions and faith formation, Scripture study, and events and announcements.
Seeing the results
The bulletin has had a profound impact on the ethos of the parish.
- When the revised General Instruction on the Roman Missal was instituted, the changes were explained over a period of weeks, primarily in the bulletin. The changes that were implemented went remarkably smoothly. We announced one posture change, for example, and the following week the assembly just adopted the posture, with no fanfare and no prodding.
- We embraced some changes that have been found difficult elsewhere, and the bulletin helped us achieve that transition.
- With about 1,000 people in the Sunday assembly, we distribute 500 bulletins, some going out to the homebound and a few going out during the week through the office or at funerals. We often hear, “I found this church when I came to a funeral. I took a bulletin home and now I want to be part of this.”
For a parish with many young people, the bulletin has proven to be a stepping stone to more contemporary modes of communication and formation. Many folks now use the superb prayer Web site of the Irish Jesuits (sacredspace.ie) or “Pray the News” from the Indianapolis Carmelites (praythenews.com), or have taken part in online retreats from Creighton University (http://tinyurl.com/2shtlf). The bulletin becomes a stepping stone to deeper reflection and fuller learning.
It is popular across the generations. One woman was surprised to hear her teenage daughter say something “almost profound” one night at dinner. When she challenged her, the daughter rolled her eyes and sighed “Mom, don’t you read the bulletin?”
People speak readily now of having befriended the saints, or having a richer grasp of Scripture, or an increased confidence in taking part in conversations around the water cooler or kitchen table. They feel informed and empowered.
Find resources to help you
The newspapers you read, the magazines you subscribe to, even the CD covers beckoning to you in the store or the advertising billboards on the highway are all the products of long reflection and creativity. Many communities have graphic designers, artists, and persons expert in editorial and publication skills who can help the parish achieve a fresh template for the bulletin. With a modest effort on my part (I give the better part of one day a week to writing and production), the key ingredient of an excellent publisher, and the wealth of information in print and on the Internet, we’re enjoying a wonderful renaissance of the parish bulletin as required reading.
There are excellent resources within your reach. The St. Louis University Center for Liturgy (http://liturgy.slu.edu) offers weekly reflections on the liturgy that are an embarrassment of riches and scriptural commentary on every reading, and Creighton University’s campus ministry offers a daily commentary (http://tinyurl.com/5mtlw). You do not have to invent the wheel. The content you need is accessible by subscription, donation, or through a good publishing service.
One pastor once grumbled that if he wanted to keep a secret in his gossipy parish, the only possible way would be to publish it in the bulletin. There’s no way Incarnation Parish could do that! The bulletin is treasured, passed hand to hand, and one woman even admits to framing some covers for her sewing room! When was the last time your bulletin ended up in a frame and not crumpled between your car seats? There are immensely more difficult and challenging projects in any parish than a redesign of the parish bulletin, yet probably few projects are as affordable and effective. TP
*This article appeared in the April/May 2007 issue of Today's Parish.