Church Takes Steps into Social Media: These Technologies Are Tools, Not Toys. You Won't Find Me Playing Farmville on Facebook. When I'm Present in These Places It's as a Part of My Professional Responsibilities.'

Article excerpt

When it comes to social networking, some Catholics are slow to click the "like" button. To read recent headlines, you might think the church is sticking to stone tablets: "Facebook and Christianity a bad mix, parish warns" and "Alabama church bans social networking with minors."

But for every St. John Cantius Church, a Chicago parish whose leaders warned of the dangers of Facebook in its bulletin in April, there is an Old St. Patrick's, a Chicago parish that uses Facebook and Twitter to alert more than 2,000 followers to its upcoming summer festival and other events. And though policies against teachers and students "friending" one another are becoming common at both Catholic and public schools, even Pope Benedict XVI has his own YouTube channel to connect with young Catholics.

Hardly known for the speed with which it adopts modern technology, the church is surely, but slowly, joining the masses on social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. There are now more social network accounts than there are people in the world, and thousands belong to Catholic clergy, sisters, parishes, schools, publications and other organizations.

Used properly, social networking sites can help Catholics communicate and build community, says Lisa Hendey, who gives workshops on Catholic new media and was one of 150 Catholics worldwide invited to a Vatican meeting for bloggers in May.

"So many of our parishes, unfortunately, are places where people show up Sunday morning and then during the rest of the week never really think about their connection to church," Hendey told 360 people logged in for a webinar on "Digital Ministry and Social Media" on April 26. "Using these tools will really help us to bring a sense of community that can inspire and lead the faithful more toward God and each other the other six days of the week."

The webinar was hosted by Ave Maria Press in association with the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership and National Association for Lay Ministry.

Merely hosting an up-to-date Web site for a parish or other Catholic organization is no longer enough, Hendey says. With relatively little financial investment and a part-time, tech-sawy volunteer or staff member, parishes could and should be connecting and promoting themselves on Facebook and Twitter, offering online video and podcasting on YouTube or other sites, sharing photos among members using Flickr or a similar site, and sending e-blasts and texts to their members who have smart phones.

If that sounds overwhelming, fear not, says Hendey, who coordinates all of the above not only for her parish (as a nine-hour-a-week employee) but also for her own ministry, Catholic Mom.com. The key is to use tools that help streamline and organize your contacts and information. That, and stay focused, so time online doesn't take away from family and prayer.

"These technologies are tools, not toys," she said. "You won't find me playing Farmville on Facebook. When I'm present in these places it's as a part of my professional responsibilities to my parish and to the ministry I run."

Rather than just jump on Facebook, parishes should first create a team to develop a plan and goals for their use of social media, Hendey advises. The team should consider how these technologies fit into the parish's or group's overall communication and evangelization scheme, she adds. …