By Peter Vogel
Your parish no doubt has a secretary, perhaps a music director, and sundry other people. How about an electronic outreach director? I'm guessing not. Paul Schratz, Communications Director for the Archdiocese of Vancouver, said he knows of no such position here.
Meet Thomas Sanjurjo, electronic outreach director (EOD) and social media strategist for Nativity Catholic Parish in Brandon, Fla. Mr. Sanjurjo showed up in my Google+ stream a few weeks ago. I was immediately fascinated by his position and got an opportunity to interview him about it.
BCC: What exactly does the title "electronic outreach director" mean?
TJ: Our pastoral staff decided in 2010 to budget for someone to be in charge of "online evangelization," having in mind the USCCB's focus on the new evangelization. This person would be responsible for the life of the parish in the social media setting and perhaps also for the maintenance and improvement of the website.
When asked to interview for the job, I expanded and defined the position to a little more of an outreach position than the nebulous evangelization moniker. Social-media tools make it easier to engage with and recapture parishioners who've become distant from the Church.
The real impetus behind making this position was a very successful, albeit accidental, share on Facebook about a parish event that was expected to get many fewer participants than it did.
BCC: Tell us a little about your parish and community.
TJ: Nativity is one of the largest parishes in our diocese (St. Petersburg, Fla.) with about 4,500 families. We are in Brandon, (pop. 103,000), near a major highway, so we have a good deal of visibility, and we hold one of the biggest "fairs" in the state.
We have three full-time priests plus one part-time (he travels a lot to teach), one deacon, one to three seminarians, and 30 staff. We run more than 80 ministries regularly.
BCC: Who first had the idea of hiring an EOD? Are you aware of this sort of position anywhere else? How long have you had the job?
TJ: I know of a few dioceses, but no parishes, which have adopted this type of position. I've had my job for a little over a year. It has been much more of a job than I anticipated (as many parish positions seem to be) but it has been a great experience.
I've been learning necessary skills the whole time, as I do not have a background in this kind of work. Before this I was an educator in secondary schools for eight years.
BCC: Did the parish have to reallocate funds for this position? Is this a completely new venture?
TJ: The pastoral staff are amazing; all of them cut a tremendous amount out of their budgets to make room for this position. I have a small investment from everyone, and that has been both a blessing and a tremendous responsibility.
I think we all feel that it is working out very well, and there is a sense of the usefulness of this position that I think may have been in question during that budget-cutting process.
BCC: What is the parish hoping to accomplish?
TJ: Our parish is suffering the aging that is going on in many parishes in the U.S. People between 18 and 38 are moving away from the Church, and many are not returning. This is a vibrant community that has a great deal to offer, and if we were told they were all gathering somewhere regularly we'd be sending "missionaries."
Part of the goal of my position is to build up digital missionaries from our Church, and it has been fairly successful. Leadership roles have been passed to younger people who are interested in making use of technologies like Facebook to build the ministry.
The other idea for this position is to train ministry leaders not yet comfortable with social media. This often begins with overcoming a hesitancy to engage due to privacy concerns, and that is really just a matter of needing some instruction.
BCC: Parishes have forever, it seems, had a weekly bulletin, and in the past decade or so a parish website. Have these tools outlived their usefulness?
TJ: We are trying to incorporate a sense of the social into our bulletins and website. I'm working on a new version of our site that will have guest bloggers from ministries to keep information updated, and on linking augmented reality videos through the bulletin using QR codes.
I'm also learning how to program an app specific to our parish which I hope to make generic enough that other parishes can build on it.
BCC: What are some typical examples of your work day?
TJ: On Sundays I record one Mass and create a podcast from it which is shared on our site and via iTunes. I also update the website with weekly information and links to the weekly bulletin.
On weekdays I contact ministry heads and work through ideas for posts and shares on Facebook. I spend a good deal of time gathering and editing graphics and video, finding and linking to groups and events, and maintaining a running dialogue on our fan page. On Fridays I ready the video components (DVD / announcements) for weekend Masses.
BCC: Perhaps positions such as this will become part of our Vancouver parishes. They may be particularly worth considering as our diocese embarks on the Catholics Come Home program www.catholicscomehome.org later this year.