Social Networking Transforming the Way Churches Interact with Parishioners

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Fewer people in the pews seeing churches resort to blogging, Facebook and videos

Churches have over the last two decades faced dramatically declining memberships, but that trend may be reversing with the increasing use of social media.

The Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a pioneer in social networking among churches. In 2002, it received the first of two grants from Lilly Endowment, Inc. for a Pastoral Excellence Project. The project sought innovative ways to support and develop pastoral leaders, lay and ordained, especially those in remote communities. EDS staff decided to think big: how could they reach across America?

They have developed web-conferencing and DVD’s, to transmit important speeches, classes, and courses to those interested in a deeper understanding of theology across the United States. It has transformed the way some teach. Professor Fredrica Harris Thompsett, a globally recognized historian and theologian, says she loves using video as a teaching mechanism, “It’s a whole new way of engaging with students.”

And as more parishioners and students are reached, the clergy and faculty at seminaries find they are learning too. In a report to Lilly Endowment Inc., Julie Lytle, the grant director and Associate Professor for Pastoral Theology and Educational Technology at Episcopal Divinity School noted, “Our Pastoral Excellence Project has had a deep impact upon EDS, our partners, and the Episcopal Church."

“We have addressed a great need for lifelong learning with creatively developed face-to-face and media-assisted programs and processes that overcome geographic and time constraints. We have been able to tap the best of what EDS has to offer and export it to an ever-increasing audience. We have also learned…” By 2009, they had reached 754 congregations from Wyoming to Michigan, Vermont to New Hampshire, and that number is rising significantly each year.

The move into social networking received another boost with the appointment of an entrepreneurial dean and president in October, 2009; the Very Reverend Dr. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale is rarely without her IPad, and under her leadership the school faculty has a Facebook page ( of more than 520 members with fans of that growing at around 12 a week.

The School has a blog, 99Brattle (, dedicated to “progressive theology and critical thinking” that is read on every continent but for Antarctica. And it has a Twitter site, EpDivSchl.

“We find that faculty and parishes are less likely to Tweet, but as more become used to social media we believe that will change. Our YouTube page is popular and not a week goes by where we are not running distance learning through EDSConnect or web-conferencing classes and discussions."

“Already half our student population takes online courses. We run distributive learning courses, where most of the study is online, but students come to campus for two weeks of intensive courses and engagement with fellow students and faculty twice a year. We believe that demographic will grow as fewer students come to campuses full-time and more combine an existing career with study,” Ragsdale said.

In return, Episcopal Divinity School, which in recent decades has seen seminarians tend to be people in their 40s pursuing a mid-life career change, is now starting to see a younger generation of seminarians in their late 20s.

Some churches have found that, if they are to adapt to a new world, they need to use skills that previously churches had rejected. The Very Reverend Jim Kowalski, Dean of The Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, as an example, has seen church attendance and finances transformed after they employed consultants to help the church develop a brand identity.

Churches and seminaries have been spurred to new initiatives because of declining membership and finances battered by the financial crisis. A report released in December by the Reverend Canon Keith B. Brown of the Church Pension Group, showed a reduction of 17.2% in “plate and pledge income for family sized parishes,” and he noted that “fully one-third of the Church’s largest congregations have or plan to reduce staff.”

There is an urgency to speak with the faithful in new ways. And so Episcopal Divinity School is to launch a series of Conversations about Social Media from mid-March to April this year. It will be taught by simulcast presentation at EDS and online through EDSConnect.

The series will include presentations by Julie Lytle, PhD, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Educational Technology and the Rev. BK Hipsher, Virtual Chaplain, Sunshine Cathedral of Second Life and DMin Candidate.

Costs are $10 per session or $25 for the series. Lytle says that the sessions are designed for pastoral leaders and parishioners. “They have heard the buzz about social media but don’t really know how to use the new technologies. It will be particularly useful for Christian educators, vestry members and pastors who want their church to move into the 21st century using blogging, podcasts, and YouTube.”

Ragsdale observes: “When we consider that Facebook tells us it has more than 600 million members and YouTube records experiencing more than a billion downloads a day, the importance of social media in church life today becomes self-evident.”

For more information contact:
Episcopal Divinity School
99 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA 01238

Charlene Smith


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