Parish bulletins are so ubiquitous that they often get ignored in favor of more lofty discussions on theology, culture and liturgy. We grab them after Mass, glance over them while we eat our donut and drink our coffee, and then usually get discarded a day or two later. Some parents of college kids use bulletins as a "ticket stub" that their young adult children, now driving on their own, need to produce on demand in order to prove that they really attended Mass that weekend. And yet, despite their ubiquity and their disposable nature, parish bulletins are actually most common and frequent means a pastor has to communicate with his flock outside of the liturgy. As such, they provide many pastoral and catechetical opportunities that frequently go untapped; in fact, most parish bulletins I see are downright ugly, boring, stupid, or all of the above. What can we do to improve this, and what goes in to a stellar parish bulletin?
5 Common Pitfalls
Before looking at what makes a bulletin awesome, let's throw it into relief by looking at what makes a bulletin terrible. Please note that not all of these symptoms will always occur together in a single bulletin; "Too much words" obviously doesn't occur in the same bulletin with "No content"; the first is a defect of excess, the latter of brevity. What follows could be termed the "Top 5 Signs Your Parish Bulletin Sucks":
5. Too Much Words in Too Small Font: Man, words is hard! One thing I notice about bulletins that lose my attention is they have very, very long run on articles that go on for at least a page or two, and they seem to be written in 10 point Arial font. It seems that the bulletin is so jammed with notifications and advertisements that the pastor feels he needs to squish his writing to get in what he needs to say, but the result is that the text is too small (and when a lot of Mass goers may be elderly, this is a big con), and the thoughts run on for too long. The word "bulletin" is related to the word "bullet", as in "bullet point" - say what you need to, but keep it concise. This is something people will be reading casually over coffee, not something they want to have to devote a lot of intensive time and study to.
4. Ugly Cover: Most bulletins I categorize as sucking also have an ugly cover. Usually there is little or no color on these bulletins. As per above, the cover will be crammed with text that is too small; the margins will be kind if unnatural, especially with the text going too high or too wide. These bulletins seem to regard the cover as just another opportunity to cram stuff on the page.
3. Information Difficult to Find: For most people, myself included, the parish bulletin will be used as a quick reference point. When are confessions this week? What is the Holy Day schedule? What is the parish fax number, etc. This information needs to be easily available, preferably on the cover or inside cover. A parish bulletin that sucks keeps you flipping through for five minutes scanning every page and box looking for this information; often times it is printed in a small black and white box on the bottom of page 4 or some other place that is difficult to find.
2. Priest Doesn't Write Anything/No content: We know that bulletins are all going to have info about the upcoming rummage sale or German dinner or whatever, but we don't expect a bulletin to consist exclusively of these things; we want some word from the pastor, some tidbit of spiritual consolation or education. Yet in really awful bulletins I notice that it is common for the pastor to not write an article; this task is either entirely delegated to lay people, or else there is really no content of any kind, the entire bulletin taken up with notices of upcoming events and no real meaty content so to speak of.
1. Banal Content: Banal content is without a doubt the number one problem with most parish bulletins. Bad jokes. Poorly written articles. Sappy reflections. Imprecise theology. Styrofoam-filler columns that say much but tell us nothing. Lessons on the goodness of life learned from observing Mrs. Jones' cats. The stars are God's daisy-chain. You know what I'm talking about - content that is weak, theologically unsound, overly sappy and emotional, irrelevant, or maybe that give the Music Director, DRE or some other lay person a chance to show off. Too often, it seems that the persons who write the content for a parish bulletin simply can't write well or don't know how to lay their thoughts out on paper. Thus, the pedagogical potential of a bulletin article is lost.
If we could sum up all of these problems in a single term, it would be UNPROFESSIONAL. The compilers of sucky bulletins do not regard their readers as an intelligent audience that demands (and expects) intelligent, thoughtful and well-crafted content, nor to they see the parish readers as souls on a journey that need to be nourished and aided along their way of faith, and for whom those who write in parish bulletins have some responsibility. Thus, there does not seem to be an overriding commitment to professionalism on the part of the creators of sucky bulletins. In fact, the approach seems to be one of a "community events forum", in which the bulletin is used to celebrate the community rather than communicate meaningful information. Thing like font size, article length, article content, layout and cover art are all important, and those who prepare bulletins need to keep this in mind when putting them together.
Now that we have seen the pitfalls, lets look at what goes in to a great parish bulletin.
How to Make a Great Bulletin
In the first place, bulletin covers should not be cluttered with text. They should feature large pictures or collages of pictures, showing the life of the parish as it unfolds. Sometimes pictures of a recent festival or gathering may be appropriate, or just a well done professional color photograph of the parish itself. Covers do matter, and a colorful cover with a few brief headers and maybe the lead in to an article are vastly superior to covers that are black and white and cluttered with two or three columns of 10-point font text.
Speaking of text, we know that font size matters, but so does the choice of font itself. When I worked for my parish my pastor, who worked in advertising before becoming a priest, told me all about a lot of nuances about text and layout that I never considered, like which way certain pictures direct the eye, what color schemes are most pleasant to look at, and most importantly, the difference fonts have. Arial font is generally preferred by folks who want to cram a lot of text in and save space, because it does not have any frills or wings or anything like that. Yet, apparently the reason newspapers originally latched on to Times New Roman as the font of choice is precisely because the little frills and wings on the ends of letters serve as visual anchors that grab and hold the eye; thus, Times New Roman letters are easier for the eye to "hold on to", while Arial letters are more visually "slippery." This means that Times New Roman is actually easier to read than Arial font.
A Times New Roman font is thus ideal, and it should be a minimum of 12 point. I realize that for some bulletins this will mean a considerable loss of space. But then again, it is time for people to learn how to say things succinctly. Decent bulletins, the ones I really enjoy reading and that grab my attention, have articles that are either a column and a half in length or less; or, if something more is required, it is included as an insert on its own with a font a tad larger, maybe 13.
Content. What about content? Brief but rich reflections from the pastor on the Gospel are best, but so are thoughtful reflections on national or global issues, provided they are from a Catholic context. Brief articles from the Youth Director, DRE or Music Director are appropriate if they are informational - that is, announcing when First Communion interviews are, that Choir is now taking new volunteers, etc. Anonymous entries are fine, too; not every article needs to have a name to it. But what should not happen is that some lay person is given their own weekly column to pontificate on whatever "reflections" pop into their head, such that Bill Smith or Gretchen Kowlaski or whoever gets their own soap-box forum from which impose their thoughts on everyone else. If you want to do that, start a blog! Geez!
Seriously though, people want to hear from the pastor primarily. Besides commentary on the readings, here are some other great content ideas I have seen; keep in mind, all of these ought to be brief:
- Educational articles on Life issues
- Lessons on Latin for the purpose of educating/preparing parishioners for Latin Mass parts
- Explanations of Catholic customs
- Quotes from the spiritual writings of the saints
- Biographical information on the saint of the day
- Little tidbits on the meaning of different liturgical actions
All of these ideas can be incorporated in addition to a general larger article from the pastor and the common blurbs about rummage sales, spaghetti dinners, etc. If the pastor doesn't want to write these small tidbit articles, he can delegate it to (preferably) his Deacon, but if not, then a DRE, administrator, etc., so long, as I said, as this doesn't become some lay person's weekly "column." In order to prevent this, these smaller articles should be written anonymously. There are many ways to work this, but the point is that with all the catechetical opportunities a bulletin provides, it should not go to waste.
Just as unprofessionalism characterized a bulletin that sucks, so PROFESSIONALISM and a commitment to the catechetical aspect of the publication. My pastor is an exemplar of this; he carefully crafts the bulletin articles himself, makes sure that any volunteers he has working with him on the layout know how to use MS Publisher and are brought up to speed in the most basic principles of design, and takes great care to make sure the bulletin is a well-packaged, well-delivered, aesthetically pleasing piece of publishing that communicates a message that his rich and yet brief, challenging the reader to go further.
An Awesome Bulletin: St. Josaphat, Detroit
St. Josaphat is part of a parish cluster in Detroit that also includes Sweetest Heart of Mary and St. Joseph, all of them founded by Polish immigrants in the 1800s and retaining a strong Polish cultural identity. Prior to Summorum Pontificum this was one of the indult parishes, and today is the center of the vibrant Detroit Latin Mass community. Some weeks ago I went to Mass at Sweetest Heart of Mary and brought back a bulletin (because it is a cluster, all three parishes apparently use the St. Josaphat bulletin). I thought this was without the doubt the most excelltn bulletin I have ever seen and I have taken the liberty of scanning it and uploading it here. Before you click the link and read it, I want to point out a few things:
- Apologies; I unfortunately lost the cover and inside cover, but it was very colorful and nice, just like I recommended above. My apologies.
- Notice the nice article, written by a priest in large 12 or 13 point font, that educates the people on an item of liturgical interest (vestments).
- The "Thomistic tidbits" section is wonderful. Note its brevity, but also its richness.
- Announcements are all grouped together in one single spot, not plastered all over the place. If one wants to find out what is going on in the parish, it is super easy to look to one spot to get the information.
- The "Stewardship Thoughts" section provides a reflection on the readings; note it is anonymous. The Deacon, however, has his own column for reflection which is not anonymous, as is appropriate to someone on Holy Orders.
- Note the Pro-Life blurb, unambiguously supporting the Church's Pro-Life position while giving members valuable information on supporting a local pregnancy help clinic.
- The "Year of Faith" council quotes is a great idea; it shows a connection between the parish and the initiatives of the Holy Father, gives a tidbit of education on an important Vatican II document and invites the reader to examine their own life in light of these principles.
- Announcing Banns of Marriage is awesome.
- How about the section on Natural Family Planning? This is a great idea but something I have seldom seen. For many couples, NFP can seem daunting and complicated, and formally supporting it through the bulletin is a great means of offering help to couples who are using it for licit reasons.
- "History Corner" is a neat article. I normally wouldn't support lay persons writing weekly articles, but in this case, note that the author is not given a platform on which to pontificate about his reflections or insights; he is using it as a history lesson - in other words, the article is not about him, and I think in this case it is fine. And it builds a connection between the parish of the past and the parish of today.
- The directory and contact info is very easy to find. All advertisments are clustered together on the back of the bulletin, which allows the interior to be reserved for announcements (like the perogie sale!) and content.
Great content, excellent use of the bulletin as a catechetical tool, beautiful cover (which I regretfully lost), and great layout. This is what makes a bulletin awesome.
Go and do likewise.
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