July 2017
Small and Rural Churches

Facebook for Small Churches

Editor’s Note: To read some of Jenny’s wonderful posts, be sure to visit the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bedford Facebook Page - @stjohnsbedford

I’m the Parish Administrator for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bedford, Virginia. St. John’s is small but vibrant. It’s full of the kind of people you want to live next door to. Young people and old. Parents and grandparents, teenagers and toddlers. There’s a little bit of every kind of person here.

I came to St. John’s in 2008 looking for a part-time job that would allow me to tend to my (then) newborn son while also contributing to my family’s financial well-being. When I started working at St. John’s there was a website but no social media presence. It seemed like a good idea to keep up with the times and meet the people where they were: online.

Managing the professional presence on social media was not in my original job description, but as with any job, time marches on and the duties have evolved to reflect the changing times. I was never asked to “do” social media but someone has to do it, and there aren’t a lot of options. So, you know, you just get done what needs to be done.

Setting the ground rules

I started enthusiastically. I set up a Facebook page. And a Twitter account. And an Instagram account. And…I soon realized I was going to have time for only ONE of those. I can’t “do” Instagram from a desktop; it’s just not designed that way. I don’t really like Twitter as it feels like a hurricane in a bathtub in there. Too many voices and not enough complete sentences. So, I chose to focus on Facebook. I already had a personal account there, I understood how it worked, many of our members used it, and it was simplest for me.

Our church had no set policy about social media usage, and since St. John’s has such a small staff, there continues be no set “rules” other than my self-imposed guidelines:

  1. Be kind
  2. Don’t post anything that portrays the church in a negative light
  3. Avoid politics. At.all.costs.

The first year or so that the page was active, I did my best to follow the unwritten “Facebook rules of growing a page”. That is, I kept the posts short and to the point. I always included a picture. And I tried very hard to maintain a consistent posting schedule with no long gaps between posts.
What I found was that:

  1. I felt stressed if I couldn’t post regularly enough
  2. The page grew to only include people already associated with St. John’s
  3. There was no interaction at all on any posts
  4. The page looked just like every other church Facebook page in existence. It was, in a word, a bit dull.

What works for you?

Like many small churches, there is no budget at St. John’s for advertising of any kind, so I couldn’t make use of Facebook’s advertising to boost our page metrics and interactions. Instead, I began thinking about ways to make better use of social media as a tool. I looked at what several other really successful pages that I found interesting were doing. I also looked at what folks responded to on my personal page.

I also began to think about what I would like the St. John’s Facebook page to accomplish. Was it going to simply be a vehicle for sharing coming events with the established congregation? Should it have broader appeal? If we were seeking a broader appeal, what would that look like? And how would I measure the success of the page?

Based on my (admittedly limited) research, I thought humor might work well. People like to laugh. I‘m not terribly funny, but I do like to write, and so I started making up longer vignettes that tied in-however remotely-to whatever was going on at St. John’s. I quickly noted that liking to write does not automatically translate to “good” writing. I ultimately focused on telling a story with each post. I included bad-dad puns (You know the ones: “have you heard of those new corduroy pillows? They’re making headlines.”) Yeah, I know, it’s bad. But it also makes you smile. I included plenty of pop-culture references whenever possible to make up for the noticeable deficiency in actual jokes, and to give folks something to relate to. I let go of feeling as though I had to publish something regularly, and just did what I could, when I could, or when I felt creative.

Measure successes, incorporating feedback

In just a couple of months the page grew from under 100 followers to nearly 200, and it currently has a following of 269. While I wouldn’t call that wildly successful, for a church with an average Sunday attendance of 77, that’s not too bad.

Is the page successful? I don’t know. I know our page metrics regularly rival those of other area churches with 2-5 times our following. I know we get more page visits and more interaction than we had before.

Success for our page isn’t going to look like success for a Facebook page at a church with a congregation of 8,000, no matter how witty I am. And that’s not really what it’s all about anyway. I usually gauge whether or not the page is “successful” in any given week if I get just one like or share from someone who is not a member of St. John’s.

Though most of the feedback I received was positive, several folks did not care for the new style.There was (and there continues to be) a minor generational disconnect, which is difficult to overcome. Some folks didn’t like the first-person perspective, and others just couldn’t connect because they had no idea who I was.

My writing style is very informal, and doesn’t appeal to everyone. But then, social media is informal. It’s the modern day equivalent of a backyard barbecue, but without the food. And like any good barbecue, there should be plenty of vibrant conversation, hopefully with people who aren’t all exactly the same.

It was (and is) hard to address all the complaints perfectly, and it certainly caused me some consternation for a while. While I thought I was being amusing and injecting some fun, others thought I was being too casual. I did however, make a few adjustments.

I occasionally include a more formal-sounding post to reach those who prefer that style, or simply because the topic requires it.

While I love sharing puns and jokes, I reined it in a tiny bit. There’s a very, very fine line between hilarious and “inappropriate when it comes to jokes and church. Navigating that line is bit like walking a tight rope over a surging sea of hedgehogs. It won’t kill you if you fall, but it will certainly be unpleasant.

Make it personal

What I enjoy the most is sharing personal stories from around the parish. My favorites are when I can shine a light on someone in the parish who has gone above and beyond in their service. We had a bird trapped in a drain pipe outside my office one day and I was able to use that as a post to highlight two of our dedicated members who rescued it from certain demise. It was one of our most-liked posts. Second only to a post about pie.

Special Events (or regular events) happening around the parish also make good posts. We don’t have special events every week, but those obviously make great posts. I like to come up with new ways to invite people to worship at St. John’s during our regular worship services too. It gets me thinking creatively about what others might find appealing about our parish.

I stuck with the first person perspective though for a couple of reasons. While I recognize that writing in the first person probably makes me sound self-involved, it serves my purposes by allowing the reader to get to know me personally, and it is that personal connection that hopefully draws readers back again. Like most novice writers, it’s also “easiest” for me. When I’m constrained by time, whatever is simplest and flows fastest is what ends up on social media.

I also started “signing” my posts. Because the Rector also posts on the page, and because several people asked, I started including my first name at the end of each of my posts as a way to connect better with my readers. I also regularly include information about me in my posts and sometimes throw in a picture so that people can get to know me, and put a face to the page.

As with any job, there are times when things are less busy and other times when the hours fly by. I use the slow time to make notes about ideas for posts. Though I’m generally much more creative in the spur of the moment, I do find having a few ideas prepared makes things faster. Most of my posts take no more than 10-20 minutes to compose. If I’m really struggling, I usually just decide it isn’t meant to be and move on with my day. I often use posting to Facebook as a mid-morning break from my usual routine. The creativity allows me to come back to my other duties with energy.

Finding a voice for your page that works for your congregation can be a challenge. But it can also be fun, engaging and worthwhile. Try it and see.

Jenny Shutt is the Parish Administrator at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bedford, Virginia.


This article is part of the July 2017 Vestry Papers issue on Small and Rural Churches