When Joe Luedtke was growing up, the weekly church bulletin was always the major means for his family to know about and stay connected with parish activities, as it was for millions of others across the country. “We had it tacked to our refrigerator,” he remembers, “and it was a great reminder of opportunities — from many ministries to events going on in the church.”

Luedtke’s enthusiasm for the parish newsletters as a primary means of communication remains as high today in his role as president of LPi (originally Liturgical Publications Inc., 4lpi.com), which prints weekly bulletins for thousands of parishes in the lower 48 states. “For literally decades the church bulletin has been the only form of church communication beyond the priest at the pulpit,” he said. “The church bulletin has been the mainstay of church communications. We still see the church bulletin as the mainstay of church communication for many years to come.”

But with the rise of electronic means of communication like websites and email, has the printed bulletin lost its place? No, says Sharon Ehrenkranz, director of parish life at St. Laurence Catholic Church in Sugar Land, Texas. She made a startling discovery five years ago for the 7,700-household parish that has 3,000 bulletins printed weekly. With all the other media available, she began seriously thinking of eliminating the bulletin and replacing it with a monthly parish magazine. She even designed the layout for the potential new publication.

Then, at a breakfast at a local restaurant with her mother after Mass one Sunday, Ehrenkranz looked around, and at each table, “everyone had a St. Laurence bulletin and were leafing through it — everyone from an elderly couple, with the woman looking at it, to a young family while Dad held one youngster on his lap and Mom held the baby on her lap.”

“I was amazed so many people there were reading the bulletin,” she said, “and I thought, ‘Okay, God. I got it. … I get the message.’”

The parish is very intentional how the bulletin is used, she explained. It’s not just to push out news and information about what’s going on in ministries; it is also used “as a tool to attract people.” As it does, readers can be directed to the parish website for more information on a particular ministry or group.

 

Creative Uses

“We structured our bulletin to pique interest,” Ehrenkranz explained. One highlight within the usual 24 pages is the weekly “Stewards Among Us,” in which a parishioner shares what inspired him or her to get involved in some ministry  at the church. “It’s not putting them in the spotlight, but shedding light on the ministry they love,” she noted.

The St. Laurence bulletin also connects parishioners to the larger Church by including such features as a quote from Pope Francis and news articles about important diocesan people and events.

The printed bulletin has another essential impact. Parishioners bring bulletins with them while they are visiting the sick and homebound. Those visiting the hospital and the nearby prison bring bulletins to hand out, too.

“Those in prison feel connected to a faith community,” Ehrenkranz explained. The prisoners’ prayer intentions are listed in the bulletin and “unite with our parish community. Many who are incarcerated a few miles from us feel connected to our parish community though they never set foot in church.”

So popular is the church bulletin that the parish hired a graphic artist to work on the weekly design.

“The bulletin has not decreased in importance,” Ehrenkranz said. “It has grown in importance.”

A bulletin was vitally important to a church in Ohio after it suffered a catastrophic fire. The parish informed LPi that the bulletin would not be needed while the church was being repaired and parishioners attended Mass elsewhere. Luedtke said a company representative convinced the church to do a small bulletin describing the situation and shipped copies weekly to local businesses, restaurants and bakeries to keep people informed until the church reopened, free of charge. The special bulletin endeavor engendered hope and goodwill in the community.

 

Parishes Benefit Many Ways

Parishes have another practical benefit. The bulletin costs are covered by the advertising in the back pages. The printer guarantees contractual advertisers, local businesses and services, they will get 52-times-a-year exposure. This section also works for the parishioners in another way. Someone looking for a plumber, for instance, can first turn to the bulletin.

But the major point of the church bulletin is communicating to evangelize effectively to bring people closer to Christ. As Luedtke noted, “We believe that vibrant churches matter.”

Many church bulletins are linked to parish profiles at the LPi-managed ParishesOnline.com.

Studying the analytics of their trove of bulletins, Luedtke has discovered that the “No. 1 thing people do [at the site] is go to the church bulletin.” This became especially clear with the amount of traffic on ParishesOnline from Florida during the time “snowbirds” winter there “but still want to stay connected to their [home] church.”

 

Bulletin Is Just One Piece of the Puzzle
 
Matthew Warner, founder and CEO of Flocknote, sees bulletins as remaining important, but that they must also be coupled with key digital tools built for equipping ministries to communicate, and for getting important messages out to the entire congregation at a moment’s notice, at any time of the week. Flocknote sees its mission as helping to build a more connected Church by providing parishes with a smarter way to engage any and all segments of a parish community using email and text messaging.
 
According to Warner, parishes using Flocknote (Flocknote.com) can do things like remind people by email and text to come to Mass on a holy day of obligation. “Parishes can text people the night before — ‘Don’t forget the holy day tomorrow’ — rather than have them forget after Sunday there’s a holy day.” Flocknote's own customers have reported that using this quick communication can double, even quadruple, attendance.
 
“There’s really nothing that competes with a good email and text message system for a parish when it comes to engagement,” he said. “Text messages have a 99% open rate, while open rates for emails from churches hover around 50% when done well (which is still far higher than any other channel, including the bulletin). … Our whole philosophy is to start with the two most important pieces of contact information  — the email address and cellphone number.”
 
Warner explained how this form of communication reaches those who do not go to church every Sunday or who don’t regularly explore the bulletin. At the same time, he said Flocknote focuses on segmenting messages, sending them directly only to groups of people in various ministries or members of specific activities to save them from having to search for pertinent information online. This quick communication method is also helpful for enlisting volunteers for a parish activity at a moment’s notice.

At St. Jude parish in Chalfont, Pennsylvania, communications coordinator Jeannette Williams has witnessed a decrease in the number of bulletins the church was printing simply because more people were looking at it online as part of the parish’s weekly e-newsletter. She said it was not a matter of the bulletin losing importance, only in the method of looking at it: increasingly on the parish website. “Bulletins are usually first, with the highest number of pages visited,” she said. “And Mass times are a common search.”

Parishioner Lucy Jones regularly reads the church bulletin because it brings her into the St. Jude’s community. Jones makes sure to read “names of those sick and deceased so I can pray for them and their families. Parishioners should read the bulletin to more fully engage in our parish. Our relationship with God calls for us to be part of the church community, and without knowing what’s going on, we miss out on the joy of that relationship.” While Donna Cushing is a digital reader, turning more to the e-newsletter, there’s always a printed bulletin at home for her family. Cushing always reads the pastor’s message. “I always look for that first thing, and then the upcoming Mass intentions … and for upcoming events that may be happening in the parish, such as Bible studies.”

In Texas, St. Laurence parishioner Nick Stulak also opens the weekly bulletin and finds the “reflection or message from the pastor that’s either meditative or a natural question for reflection,” he said. He believes the bulletin is “an essential communication link between the parish leadership and the entire congregation.” And from time to time he has reached out to advertisers for pricing and quotes.

At Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church and School in Houston, director of communications Bridget Richardson said the parish of nearly 8,000 families has about 8,000 unique users in the church’s Flocknote system.

At the same time, “We love print material. That should not go away. We put importance on the [hard-copy] bulletins,” Richardson emphasized. “It’s a supplement to the digital we do.” Christ the Redeemer’s bulletins are printed by the archdiocese, but design and content are done in house by Richardson and another staffer. “It’s user-friendly,” Richardson said. “It helps them [parishioners] to see where the church fits into their calendar. They can see, ‘This is going on on Monday, and I can go to that meeting on Monday.’”

She highlighted other significant benefits of the printed bulletin. When you’re “directly handing the bulletin to someone, it’s a beautiful connection to make that they may never make digitally,” she said.

She also likes the feedback. Richardson realizes, “Yes, they’re reading it and mulling over it.” She’s even heard from young adults who shared, “I picked up a bulletin and thought I’d attend a meeting. Or my grandmother handed this to me, and I thought I’d come [to a group event].”

Richardson sees the bulletin as “vital,” making “that tactile connection with people,” she said. “It all comes back to evangelization and Jesus and trying to be Christ for others.”

Joseph Pronechen is a

Register staff writer.

Editor's Note: This story was updated March 7 at 2:53pm Eastern to better reflect the viewpoint of Flocknote.