Positioning the Message
Decades ago, I met Jack Trout at the offices of Trout & Reis, then a small public relations agency, located in the tight space of an office tower in Rockefeller Center.
At the time, I was the Communications Director of the Newark, N.J. Archdiocese, and long before the scandals that plague the Roman Catholic Church today, there were some severe issues back then.
Overall my task was to attract “good press coverage” that might advance the work of the archbishop and the archdiocese. So I thought until I met Jack Trout.
In the late 1970s, the archdiocese was in the midst of a financial meltdown and on the verge of bankruptcy. This situation was the result of years of growth and reckless spending with little attention paid to modern management and careful bookkeeping.
Newly acquired fundraising consultants recommended that outside communication counsel needed to be hired to explain to parishioners how a once financially stable archdiocese fell over the cliff with barrels of their money; and how the people of the archdiocese would have to fork over even more money to address the insolvency. Well, at the time, this is what the consultants thought.
Enter Jack Trout, he was a graduate of Iona College and well attuned to the pitfalls of Catholic organizations such as they are in large and small dioceses, hospitals, colleges, and universities. He was among our initial consultants and someone who had an insight and recommendations worth considering.
Over a luncheon discussion, I reviewed our case statement and a cover letter concerning the issues facing the Newark Archdiocese.
Trout replied: “Father, no one is going to get you out of this mess. Who are the people responsible? What makes you think that by giving the archdiocese even more money that you will deal with the root causes? If parishioners have lost your trust, what makes you feel they are going to give even more money to bail out the archdiocese now?”
Bluntly, he added: “I don’t have any magical thinking that might help explain how this situation came about nor could I find the right words to persuade people to rescue of an archdiocese or archbishop.”
“I do have this one idea, however,” he added. “You have something that no commercial product or social cause or political candidate possess. You have an audience each Sunday at Mass, so make the most of the pulpit, the homily or sermon. Overall priests underestimate this powerful forum and how it may help explain the gospel message and the forward the pastoral ministry of a parish or diocese.”
Trout told me of how he was authoring a program based on his public relations principles and aimed at the priests in the Bridgeport Diocese. The idea would be a careful study of scripture with lay participation that might make the Sunday homily more effective, as an exercise in ministry and leadership.
That day I learned from Jack Trout something central to our primary role as ministers of the gospel and how we must use the instruments at hand to best effect. Years later, “Sunday to Sunday,” the preaching journey might see this as its beginning of a conversation about how preaching is the centerpiece for ministry and evangelization.
Trout would go on to a celebrated career in strategic communication and offered his services to presidential candidates like Barack Obama, and business tycoons like Donald Trump when he was attempting to stake out a foothold on Atlantic City Hotels and Casinos.
Trout passed away in June of 2017 at the age of 82. In the New York Times obituary, the writer Richard Sandomir credits the Trout and Reis firm with the concept of “positioning” that in order to advance products or causes not by creating something new or different, but rather drawing on “what’s already up there in the mind, to retie the connections that already exist.”
When I think back to my encounter with Jack Trout he taught me that my core work has more to do with gaining an advantage for the gospel, a type of “positioning,” rather than wondering how to attract “good press coverage” for an archbishop and a chancery office in financial crisis or organizational disarray.
In a recent 2018 public opinion survey, The Pew Research Center on Religion reported about the declining number of Americans attending religious services and reported this finding:
Of those Catholics who attend Mass regularly only 36% say the homily or sermon they hear is valuable enough to keep them coming back.
Like the reference to Father McKenzie in the Beatle’s song, this priest is “writing a sermon no one will hear.” These lyrics are a constant reminder that even with the best of intentions, a homily or sermon may have little effect on a congregation.
Preaching presents substantial challenges. However, the opportunity to identify with your fellow parishioners, reflect common hopes and assess the real needs of those whose lives you touch may be the very first requirement for good preaching. This is an all-important aspect of pastoral leadership. To my mind, effective preaching is a leadership skill. Without effective preaching, leadership may be weakened or undermined.
Good listening and interpersonal skills are the best prescription for those new to the preaching ministry, and long before the formal study of writing or public speaking.
By simply reporting observations about day-to-day pastoral experiences via the new social media could be a powerful tool when listening to people as they walk out of the church or learning about the community that we live in, reflecting weekly on scripture, and even polling viewpoints about social justice issues. These ideas could be starting points for the homily and help spark conversation. I’m convinced that gifted preachers benefit from an exchange with others that grows over time and helps to confer a level moral authority so relevant today.
From a very practical standpoint, preaching is also a performance skill that takes place in a variety of environments whether in large cathedrals equipped with microphones or that of a small intimate setting of a home or hospital room. A preacher must have the capacity to adjust to groups that vary in age and cultural background as well as the size and church environment.
Theater critic John Lahr wrote of his father, Bert Lahr, the actor, and comedian, had the talent to make an audience laugh at a pause, or even at a conjunction. Bert Lahr’s timing and body language could “read an audience” for tremendous comic effect. The actor once remarked to his son: “I listened to the audience, and they told me where the joke was.”
Thus, a preacher’s attentiveness to the congregation and leadership skill acknowledge that he or she is genuinely communicating with a living organism that begins with individuals connected to the larger community and this parish in particular.
A few years ago, I discovered the translation of an interview by Pierre Babin, a French religious educator, with the famed media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Their dialogue occurred in 1977 when issues about the introduction of vernacular languages of the Roman Catholic liturgy were still hotly debated.
McLuhan took an original position regarding how the Latin Mass, contrary to the standing opinion, was not the victim of Vatican II. Instead, McLuhan insisted that the microphone, as a practical tool of communication, made the “indistinct mumble” by the priest in Latin became merely unacceptable for the congregation.
Back then, McLuhan foresaw that new media would spark a “participatory culture” that would have its effects on the liturgy whereby, he believed, the new liturgy would “work better in the small community.”
The idea of a television program about the preaching ministry and how such a program could raise the profile of the parish priest has always been on my mind, going back to the late 1970s. At the time, I was producing and hosting a discussion program “New Jersey Catholic,” a pioneering effort in local origination cable television.
Now in our current age where ministry extends to permanent deacons, religious, lay-women and youth ministers “Sunday to Sunday” may provide ways to demonstrate their important contributions to witnessing to the word of God.
In April of 2017, I discussed a concept for this series of video programs with editors at America Magazine who were ready to equip a television/media studio for their new headquarters in mid-town Manhattan.
Getting a nodding interest from just enough people, I began the effort at obtaining the funds so essential to the project.
My initial donors were among parishioners who had witnessed a thriving parish community and wanted to pass on this experience of great preachers to their grandchildren. They placed trust in the idea, the project and me. Also, they strongly recommended we create a 501 (c) 3 non-profit production company and formally register the trademark on the title “Sunday to Sunday.”
Soon we gained the invaluable advice from the production team at DeSales Media Group in Brooklyn, and later an invitation from Father Tom Rosica to come to Toronto and meet his staff at Salt+Light Television. These first contacts signaled we were on to something.
All along, I turned to colleagues at Saint Mary’s College for editorial support including Ed Tywoniak and Ginny Prior as well as our rookie video team from the ranks of former students Carlos Torres and Jake Slonecker. They had recently incorporated Cut Focus, LLC where their main work was real estate and event videos.
Over time, I drew on the professional expertise of over twenty-five volunteers who are now listed in the program credits. They include Matt Soares, our Business Manager, attorneys on the East Coast and in California, and people like Joan Maxwell for her national marketing expertise and John O’Keefe for his years of fundraising know-how.
“Sunday to Sunday” rests on the excellence of our preachers and this must be the all-important editorial element driving each episode. The task is to create a conversation that peers into the personality, and the humanity of each with the belief that he or she has insight into that day’s readings as it applies the community, everyday surroundings as well as the larger world.
One goal is that the preacher has to be compelling enough that the viewer wants to stick around to the very end of the twenty-eight minutes and listen to the homily. At a time when media consumption is marked by seconds, minutes and tweets, we may be asking plenty of an audience.
To accommodate to this reality, for social media we provide preview versions of one-minute length, as well as a seven or eight minute highlight versions for posting on various platforms. For educational use in seminary, university and adult education, our website posts complete transcripts as well as a detailed study guides.
Also relevant to the production are my own experiences from my days at CBS News where I had the job of working on special events broadcasts as a producer with the task of writing questions for TV news anchors. Later, my teaching in the Communication Department and as a professor at Saint Mary’s College still remains so helpful in locating resources from among my pool of talented alumni and friends.
In my course on “Religion, Media & Culture” I invited preachers into my classroom to discuss their work. Often, I assigned my students to go to local churches, to carefully listen and evaluate the homily or sermon.
I would identify examples of diverse preaching styles found in Evangelical or the Main Line Protestant churches, as well as video samples drawn from YouTube and other sources of the Rev. Billy Graham, Archbishop Fulton Sheen or the work of Bishop Robert Barron.
For the “Sunday to Sunday” pilot programs, I looked to friends of mine whose preaching I have always valued: John Kasper, Robert Sheeran, and Donal Godfrey.
With a minimum of planning and preparation, our first day of production was on May 22, 2017, Carlos Torres, Jake Slonecker and I walked into Saint Perpetua Church in Lafayette, sat in chairs placed in front of the main altar, and began speaking with its pastor, John Kasper. We had two cameras, microphones, and just enough post-production editing for the initial pilot episodes.
These programs provided the basis for an evolution over several months where Carlos, Jake and I were learning how to best capture the guest in conversation and the homily within the confines of a church. We were greatly aided with expert advice and at times coaching from friends in the news, sports and film media in New York and Los Angeles.
From what may have been a studio production like you see on C-SPAN, we gradually moved to a higher and more complex production quality of an on location, almost 60 Minutes style and equipped with three high-quality cameras, better audio and adequate lighting, plenty of B-roll, and the outdoor drone shot. Innovations and experiments required financial support to achieve a higher quality with editorial and visual engagement. By 2018, we had the funds to complete five episodes.
When identify gifted preachers, “word of mouth” helps greatly. Friends of mine suggested Father Bill Nadeau of Incline Village, Nevada. His parish church, Saint Francis of Assisi is a gem that overlooks Lake Tahoe and the building itself helped inspire how we might visualize both the interview and the liturgy.
From a video and film standpoint, we want to create an intimacy of the community of faith that draws on the cinema techniques found in films like “Of Gods and Men,” (Director, Xavier Beauvior, 2010) and “Into Great Silence,” (Director, Philip Groning, 2006).
Bill Nadeau’s years of ministry and mostly his compelling story helped define the parameters of our format. In one sense, my conversation with Bill Nadeau is a master class in “divine renovation” based on the thinking found in a book by James Mallon. Additionally, this particular program helped establish for Carlos and Jake the visualization and musical tempo for subsequent episodes.
Naturally, we want engage the viewer and so the format for “Sunday to Sunday” closely resembles “Inside the Actors Studio.” This program was once on the Bravo cable network where James Lipton examined the life-achievements of famous film/TV actors and directors.
Our program looks at a preacher’s accomplishments over time with the idea that he or she may provide a few recommendations or tips for those new to preaching. We set the conversation at their church and listen to their reflections on ministry sometimes revealed in authors central to their thinking or spirituality. Mostly we want to get to know the individual and hear a sample of their preaching and observe how they conduct themselves before the congregation at a vibrant Sunday Mass with lectors, cantors, Eucharistic ministers and the choir in full voice.
One illustration of how “Sunday to Sunday” concentrates on this local parish level and also a prime example of Marshall McLuhan’s idea of a “participatory culture” can be seen in our episode with Father Matt Pennington and Deacon Tom O’Brien. Their San Luis Obispo parish, the Nativity of Our Lady, provides its parishioners with podcasts and video streaming on the parish website.
In this program, Tom O’Brien shares how the recent installation of video screens provide the congregation new ways to view parish announcements at the end of Mass as well as the post of the lyrics of hymns during the liturgy.
In addition, permanent cameras mounted in the church permit recordings of homilies which are posted later on the parish website. These tools for evangelization may have long-term benefit for the vitality of the parish community and help forward the work of the Monterey Diocese and beyond.
How best to use social media along with websites, YouTube and podcasts is challenge to all of us in the media ministry and opens us to experiment and simple applications for the purpose of extending the gospel.
We live in an age of new media that connects us via new tools we are only beginning to utilize or even understand fully.
In 2019 “Sunday to Sunday” will produce eight episodes with applications to social media and become a resource for the preaching education. We hope to discover preachers from among priests, deacons, lay-women and youth ministers -- those who expand our faith tradition as well as increase our reception for new and innovative ways to witness to the gospel.
Our intent, again quoting Jack Trout, is to “draw on what’s already on people’s minds and retie the connections that already exist.”
To this end, the connection is Christ, who is present in the preached word.
Monterey, CA., January 12, 2019