By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 11, 2010
Father Luke Ballman is a convert. A convert to using Facebook in ministry.
He resisted the popular social networking site for a long time. But now the vocations director is hooked.
“It allows me to present myself as a real person,” he said. He posts updates there and shares events in his life with men who are considering a priestly vocation.
The Atlanta Archdiocese’s Vocations Office is embracing social media to promote service to the church as a priest. It’s part of a comprehensive multimedia marketing effort underway.
Reaching out in new ways is important since close to 80 percent of Americans are linked to the Internet. And Facebook is the most visited website in the United States.
The Vocations Office recently unveiled a Facebook page as “Atlanta Vocations,” which is followed by more than 200 people, and a YouTube channel, along with a new website that ties the efforts all together.
Father Ballman sees social networking as key to keeping his office in front of the faces of young men.
“Jesus always meets people where they are. We need to meet them where they are,” he said. And with the target audience of high schoolers, college students and young people, that means social networking sites and the Web.
“This is where they live,” Father Ballman said.
Sister Susan Wolf, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame, promotes the Internet and social media use by church ministries. “The Internet is a mission field. Let’s be there!” is a message on her e-mail. She writes her blog at catholicweb solutions.com.
American teens are heavy Internet users so the church has to get its message in front of them for vocations’ purposes, she said.
She said using e-mail and social media, along with traditional media, “increases the possibilities of reaching more people (especially the younger generations) with the good news of Jesus Christ.”
The Atlanta vocations initiative is done with the help of Vianney Vocations, a Valdosta company started by former seminarian Sam Alzheimer.
One of the company’s goals is to increase the number of men who consider the seminary, he said. And he has a track record he can point to in the Diocese of Savannah, where, over three years, the diocese increased its candidates from three to 28 with his help.
For Atlanta, Vianney Vocations has put together an e-mail campaign and flyers targeting families, while also building its presence on Facebook.
“We are using the medium which most young people are using,” Alzheimer said.
In the parish bulletin flyers, there is a wide range of news, including stories about parents of a seminarian, an open letter from the vocations director and an interview with a 48-year-old seminarian. A flyer in Spanish is expected to be available this month.
Another feature is collecting names of young men who others believe may have a vocation to the priesthood. Alzheimer said the idea isn’t new, but using e-mail and digital technology replaces a clunky, work-intensive system.
Some 67 men have been identified by early November. The suggestions came from a variety of people, priests, deacons, and religious education leaders. All of the identified men get e-mails, brochures, and information about discernment retreats, he said.
The Atlanta Vocations page on Facebook includes links to stories and photos of seminarians. Father Ballman said this outreach knocks down walls.
“Priests are normal people, with the same hopes, dreams, fears as everyone else. We’ve just been called by God to spread the Gospel in the midst of today’s world,” he said. Facebook allows men examining their vocation to see that, he said.
In addition, a monthly e-newsletter is sent to some 150 men who are interested in the priesthood. The newsletters cover a topic a month on some feature of life as a priest or on the discernment process and other issues.
“Father Luke has a constant contact with these guys,” said Alzheimer.
The men don’t get a hard recruiting sell, he said, just an invitation to consider the idea of the priesthood.
Is the Atlanta Archdiocese in a crisis? There are some 40 men in the seminary with candidates in line to join them. But the number of Catholics in the archdiocese hovers around 750,000.
Father Ballman said the current seminary numbers are good, but there has to be a balance between supporting the men at seminary now and outreach to men considering applying to ensure the number of candidates remains healthy. This initiative helps the outreach, he said.
Father Ballman said the first test of this new program is the Dec. 28 and 29 discernment retreat that is open to all men. Generally, there are about two dozen men and the goal would be to increase the numbers into the 30s, he said.
One sign of change is that there’s been an uptick of interest in vocations where Vianney Vocations has been used. For example, the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., had 14 men recently attend its discernment retreat, when only a handful used to show up.