I recently came across a tech blog announcement about the hiring of Thomas Sanjurjo as “Electronic Outreach Director” at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon, Florida. As a parish webmaster myself and someone who is vitally interested in the Church’s use of social media technologies to reach and to serve our parishioners, I reached out immediately to Thomas to learn more about his role at Nativity and his perspective on these tools. I’m pleased to share the following conversation with Thomas and hope that the role of “Electronic Outreach Director” will soon be as common as the DRE or the music director in large parishes.
Q: Hello Thomas and welcome to CatholicMom.com. Could you kindly begin by introducing yourself and your family to our readers?
Hello everyone, I’m Thomas Sanjurjo, Electronic Outreach Director at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon, Florida. My family and I are blessed to be part of such a forward looking parish that so fully embraces the mission of evangelism to all places where there are people seeking God. I am seven years married to my college sweetheart, Alicia, and have four beautiful children; we’re on the “every other year” plan with our oldest being six and our youngest just two months. Alicia and I are also RCIA ‘graduates’, and a large part of what brought us to the Catholic Church was our conviction about birth control and finding the Natural Family Planning resources to be almost entirely Catholic.
Q: Congratulations on your recent appointment at Electronic Outreach Director at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon, Florida. Your hiring certainly signals a wonderful trend for our Church — the entry into serious consideration of the electronic media in the Church. How did you happen to land in this position and what are your major duties and responsibilities?
I was actually applying for a position as a Communications Director at a local Catholic High School and asked our Pastor for a letter of recommendation, he told me that he would write the letter, but for me to hang on for a bit as the staff here at Nativity were planning on creating a position I might be interested in. When he and our Faith Formation director told me more about the position I was inspired to create an outline of what this type of position might be able to do for a parish, the team used that plan to interview me for the position. The basic layout of the plan was for how ministries could be better integrated through the use of online resources like wiki, calendars, and databases and how outreach could be performed through savvy use of social media. I’m beginning to embrace the larger concept of being a “Social Media Strategist” for the parish in trying to involve and educate staff and ministry leaders on the benefits and uses of different platforms.
Q: Are you aware of others in your diocese or in the state of Florida who have a similar role in a parish setting?
I’m a little bit of a Jack-of-all-trades at the moment. There is a similar position at the Diocesan level, but they have the title “Web Administrator” so the focus is less on the Social Media (though I’m working to inspire her to help continue that focus.) Our Diocesan Stewardship Day was all about how to incorporate New Media into the outreach of our parishes, so we’re moving in the right direction!
Q: How do recent writings on the New Evangelization and messages for World Communications Day color your perception of your job and make it about more than simply updating the parish website?
The largest population missing from our pews today is the 18 to 29 year old group. These are the young adults who have left home, are at college or in early careers and don’t yet have a family to keep them grounded in the church. This population is also the majority group in social media. If we, as a church, knew that there was a place that all the people who hadn’t been to church in a while went to hang out, we would send missionaries. Online is no different, it is a tremendous missionary field. We just need to go and learn the language and the culture so that we can spread the good news there as well.
Q: What are some of your greatest priorities in your role at this time?
Right now I’m working on making a user-driven website as a landing page for our parish home. I want it to be welcoming and geared toward the person sitting in front of the keyboard looking for information; this can be intimidating in the Catholic Church which has so many years of “theological vocabulary” to work through. Some of the things are simple (“I want to join the Church” rather than “RCIA”) and others are very complex (like how to refer to sacraments.) I’m also working on “branding” our parish so that all our outreach has the same look and feel (the transition from Facebook to Twitter to YouTube to our Webpage should be pretty seamless.)
Q: Have you been able to successfully involve other parishioners in the work you are doing?
There is a vibrant online community at our parish. We have a very active Facebook group and LifeTeen group which are entirely self generating. The parish’s Facebook group predated me by about four hundred members.
Q: How much “leash” have you been given by your Pastor and your administrators in stepping into new arenas of social media?
A tremendous amount of freedom has been granted in my case because I went in with a wealth of resources explaining the advantages of social image control and hype. Without that research I think I would not have been as free to open up some of our resources.
Q: What are some of the barriers or struggles you are facing at this time and are there any you’ve been able to overcome?
There is a small, but vocal segment of our parish that is concerned about the implications of reliance on social media. I have been able to overcome some of this concern by simply devoting time and effort in talking through the concerns these individuals have. Mostly the concern is about the loss of personal touch, which is the opposite of how I view social media working. It has been my experience that meeting someone I have been connected with online is a boost to the depth of our conversation, and there are no “friends” on my Facebook that I have not met in real life (which is an overwhelming trend, not a rarity.)
Q: I know that the announcement of your position within our circle of Catholic “geeks” online has been very well received, but how have folks in your own parish reacted to the work you are doing?
The staff made some really huge sacrifices to create this position, but it seems that I am living up to the expectations. I certainly feel like I am indispensable already, I must be with how busy I am! The larger community has been wonderfully supportive and very excited about what I am able to bring to the table. We are podcasting masses, expanding our WiFi, actualizing our Facebook potential, and increasing involvement for many parishioners not previously able to engage as readily.
Q: How can people see some of your work and connect with Nativity Catholic Church?
In a week or two I will be going live with our revamped webpage, but until then our Facebook FanPage, our Facebook Group, our Twitter Feed, and our YouTube Channel are the best places to see some of the things I’m working on. I’ll also be updating my blog about Social Media Strategy with a little more regularity now that my family is back on the healthy track (we’ve had two weeks of the bouncing cough.)
Q: Are there any additional thoughts or comments you’d like to share?
I feel our Catholic Church is responding to a very real change in society in a very positive way. The rise of New Media is as exciting as the invention of the Printing Press, and we are doing well to embrace the change it is bringing. There are some deep wounds in Christ’s Church that can be healed through the open discussion and involvement of an active, positive, and Christ focused online community. Let’s all get out there and do our best to spread the Good News!