Fran Rossi Szpylczyn served as a media executive for nearly 30 years before joining the church world in 2008. “As I like to joke, I went from senior vice president to church secretary in one easy step,” Fran says. “Except it is not a joke, and I could not be happier.” She started by volunteering with her home church, St. Edward the Confessor in Clifton Park, N.Y., and then became the office manager at Immaculate Conception in Glenville, N.Y. She continues in both roles today, managing blogs for both churches and social media for Immaculate Conception.
You’re in an interesting position of working at one church and attending and serving at another, doing communications for both. Have you had any problems juggling two churches? What makes it work well and what are some of the complications?
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn: Oh it can be crazy! Both places are at once similar and yet very different. It has not been a problem, other than time management, to juggle the two. I am always aware that at Immaculate Conception my role is more “official” because I am a paid employee, but that at St. Edward’s I am doing what I do in a ministerial capacity. What this means is that I may be communicating on behalf of the parish in a different way. So far it has not proved to be a problem, and I would like to think that both places benefit from what I learn in both places!
You keep your church’s blog updated as a volunteer—what challenges do you face there? Do you get all the support you need as a volunteer?
Fran: Support is never the issue! Time is a bigger problem. There are times when the parish blog at St. Edward’s does not get updated as often as I would like. Sometimes I get folks to offer contributions and I am trying to recruit and train some other bloggers, but that goes slowly. But not for lack of support!
How do you deal with congregations stuck in a ‘That’s how we’ve always done it,’ mindset and are resistant to trying new things?
Fran: Luckily, I have been blessed to not encounter too much of this. A bigger problem, related to, but not exactly the same as “we’ve always done it this way,” is the “fear factor” of social media. That has been a huge roadblock, but we are making progress.
We have to be prudent and wise, not going off in ways that could be harmful to the Church, but we must not be ruled by fear. If we are, then we are not following Jesus, are we? And are we not compelled to live and share the gospel, in new ways? We must bring the Word to the ends of the earth. Social media helps us do this in remarkable ways.
What was your first great success as a church communicator? What made it work so well?
Fran: Oh gosh, you presume success!? I think that at St. Edward’s the best thing was and remains a feature suggested by our pastor, Father Pat Butler. When I began the blog in 2007, he wanted to have parishioners offer daily scriptural reflections during Advent and Lent. We began in Advent 2007 and have continued. Our stats go way up during those times. What made it successful and continues to do so? This is something that the community is gathered around in a powerful way.
What was your first great failure? What lessons did you learn?
Fran: The biggest thing was that in 2007, when I did not know better, and when I did not really know anyone; I just assumed that everyone would embrace the blog. I tried reaching out to the staff and ministry leads, wanting them to be a part of it. That was a huge flop and I was largely ignored at the time. I also stepped, however inadvertently, on some toes at that point. Let me say that my diplomatic skills, communication and expectations have improved a bit since then. I need to ask more questions going into something new. Remember, I was coming out of a senior exec position… I was not rude, but I was kind of used to bringing forth new ideas and having people follow. In 2007 it turned out to be humility that was the best new idea for me, as a result of this!
What’s the one thing you wish you had known when you were getting started in church communication?
Fran: That’s a good question… I’m not sure that there is one thing. Other than the aforementioned humility! In all seriousness, I think that my blind blundering reinforced the kind of humility and openness needed for this work, so I can’t say I would do too much differently.
Are there any unique communication challenges in a Catholic church?
Fran: Yes, of course. I think the biggest thing is that some people view the church as a target to be hit; others view it as a monolith to never be examined or criticized. Then there are all the rest of us spanning the space between those two poles. I think at some point I realized that no matter what I said, I would upset someone. In church you are always too controversial for some and not critical enough for others. The ways in which we might offend one another as Catholics is myriad, some of it intentional, most of it quite unintentional. Also, when you are the size of the Catholic Church there are so many misunderstandings to others about who we are and what we are about.
The other thing is that church teaching must be at the center. My own opinion is not the issue, just as the opinions of others who write or post for these parishes are not the issue. What is the truth as understood by the church and how do we live with that? For me it might mean my own struggles with said truth and teaching, for another it might be something else altogether.
More on Getting Started
Looking for more help getting started?
- Check out the rest of our Getting Started interviews and the series of Getting Started in Church Communication ebooks.
- Another resource that might be a big help is our book, Dangerous: A Go-to Guide for Church Communication. It covers a lot of the basics, from big picture strategy to practical stuff such as sound and video.
- Who’s your hero? For inspiration, turn to our ebook, Church Communication Heroes Volume 1: Lessons From Those Who Have Gone Before.