Congregation of nuns uses Internet, TV ads to attract potential sisters

Posted: Friday, June 07, 2002

ADRIAN, Mich. (AP) -- Life is short. Eternity isn't.

That's the message a congregation of nuns is preaching through a major Internet, TV, billboard and mail campaign.

The four-month effort, the most far-reaching in the history of the Adrian Dominican Sisters -- and possibly the most extensive of any order's -- is designed to attract potential recruits and increase public awareness of the order at a time when the number of nuns across the country is declining dramatically.

''It's another way to carry out our mission to preach the good news,'' said Sister Corinne Sanders, the congregation's formation director.

Nationally, the number of sisters has dropped 57 percent from 179,954 in 1965 to 78,094 in 2001, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

And the median age of the nation's nuns is on the rise: from 63 in 1985 to 69 in 1999, according to the center's most recent statistics.

The Adrian Sisters are considered the largest Dominican congregation in the United States, and with a total worldwide membership of more than 1,000 sisters. Yet they also are seeing their numbers drop.

Just one woman made her first profession of vows during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2001, according to the order's 2000-2001 annual report. The congregation's median age was 70 and 37 sisters died during the year.

But Sanders said the marketing campaign isn't about boosting membership -- it's about reaching out to women who are being called by God to the sisterhood.

''My concern is not numbers,'' she said. ''If there is a woman who may be called to religious life, does she know we're there? And can she contact us? That, for me, is the reason to become more visible.''

The congregation, based in the small southeast Michigan community of Adrian, began creating the marketing campaign about a year and a half ago, Sanders said. It cost $200,000 and was mostly paid for with private donations.

The sisters worked with marketing professionals, formed focus groups and targeted a demographic group of 20- to 35-year-old women. They developed tag lines and slogans to tie the different forms of advertising together.

''It was marketing 101 really,'' said Christopher Barecki, the congregation's director of communications, who helped spearhead the campaign.

On April 8, billboards featuring the sisters' Web site began appearing along Michigan highways. Television ads also began airing on Detroit area stations during popular shows.

The TV commercial poses the question, ''Is God tapping on your shoulder?'' and uses the tag line, ''Life is short. Eternity isn't,'' which also appears on the billboards.

Since the campaign was launched, the sisters have received over 450 phone calls concerning the ads, many of them coming during Oprah Winfrey's talk show. Hits on the Web site have risen from 150 a week in March to more than 4,000 a week in May, Barecki said.

Through the Web site, or over the phone, women could register for a retreat this weekend in Adrian, where they will be able to visit the order, meet the sisters and ask questions about religious life.

Dominican nuns, who mostly have shed their habits for contemporary clothing and live in apartments or houses rather than convents, now hold jobs such as CEOs, lobbyists, lawyers and artists.

Formerly relegated to the teaching and health care professions, the Adrian Sisters now work on broader issues that are part of their mission, such as protecting the environment, promoting women's rights, ending racism and helping the poor.

Web sites and marketing campaigns can be instrumental in recruiting and changing the public's perception of those in a religious vocation, said Sister Mary Bendyna, senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

''Recent studies show that many young people don't have an accurate image of religious life,'' Sister Bendyna said.

Bendyna said many congregations maintain Web sites and a few have tried limited marketing campaigns. But to her knowledge, there hasn't been anything as extensive as the Adrian Sisters' efforts.

Sanders said the mission of the Dominican Order, founded in the 13th century, has always been to go to the people to preach.

That's what makes the Internet a natural place for the sisters to reach the public, she said. ''The Internet users are young people. My generation learned to use it in the workplace. But I know with my nieces and nephews, they don't even have a reality without it.''

Chester Gillis, a professor of theology at Georgetown, said although marketing the sisterhood to young people may be good public relations, it's unlikely to slow the drop in membership significantly.

Gillis said a number of factors have contributed to the decline in the number of nuns, including the Vatican II reforms that took many of the sisters out of the Catholic schools and placed them in social ministries.

As a result, the sisters who taught at the schools were replaced by lay people, leaving many Catholic children, now in their 20s and 30s, to grow up without nuns as role models, he said.

Gillis also said that more women are rejecting the idea of religious life, or leaving the church entirely, because they feel alienated by its patriarchal structure.

''These aren't good signs,'' Gillis said. ''This isn't a healthy situation for the church.''

But Sanders said she remains optimistic about the future of her order and is confident that there will always be women who hear God's call to service.

''God is responsible for the call,'' she said. ''I'm responsible to be visible''


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