It may be early, but the Synod on Synodality is already bearing fruit in one small Arkansas town.
When St. Paul the Apostle Church in Pocahontas surveyed its parishioners during the earliest phase of the synodal process, the congregation let pastor Father Stephen Elser and the parish council know that a lack of communication and opportunities for fellowship were among the biggest issues the parish needed to address.
“The diocese asked us for the top three findings; our top two, by far, were communication and fellowship,” Father Elser said. “On the fellowship side, I blame a lot of that on COVID. We just built a new fellowship hall and events are happening, so that’s kind of taking care of itself. Communication was the other common thread throughout all the responses. Parishioners just didn’t feel like they knew what was going on, or they felt like only a select few people knew what was going on.”
As the council discussed ways to improve dialogue, member Danny Ellis, a self-employed real estate and aviation marketing executive, had the idea to launch a news program focused solely on news and events in the parish.
“People weren’t picking up the phones. They weren’t reading the announcements. So, I thought, I’ve been marketing for a living. I've got the equipment, the cameras,” Ellis said. “Let me see what we can do to fix this.”
In May, St. Paul Church launched Unity News, a monthly, 30-minute program that begins with parish news and events, interviews and panel discussions with parish leaders, and a question-and-answer segment where parishioners can e-mail inquiries for Father Elser to address on the show. Unity News is presented on Facebook and YouTube once a month Sundays at 7 p.m.
“The goal is to reach as many parishioners as we can to let them know what's going on, make sure they feel like they are a part of the parish, and provide opportunities for them to play a role,” Father Elser said. “We’ve done a few episodes, and it’s been well received. It’s great for us to see.”
“At first, the reaction was confusion, ‘Why are we doing this?’” Ellis said about the parish’s initial response. “But once they were able to see what we’re reporting on — the facts, the news and the truth — in a professional-quality news program with improving production value, the reception has been great.”
In the first few episodes, Unity News was able to highlight the parish’s RCIA program,
growing adult faith formation opportunities, youth program — which features five members who are on the diocese’s statewide Youth Advisory Council — and the launch of St. Paul’s columbarium project while diving into deeper discussions on Church-wide topics like Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist and the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
Ellis said he initially thought of producing a live show, but instead thought the production value would be better if it was recorded and edited. Each half-hour episode takes more than six hours to produce from coordinating topics and interviews through recording and editing. Filming usually takes place a week before the show airs.
“I never thought I’d be doing a news program, but it’s a lot of fun. It really is,” he said.
Ellis anchors the show with Angie Capps, a volunteer who helps lead the parish’s youth ministry. Although she does not have a media background, Capps said she “can pretty much talk to whoever” and leapt at the opportunity.
“People are wanting more communication other than the bulletin, so when Danny called me and asked if I would be co-host, I was like, ‘Absolutely.’”
When it came time to film the first episode, however, her confidence surprisingly gave way.
“It was different; I was nervous,” she said. “We stumbled and laughed for 45 minutes and then had to regroup and start over again.”
After recording a few episodes, she said, “I think we’re getting there. It doesn’t bother me now to speak on camera.”
Capps said she hopes the show will nudge people to get more involved.
“I hope that we get to continue to get our word out and get our parish better involved in the life of the Church,” she said. “We got a lot of people that can do a lot of stuff.”
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