Erin Carlson: The Power of Story
Erin Carlson is Director of Communications and Editor of FAITH Saginaw, the publication of the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich. She sat down with CE for a conversation about her role as a storyteller for the Church.
CE: How do you see yourself as a storyteller?
EC: I have been telling stories for as long as I can remember – something my dad often attributes to our Irish heritage. My dad is the second of 11 children, so when I attended family gatherings as a youngster, it was usually as one of more than 40 aunts, uncles and cousins. As you might imagine, holding the floor for any period of time during one of our spirited gatherings required a certain mastery in the art of storytelling (blarney or a gift of the gab as we may say). If what was being said wasn't interesting enough or didn't have the proper timing, the merciless crowd got out the proverbial hook.
I consider it a blessing that, year after year, I listened and learned from these gifted storytellers. I watched as they kept their 'audience on the edge of their seats. I absorbed their words and paid special attention to what worked and what did not. I told my own stories to my parents, sisters and friends – whoever would listen, and, through trial and error, learned the delicate dance between too many and too few details. When the time came to choose a career, I decided on broadcast journalism. I still remember proclaiming to my mom while working my second job in television, “I am getting paid to tell stories, how awesome is that?!”
Today, as the editor of FAITH Saginaw magazine, I consider myself incredibly blessed that not only am I still telling stories, but I am telling faith stories. Truly, how awesome is that? My favorite days in the “office” are those when I am headed out into the “field” for an interview. I get to hear, firsthand, how our Lord, Jesus Christ is touching lives, and then I have the great privilege of sharing these testimonies with our readers and with the world. It is the most meaningful work I have ever experienced.
In my dad's family, it is often joked about that he and his siblings repeat many of the same stories. Over the years, however, I have come to appreciate that this is a sign of a very good story .... one that is worthy of telling and listening to again and again. I am reminded of the best storyteller the world has ever known. His stories have been shared countless times for more than 2,000 years! In our own small way, we attempt to bring honor and glory to this Good News through the work of FAITH Saginaw. Our stories, centered in Jesus Christ, are written to evangelize readers by sharing a treasury of timeless truths. It is my hope that these stories of love throughout the Diocese of Saginaw will be worthy and inspiring to retell and reread.
CE: How have your stories about parish life had an impact on readers?
EC: The impact is that FAITH Saginaw is the story of the faithful of the Diocese of Saginaw. The personal accounts of faith and inspiration, courage and grace … these are our stories. Our hope is that they touch hearts and encourage readers to joyfully engage in what the Most Rev. Joseph R. Cistone, Bishop of Saginaw, is calling upon us to do, support the evangelizing mission of our Church.
In a dynamic way, FAITH Saginaw also allows us to showcase big events which bring people from all of our parishes together. Parishioners are involved in planning the Bishop’s Ball and the Bishop’s Golf Classic to support seminarian education. Each year, the diocese takes more than 400 young people to the March for Life in Washington D.C., and right now we are in the midst of coordinating a large-scale youth event, bringing in such talent as The Cross & the Light, JJ Weeks Band and much more. Similarly, parishes are partnering in new ways, working together to bring events such as Theology on Tap to their local communities. The magazine allows us to share the many ways – big and small – we are all working together. We believe our readers benefit from the energy, enthusiasm and success stories captured within the pages of FAITH Saginaw, and are perhaps more open to ideas presented that will help strengthen and enliven parishes to better serve the faithful.
CE: How were you able to use the magazine to prepare the people for parish closings and mergers?
EC: FAITH Saginaw served a significant role in the overall strategic communications of the parish restructuring process in the Diocese of Saginaw known as Planning Tomorrow’s Parishes. While the diocese provided regular and ongoing updates via the diocesan website, bulletin announcements, recorded messages and video and print news releases, the magazine is the only material mailed to the homes of parishioners on a regular, ongoing basis throughout the year. In this way, we relied heavily upon it (and continue to do so) to share the full, accurate news and updates related to the planning and restructuring process.
This was especially helpful because there was a high volume of reporting on the subject in the local media. There were more than 100 media requests related to parish restructuring, prior to and following Bishop Cistone’s final decisions. Though the coverage was overall very favorable, the limited amount of time in a television report or space in a print story could not adequately contain the entire context, background, history and process critical to our peoples’ understanding of why restructuring was necessary.
Our diocesan magazine allowed us to tell our own story, sharing details about the grassroots effort in a way that was professionally presented and easy to read. In this way, we were able to present all information and steps along the way, provide regular updates from Bishop Cistone, introduce readers to those serving on parish teams, share authentic stories about those experiencing a sense of sadness and loss and showcase best practices being used throughout the diocese.
Most importantly, I believe the magazine, which continued to reach out and touch people in their homes throughout the planning and restructuring process, continued to move hearts while sharing personal stories of faith and inspiration and reminding readers that our faith is not in buildings, but in the Lord, Jesus Christ.
As parish mergers near completion and we transition into a new chapter in the life of the diocese, FAITH Saginaw will be a major platform for Bishop Cistone to encourage the people to be open to the blessings and possibilities of the future.
CE: Tell us about your special diocesan anniversary issue and its focus on parishes.
EC: A gift to the faithful, Bishop Cistone recognized the powerful reach of FAITH Saginaw to help commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Diocese of Saginaw by sharing a special edition of the magazine with all families. The anniversary issue, Rooted in Faith, A Future Full of Hope, is 100 pages in length and weaves together — through words, photos and art — a story of the rich history of the diocese.
This history begins with the ministry of Father Henri Nouvel, a Jesuit missionary, who paddled through fog, rain and ice-choked waters to celebrate the first Mass in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula on the banks of the Saginaw River. In the hundreds of years since his arrival in 1675 come forth the stories of people of great faith who often met in log homes, hotel dining rooms and movie theaters, with a longing for community and connection. From this deep-rooted desire, our Catholic churches were built.
The anniversary edition dedicated more than half of its pages to these histories of our parish communities, allowing it to offer tribute to the pioneering spirit and unwavering faith of our people, both past and present. Within the text, we learn about the missionary priests who traveled great distances by foot and horseback to share the Eucharist, as well as the generosity of the faithful, the churches that were built and rebuilt after they were razed by fire or nature, and the generations of Catholics who continue to call these churches their faith home.
In a special way, Rooted in Faith, A Future Full of Hope also helped the faithful through the diocesan-wide parish restructuring, which also unfolded during the 75th anniversary year. Since many parishes were called upon to merge with neighboring communities, the special edition of FAITH Saginaw allowed us to honor and preserve the past, while boldly sharing the vision and great hope for the future.
CE: How do you use multiple media in conjunction with your publication to reach the people? Particularly print (magazine), video and social. What is the role for each form?
EC: As content evangelists, we understand the need to reach out in number of ways. The magazine is one of the best ways we have available to routinely check in with the faithful of our diocese. It allows us to present faith stories in a beautiful and engaging way, using colorful images and appealing art to connect readers with their bishop, with each other and with the diocese. Our hope is that, after spending some time with FAITH Saginaw, readers feel affirmed and energized about their faith. We also hope that they have learned something new and are encouraged to share this gift with others.
We also have found that FAITH Saginaw has a unique ability to make our diocese, which includes 6,955 square miles across Arenac, Bay, Clare, Gladwin, Gratiot, Huron, Isabella, Midland, Sanilac, Saginaw and Tuscola counties, “smaller.” In reaching out to share the faith stories that connect and unify people from all corners of our diocese, we are able to encourage conversations on topics important to Bishop Cistone and his ministry, such as evangelization.
While the magazine is delivered in print to individual homes, we publish only four times a year, so it is vitally important to use digital content to communicate daily. We use this digital content on our diocesan website and also share it via social media. One of the most exciting aspects about social media is to see a post (photo or video story) shared hundreds of times and viewed thousands or tens of thousands of times. Social media gives us an avenue to reach beyond those who are in our churches regularly and potentially touch Catholics who have left the Church and those with no religious affiliation at all with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Finally, on a regular basis throughout the year, and as part of our digital content, we produce “FAITHvideos.” These may be messages from Bishop Cistone, a video featuring an individual interviewed for a FAITH Saginaw cover story, or a highlight piece capturing a ministry, person or event. We have found great success in being able to bring these FAITHvideos to our people – one such video was even nominated for a Michigan Emmy. We share these videos on our website, Saginaw.org, our Facebook page and YouTube channel, and some of them have been featured on Catholic TV and on a local Christian network affiliate in Saginaw.