Michigan nuns use Internet, TV ads to attract potential sisters

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

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

The 4-month campaign, the most extensive in the history of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, is designed to recruit potential sisters and increase the general public awareness of the order.

"It's another way for us to move across boundaries," said Sister Corinne Sanders, the congregation's formation director. "It's another way to carry out our mission to preach the good news."

At a time when the Catholic church has come under fire for a series of sexual misconduct allegations across the country, The Adrian Sisters are hoping to draw positive attention to their order.

Considered to be the largest Dominican congregation in the United States with over 1,000 sisters across the country and the world, the group is hoping that women interested in a religious life will follow the billboards and TV ads to the Web site for more information.

While the Adrian Sisters, and other congregations, are using media and technology to become more visible, the nation's population of nuns is shrinking rapidly and growing grayer just as fast.

Nationally, the number of sisters has dropped by over 100,000 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 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 years old and 37 sisters died during the year.

But Sister Sanders said the marketing campaign, which had a budget of $200,000 and was mostly paid for with private donations, isn't about boosting membership, it's about being there for the 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, Sister Sanders said.

The sisters worked with marketing professionals, formed focus groups and targeted a demographic group of 20- to 35-year-old women.

They used the focus groups to come up with taglines and slogans that would tie the different forms of advertising together, as well as resonate with the people they were trying to reach.

"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 highly watched shows such as the morning and evening local news, The Today Show, Oprah and The Practice.

The TV commercial poses the question, "Is God tapping on your shoulder?" and uses the tagline, "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 the Oprah broadcast. 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 can register for a retreat the weekend of June 7 in Adrian. During the weekend, they will be able to visit the order, meet the sisters and ask questions about religious life.

The sisters are also hoping that the campaign, especially the Web site, will help introduce the general public to the congregation and the work its members do.

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 also are engaged in a number of global activities. They work to promote issues that are part of their mission, such as protecting the environment, promoting women's rights, ending racism and helping the poor.

The order also maintains a stock portfolio that includes shares in several major companies. And they introduce shareholder resolutions in an attempt to hold the companies accountable.

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. "And they just don't know much about religious life."

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

Sister Sanders said the mission of the Dominican Order, which was founded in the 13th century in France by Dominic Guzman, a Spanish canon regular, 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," Sister Sanders said. "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 Catholics children, now in their 20s and 30s, to grow up without nuns as role models, he said.

"I think so many American Catholics in the baby boomer generation have been imprinted with the characteristics of nuns and this generation won't have that," Gillis 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 Sister 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.

And the Web site and ad campaign are already bearing fruit. A record number of women have signed up for the upcoming discernment retreat later this month.

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