Clients: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, KY); St. Bernard's Abbey
(Cullman, AL); Holy Trinity Abbey (Huntsville, UT); Holy Spirit
Monastery (Conyers, GA), New Melleray Abbey (Peosta, IA)
PR Team: Vocations Placement Service (Coral Springs, FL)
Campaign: The Live-In Experience
Time Frame: April 2000 - ongoing
Budget: dollars 1,000 per month
Monasteries have found it increasingly difficult to recruit new members,
prompting cynics to suggest that 3am wake-up calls and intense spiritual
devotion might not be the preferred 21st century lifestyle for most
adult males. But Natalie Smith, the woman behind the fledgling Vocations
Placement Service, believes the reason for the downturn in the number of
people pursuing religious careers is far more simple: they don't know
where to sign up.
Due to decentralization of the Roman Catholic Church, there is no single
source of information for people interested in religious vocations.
"It's hard to believe that there's no networking source for jobs as a
nun, priest or monk," says Smith. "You can't look up religious careers
in the phone book. There are tons of available positions, but people
can't find out about them."
Her solution? A one-woman PR crusade to get people to attend weekend
retreats at five US monasteries, with the hope that attendees will
eventually choose to pursue a religious calling.
Smith wanted to spotlight the simple, spiritual existence of a monk,
while dispelling misperceptions about life at a monastery. For instance,
prayers are no longer chanted exclusively in Latin. To this end, she
attempted to position the retreats as a "live-in experience" at a
"spiritual resort," rather than as a vocational retreat.
"I wanted to make them sound appealing but not too heavy," she explains.
Smith had another major concern: convincing the monks that her PR muscle
was needed. Brother Gerlac of the Abbey of Gethsemani was initially
skeptical. "I wondered about the imposition that the visitors would have
on our community," he says.
Acknowledging the need for what he calls "a higher quality of
candidates," however, he eventually relented. "After hearing her out, we
decided that it couldn't hurt," he explains.
Smith was limited by the fact that she works alone and essentially for
free (she only accepts donations).
Given her limited resources, the PR tactics she employed were decidedly
rudimentary - she wrote a simple press release, which did little more
than pass along the dates of the retreats, a general description and a
toll-free phone number for those who wanted more information. Volunteers
assisted her in distributing the release by faxing it to churches,
Catholic colleges and local newspapers.
"It was little more than 'volume, volume, volume,'" Smith explains. "I
didn't get hung up on trying to woo people who wouldn't be interested."
Smith also established a Web site, www.vocationsplacement.org, to offer
The press releases were picked up by nearly 100 local newspapers. Smith
approximates that the placements garnered about dollars 70,000 in ad
But Smith's crowning accomplishment is a front-page story in the January
13 issue of The New York Times. The story detailed the difficulties in
finding candidates for the monastic life, as well as the marketing
techniques that Smith's five monasteries and other religious groups are
using to locate quality recruits. "I was astonished," Smith admits. "You
can't buy the front page of The New York Times."
The net result of the campaign was an increase in interest in the
weekend retreats. More than 250 people have attended since Smith started
her marketing crusade.
Smith hopes her efforts are only the first step towards better
publicizing career paths in the Catholic Church. "It's time that someone
removed the mystery," she says.