In 2008, the rector at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in Chestnut Hill, recognized that the church’s traditional ways of communicating with parishioners and the outside world needed to more widely embrace digital media. I suggested enhancing St. Martin’s web presence with an on-line archive of parishioners’ stories. The goal was to more deeply engage current parishioners in the life of the church by helping them better know those sitting beside them in the pews and to present a human voice of the church to the church-surfing public.
The project was called The Cloak, the name of the print newsletter it replaced. Similar to the newsletter, each edition focuses on a theme, such as “courage,” “good grief,” and “coming out.”
The stories are described on the website as: “a collection of audio vignettes that reveal parishioners’ faith journeys.” A photo of the parishioner and a transcript of the interview is posted along with the audio story.
I met periodically with staff to solicit their thoughts about themes and potential interview subjects.
Most of the stories are first-person narrative, with a voiced introduction to provide context. But when it made sense for them to be recorded in the field – a volunteer cook in the church kitchen chopping onions, for example – I incorporated ambient sound.
Since then I have worked with the staff to produce seasonal podcasts — in Lent and Advent — that integrate their parishioners’ stories of waiting (Advent) and wilderness (Lent,) with seasonal music performed by St. Martin’s Chancel Choir.
About 15% of visitors to the St. Martins website visit The Cloak; those visits represent around 12% of total site traffic.
Parishioners report enjoying hearing their stories and those of others and have mentioned forwarding the link to friends and colleagues.
One unexpected outcome came when the church was in the search process for a new rector. One of the most common responses of candidates, when asked for their impressions of the church, was their reference to “hearing” parishioners talk about their experiences through The Cloak.
When St. Martin’s rector arrived in 2011, the church expanded on this mode of storytelling to include more multi-media presentations both on-line and in focused gatherings.
“Barbara Dundon’s work on the Cloak is literally what first attracted me to St. Martin’s. The sensitivity and genuine engagement of these audio vignettes spoke volumes about the church’s care and attention to individuals and their life stories. Barbara is a masterful interviewer who connects with her subjects and elicits the essential and compelling elements that give life meaning.”
— The Rev. W. Jarrett Kerbel, Rector, Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields