On her blog Turning, Turning, Emily Provance of Fifteenth Street Meeting (and Interim Young Adult Field Secretary for New York Yearly Meeting until early November) explores an outreach model for Quaker meetings that is geared towards the experience of seekers. If you've met Emily in person (as I did over the summer, at New England Yearly Meeting's Annual Sessions), you realize very quickly how passionate she is about making Quaker faith and practice more visible and accessible for anyone seeking a deeper spiritual journey. For this edition of Words by Friends, I asked Emily about outreach tools for Quaker meetings and her experiences using Facebook ads, and in doing so learned that she has found the most effective outreach strategy for welcoming newcomers and seekers requires a holistic approach.
How long have you been on your spiritual journey as a Friend?
I remember being six years old and being very sure that God talked to everybody, even though that wasn't the teaching of the faith tradition I was being raised in. I started looking for my own faith community at age ten. I found Quaker meeting when I was twenty-seven - seven years ago - and recognized Quakers as my people on the second visit. I was accepted into membership at Fifteenth Street Meeting on 10/10/10, which is terrific because it's easy to remember.
What drew you to blogging and social media as outreach tools for communicating the Quaker Way to others?
It was almost an accident, or more like recognizing an opportunity and jumping in with both feet. I was working on a series called QuED Days (Quaker Exploration and Discourse) with my friend Gabi Savory Bailey, in which speakers share personal testimony with a gathered group of Friends. We were live-streaming these events over Facebook and also pulling quotes from the talks and turning them into memes. The online side of things rapidly shifted from Quakers-only to total-strangers-sharing-and-commenting, and I recognized that as outreach. 68% of people in the United States have a Facebook account. Many people under the age of forty use social media as their only source of information and communications. It's not only about outreach--it's about everything. Whether we're led to work in outreach, internal communications, witness, advocacy, or pastoral care, we have to learn how to have an effective presence online.
What outreach tools, web-based or otherwise, do you think are most important when it comes to conducting outreach to seekers, individual Friends, and Quaker meetings?
There's no question that Facebook ads - at least right now - are the least expensive way to reach the most people. But actually, I think the most important tools are the ones that each Friend has access to and is led to engage in. Outreach - when we look at it systemically, across the entire Religious Society of Friends and around the world - is about critical mass. It's about Quakers being sufficiently visible that we become a part of popular culture again. Quaker bumper stickers, Quaker bracelets, Quaker quotes in our email signatures, signs on our lawns, social media activity...a Quaker book sitting on your office bookshelf, using the word "Quaker" in conversation when an acquaintance asks you about your weekend plans...just a few years ago, Snapple was printing on their drink lids that Quakers are extinct. There's a way in which that's funny, but I also know how much hurt I went through, searching for a spiritual community for seventeen years. If I had realized that Quakers weren't the same as the Amish, I probably would have visited a Friends' meeting when I was ten. I'm not talking about proselytizing, but I am talking about visibility. If we hold precious what we have found among Friends, it is wrong of us not to do what we can to make sure that other people know it's an option.
In what ways do you think New York Yearly Meeting’s outreach experiment on Facebook has been effective in promoting Quaker faith and practice to individuals online?
It's hard to say if the outreach experiment has been effective in promoting Quaker faith and practice. But that wasn't really the goal - the goal was visibility, and that's a goal we met. In Phase One, we ran Facebook ads within a twenty-minute commute of six local meetings and reached 90,000 people. Phase Two isn't over yet, but for that one, I've been working with twelve local meetings and the Powell House conference center, and we've reached 211,000 people in the first thirty-seven days. Only about ten percent of these people will remember seeing an ad for a Quaker meeting, but that means about 30,000 people now know that Quakers are still around and are, in fact, worshiping in their local area. To me, that's a huge success. And worth continuing.
What projects are you working on now when it comes to outreach and eCommunications?
In Phase Two of the Social Media Ad Outreach Experiment, I'm working with the partner meetings to train at least one Friend per meeting to be able to maintain an effective Facebook presence, including running an ad campaign, without outside assistance, by the end of 50 days of working with me. I'm all about developing local capacity. Social media work done by someone from the outside isn't long-term sustainable; Friends in local meetings have to be able to do this for themselves, in keeping with the meeting's relationship with and leadings from Spirit.
In 2018, I hope to open up the social media project so that I can work with Friends' meetings or churches from anywhere. Social media is also only one part of a much bigger picture. I'm involved in developing several projects for 2018 - one working with a number of organizations and individuals in creating resources to train meetings in engaging with 21st century technology; one in working with meetings in looking at outreach from the perspective of the seeker and as a practice of the whole meeting; and one in articulating and flipping the cultural barriers to multiage inclusion among Friends. You can find information about most of this on my blog, and a few more things will be added there shortly as they're confirmed.
Learn more about Emily Provance and her work on her blog, Turning, Turning.