By TANZINA VEGAThe Benedictine monks at the Portsmouth Abbey in Portsmouth, R.I., have a problem. They are aging — five are octogenarians and the youngest will be 50 on his next birthday — and their numbers have fallen to 12, from a peak of about 24 in 1969.
So the monks, who for centuries have shied away from any outside distractions, have instead done what many troubled organizations are doing to find new members — they have taken to the Internet with an elaborate ad campaign featuring videos, a blog and even a Gregorian chant ringtone.
“We’re down in numbers, we’re aging, we feel the pressure to do whatever we can,” said Abbot Caedmon Holmes, who has been in charge of the abbey since 2007. “If this is the way the younger generation are looking things up and are communicating, then this is the place to be.”
That place is far from the solitary lives that some may think monks live. In fact, in this age of all things social media, the monks have embraced what may be the most popular of form of public self-expression: a Facebook page, where they have uploaded photos and video testimonials.
A new Web site (portsmouthabbeymonastery.org) answers questions on how to become a monk — one F.A.Q.: “Do I have to give up my car?” (yes) — and print ads announce that “God Is Calling.” Some monks will even write blogs.
“If 500 years ago, blogging existed, the monks would have found a way to make use of it,” Abbot Holmes said. “Our power is very limited. In the end it’s God who is calling people to himself and calling to people to live in union with him. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do our part.”
For some, the technological approach to advertising and marketing may seem at odds with the image of an almost hermitlike monastic existence. Not so, say the monks. The use of technology and social media has been embraced even by the Vatican, which has its own YouTube channel and a Facebook page dedicated to the beatification of Pope John Paul II.
“We were going to do this no matter what, but we are happy that the pope thinks well of this kind of media for our purposes,” said David Moran, director of the monastic renewal program office at the abbey.
The campaign, especially on Facebook, presents the monks “as being open and friendly and totally accessible,” said Tom Simons, the chief executive and creative director of Partners and Simons, the advertising agency the abbey hired to oversee the new campaign. The Facebook page will allow the monks “to build out their fan base,” he said.
The Simons ad agency, based in Boston, typically has clients like health care and financial services companies. “This assignment from Portsmouth Abbey was intriguing because it’s the Lord’s work,” Mr. Simons said.
The day of the firm’s initial meeting with the abbey, Mr. Simons told his staff that a “holy person” would be visiting and recalled the sight of Mr. Moran and Brother Gregory Havill, dressed in his monk’s robe, entering the agency while electronic house music played in the background.
“I think Brother Gregory felt he had arrived in a brand/digital advertising theme park and he was alternatively bemused and delighted with the ride,” Mr. Simons said in an e-mail.
Once at the planning table, cultural differences faded and the agency and abbey quickly agreed to focus their efforts on the Web. “We knew from the outset that this wasn’t going to be solved through traditional marketing,” he said.
Partners and Simons collaborated with BPI, a film production company, to create online videos of the monks. The interviews were the building blocks of the campaign, Mr. Simons said, focusing on how the monks heard the call, what monastic life is like and inviting newcomers to visit. The goal was to capture “their warmth, their sincerity, their gentleness,” he said.
Brother Havill’s story, which revolves around a pastrami and Swiss cheese sandwich, plays a prominent role in the campaign both in print and in video. One of the print ads tells the story of a day 10 years ago when, while waiting for his sandwich to warm up in the microwave, Brother Havill says he heard the call to “go to Portsmouth.”
Having dabbled in genealogy, Brother Havill thought the Portsmouth in question was the port in England that many of his ancestors had traveled through on their way to the United States. But when he woke up the next morning, he said, he realized the message was for the Benedictine monastery at Portsmouth Abby.
“I didn’t have any plans to become a monk or anything like that,” said Brother Havill, who at the time was an art teacher and sculptor living alone in Cromwell, Conn.
The abbey is attached to a co-ed high school called the Portsmouth Abbey School, where two-thirds of the students live on the grounds. Some of the monks, including Brother Havill, who uses an iPad to teach art, work there. The monks can use technology to teach or for work, Brother Havill said, but “you won’t find monks out there playing with their iPads.”
In addition to providing an education, Catholic boarding schools like the one at Portsmouth also served another purpose.
“In the old days, they would just have kids there that they would educate, and every now and then some of them would join the monastery,” said Francis Russell Hittinger, a professor of law and Catholic studies at the University of Tulsa. “The number has precipitously declined over the last 50 years.”
Beyond recruiting from schools, the abbey placed ads in publications like the Catholic magazine First Things and Religious Ministries, a directory of Catholic communities. When those didn’t work, the abbey took the path of many major advertisers — hiring an independent ad agency.
With this campaign, Mr. Moran, who is a graduate of the Portsmouth Abbey School, said he expected the Facebook page to invite users to learn more about the abbey and the monks and to help spread the word about them. He will help some of the monks, including Brother Havill and Abbot Holmes, to learn to blog, which they will do between the five religious services they observe each day, although he has decided they are not quite ready for Twitter.
“Not yet,” he said. The social networking tool “requires a regularity in posting that we would find very difficult to maintain.”