I grew up in San Diego, CA and in my early twenties, relocated to Phoenix, AZ. For the first time in my life, I had a basketball team, in my city, that demanded my loyalty. So when my friend gifted me a Tyson Chandler Suns t-shirt for my birthday, I happily wore it to show off the pride I had in my newfound hometown team.
We like to represent what we support—whether it’s a sports team, a band, a cause, or otherwise, we often want to show off what we’re about through things we wear, have, or use. So when it comes to our parish communities, why not make it possible for parishioners to show their support by providing church merch?!
Why create merchandise for your parish?
While Catholic parishes aren’t known for selling or giving away parish branded gear, like t-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, water bottles, etc., many of our Protestant brothers and sisters have been doing this for a while. They’ve caught onto the idea that the members of their community are proud that they attend their church and have given them a concrete way to express that pride by selling or giving away merch.
And while having church merch available might seem cool and exciting, more importantly, it’s a very strategic way to carry out the “attract” stage of the Detroit Model of Evangelization, by creating advocacy among your most devoted and loyal parishioners. But this advocacy is more than just representing a brand—it’s a way to share the Gospel.
Beth Allison (Parish Engagement Coordinator at St. Aloyisius in Detroit) explains, “It’s a simple form of evangelization. Items such as wearables and stickers help to get our name in unlikely places to spark curiosity or conversation. One of our parishioners takes a notebook with our logo sticker into their secular work meeting and someone at the meeting notices. Another takes a sip from their refillable water bottle at the gym and our logo catches the attention of the runner on the treadmill next to them.”
Think about it: you know who the folks in that core group are—the ones who attend most events, are eager to volunteer, when needed, and regularly invite newcomers to your parish. These people already promote your parish, just by the very nature of their involvement and invitations; now imagine if they were regularly representing everywhere they went. They’d quite literally, bring your parish into places you can’t go!
This kind of advocacy from your most loyal customers (read: parishioners), extends your engagement efforts beyond the people who are already in touch with your parish. It brings people into an awareness of and attraction to your parish, who otherwise, might not know your parish exists!
Ready to get started?
In order to make church merch work for you in this way, facilitating the attract stage of our model of evangelization, you have to be strategic in how you create and distribute it. For starters, you’ll want to identify who you want to create merch for. Start by identifying your most loyal and dedicated parishioners—those folks who are most excited to promote what you’re doing at your parish. Then identify what sorts of things they use or wear most in their day-to-day and then create merch that aligns with those items, but is also extremely valuable to them.
Don’t assume that just because your parish’s logo is on something, that people will want to use it. I used to belong to a parish that sold exceptional merch. I didn’t buy a sweatshirt from them primarily because I wanted to promote the parish—that was secondary. I bought it because it was high quality, looked good, and I liked wearing it. Create church merch that adds value to your parishioners' lives; trust me, they’ll appreciate it and it will make them far more likely to use and wear it in a way that effectively promotes your parish.
Once you have merch available, you’ll have to decide how you want to distribute it. Do you want to give it away to new parishioners when they register? Do you want to sell it alongside a particular campaign? Or do you want to have evergreen merch available for purchase year-round? Whatever you decide, make sure it has to do with a bigger engagement strategy—don’t just have merch for its own sake. Determine what will generate the most effective advocacy among your parishioners.
Best practices for “church merch”
Now there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to selling or giving away product. Keep the following items in mind as you prepare to incorporate merch into your engagement strategy:
Always keep track of inventory. This might sound basic, but if you don’t keep track of inventory regularly, you can run into some frustrating issues. For example, if you don’t track inventory and accidentally over-sell a product or sell out of a specific size, you are going to have to tell someone who ordered or requested a product that it’s unavailable or delayed. Nobody likes hearing that! Just keep track of inventory. Your life will be easier if you do!
Have a plan to move inventory before it gets stale. Before refreshing your merch and coming up with new items or designs to sell, you’ll want to get rid of anything that you haven’t already sold or given away. Consider things like running an annual sale, or giving away product to parish ministries or volunteers, in order to move old inventory before stocking up on new product.
If selling, determine how you will process sales. If you plan to sell product, there are a number of questions to consider: will you only sell in person, or also online? Will you process sales using cash/check only, or does your parish have a Square, Venmo, PayPal, or other online point of sale service you can use for credit card or online transactions? Will you set prices, or make products available for a suggested donation amount?
For a more advanced, but automated option, consider drop-shipping. If you have the time to build and manage an online store, you can consider using a drop-shipping service like Printful, which allows you to select from a wide variety of products, upload your artwork, and will print-on-demand, as parishioners order product. While this requires a bit more work on the front-end it alleviates some of the pain points of managing bulky inventories in person.
While “church merch” is certainly not essential to a Family of Parish’s work, it can add a great deal to its engagement efforts. Consider your current strategy for engagement, how church merch might fit into it, so that you can make advocates out of your most dedicated parishioners.