When you write, you can’t control how others interpret your words. Not completely, anyway.
I was reminded of this after I wrote some reflections for Forward Day by Day. These are daily meditations on the lectionary that go out to Episcopalians all over the country. The responses I receive vary widely. Some people send me kind notes. Others use the reflections as a springboard for their own thoughts. After one mediation that briefly mentioned climate change, I received one long email questioning my belief that climate change is real.
Ultimately, you can only put your work out there and hope that others will find it meaningful or useful, even if the words don’t always come across as you’d intended.
This is true of every word we speak and our liturgy, as well. Take Ash Wednesday, for example. Some understand it as the beginning of Lent, a time of reflection. Some simply stop in the church to get their ashes before heading back out to work, a visible reminder of a deeply felt if not regularly practiced faith. Maybe they only go to church on Easter and Christmas. Others go to the Ash Wednesday Eucharist and will go again on Sunday, as they go every week.
Two weeks ago, in advance of winter storm Jonas, the forecasters in the mid-Atlantic began their steady drumbeat of winter weather analysis mixed with heart-stopping projections.
Meteorologically, they knew something was going to happen but, whatever it was, it wasn’t going to happen until Friday of that week; I’m sure they said as much in their ‘round the clock reporting. In the minds of area residents, however, the psychological situation had already begun to shift.
I became aware of this on Tuesday when, for instance, the altar guild reported that they were going to set up for Sunday worship on Wednesday afternoon and then hunker down in their warm homes and see me the following week. Or maybe sometime after Groundhog Day!
I’m not one to freak out about weather, so I went on about my week, even popping into the local grocery store on Wednesday afternoon to pick up some supplies for bible study. There, I noticed the meat counter was nearly empty and long lines poured out of every available register. I don’t know much about weather, in general, but I do know how to read a community! And that’s when I knew that no matter how many inches of snow landed on the ground, Sunday morning church was in serious jeopardy of happening.
And that’s also when I remembered a friend talking about doing what she called “conference call church.” On bad weather weekends, or at random points throughout the week, she’d set up a conference call, using one of the many free online conference call services. She’d let folks know the phone number and access code and then wait on the other end with Morning Prayer and sermon on the ready.
Tomorrow the Church celebrates Epiphany, the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem to greet and celebrate the birth of Jesus.
In a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, the wise men have taken the circuitous route. Throughout the twelve days of Christmas, photos of three wise men statues have appeared on the website
of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Westerville, Ohio. Along with their trusty camel steed, the wise men have been captured on (digital) film at city hall, a park, a pub, a coffee shop, and a busy intersection. I’m looking forward to seeing where their journey takes them today.
It’s a fun way to remind folks of the journey of the wise men and the continuing season of Christmas. And this type of project is a perfect venture for social media, where folks can share and like the photos of the wise men.
Even from a hospital bed, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is a pastor.
Over the weekend, Bishop Curry suffered a subdural hematoma, a small collection of blood between his brain and his skull. He is scheduled for surgery today and is expected to make a full recovery.
Even as I’m sure he is a bit anxious about the surgery and his health, Bishop Curry also wanted to reassure and comfort his flock—the 2 million people of The Episcopal Church. From his hospital bed, he spoke in a video
, with a nurse explaining his condition. His canon for ministry, the Rev. Canon Michael Hunn, was at his side.
Bishop Curry sets the bar pretty high. I know when I was awaiting surgery, I would not have wanted to smile for a camera. But the bishop offers a wonderful example of the use of social media as a pastoral tool.
Whether we like social media or not is really irrelevant in today’s culture. It is woven tightly into the social fabric, and we ignore it at our own expense. Video is an especially effective tool. It’s easily shareable and it’s dynamic, meaning that it engages the senses in multiple ways.
What do you talk about? Who (or what) takes up the most space in your conversations?
It would be hard to measure the content of our actual conversations but a popular Facebook app is providing some interesting insights. You have probably seen the word cloud pop up on the feeds of your friends. The app by vonvon pulls together a word cloud based on your most-used words on Facebook.
For some, the cloud is a happy reflection: words like love, thanks, great are the biggest (and thus, the most commonly used). For others, the app is revealing. Their most popular words include: I, annoyed, hate. (And these are just the people who have posted the results. I suspect the worst results are self-selected out. People just choose not to share the word cloud.)
A word cloud of the sermon preached by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at his installation in early November is illustrative of his priorities. At the center: Jesus. God. World. Love, church, way, reconciliation, neighbors.
On the one hand, the word clouds are just fun. But I wonder if they might provide a window into our health and well-being. What if we ran our church’s Facebook page through the word cloud app? What would be at the center?
About a week ago, I posted a video on my Facebook page about race and what white people can do to combat racism. A friend of mine found some aspects of the video a little upsetting, particularly the idea of being grouped together with other white people and told what to do.
We spent at least 30 minutes talking about it. Eventually, I realized that we understood the word “racism” to mean two different things. I was thinking about a system in which we are all implicated, even and especially those of us who are considered white and receive benefits we may not have asked for. I think racism is all about history and context and the way our institutions and assumptions disadvantage people of color. He was thinking of racism as the act of grouping people by the color of their skin.
Neither of us was being unreasonable, we were just talking right past each other. It’s like we were each consulting our mental dictionaries and the definitions didn’t match. This friend and I agree about many things, including, ultimately, about many aspects of racism, but we had to define our terms before we could have a productive conversation.
Even without this confusion, racism isn’t easy to talk about. We all know that. Recognizing that simply by the fact of being white you get all sorts of advantages you didn’t ask for isn’t easy. Neither, of course, is telling painful stories as a person of color about the subtle but very real forms discrimination takes. These confusions about language only make it harder.
The Episcopal Church just celebrated “Social Media Sunday” -- a time to post and tweet images and messages about church across various social media platforms. As it turned out, our congregation (along with the sister congregation that worships with us once a month) was celebrating Halloween. This generated some fun image opportunities, as well as a notable contrast between my staid Gen X costume (alb and stole) and my Millennial priest colleague who dressed as the chaplain at Monster University.
I’m really not a fuddy duddy when it comes to social media. I help keep our parish Facebook page current, and I love taking pictures of church in action. I don’t tweet, but only because I’m not sure the format fits my life and my personality.
I suspect the church is called to “both/and” when it comes to our approach to social media.
We need to respect and engage with the media of our age, because we are not a church that spurns the world and its ways.
And, we need to provide a respite from the pressures and social illness of our age, which include overuse of social media and the pressure to “measure up” to the lives others portray through curated images.
We need to get the gospel out there.
When the timpani rumbled with the first chords of the opening hymn, it was obvious this would be an extraordinary worship experience. The sweeping harp, the proclaiming brass, the richness of the strings, caught up the congregation in the powerful words of Hymn 518: “Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the head and cornerstone…”
The celebration of the Eucharist in this mass at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was dedicated in honor of the 150th anniversary of the laying of the church’s cornerstone in 1865. Trinity doesn’t always have an orchestra and extra voices in the choir, but on this day, all the stops – including the ones on a new organ – were pulled out.
Music was skillfully composed for the milestone event by Trinity’s gifted Precentor, Wayne H. Peterson. Meditations, for choir, soloists, orchestra, and organ, drew “its (sic) inspiration from those who lavishly communicated the Gospel of Christ through architecture, art, and music,” says Peterson. Parishioner Larry Griffin authored the lyrics for four of the seven “meditations” within the score, saying the words were inspired by others including Mother Teresa, Helen Keller, and the Prayer of St. Chrysostom. Here are the soulful words of Meditation No. 3: The Inner Voice:
Want some advice on how to grow your church?
Hire a communications director.
Yes, you heard that right. A communications director. Not an additional pastor, not an education director or another musician. But a professional communicator to craft an effective narrative, develop a marketing campaign, and use latest digital technology to push your message out to people you don't know yet,
Let me unpack that job outline. First, a professional -- someone who has training and experience in using digital technology, email campaigns, social media campaigns, push marketing, inbound marketing, and blogging. Not someone wedded to paper, and not someone whose primary focus is on internal communications. If you keep talking only to yourselves, your church will die.
Second, someone who can craft a narrative. That means persuasive content that will help people understand who you are, what you are about, what you value, the difference you hope to make in the world, and the benefits they will find in engaging with you. We are way beyond posting acolyte schedules and promoting parish suppers. Infinitely beyond internal budget discussions.
Third, it's about marketing. Yes, that is a term from commerce. Get over it. Marketing simply means going into the marketplace in a way that touches other lives. Good marketing, especially for a faith community, is grounded in honesty and transparency, and it seeks to draw people closer to you and what you value. All not-for-profits do marketing. Churches do marketing, too. They just haven't been doing it well. A sign out front is marketing, but it isn't enough. A web site is marketing, but it's too passive.
The words leapt out at me, challenging my understanding of what was happening at Boston University. Were they actually doing what the headline promised (providing authentic Asian cuisine to students) or where they planning to as suggested by the phrase: “…aims to serve traditional Asian cuisine.”
Words matter. A familiar adage tells us “actions speak louder than words.” Yet when we rely on words to describe what’s important to us as a congregation, I believe it is important to use words that accurately describe not only what we believe or what we intend to do, but also what we are actually doing.
As congregations, we often share our intentions in the form of a mission or vision statement. These are often found on the home page or the About Us pages on our websites. Before starting this post, I took a quick look at ECFVP’s About Us page and was pleased to find the words “offers” and “explores.”
About a week ago, my wife, Denise, and I adopted a dog. He looks a bit like a cross between a tiny sheep and an Ewok (he’s probably a Shih Tzu), and he brings with him a lot of questions: Like, how do I put his leash on him when he is jumping up and down on his hind legs? What do his huffs and puffs and barks mean? And why is he wiping his little face on the rug like that?
We’re slowly getting to know him and learn how to better care for him, but in the meantime he’s a little furry mystery that lives in our house.
All those unknowns require a lot of communication on the part of my wife and me. How are we going to deal with his bad habits? What’s the best way to play with him without getting him too riled up? Can we deal with washing him in the same bathtub that we use?
Communications is Ministry
For the September Vital Practices Digest, we share five resources to support the ministry of communications in your congregation. Our fifth resource is to help congregations strengthen their practice of year-round stewardship.
It’s easy and free to connect with these resources for your congregation. Subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and this Vital Practices Digest in your inbox each month.
"How many hours a day do you write?" a marketing and social media expert asked me.
"Four hours," I replied.
"Then you should spend two hours a day on marketing," she said, mainly in social media and email campaigns where costs are quite affordable.
I get her point. If I want people to read what I write and to buy my products, I need to do solid marketing: catch prospective readers' attention, explain my offerings, present opportunities to buy, drive people to my web sites, form relationships, provide customer service.
These principles apply in churches, too. Most of what church leaders do is like my writing: the reason we are "in business." Preparing for worship, for example, teaching classes, calling on people, getting to know prospective constituents, nurturing community, creating mission programs, training leaders, conducting weddings and funerals and Easter Egg hunts.
If church leaders want people to "buy" their "goods and services' -- come to worship, take a class, engage with the community, grow in faith, serve God -- they can't just open the door on Sunday or send out a weekly newsletter stuffed with announcements. They need to do solid marketing. They need to do the basics as outlined above: catch people's attention, explain offerings, present opportunities to engage, lead people to various forms of participation, form relationships, provide customer service.
The ratio of two to one sounds about right. That is, for every two hours spent preparing for Sunday worship, spend one hour in marketing efforts to draw people to church.
For every two hours spent training leaders, spend one hour "selling" these new leaders to the congregation (telling their stories, posting photographs and bios, letting them share their visions and ideas.)
I have been booked several times now to speak about social media in the Church. Friends and family who know me well find great humor in this, as do I. Asking me to speak at a conference on social media is a bit like asking a videotape to parse Latin sentences in the presence of ocelots.
When I am booked for such work, I try to talk the person booking me out of it. The truth is: I am not a big social media person. This is when the person booking me tells me that she or he is up against a deadline or that really they just wanted to hear Southside Abbey stories and their only free slot was in social media. This is not to say that I do not think social media is important, because I do. I really, really do! The Apostle Paul used all the media at his disposal: he talked to people, he spoke in public (sometimes in chains), and he wrote letters. We have to be using every type of media at our disposal too.
Let me explain. Southside Abbey has a fair number of people who do not have cell phones or computers or anything like that as an ever-present part of their lives. This may be due to social location, geographic location, educational location, or temporal location, but it is there as a reality. We also have a fair number of people who are active in social media; they post a lot of pictures, quotes, videos, articles, and the like. These two groups have kept me from 1) relying on social media for communication with our entire body and 2) kept me from learning a lot about social media because I am surrounded by people who like to and do engage that way and who do it a lot better than I would.
One of the hot topics at the General Convention is the use of social media in communication and evangelism. Discussion around a resolution to support digital evangelism (B009
) resulted in a significant number of tweets on Twitter (#YesB009 and #B009).
Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and blogs, people not present at the General Convention were able to follow resolutions and to express opinions using #gc78
. Whether they were following the results of the election of our Presiding Bishop, offering their opinions on the marriage resolution, or asking questions about the structure resolutions, the participation in the General Convention was broadened and deepened by the use of social media.
This leads me to wonder how participation in our church can be broadened and deepened by the use of social media. If #gc78 can trend on Twitter (meaning that it is being tweeted about frequently), why can’t we make the Episcopal Church or our dioceses trend? Over the next three years, the Episcopal Church will be further exploring how to effectively evangelize using digital media.
This post first appeared on The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts' General Convention e-newsletter and is reprinted with permission
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The Episcopal Church’s General Convention is just around the corner. There are hundreds of resolutions to be considered. A new presiding bishop will be elected in addition to the usual election of General Convention presiding officers, at large executive committee members, trustees of General Theological Seminary, and other church wide bodies. You’ve a one -‐ or maybe two -‐ person shop. How can you possibly cover this event while also doing the rest of your job?
Nancy Davidge, a veteran of four General Conventions, offers these three tips:
A few days ago I had received a somewhat awkward phone call. I volunteer with an organization that advocates for policies and practices to curb climate change, and a colleague from the subcommittee I serve on sent an email out about a new initiative we were about to launch. Except that someone else on a different committee had already begun work on this initiative. So she called me.
“Tell me if this sounds petty, but I think it’s just better to clear the air,” she said. In reality, it was a small mistake, but an oversight nonetheless. She’d been working hard and our email completely ignored, and in her view, undermined her work.
I can’t say that I enjoyed the phone call, but I appreciated it. She could have sent me an email, but striking the right tone of that kind of message in an email is nearly impossible. Or she could have said nothing, which might have been worse.
I was at a parish that had devoted a great deal of time on communications related to a capital campaign. They sent out letters and emails. Announcements were given and small groups met to discuss the plans. Multiple bulletin boards displayed architectural plans and the adult formation hour was used to discuss the project. Utilizing every vehicle in their tool kit, the parish sought to ensure all members would know about their plans to proceed.
This is an ideal congregation to work with. One who wants everyone to have access to the same information and for folks to feel a connection to the decisions being made by their leaders. A parish where there is an ethos of transparency and trust.
So why is it that sometimes folks still don`t hear the messages we send? This is a common question and the answers are varied. I have heard comments ranging from lack of engagement to “People hear what they want to hear.” What if there was a different answer?
It turns that organizational or personal stress can biologically impact our ability to gather or retain information. “As the body prepares to handle a perceived threat, the stress hormone cortisol shuts down neurons in the brain, preventing it from storing new information,“ cites Marcia Reynolds, author of Outsmart Your Brain, Covisioning, 2004.
In the January 1, 2003, Harvard Business Review article “Don`t Let Stress Strain Communication,” Anne Field notes that stress can lead to communication hang-ups such as unclear directions, defensiveness, and forgetfulness.
In this digital age most of us take a lot of pictures. I'm amazed by how fast I can accumulate 1000 pictures on my phone. Most of the time I show them off on the phone itself, passing around particularly good images and inviting friends to scroll through. The pictures on my phone help me tell stories, especially to friends and colleagues with whom I do not share a strong common spoken language.
At church I've been rediscovering the joy of the printed snapshot. After years of rarely printing pictures, I have started ordering prints of all the pictures I take at church. I've become more intentional about documenting what we are up to, either by whipping out my phone and snapping a shot myself, or asking others to take pictures and reminding them to send them to me. Every month or so, I upload all my church pictures onto the app of a local drugstore chain, and order up a set of prints. With their constant discount offers, it rarely costs more than $10 for a good-sized stack of pictures.
Once we've got the pictures, we put them up all over the place. We have three bulletin boards full. I'm thinking about gradually wallpapering the parish hall.
Putting up pictures lets people know what goes on beyond what they see with their own eyes. They see people from the other Sunday services. They see weekday activities in our community gardens, band rehearsals, kids playing basketball in the parking lot, and neighbors decorating our outdoor prayer space with its image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The associate pastor of a 225-member Presbyterian church in rural Virginia sent me an important question.
She described an extensive evangelism project they had undertaken -- at considerable expense and effort -- and asked "why it didn't quite work."
Rather than respond just to her, I thought I would make this a case study from which we all could learn.
The church sent two postal mailings to residents of their draw area: one to 1,500 specific names from a purchased list, the other to 4,000 "postal customers." The card invited recipients to attend two meetings with church pastors to consider "When Your Spiritual GPS Says Recalculating: Finding God Again -- or for the First Time."
Three recipients responded to the first mailing but did nothing beyond attending two sessions. Not a single person responded to the second mailing.
I commend their decision to "reach outside our walls." Most congregations are far too inward-focused. Now the problems.
Problem 1: Not knowing the target audience
No one should try to "sell a product," be it cola or religion, without knowing what people want to "buy." I saw no sign that they understood their intended recipients. See problems 2, 3, 4 and 5.
Problem 2: Mushy pitch
Only a committee could love a 14-word title that says nothing. There's a reason why Apple has "The Watch is here." Brevity catches attention, conveys confidence and suggests focus.