In my work with congregations, I frequently find faith communities challenged by “communications.” Roles such as weekly e-news writer, monthly newsletter editor, or managing platforms of e-mail distribution, website and Facebook, etc. go unfilled. Or, if the priest is young and tech savvy, s/he just does it all – in addition to everything else.
When I come across an active communications ministry, I ask lots of questions, hoping to pass on ideas to others. That’s just what I did when I met the talented and dedicated Communications Commission Chair for St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Christina Connelly.
What got my attention about St. Alban’s was a video on its website and Facebook home. The video features several church members sharing their journeys and their discoveries of a loving congregation and denomination. Their statements reveal both the diversity and similarity of where they’ve been, what they have found and what they love about St. Alban’s.
Did you know that Google processes nearly 70,000 searches every single second?
Not only that, but 97% of people search for local organizations online.
What does this mean for you?
The local public radio station allows sponsors 24 words for each ad. The name of the sponsor counts as one word. But if a website is given, “dot” is one word, and “org” is another. 24 words.
Like a tweet on Twitter, the word limit makes us consider what is most important to communicate and to whom. A good exercise. It is similar to articulating a mission statement. But a mission statement is meant to guide and inspire the people who are already part of the congregation. This was for those beyond our walls.
So, how do we describe ourselves in 24 words or less?
When was the last time a delegation of 5 or more people from your church attended an event that addressed an area of vital importance to your congregation? These important areas may include: 1) Evangelism 2) Stewardship 3) Formation 4) Anti-racism 5) Vestry Leadership Development 6) Church Planting/ Replanting 7) Outreach or 8) Communication.
These events may have been sponsored by the Diocese, the Episcopal Church or a national Episcopal organization. These entities have invested much time and effort to be a resource in the areas listed above and others not mentioned. Additionally the National organizations have dedicated their whole ministry to deep expertise in these areas. Examples of these organizations are Forma, Episcopal Church Foundation, and Church Pension Group.
Reading through Luke this Lent is like sitting with an old friend in front of a fire, reminiscing about people and events that have touched our lives. We smile as we remember the willing Virgin Mary, grateful Elizabeth, awestruck shepherds, spirit-filled Simeon and Anna, and on and on.
Luke’s story full of stories provides ideas for how to communicate to and about our congregations. Newsletters, annual reports, bulletin boards, Facebook posts, can be transformed from the basic “who, what, when and where” to creative reflections that people will enjoy writing/creating, and other people will actually want to read/view.
“Why can’t we just ask people what they want to do?”
Sounds so simple. Logical, even. Why spend months in conversation about history, gifts and values to determine “what God is calling this congregation to do to next” when you could just ask people in one parish meeting for suggestions?
Here’s why. We live in community. Think of your congregation as a microcosm of the Body of Christ, which overall is more diverse than we can imagine. People flow in and out of the microcosm. Let’s think first about those who’ve come. Some have been there a long time – decades perhaps. Others arrived ten years ago, or one year ago, or last month.
Parishioners and visitors staying in touch with our church community and each other is a critical component of a welcoming and vibrant ministry. In the past and also very much today the primary means of communication within our church is by word-of-mouth. Through a chance meeting at a grocery store or social event, a telephone call to a parishioner, or a planned visit, those absent for a Sunday or months of Sundays are given an update on the church happenings in these interactions. While these means of communication are great and necessary they can sometimes lead to inconsistent or wrong information being conveyed. Sometimes the messenger does undermine the message especially if an unhappy or gossip-filled parishioner.
On Christmas morning a few weeks ago, we turned from the infant in the cradle to give our worship to the mighty God who came among us as that baby. We read these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The Word: this is one of our most holy names for Christ, the second person of the Trinity, the Beloved Child of God. Christ is the Word of God. And, as John tells us, Christ the Word was present with God in the act of creation—all things came into being through the Word, just as it is written in the book of Genesis. God speaks, and worlds are created.
Words create worlds.
In my corporate work, I used to facilitate a workshop called the M.A.G.I.C .of Customer Relations, which emphasized communications and relationships as two of the keys to delivering exceptional customer service. Early in the program we pondered a quote by Virginia Satir, the American social worker and author who is widely regarded as the pioneer of family therapy. According to Ms. Satir, “Once a human being has arrived on this earth, communication is the largest single factor determining what kinds of relationships he makes with others and what happens to him in the world about him.”
What does it mean to communicate in a way that models Christ? How do we share good news with our friends, neighbors and strangers? In this issue of Vestry Papers, we invite you to consider how the sharing of stories can take on many different forms – conversations, pictures, videos or even performances. What they have in common though, is inviting others into fellowship, community and love.
Evangelism. Sharing our stories. Being comfortable talking about Jesus and the role faith plays in our lives. Making this easier – and also more difficult – is the array of resources available to almost all of us. At our disposal are tools to make our voices, our words, and even our images, heard and seen, across the room, across our communities, across the entire world. Today we offer ideas and examples of how Episcopalians are using their voices and their gifts to share their stories and understanding of their faith, using both the oldest and the newest forms of communication.
I hope the experiences and ideas of these congregations and individuals spark a conversation in your congregation:
One of the best trainings I’ve had for parish ministry was the year I spent as assistant copy editor for my high school yearbook. My job was to write short, snappy, sometimes witty, often engaging captions and stories. Doing so became a fairly straightforward craft, and I learned this has its own internal logic: jump in with content, maybe a quick opening line, make sure there’s a verb up front, and say who’s who.
Every week I spend time, perhaps more time than I thought I would, organizing, revising, pitching, and writing copy. I’m not talking about blog posts or sermons, articles or reflective pieces. I’m talking about ‘blurbs’ for the bulletin, newsletter, website, and social media posts. I’ve come to believe that this is an important skill, and one that should require some investment on the part of church leaders.
So what does that announcement in your bulletin or newsletter, on your website or Facebook page say, anyway? Here are five suggestions for refining the message.
A week ago Sunday, churches around the country participated in Social Media Sunday (#SMS16). This day provided an opportunity for people to “use digital devices intentionally to share their life of faith with the world.” If your Facebook feed was anything like mine, you saw plenty of selfies, check-ins, and short videos of worship, formation, and fun.
My background is in journalism, marketing, and public relations. I love that churches around the country are trying to reach out and share the Good News in new ways. From stained glass to the printing press to instrumental music, the Church has a long history of using new technologies and mediums to proclaim the Gospel. Our interactions with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter should be no different.
I have always loved looking through the church directories. As a kid, I would flip through them between commercials or get distracted by the photos whenever I was looking up a phone number. Seeing each picture both as an individual unit (whether family or single) and as part of the larger whole of the church was oddly compelling.
When we received our new church directory on Sunday, I found myself drawn again to the pictures. And I wasn’t the only one. During the coffee hour, several folks were thumbing through it.
It’s easier to avoid the difficult stories. We know this in our personal lives, of course: no one really likes to talk about their divorce, or the time they got fired. It’s also true in communities: we don’t talk about the families who left because of theological disagreement, the split in the vestry a few years ago. Telling these stories feels like gossip or dwelling on the bad moments, but perhaps there is a time and a place to tell them.
As my wife and I prepare for our baby, I’ve begun reading books about raising children. In the book I’ve been reading recently called The Whole Brain Child, the authors explain that children need to tell stories. It helps them make sense of their experiences.
It’s tempting to simply distract children from their difficult moments with ice cream or to insist that they are now fine so they shouldn’t worry. But recounting again and again the time they fell off their bike or got sick at school helps them move forward. The story doesn’t stop at the painful experience, but continues on to how mom or dad took care of them, how the painful moment was resolved.
This is relevant to adults, too, and communities. Just as we sometimes need to talk about things with a friend or partner or therapist, sometimes a community needs to talk things out. While we don’t want to recount stories that are none of our business, neither do want to simply distract ourselves from the difficult times or pretend that they no longer matter. This never gives us a chance to come to terms with the painful things that happened and why, and also how they were resolved. If we never have a resolution, then they still feel threatening. We need to tell the story because the story is how we make them into a meaningful narrative.
“Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.”(Acts 2: 14)
It must have been breathtaking to be there at the first Pentecost, to hear God’s Word come to life in a mass of languages. However, it was after that Holy Spirit rush that the conversion began. When Peter communicated the Good News, 3,000 people were baptized on the spot.
I am guessing there were no tongues of fire dancing at your annual meeting, but perhaps proposals about new programs sparked enthusiasm for the coming year. If there has been a lull in progress since that time, consider the role communication plays in implementing good ideas.
I was once part of the leadership team at a small but growing Roman Catholic university. Pushing for the school to create its first comprehensive strategic plan was the marketing director. Her voice and direction strongly guided the implementation of many strategic initiatives – even the start of the school’s first football team.
“But she’s the marketing director,” I thought. “What does she know about football?”
Most schools take great care in how they articulate their educational philosophy and program. Yet many overlook the same when it comes to Episcopal identity. In our experience here at NAES, schools that are clear and forthright about their Episcopal identity thrive because they attract parents, students, faculty, and staff who become deeply committed to the school in its fullest expression. For these schools, their Episcopal identity distinguishes them from other educational options, supports the recruitment of “mission consistent” families, and links the school’s value directly to its core values as an Episcopal school.
Here are six strategies that Episcopal schools of all kinds can use to develop honest, clear and direct ways to communicate what the “E” means at their school.
Name it and claim it.
“Episcopal identity” varies greatly from school-to-school based on the school’s history, traditions, geographical location, liturgical style, and socio-religious context. Regardless of these differences, however, every Episcopal school has both visible symbols and cultural norms that embody its Episcopal identity. Naming and claiming these in ways that the entire community can understand, articulate, and celebrate is perhaps the first and most important “marketing tool” for any Episcopal school.
Current families, faculty members, students, and alumni who speak with passion about the school out of personal experience and link their experiences to its Episcopal character are our first and best ambassadors. Ideally, all of the adults in the school community understand what makes the school Episcopal, not simply the chaplain, head of school, or admissions staff. In elementary, middle, and secondary schools, students should be able to name particular values, qualities, or practices that embody the school’s Episcopal mission and character.
Develop clear and consistent language.
“Naming and claiming” what makes our school distinctively an Episcopal school, however, can be challenging. But it is possible!
St. James School in Philadelphia focuses school culture around agape. Trinity Episcopal School in New Orleans uses a tag line, “Challenging the Intellect, Nourishing the Spirit, Celebrating Community.” Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay, Florida has a set of core values. Oregon Episcopal School, St. George Episcopal School in San Antonio, and The Bishop’s School in California have developed lengthier statements about what it means to be an Episcopal school. St. Anne’s School in Annapolis answers the question, “Why choose an Episcopal school?
These are just a few examples of ways schools articulate directly what it means for them to be an Episcopal school.
“Episcopalians: we’re not God’s frozen people. We’re God’s introverted people.”
This was said by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, perhaps one of the minority of extroverted Episcopalians, but it nonetheless rang true.
I don’t know that Episcopalians are actually more introverted than your average population, but I think that the culture of the Episcopal Church is introverted, focused less on creating high energy church services or on charismatic individuals and more on quiet faith cultivated in liturgy and community.
I heard Bishop Curry say these words at the Episcopal Communicators conference a few weeks ago. I am certainly one of those Episcopal introverts and yet I always enjoy this conference. Although the many hours spent with other people (not to mention the jet lag) left me somewhat exhausted by the end of the conference, I was also energized by the people I met and the shared sense of mission.
Regardless of whether we’re actually a church populated by introverts, I think the Episcopal Church and its members require a common mission as well as a culture that fosters connection and a mutual support in order to thrive.
A few times a month for most of the last eight years, I have led a Bible Study at Century Regional Detention Facility, Los Angeles County’s main jail for women. It’s an environment where just about nobody knows what an Episcopalian is. I pass through nine locked doors and a security checkpoint, arrive in my assigned unit, and gather whoever is in the mood for Bible Study (or an hour out of her cell…). Fifteen to forty women sit in a noisy circle and wait for me to start. I have to explain Episcopalians, every time, completely from scratch.
Here’s my spiel. I vary it a little each time, but the basic points seem to work pretty well:The Episcopal Church is a Christian Church. We believe in God and in Jesus and in the Bible. If you’re familiar with Catholic Church, our worship services look pretty similar. If you’re more familiar with Protestant churches, you will easily recognize the way we place a lot of emphasis on the Bible as the living Word of God, and draw on scripture to try to understand how we should shape and change our lives so that everything we do points towards God. Here are some things that set us apart from a lot of churches you may have experienced. We really try hard to be a church that has room for everyone. That means that our leaders and our members are men and women, people who are married and not married, have kids and don’t have kids, people who are gay and straight, people of different races and different languages and cultures, people with different kinds of mental and physical abilities. When you hear us criticized, it’s usually because someone thinks we have the doors open a little too wide. But we truly believe that God love us all and has placed gifts in all of us, and that the church is the richest when it can receive all those gifts and make space for people to use them. We’re not a church with a lot of rules. That makes some people suspicious. But God really just gave us two jobs to do, love God and love each other. God could have said, “Judge one another, as I will judge you,” but judging isn’t actually in our job description. God kept that one for Godself. So we try to let God be God and get about the business of doing our job: love.