March 31, 2022

The Ministry of Communication

“In today’s world, if your church needs to choose between a youth minister and a communications minister, you should probably choose the communications minister.” I wish I could remember who said this at a conference I attended long before the COVID-19 pandemic, because I would like to thank him.

This provocative statement shook me loose from an outdated assumption I had made about church staffing. In a culture with an insatiable appetite for the quick exchange of information, we need to consider church communication to be a ministry in itself, not just the infrastructure that supports other ministries. And, we need to prioritize it.

The ministry of communication is telling a congregation’s story – which is the story of how the Holy Spirit is moving in and through that congregation – with expressive writing, vivid images, the strategic use of social media, and a carefully managed relationship with the secular press. Doing this work well requires a minister no less skilled in her area of expertise than a church musician is in his.

I am grateful to the first professional church communicator with whom I served closely – Cara Ellen Modisett, now a candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia – for helping me articulate a set of principles that a congregation of any size can use in developing its own ministry of communication.

Message comes first: Effective communications begin with these questions: What do we want to say? What outcome do we hope to achieve by saying it? We should communicate differently about a musical program than we would about an outreach effort or a fundraiser. We should communicate differently about an internal parish event than we would about an injustice we have observed in our community. We need to know what we want to say before we try to say it; even the best graphic designers and video producers cannot overcome the lack of a clear message.

Media comes second: Once we have defined our message, we can develop a strategy for communicating it over multiple channels. Blurbs from our weekly e-mails can easily become social media posts that reach beyond our own subscribers. Theological reflections on community events can often become opinion pieces in local newspapers. A striking photograph can attract attention on social media, or on the cover of a print publication, or in a frame on the wall.

Be a storyteller: The best church communications take the form of well-written stories. The Bible itself is the well-written story of God’s ever-unfolding love for his people. As you craft your message, tell your readers a story and connect it to God’s greater story.

Report from within: Church communicators need to think of themselves as “embedded reporters” on the church’s beat. Content will be richer and more authentic if it is crafted by someone who has forged meaningful relationships with the people and ministries that define that community.

Know the community: Archbishop William Temple famously said, “The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not yet its members.” Don’t forget them in your communications. The church community shares interests with the musical community, the literary community, the arts community, the nonprofit community, and a host of others. How can we build on the interests that we share with these other communities in a way that serves their needs and extends our reach?

Be responsive: The church no longer controls discourse in the public square. If a church wants to have a voice on important social issues, it usually needs to join conversations that are already in progress. Church communicators need to be ready to respond to unexpected public relations opportunities as they present themselves. (By way of example… A few years ago, we discovered that our outdoor baptismal font had become a Pokémon Go stop. A nimble communications team moved quickly to produce invitational materials and lay out hospitality, creating the most unusual evangelism opportunity of my ministry thus far!)