July 2008
Parish Communications

In the Beginning was the Word

In the beginning was the Word. To me, although there is opinion to the contrary, that makes communication the oldest profession in the world. And that is where all your work as a vestry should begin.

Communication is not something you do once everything else is planned. It should be a piece of the planning from the beginning. Many is the time that the chair of the annual pet blessing remembers to “dash off” some short press release a day before the event takes place. Properly considered, communication is the invitation, it is evangelism.

I once enlisted a neighbor to help me paint a 1,600 square foot dance floor pink and turquoise for a gala at the Houston Zoo. After crawling around on her knees with a paint roller in the Texas heat, she and her husband paid $500 to attend the gala in tuxedo jackets and Bermuda shorts. One thousand others joined us to help raise money for new elephant enclosures. On another occasion, I had to raise several thousand dollars for the privilege of walking sixty miles from Kenosha, WI to Chicago in a fundraiser for breast cancer research. For three days, I showered in trucks and slept in tents with more than 3,000 of my new best friends. We raised more than $10 million.

Why do all this? People don’t participate because they like fundraising; these are events that bring us into community around something we believe to be important. It is empowering and personally transforming to be part of something that makes a difference to others. Volunteers ran both of these events with the help of a few paid staff guiding the effort. Sound familiar? Church is a volunteer organization! People don’t have to come to church; they don’t have to participate when they do. They come because they choose to come — seeking community, seeking transformation. People came to the Zoo Ball because we invited them. Why is it that we are not as deliberate in getting the word out about our community of faith as we are about a good movie or restaurant?

Communications person
Spreading the Good News is a ministry and takes a strategic and dedicated effort. As a vestry you need to give someone the job of communication and the mandate to do the work. This also means you have a line item in the budget for that work, even if it is a small one, to print press kits about the church and to provide coffee mugs full of chocolates to the local media.

In Leveraging the Corporate Brand, James Gregory notes the warning signs of corporate ill health exist when there is no vision from the person in charge and no communicator on the management team. You must have a vision, and you must have someone who is designated to communicate it both internally and externally: someone who is involved, knows what is going on and can make contact with the media regularly.

Effective communication
In order to be effective, there are several things we must do purposefully:

  • Build relationships with secular media 
  • Raise the standard of our own work 
  • Unpack our church language

Media relations
One of the most important things your communicator can do is build a working relationship with local media — especially the local, free, community newspapers. Meet the editors, take them to lunch, see what kinds of stories they would like to see. Then, when you have newsworthy item(s) — a youth group doing mission work in Mexico, a dinner for deployed military service men and women or a pet blessing —they will more readily pay attention to it.

A few strategic flamingos
I paid our young adult group $35 to “flock” the bishop’s front yard, covering it with pink, plastic flamingos. I sent a photo and press release, with a quote from the bishop — something about being happy it wasn’t pigs or cows — and information about the young adult group. When the community paper published the story on the front page, tens of thousands of people “met” our bishop, knew he lived in their neighborhood, thought he had a great sense of humor and found out about an active and engaging young adult ministry. Not bad for $35. We could not have paid for that much “advertising.”

Enron’s opportunity
When Enron collapsed, one of our churches had many former employees in their congregation. The church offered counseling and started a job bank on their website. A stringer for the NY Times was visiting one Sunday and mentioned the rector’s name in the last paragraph of an article about Enron. Within the week the rector had been on drive-time talk radio in New York, been interviewed by the LA Times, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, CNN, Bill Moyers and NPR. The news that week was how the Christian faith teaches responsibility in regard to corporate culture. It is important to recognize newsworthy things that go on, and it is important to seize the moment when it comes to you.

Take advantage of what we already do and do it bigger, better and more strategically.

Raise the standard; unpack “churchese”
Let us raise the standards of our own work whether it is the church newsletter, a worship booklet, a brochure or video. When people watch MTV and CNN, we cannot hope to get their attention with a newsletter that printed crooked on the Xerox. Make sure your printed materials are clean, well designed and laid out. This is a visual language and we need to “speak” to the visitor among us first and always.

Do our orders of worship explain that S126 is not between 125 and 127 in the Hymnal? Unpack church language so that people don’t feel like outsiders. If we are going to speak to new people, we have to use language they can understand. We have the best news going — we need to be utterly strategic about presenting who we are and what we do to a waiting public beyond the doors of our churches. We have to become the seekers, not wait for them. We have to communicate.

So remember…in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Raised an Episcopalian with deep Greek Orthodox roots, Carol E. Barnwell is communication director of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. She is an award winning photographer and writer and edits a monthly newspaper for the diocese's 80,000 plus members.

This article is part of the July 2008 Vestry Papers issue on Parish Communications