July 2008
Parish Communications

Get a ground-level perspective

Is your church inclusive and welcoming? Is it easy for people to get the information they need — whether it’s the location and hours of the nursery, how to make a pledge, or the time and location of a class or small group? Would a member of your parish know where to find a copy of the parish budget or a list of the current vestry members? When someone calls the church office, does a live human being who is friendly, helpful and well-informed answer? When a person visits, how is he or she received? If you are new to the church, is it easy to find your way around? When it comes to information, are there some people who are “in the loop,” and others who sense they’re always the last to know?

We church people love to communicate: Sunday bulletins, printed newsletters, bulletin boards, flyers, interior and exterior signage and in many congregations, new media: email, websites, video, podcasts. Yet do you know how effective any of these tools are in your parish?

It would be pretty tough for a vestry member to view his or her church through the eyes of someone who is unfamiliar with it — and those who are “unfamiliar” might even include some who are actually members. So before you answer any of the questions posed above, conduct a communications audit. Ask a few people who are strangers to your church to read your newsletter, visit your website, call your church office. Include a variety of people (age, marital/family status, race, ethnicity, denominational traditions). Then ask them to share — with complete honesty — their impressions. And be prepared to receive their feedback openly and without defensiveness.

The point is not only to learn how to be more open and welcoming to visitors and newcomers — it’s to get a ground-level perspective that will help you communicate more effectively with your current membership.

But we don’t have any money
I know, I know — your budget is stretched. Even small churches with small budgets, however, can do this. Think creatively about the resources that you do have:

✙ Is there a college or university in your town? Talented graphic design or journalism students welcome the opportunity to put their knowledge and skills to work for the experience and for college credit.
✙ Is there someone on the vestry or in the parish with professional communications expertise? He or she might be willing to work with the parish staff and leadership on a communications plan and tools that are manageable for your paid staff.
✙ Is there a parishioner who might make a special gift to launch a new website and/or revamp your printed communications?

Print versus electronic
The debate continues about print versus electronic communication. In the church, it’s clear that this is not an “either/or” proposition, but a “both/and.” Different people like to receive communication in different forms. Some of this — but not all of it — is generational. Can you afford to ignore a segment of the parish who prefers to receive their information in one form but not the other? Don’t put all your communications eggs in one basket.

Content, content, content
Clutter — whether in a newsletter, on a website, or on a bulletin board — is the kiss of death. If you can only afford to print an eight-page newsletter, does the entire parish need reprints of Sunday sermons or vestry minutes within that publication? Or might it be a better use of scarce resources to put a brief notice in the newsletter stating how to obtain this information? Don’t train people to ignore your newsletter or other communications tools by printing lots of boilerplate, out-of-date material, or repetitive information.

Start simple
While a broad and accessible range of communication tools is key, don’t bite off more than you can chew. This will only lead to doing everything poorly. Figure out what’s possible to do well with the resources you have, and add and expand as you are able, as you learn what works well and what needs tweaking. Use all the tools you can, but keep your work simple, especially to start.

Keep your eye on the ball
Speaking of tweaking: Don’t rest on your laurels. You can always get better. Keep asking for feedback, keep looking at what other churches do. You’ll know you’re getting there when any of the following happens with regularity: people call to ask where their newsletter is (if the post office or an email provider fails to deliver); someone tells you they read the latest issue cover to cover; people respond to a call to action in your email newsletter, such as signing up for an event. My personal favorite: a member of St. Stephen’s told me that she transferred her membership from another Episcopal church in large part because we communicate so well. That happened because the vestry and the rector of the parish committed themselves to making it a priority. You can, too.

Award-winning director of communications at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, Sarah Bartenstein also served as director of communications for Commonwealth Public Broadcasting Corporation and as executive for communication for the Diocese of Virginia.

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