July 2012
Communications: Tried, True, & New

Communication Tune-Up

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

Do your congregation’s communication tools need sharpening? Maybe you’d like to get on track for fall and the new program year? Here are suggestions from the Media in Ministry class at Bloy House, the Episcopal Theological School at Claremont, California.

Step 1: Gather your team, starting with the cleric-in-charge, church secretary, a warden, and a volunteer or staff communication specialist as a core group of change-makers. Meet regularly, and consider your work a spiritual discipline in a “community of practice.” Begin every meeting with prayer and reflection, and hear what the Spirit is saying to your congregation.

Step 2: Match your skills and needs. Think about your congregation: Who on your team is best at messaging? Technology? Who meets deadlines and keeps the e-newsletter moving? Is more than one language spoken in your congregation? Who else needs to be invited to the table? Are there volunteer photographers who can supply stills and video? Do any parishioners work in local media? Who are the greeters? Unite these persons as the communication working group, and the synergy can be a gift to all participants.

Step 3: Put your smart phones on the table, and discuss the reasons why mobile technology is the wave of the present. If your congregation does not have a web site or social media presence, it needs both fast. Granted, some parishioners are not online, but statistics show that most newcomers to congregations visit their web sites first. Thus, a homepage is in many ways a congregation’s front door. Don’t have a web site? Instant solutions are provided by Google, Word Press, The Episcopal Church’s Church Tools website, the Episcopal Church Center’s affordable website program, or DigitalFaith.org. Read on for social media options.

Step 4: Don’t wait for a crisis to forge a communication plan. Bottom line, every congregation needs a skilled, empowered layperson (perhaps a warden) who is willing to join the rector, vicar, or priest-in-charge in taking “media training” sessions offered by a qualified professional. (The lay spokesperson’s role is clearly essential when a clergyperson dies unexpectedly or faces allegations of misconduct.) Crisis management is a key component in any congregation’s comprehensive communication plan. That overall plan should also identify target audiences, “publics,” and neighborhood demographics (see Percept Link2Lead.com, or MissionInsite.com); measurable goals for the year; practical steps for meeting those goals; budget; and long-lead calendar to identify specific tasks leading up to major events. Both the Diocese of Southern Ohio and the Diocese of Texas offer online resources for communication planning.

Step 5: Plan the work; work the plan, and evaluate. Start with manageable, practical tasks as basic as updating calendar items on the congregation’s web site. Set reasonable goals for sending uniform messages across platforms: Sunday bulletin and announcement time, weekly e-newsletter, web site, social media, etc. Look ahead and strategize for pitching story ideas to local media representatives, remembering some of the best seasonal photo opportunities for print and television: blessing animals, hanging greens, Lenten “ashes to go,” etc. As your communication working group meets, build accountability to assure that each member – staff and volunteer alike – meets goals consistently as assigned. Customize your work and make it fit with the size of your congregation. Consult with your diocesan communication officer for idea-sharing and collaboration. Don’t forget to evaluate regularly: keep what is working, drop what is not.

Step 6: Balance print and online media. Most non-profits continue to wrestle with decisions of what to publish online and on paper. When saving trees and money, a church must avoid losing touch with key constituents, especially donors. One “best practice” combines a weekly email newsletter (sent via Constant Contact), a daily Facebook post, and printed Sunday leaflets with pdf announcements pages suitable for emailing and posting online. Occasional letters and/or cards by postal mail can also add value. For congregations not yet experienced with posting online video and photos, set goals for learning how to use YouTube and implement these technologies. Youth groups are great resources for moving this process along.

Step 7: Seek consistency with branding and themes. Do your congregation’s web site, printed materials, and signage have the same “look and feel”? If not, it is time to invest some energy and expertise in consistent use of a simple logo, tag line, and graphic style. For example, visit Trinity Wall Street (trinitywallstreet.org) and notice the display of arched logo, type treatment, and tag line: “for a world of good.” See also what All Saints’, Beverly Hills, has achieved with consistency across platforms with the tagline “a year of compassion.”

Step 8: Succeed in social media and digital ministry. Yes, a congregation is well served by a Facebook fan page and a Twitter feed. Our Bloy House class recently learned from digital expert Elizabeth Drescher that success in social media begins with developing and maintaining relationships – relationships made so interesting and attractive that participants return regularly to continue the conversation. Start with simple posts such as “join in contemplative prayer this evening at 7pm” or “walk the labyrinth this Sunday.” Avoid “us-them” distance created by “join us” or “read our newsletter” kinds of messages; try to be invitational without striking an unintended “you-are-not-really-us” tone. On Facebook, visit “St. John Chrysostom Church, Rancho Santa Margarita, California,” for examples of lively posting. And do read all of Elizabeth Drescher’s fine books and articles.

To recap, teamwork makes all the difference at each step. Kudos to those dioceses and seminaries that are collaborating to teach new skills to achieve the time-honored goals of all church communication: building community and making meaning.

Robert Williams serves the Diocese of Los Angeles as canon for community relations. He is professor of communication at Bloy House, and a former communication director at the Episcopal Church Center in New York. His work in faith-based media spans 30 years.

Affordable Websites

Creating a Communications Plan

Email Marketing and Social Media

Examples from Article

This article is part of the July 2012 Vestry Papers issue on Communications: Tried, True, & New