Thinking Strategically About Church Communications – Part 1
What’s your congregation’s approach to church communication? Is it primarily a way to provide information to members; a way to keep people informed about what’s going on?
Or, is communications viewed as evangelism? A way to build and nurture relationships and community; a way to touch people emotionally, connecting with their heart or soul?
Perhaps it is somewhere in between.
Many times, when we think of church communication as sharing information, we focus on the what: A special worship service. An adult formation program. The annual campaign.
Often, the results are disappointing. Few people show up for a program or event. Pledge cards aren’t returned. People complain that they didn’t know. Sound familiar? Your message was in Sunday’s bulletin, the last two weekly e-newsletters, on the church’s electronic message board, and announced at every service this past Sunday.
In his 2009 TED Talk, “How great leaders inspire action,” leadership expert Simon Sinek asks “How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all the assumptions?”
The Golden Circle
In this time of information overload, are we really surprised when someone can’t recall our message? Think about your own behavior. What percent of your mail, email and text messages do you read each day? Which messages prompt you to take action and why?
Might we be taking the wrong approach?
Simon Sinek believes many of us are.
Using examples as varied as Apple, the Wright Brothers and Martin Luther King Jr, Sinek uses his golden circle model to show why some organizations or individuals are able to inspire while others are not:
The outer most circle represents what you do.
The middle circle represents how you do it.
The innermost circle represents why you do it.
Most organizations communicate from the outside in. From clear statements of what they do, to the ‘fuzzier’ messages of how and why.
Sinek advocates reversing this, based on his study of leaders with the capacity to inspire, to make impact in the world.
The pattern Sinek discovered is that inspired leaders or organizations, regardless of size or industry, all think, act and communicate from the inside out. They talk about their purpose, call, belief. Why their organization exists. They share why they get out of bed every morning. In sharing what they believe, their message speaks directly to people who believe – or seek – what they believe.
His message: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
Reversing our approach to communication
What might it look like if we changed our approach from communication as sharing information to communication as a way to share what we believe? Some examples:
- Presiding Bishop Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is a powerful example of an inspired leader leading with why. His passionate message, “There’s power in love,” resonated with people around the world, resulting in a surge of interest in him and The Episcopal Church. (My google search for ‘bishop curry and royal wedding’ before writing this paragraph resulted in 6,440,000 results in 0.038 seconds.)
- Across our church, Episcopal dioceses and congregations, anticipating increased interest due to Curry’s prominent role, reviewed their messaging and photos in advance of the wedding, anticipating an increase in site visitors. Here’s the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth’s home page; note their “Reclaiming Jesus” statement.
- The Episcopal Church website: “As Episcopalians, followers of Jesus Christ, we believe that God loves you – no exceptions. We believe in following the teachings of Jesus Christ, whose life, death and resurrection saved the world.” This message is prominent on the home page of The Episcopal Church’s website: “Loving, Liberating and Life-giving.” Visitors clicking on the first topic on the home page (The Episcopal Church) are shown a menu listing: What we believe, What we do and Who we are. Throughout the site, visitors are shown examples of the many ways Episcopalians model God’s love for all – no exceptions.
- St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles models their belief in God’s love for all as one of the first “safe parking” sites in the city. They designate ten spaces each night for neighbors who live in their vehicles in partnership with an organization that organizes the logistics. They’ve shown up at local council meetings to speak about their experience offering shelter, to talk about their neighbors – housed and unhoused – in the light of the gospel. More here.
- The Gospel of Luke also provides us with examples of communicating the why. Throughout his gospel, Luke’s stories include the impact of ministry, revealing the significance of the experiences his gospel describes. Luke tells us how the shepherds were affected by events surrounding their visit to the manger. In “Communications Lessons from Luke,” ECFVP blogger Linda Buskirk writes, “They were so excited they returned to their duties, ‘glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.’”
To show how this lesson could be applied, Linda offers a newsletter update on desired renovations to worship space. Rather than saying that acoustics would be improved by replacing the ceiling panels, in Luke’s tradition it might read: “New ceiling panels will make our worship and praise reverberate in our hearts and rise to God in glory, instead of falling flat.”
Making the shift
What’s the first step towards moving towards a communications strategy that starts with why?
A good way to start is to invite church leaders and communications staff or volunteers to both read this article and watch Sinek’s TED talk. Watching his talk as a group is recommended, followed by a conversation exploring these three questions:
- What is your “gut” reaction to Sinek’s approach of starting from the inside out?
- Thinking about your church’s communication style, can you share an example of where you are communicating from the outside in? How might you reverse that? Or, can you share an example of where you are already communicating from the why?
- If the group seems enthusiastic about this approach, invite each participant to share their why. If there are concerns or if the group is mixed, the invitation could be to share their why or the cause of their concern.
When considering change, it is important to give everyone present the opportunity to be heard, while also honoring an individual’s request to pass. A technique that facilitates this is to sit in a circle, extending an invitation to the person next to the leader to speak, then moving around the circle inviting the next person to speak or pass, before moving on to the next question and repeating the process. Sometimes it is helpful to set a time limit for speaking; using the timer on a smart phone is an easy way to monitor this.
You may want to designate a scribe to record some or all of this conversation. Question 2 might be approached by inviting participants to write their responses on post-it notes, which could then be posted by categories that make sense for your congregation.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of “Thinking Strategically About Church Communications” in the August issue of Vestry Papers. We’ll focus on additional – and realistic – steps a congregation can take to become more strategic in their approach to communication.
Nancy Davidge, a multi-faceted communicator and strategist, is principal of The Davidge Group, offering strategic marketing and communications services to help organizations and businesses tailor messaging and approaches to their target audiences. The founding editor of ECF Vital Practices and editor of the 2015 revision of the Vestry Resource Guide, Nancy is the recipient of over 30 Polly Bond Awards for her work with both Episcopal Divinity School and Episcopal Church Foundation.
- Communications for Episcopal Leaders an ECF webinar led by Nancy Davidge, March 6, 2014
- Something Small but Possible by Anna Olson, ECF Vital Practices Blog, May 8, 2018
- Small Offerings, Big Fruits by Anna Olson, ECF Vital Practices Blog, May 30, 2018
- Communications Lessons from Luke by Linda Buskirk, ECF Vital Practices Blog, February 15, 2018
- Collecting Our Stories by Dan Handschy, Vestry Papers, November 2014