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Construction Update Bulletin Board:
A New Model for Parish Communication

Out of a disruptive renovation comes a tool churches can adapt to a variety of circumstances

Lionel E. Deimel

 

Author in finished undercroft

The author in St. Paul’s renovated undercroft.

Parish Communication

Effective communication is vital to maintaining a sense of community and purpose within a parish. Developing and maintaining good communication is an ongoing, often frustrating task, however. Whereas it may seem that no one really reads the monthly newsletter, everyone seems to know what the vestry is going to do at its next meeting, except possibly the vestry members themselves.

During a major renovation project at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, I found myself maintaining a “Construction Update” bulletin board for more than six months. The bulletin board was a great success, and I believe it provides a model of a communication mechanism that can be used to good effect by other churches in a variety of circumstances. I invite readers to apply the lessons I learned to improve communication within their own parishes.

Building the Vision

At a special meeting in the spring of 1990, parishioners of St. Paul’s authorized the “Building the Vision” campaign, a three-year fund drive whose most costly objective was an extensive renovation of our physical plant. Actual construction began in the fall of 1991.

Perhaps it is more correct to say that destruction began that September. Dust and demolition were the first fruits of renovation, and, for some time, they were the only fruits. One Sunday, early in this period, I overheard a conversation to the effect that plate collections were down. This remark led me to consider whether some parishioners, rather than coming to church with an enhanced sense of excitement as the building underwent its transformation, might simply stay away until the messiness was over.

The next evening, I expressed this concern at the monthly Parish Council meeting. (Parish Council is a lay group providing the rector with informal advice.) I proposed that a bulletin board be devoted to keeping everyone informed about the progress of the renovation. This proposal was enthusiastically accepted, probably because I volunteered to do the work. At the time, I had not figured out just what that work was, but I did have the foresight to request bulletin board space, a mailbox in the church office, and a post-meeting walk-through of the construction areas with the rector.

My requests, which were all promptly filled, were very nearly the last demands I made on the rector and staff. I decided that any materials I used would be donated. The effort did not seem to require labor other than my own, although I did make a half-hearted effort to find someone with “bulletin board experience”—an elementary school teacher, perhaps. Finding no one, however, I decided to go it alone. On Thursday and Friday, I generated text and posters on my computer, and, on Saturday, I collected needed art and office supplies and put everything into place. By Sunday, the rector could announce that the Construction Update Bulletin Board would be providing information to the parish for the duration of the renovation. The bulletin board proved popular from the outset.

Bulletin board near project completetionThe overall appearance of the bulletin board changed little from that first week (see figure). An area of approximately three feet by four feet was covered by white paper and edged in corrugated red border purchased from a teacher supply store. Along the top, in black letters about two and one-half inches high, was the legend “CONSTRUCTION UPDATE.” At the bottom, covered in red wrapping paper, was a small box for suggestions and questions. Next to the box was a pad of paper and a pen on a chain. The center of the board was taken up by five pieces of paper, each mounted on red construction paper. Two of these were essentially permanent—a large copy of the campaign logo and an explanation of the bulletin board that included my name and telephone number. The remaining items changed from week to week and might best be described as news stories and essays. (The following week, I added a loose-leaf binder, hung from a cord, that contained all previous postings from the bulletin board.) I put up posters around the church—white paper on much larger pieces of red construction paper—that directed people to read the bulletin board for information about the construction. From time to time, I put up other posters that pointed to specific objects or locations and that also directed readers to the bulletin board for additional information.

For the next thirty weeks, I developed a routine that involved collecting ideas and information for  the bulletin board during the week, writing text on Thursday or Friday, and updating the bulletin board on Saturday morning. During those weeks, I interviewed many people, including the junior warden, rector, church secretary, and the director of the nursery school that was housed on the bottom floor. Most of my information, however, came from my own observations and from conversations with Paul, the construction superintendent for the prime contractor. Every Thursday or Friday—and sometimes both—I stopped at the church to look around and talk to Paul for fifteen minutes or so. From him, I learned what work was being done, what work was scheduled, and what problems had been encountered. Fortunately, Paul was tolerant of these interruptions and was very forthcoming, at least when I asked the right questions! He quickly figured out what I needed, however, and the general questions I had to ask grew fewer. Because I had no more than a handyman’s knowledge of construction., I relied heavily on Paul to supply technical details and to ensure my proper use of terminology; sometimes I even asked him to verify that descriptions I intended to use were properly phrased.

The central activity each week was writing the bulletin board copy. This was organized into articles, usually one to three pages long. Each article carried a title and, on occasion, section titles. I typically wrote three-four pages, less text than you might imagine, as everything was printed in very large type. (The body font was nearly 1/4 inch tall, and headings were correspondingly larger.) Pages contained a maximum of about 175 words, and I made generous use of clip art that could be scaled to take up whatever space remained at the end of an article. (One drawing, of a drafting board, T-square, and triangle, became something of a logo for the bulletin board itself.) After writing for an hour or two each week, I printed the new copy on ordinary letter-size paper from a laser printer. I discovered, by the way, that if these pages were affixed to their construction paper backing with just enough glue stick to hold them on, they could be peeled off easily and replaced with the next week's copy without also having to replace the construction paper. This simple discovery saved me much work and aggravation.

Elements of Success

Nearly every week, several people mentioned to me how much they enjoyed reading the bulletin board, both for its information content and its writing style. The bulletin board seemed particularly popular with the clergy, staff, and—to my surprise—construction workers performing the renovation. Those most profoundly affected by the project, it seemed, were eager to get the big picture. At Sunday coffee hour, people could be seen walking around the building looking at areas described on the bulletin board.

“Suggestions” in the suggestion box were mostly of the “keep up the good work” variety, but a few questions did lead directly to articles. Painting the east wall of the sanctuary lavender brought several complaints. Some of the concerns expressed in notes I found in the box had nothing whatever to do with Building the Vision; these were passed on to appropriate recipients. Children and young adults contributed complaints about Sunday school and expressions of devotion to particular members of the opposite sex. It is hard to predict all the needs a project will satisfy!

Why was the Construction Update Bulletin Board a success? The obvious answer is that it told people things they wanted to know. It did more than simply keep parishioners informed, however. By making information about renovation progress widespread, it helped people feel more a part of the project. The suggestion box, too, helped people feel like participants, rather than bystanders or victims. By example, the writing encouraged a positive and realistic attitude in the face of the inevitable chaos and dislocation. Though the weekly recounting of accomplishments and future plans and through the measurement of accomplishments against both short-term and project goals, bulletin board articles informed community expectations and communicated a sense of progress.

Of the many mechanical details that contributed to the success of the bulletin board, location was especially important: the bulletin board was in the building. Occasional references to it appeared in the monthly newsletter, but people had to come to church to actually read it. The bulletin board was also conveniently located in a high-traffic area near the church office and a major construction area.

Another important feature was appearance. I don’t do artistic, but I’m good with clear and neat. With its color scheme of white , black, and red, the bulletin board was attention-getting, even if it wasn’t a creative masterpiece. It had a business-like look that seemed to say “I’m important; read me.” The most significant appearance factor, however, was legibility. The large type allowed several people to read articles at the same time comfortably. It also made the articles themselves less intimidating, as they were obviously brief and easy on the eyes. (Try reading a typewritten committee report on a bulletin board!)

People appreciate predictability in their lives, and I think that predictability was especially welcomed in what had become a very unpredictable environment. New postings appeared each week like clockwork. For the one week I had to be out of town, I recruited someone to take my place, so that the continuity would not be broken. It was easy for people to remember to read the bulletin board each week, but less frequent or less regular updating would likely have reduced readership. The binder of previous postings encouraged parishioners to catch up on their reading whenever they missed seeing the bulletin board and, in so doing, promoted regular readership.

Finally, there was the writing itself. Both attitude and tone were important. The first few articles were rather formal, but as I gained confidence, the tone became more conversational. I found myself learning what was going on because it was interesting, and communicating the story to others with enthusiasm. In this way, I became a kind of parish everyman, a stand-in for others. This personal viewpoint doubtless engaged some readers whose interest in construction “facts” was limited. I also tried to keep in mind that most parishioners were not familiar with construction, and, therefore, I sometimes needed to write plain-English explanations of what was going on.

Choir taking communion

St. Paul’s choir receives communion before returning to the chancel to sing under the scaffolding.

The writing was honest and good natured, and sometimes even humorous, other characteristics that contributed to the success of the bulletin board. It was important, I think, that I was not an official spokesman for the vestry, the junior warden, the contractor, or anyone else; I was simply an interested parishioner. I dealt openly with cost overruns and decorative decisions clearly destined to be controversial, even when some in positions of responsibility were doubtful that being candid was an altogether good idea.

Maintaining the “right” attitude was not always straightforward. Despite a certain journalistic detachment, I was—and, I think, needed to be—a proponent of the renovation project. This made me think carefully about the possible effects of what I wrote. But although I didn’t want to become a muckraker, neither did I want to be an unthinking cheerleader. As a result, the character of the articles varied greatly, depending upon what seemed appropriate for the moment. Some examples will give a sense of that variety (click for sample text):

Informational: “Lots to See,” which, like many articles, enumerated accomplishments of the week. Educational: “Behind the Lights,” a description of the functioning of the flexible, but expensive, dimmer controls installed in the church. Humorous: “Elevator Blues,” a story about my getting stuck in the new elevator as a result of a defect in the control software. Distressful: “Floor Woes,” which delivered the bad news that old asbestos-containing tiles were going to have to be removed from the floor, at considerable and unexpected expense. Rousing:  “Wow!” about the newly operative undercroft lighting and other striking innovations throughout the building. Conciliatory: “Color,” advising a wait-and-see attitude toward the bold colors applied to the undercroft. Humanizing: “A View from the Basement” about the interaction of the renovation and the day-to-day operations of St. Paul’s Episcopal Nursery School Inspiring: “Why Are We Doing This?” a piece about how access changes allowed St. Paul’s to volunteer its facilities for the first time for an annual hospice memorial service when the originally scheduled site became unavailable.

This variety made its own contribution to increased readership.

A Model for Others

The Construction Update Bulletin Board was a concise, focused, lively, independent, legible, periodic, wall-mounted newsletter on a topic of interest to many parishioners. All the listed characteristics seem to be important. How can such a communication vehicle be used by others?

A similar bulletin board can be used to document a renovation or construction project, but any large church project of significant duration and interest can provide a suitable bulletin board topic: clergy search, church fair, fund-raising effort, stewardship campaign, or formation of a mission church.

A little brainstorming can turn up other areas where more regular communication of information to parishioners can give people a greater sense of belonging. For example, one can imagine a what-happened-at-the-church-this-week bulletin board that is more than simply a list of events. This bulletin board can treat both the mundane and the sublime that few ever learn much about. (The church’s cantankerous copier finally died and had to be replaced. What was this week’s Good Friday service like?) Maintaining such a bulletin board is an open-ended project that may require more than one person. Using an editor and staff is unlikely to be workable, but two or three people working closely together can probably do the job for an extended period without burnout.

A related idea is what might be called a church management newsletter, dealing with vestry issues and decisions, commission or committee news, and property issues. Depending on church size, weekly updating may be too frequent, though bulletin boards updated as infrequently as monthly may be read irregularly. As for any bulletin board of this type, I think it is important to select an outsider to take on the project. Parishioners will feel better served by someone they view as a journalist, rather than a propagandist.

One can imagine a bulletin board detailing important events in the lives of parishioners—anniversaries, births, deaths, weddings, out-of-town visitors, illnesses, and the like—though this could easily degenerate into a gossip column rather than a mechanism to encourage caring and sharing. Be careful about who takes on this project, but some people do have both a talent for discovering personal information and the requisite taste and discretion to use it to draw people together.

Some congregations are becoming concerned about increasing paper and postage costs of the church newsletter. This concern provides another motivation for use of a bulletin board. Mailed newsletters can be reduced to the bare essentials of calendar and headlines, and parishioners can consult a bulletin board for more complete information. The “complete” version of the newsletter can be mailed upon request, primarily, one hopes, to out-of-towners and shut-ins. Assuming all text is handled by computer, such multiple newsletter versions can be produced with ease.

A mechanism like the Construction Update Bulletin Board can provide an invaluable historical record. When the construction was completed at St. Paul’s, I assembled copies of all the articles and posters into a book, which I then had bound in hard covers for the church library. This has provided a permanent record of the renovation. When initiating a bulletin board effort, do consider whether a permanent record is also desirable. If so, plan for it from the start. (From  the outset, I organized my computer files to facilitate such a compilation.)

A computer is really essential for implementing any of these ideas, especially because of the printing requirements. If at all possible, use a laser printer and avoid sans serif fonts. If your church does not have a laser printer, check with local copy centers, some of which have computers and high-quality printers available.

Finally, I should mention the personal rewards of taking on a project such as the Construction Update Bulletin Board. The task requires skills quite different from those needed in many traditional volunteer roles. This can be attractive to introverts who don’t cook, wield a paint brush, or read comfortably in public. I had been seeking a role for myself at St. Paul’s where I could make a contribution for which I felt both willing and qualified, rather than merely willing. The Construction Update Bulletin Board provided me with that role, even though I am a computer scientist, rather than a writer, by training. Other churches doubtless have members with unused writing talents who will jump at the chance to use them (or at least allow themselves to be nudged into using them) in the Lord’s service.

 

Reprinted by permission from Congregations: The Alban Journal, published by the Alban Institute, Inc., 7315 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 1250W, Bethesda, Maryland 20814-3211. © Copyright 1993. All rights reserved.

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The book referred to in the article contains an introduction to the project, all the articles posted during construction, and the posters that were used around the church to point out matters of interest. Everything is reproduced as it originally appeared, except that a few typographical errors have been corrected, and margins have been changed to facilitate binding. (Book pages were printed on one side only, with binding at the left.) This can be downloaded below.

In 1998, I created another bulletin board, this time for the construction phase of the Continuing the Vision campaign. I have also collected the materials from this project in a single file.

Both bulletin board archives are PDF files. Download the free Adobe Reader (see icon below) if you cannot read such files on your computer.

 

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Construction Update Bulletin Board  
  Download Construction Update Bulletin Board II  

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— LED, 8/20/2006

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