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Some Practical Guidelines
for Improving Parish Communications
Lionel E. Deimel

My church recently performed a self-assessment and concluded that St. Paul’s should pay more attention to “communications.” This came as no surprise; a similar finding would no doubt be appropriate to many churches—perhaps even to most of them. St. Paul’s too often provides inadequate or tardy publicity for events, for example. Moreover, complaints about “communications” are especially common because they can be indicative of more fundamental problems, such as the presence of an indifferent, incompetent, or poorly trained staff member.

Man, pen, and paperAs a writer and recovering perfectionist, I have long been a critic of communications at St. Paul’s, and I found some validation in the self-assessment outcome. I was not so naïve as to assume that my own concerns were necessarily shared by some large group of parishioners, but, even if they were, communication problems surely were diverse enough as to admit of no solution more specific than “communicate better.” Improving communications would require analyzing specific failures and implementing specific remediation.

The vestry was concerned enough that it established a Communication Commission, led by one of its members. I was first to volunteer to serve on this commission, and I was soon followed by another dozen and a half or so concerned volunteers. Each commission member seemed to have clear ideas about what was wrong and what should be done about it. I was concerned that the commission would be too quick to consider solutions, that insufficient attention would be given to enumerating specific problems and devising, if not a general solution to them, than at least a standard approach to developing solutions. A large, newly formed group of parishioners working under pressure from the vestry to show results quickly was unlikely to have the luxury of being able to develop much of a common understanding to serve as the basis for action. Knowing a few things about communications and a whole lot about what St. Paul’s has done both right and wrong over the years, I though I might be able to construct a useful framework within which the Communications Commission—and perhaps even similar bodies or individuals at other churches—might operate effectively.

Developing a Framework

Even before I formed the idea of modeling parish communications, I received some inspiration from the small group meetings in which parishioners were asked to express their opinions of the church and its operations. The rector gave a brief talk in these meetings asserting that most people today shop for a church and lack the denominational loyalty of former times. The purpose of this talk was not totally clear, but I assume that the rector wanted to encourage parishioners to think about how the church could become more visitor-friendly. Particularly for an Episcopal church, this is no trivial concern. Our worship services can easily seem crafted to inflict the maximum discomfort upon the non-Episcopalian visitor, who is never sure what book he should be holding or whether he should be standing, sitting, or kneeling. Times surely have changed, yet I was uncomfortable with an apparent call to replace traditions with the product of market research.

What made me uncomfortable, I decided, was not really the notion that worshippers are, in some sense, customers and consumers, but the implication that they all can be treated alike. Visitors and regular worshippers have different needs and expectations, and these may conflict with one another. Actions designed to help the visitor follow the service, for example—explicitly announcing the hymns, say—may seem distracting or demeaning to regular worshippers. In other words, there are different kinds of customers that the church serves.Woman, pencil, and paper

Thinking of visitors and parishioners as customers immediately raised the question—quickly answered—as to whether they are only customers. Clearly not. Parishioners support the church with funds not tied to any particular service they receive but intended to foster the overall mission of the church; they attend parish meetings and vote for members of the vestry; they serve as lay readers, altar guild members, and church school teachers; and they participate in church clean-up days and in the preparation of food for various church functions. Although people surely derive some personal satisfaction from these activities, they are also motivated by concern for the welfare of the church and its mission to worship God and to spread the Gospel. Visitors may be primarily customers, but parishioners are both customers and stakeholders, the analogue, in a commercial context, of stockholders.

Why does this matter for communications? It is a standard communications principle that one should know one’s audience and shape one’s message accordingly. It is probably useless, for example, to send a request for contributions to the building fund to first-time visitors, but it may be shrewd to send such a solicitation to newly received adults. In fact, like those of most churches, most of the publications of St. Paul’s—bulletins, newsletters, posters, and fliers—are customer-oriented, advertising various upcoming events. We seem not to think about parishioners as stakeholders except during the fall pledge drive or the midwinter annual meeting. This is, I think, a big mistake.

If we habitually treat parishioners only as customers, they likely will act like customers. They will develop high expectations, will complain to customer service (to the rector or to someone else who might be construed as responsible) when things do not go as expected, and will be quick to go elsewhere if they are disappointed too often. They will pick and choose what they do at the church, and they will feel little obligation to contribute to its maintenance. Stakeholders, on the other hand, feel a need to contribute. They are more tolerant of failure, and they see it as an indication that they and others must work together to improve future performance.

The way we communicate with parishioners can acknowledge and encourage the sense of being a stakeholder among parishioners, that feeling of affiliation that leads to greater commitment. We can begin to report on what happened, for example, not just on what is going to happen; we can cover events as a newspaper would. The customer may not be interested in the event he missed, but the stakeholder has an interest in all significant events in the life of the parish. Keep parishioners informed of the activities of important parish organizations—vestry, altar guild, the search committee for a new youth director. Information not directly disseminated—vestry minutes, for example—should be readily available through means that are periodically publicized. Less obviously, parishioners should be made aware of most issues of interest to the staff, paid or volunteer. The church needs a dedicated staff to function, and, if parishioners are stakeholders, they should know about events that affect the staff and its performance. Tell parishioners when a secretary quits to nurse her sick mother, when a new sexton is hired, when the copy machine breaks and has to be replaced, or when a new dental plan is provided  to full-time staff members. In recent years, St. Paul’s has networked its computers and leased a state-of-the art duplicator. Neither of these events—each of which was intended to improve office capabilities, particularly communications capabilities—received attention in the monthly newsletter. They were certainly noticed at annual meeting time, however, when their expenses unexpectedly appeared in the budget. Rather than celebrating together our new tools to advance the work of the Lord, we exchanged angry words about new budget lines. 

Making the Model Useful

Identifying distinct audiences for church communications—customers and stakeholders—is a tool for identifying the kind of messages it may be useful to communicate. Churches do not address parishioners often enough as stakeholders, in part because those responsible for communication seldom think of doing so. There may also be a reluctance to encourage too much interest in the mechanics of church administration, lest parishioners become meddlesome. Suffice it to say that this represents a natural, albeit counterproductive, attitude, which needs to be kept in check.

One can, of course, further subdivide the audience, for churches generally or for a particular church. Customers may be further classified as potential (e.g., members of the community who might be induced to come to the church), occasional (one-time or very occasional attendees of events, including worship), and regular (parishioners or people who attend often enough to be mistaken for parishioners). Likewise, stakeholders can be categorized as occasional (the Christmas and Easter Man, pen, and paper crowd), ordinary (most parishioners), or vested (parishioners regularly involved in at least one activity other than worship—a Bible study class, altar guild, etc.). Some messages, even those primarily aimed at parishioners, are also important to church staff, whether parishioner or not. Each audience category differs from the other categories in what its members’ information needs are—who needs to know, wants to know, or should know what. People in different categories cannot all be reached in the same way. For example, the potential customer is not reached by the Sunday bulletin, though the occasional customer at a worship service will be. He will not be reached by the monthly newsletter, however. The vested stakeholder will be easier to reach with a story in the church newsletter than will be the regular customer, who probably reads the newsletter selectively, if at all.

These categories are not mutually exclusive, and placing an individual into one or more categories may not fairly categorize that person. The altar guild member may approach Casino Night purely as a customer and may be indifferent to the parish budget or to vestry elections. Thinking in terms of categories, however, is a useful tool for helping to decide how to get the message out. That people do not always fall neatly into one category or another can actually provide opportunities. For example, a notice about a trip to a soup kitchen can be an opportunity to fulfill a desire to serve to a customer or an opportunity to advance the church mission to a stakeholder. An effective message might reasonably try to appeal to both kinds of people by emphasizing both the personal and institutional payoffs of the activity. This example suggests that it may be useful to consider how committed recipients are likely to be as humanitarians, Christians, or Episcopalians. An appeal for Sunday afternoon Habitat for Humanity volunteers at a Sunday morning service can emphasize a broad, humanitarian appeal to visitors and regulars alike. For a diocesan study group, however, you may as well assume that only diehard Episcopalians are likely to express any interest.

A successful communication—whether an article in a newsletter, notice in a bulletin, oral announcement in church, or message on an outdoor sign— gets the right message in the right form to the right people at the right time. Identifying the proper audience is an important step in defining the right message, but it is also important to ask what effect we want our communication to have on our audience. Probably the most common effect desired is to have the audience decide to attend an advertised event. A story about the upcoming Easter Vigil is likely to be considered unsuccessful if it does not result in greater attendance at the Easter Vigil. In light of this, a story about the service should include an explicit invitation to attend and a suggestion as to why that might be a good idea. Not all communications are intended to get people to do something, but they should all have a purpose clearly articulated in the mind of the communicator. Sometimes you simply want people to know something or you want to cultivate a particular attitude or impression. An article on a typical day in the life of the new associate rector surely imparts information about his job responsibilities, perhaps suggesting situations in which it may be appropriate to contact him.  It can also be crafted to communicate the idea that an associate is a necessity, not a luxury, and that his salary is well worth its cost.

A word of warning is in order here. To suggest that messages can be manipulated to foster one viewpoint and to discourage another should not be taken as license to shade the truth. Because parishioners spend relatively little time at church, they need all the help they can get in understanding and in appreciating the details of its operation. Fairly characterized descriptions will be appreciated. Outright deceptive messages, on the other hand, will eventually be exposed, and the church will lose credibility in the process. In practice, churches fall into producing propaganda mostly by virtue of what they choose not to communicate. I have always thought that healthy churches would benefit from having an independently produced newsletter that delivered good and bad news evenhandedly. I have never heard of such a publication, however, and the usual practice is to consider the church newsletter a house organ that exercises a fair bit of self-censorship. Bold innovations, however, should perhaps consider my idea.

Even if you have the perfectly crafted message for your intended audience, it is still necessary to gain the attention of that audience. A small item on a crowded bulletin board or the two-line item in a long list of announcements in the bulletin will be missed by many readers. Big headlines, clip art, or photographs, on the other hand, can catch people’s attention, particularly if such elements are as specifically relevant to the message as possible. The headline “ECW to Hear School Superintendent” will attract more readers than the newsletter headline “ECW,” a fact that is all-to-frequently overlooked.

Timing is another issue that is often given too little thought, largely because we focus too much on the message and too little on the audience. We may think that a single notice of an event means that we have publicized the event, but consider the last time you bought concert tickets as soon as you learned of the concert. Most of us needs to be reminded again and again. Some of us need a lot of lead time; others make every decision at the last minute. Consider your audience, and view advertising for events not as an event itself, but as a campaign.

The phrase “consider your audience” cannot be repeated enough, in part because the parish communicator is constantly meeting new challenges. People differ in many ways, so that age, education, psychological makeup, and other parameters may sometimes be important, even critical. As a practical matter, it probably is not worth trying to take all these into account when designing the average bulletin notice or newsletter article.  The ultimate designed-for-audience message is, of course, delivered one-on-one! 

The Other Stuff

Good communications by churches requires the same care and competence as does good communications in other contexts. Messages should be grammatical; written material should contain only correctly spelled and correctly used words; and layout should be attractive and inviting. Most especially, information should be correct,Woman, pencil, and paper complete, timely, and consistent.

These standards are much harder to achieve in churches than in a business. The biggest problem, of course, is that the overall organization is composed of paid and unpaid workers, often with many of the employees being part-time. Many churches, for good reason, avoid hiring their own parishioners, so some key communications people may be non-Episcopalians who cannot distinguish a sanctuary from a church, Morning Prayer form Holy Eucharist, or an alb from a chasuble. Moreover, churches often cannot afford workers who have the competencies that are really needed.

Many books have been devoted to the art of communicating, and there is no way of condensing the world’s knowledge about the subject here. What follows are a few rules of thumb based on parish experience. For those who want to improve their skill more, the library awaits.
 

  1. Designate editors for large or complex publications such as newsletters and annual reports. Editors should have clear guidance as to what is required and when.
  2. Hold people responsible. Communication slip-ups can inconvenience or embarrass people. A respect for others demands high standards. Yes, Christians are forgiving, but God does not want us to encourage bad behavior.
  3. Editors, not church organizations, should have the last word on announcements or stories in church publications. Make it clear to everyone that editors both revise and cull the contributions they receive.
  4. Set and do not be afraid to enforce deadlines for parish publications.
  5. Keep to schedules. People expect to get the monthly newsletter at the same time each month. Authors of articles expect the same and write with that expectation. Publishing the list of lay readers late can be even more disruptive.
  6. Everything to be published should be proofread, preferably more than once by more than one person.
  7. Whatever proofreading is done earlier, final copy always should be proofread. Correcting errors often introduces errors worse than the original ones.
  8. If it is absolutely impossible to completely proofread the final copy, at least check the changes that were requested to earlier drafts. This process often catches correction errors and even newly introduced errors.
  9. Do not rely on clerical proofreaders. Few priests are good proofreaders. They tend to catch liturgical errors and nothing else.
  10. Do not rely on “ordinary” people as proofreaders. Few laypeople are good proofreaders. Find people who at are good at proofreading and treat them well. Hire them if necessary. Give them power.
  11. Spell-check (and, if possible, grammar-check) everything. Recognize that electronic checkers are imperfect; they should be considered advisory, not definitive. Put specialized, commonly used words like “undercroft” into custom dictionaries.
  12. Establish definitive databases, whether electronic or not. Few things are more frustrating to parishioners than multiple times and dates published for the same event. Decide where the definitive schedule (address list, etc.) resides and always get information from there. If possible, copy from or link to the definitive databases.
  13. If possible, note each time information is used from a database (see above). This is helpful when information is changed after having been disseminated. It may not always be possible to reach everyone who has received the now out-of-date information, but this practice at least preserves options.
  14. Be especially careful about getting important lists right, such as schedules of volunteers, since notifying everyone of mistakes is difficult and not notifying them can be embarrassing or worse.
  15. If information is disseminated that is incomplete or tentative, say so, lest the audience make false assumptions.
  16. Explain significant deviations from established communication patterns because people will notice and ask about them. (Why is the newsletter half its usual size this month? Why is there no letter from the rector?)
  17. Develop style guidelines. Is “undercroft” capitalized or not? Does one use “eight” or “8”?
  18. Assume that information published is intended to be read and understood. Apply this to, for example, the parish budget. Question situations where obfuscation seems to be a goal.
  19. Encourage restraint in design. That one can put 40 different fonts on a page is no excuse for doing so.
  20. Be wary of using old documents as templates for new ones. Bulletins with last Sunday’s date or sequence hymn number are embarrassing and confusing.
  21. Organize and generate tables of contents and indexes. Help people find things of interest to them quickly. Announcements in the Sunday bulletin frequently more resemble a stream-of-consciousness list then the newspaper classifieds. People tend not to read such lists.
  22. Training can be helpful, but be realistic. I can, in most cases, teach a literate person to be an effective computer user. I will not try to teach an illiterate, expert computer user how to write or proofread.
  23. Use new media such as Web sites and electronic mail, but be sensitive to people who do not have access to these media or who choose not to use them. The e-mail address of a parishioner who checks his mail once a month is largely useless.
  24. Telephone calls and face-to-face encounters involve communication also. As with print communications, be sensitive to your audience.

In the end, there is no silver bullet that guarantees perfect parish communications. Knowing one’s audience, possible and actual communication objectives, and applying time-tested rules will improve communications.

Disclaimers and Caveats

Although the principles I have discussed here are widely applicable, I must point out that they are likely inadequate for dealing with some of what I will call pastoral communications. It may or may not be helpful to analyze the interaction of priest and bereaved parent in terms of communications with a grief counseling customer, but there are clearlyWoman and cell phone times when clergy, or even laypeople working on behalf of the church, have to say very unwelcome things unlikely to be appreciated in the moment, and perhaps never. In such cases, whether it is accusing an entire congregation of racism or telling a parishioner that he is a drunk and needs help, the communicator has a higher obligation that requires that consideration of short-term negative consequences of delivering a particular message be dismissed. As a layperson myself, I disclaim any special expertise in communicating with the parishioner (or non-parishioner) as sinner.

Furthermore, I do not want to suggest that churches should be isolated happy-talk communities, and I hope I have made it clear that churches should be willing to deliver messages to stakeholders that need to be heard, but that are not always what people most want to hear. Even people I have called potential customers may sometimes need to be treated as sinners, and may therefore require something other than a simple welcome from a loving community. 

Finally, I should point out that I have considered primarily communications from the church organization to others. Parishioners communicate with one another and with the church, however, and staff members communicate with one another. These communications can also be problematic, but I must save discussing them for another day.

Such limitations aside, however, I hope that I have presented some ideas that parish communicators can discuss and think about, even if I may not have provided a complete blueprint for improved parish communications. I welcome your comments, suggestion, and stories about parish communications.

— LED, 5/28/2002, revised 6/1/2002

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