Your church has a communication problem

communication

Follow-up now available: Some help for your church’s communication problem

If your church is like most American churches, you have a communication problem. If you surveyed active church members across the nation, I’d guess that the vast majority would list “communication” as one of their church’s greatest failings, or say that their church isn’t transparent enough.

My church has a communication problem. If you’re a church leader and hear that complaint/lament regularly, I can empathize with you. If you’re a member of my church, I apologize to you. We have a communication problem. I know it. I wish we didn’t. You can go somewhere else, but unless they’re not doing anything, or are a mega-church (I’ll explain that below), they probably have a communication problem, too.

I usually try to suggest solutions where there are problems, but I’m afraid my goal here is a bit less optimistic. I think the best I can do is provide more understanding of why this is such a frequent problem. And then I’ll offer some suggestions to the frustrated, under-communicated-with church member and the frustrated, regularly-blamed-for-under-communicating church-leader.

A Diagnosis — Confused Constituencies

Here’s my hypothesis: the church’s (and other social organizations’) constituencies fall into a very different category than the standard organization’s constituencies. Because of that, we have a very difficult time communicating with them the way they think they want to be communicated with.

The Church as a Family

Many complaints about transparency come when we frame the church in familial terms. If your church is a 15-person house church, that might be pretty legitimate. But let’s face it, in larger churches, the family analogy just doesn’t hold all the way through.

A family doesn’t have full-time employees.

I don’t know any families (in this case, ones comprising more than 15 people who don’t all live together), with a single, large combined budget.

transparent family is one that all knows each other rather well, whereas in all but very small churches, the people don’t even all know each other’s names.

And so, when we hear complaints like, “We have a right to know all the details about [insert difficult situation/decision]. We’re a family!” it doesn’t really work. Whenever there’s a complaint about communication not working like a family’s would, we should ask whether the situation is a typical family situation. Families don’t hire and fire people. Families don’t have professional communication departments to inform them of events in the family. They call or e-mail or visit each other. If that sort of organic, non-professional communication isn’t happening in your church, it’s probably a good sign that we’re not truly dealing with a family situation.

Which takes us into the realm of the organization…

The Church as Organization

Most organizations have three primary constituents: employees, customers, and owners. There’s a relatively clear and distinct strategy for communication with each group.

Which constituency would we associate with active church members?

Customers

Some would want to consider church members like customers. But that’s not usually the reality. The decision-making expectations are different. So is the expectation for how much information is available.

If your favorite restaurant changes the menu, decides to open a second location, or decides to close on a particular day, you don’t expect to be consulted. Good businesses will let their customers know about decisions like that — usually through their marketing departments. Some might even get customer input through surveys. But the customer doesn’t typically expect to be brought into the decision-making process. Nor do customers expect to receive regular information about that business’s budgeting, staffing, or property decisions. Customers don’t expect transparency about all of those areas.

Church members usually expect to be brought into the decision-making process much earlier than a typical customer would. And they expect to receive more information than customers do. They’re not customers.

This is where some mega-churches may get an exception. Their size and centralized leadership structure make it clear that they’re religious service providers to their members, who are religious service consumers. Nearly all decisions are made by the staff, with only the biggest decisions going to some sort of “board” (compare to “owners”), and then communicated to the members by a marketing/communications department. Andy Stanley’s North Point Church in Atlanta is a great example of this employee-driven model.

So there’s actually a solution in this: make a more clear divide between employees, owners (i.e. church board), and customers (i.e. members). It’s much easier to communicate if the church board expects only to be brought in on the biggest decisions (think in terms of the most crucial 3–5 decisions of the year), the employees are fully charged with operations, and the members expect to be communicated with like customers.

Of course, I’m not advocating this. I don’t like it. But it would make communication easier.

Owners

In a small company, there are usually just a few owners. How do they get their information? Mostly through one-on-one communication with their managers. That doesn’t work for more than a handful of people.

If we look at this more like a large organization, though, we have two options:

      1. We treat members like shareholders. That probably looks like a quarterly update and annual meeting. I don’t know many who would be satisfied with that. They want to know more and know it earlier.
      2. We treat the board like owners and the rest like customers. Now we’re back to what I laid out above.

Employees

The place I see the most complaints comes when active members would probably like to be communicated with like employees. And this makes some sense in any church that relies heavily on volunteers for ministry and committee work. Those volunteers are like employees — they’re the ones making it happen — they just don’t get paid for it.

But there’s another difference: most of those volunteers have day jobs. That means they don’t spend the majority of their week immersed in the details of the church, like the actual church employees do.

If they were actual employees of the church, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to meet weekly, perhaps even daily, when a crucial decision needs to be made. If they were actual employees, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to exchange rounds of e-mails every week. That’s highly unusual for volunteers, though. And it should be. Most of them have day jobs!

But the problem is that in most people’s day jobs, the other people who are needed to make a decision are also at their day jobs. And so the decision turn-around can be reasonably fast. Employees are unsurprised by multiple inter-organizational e-mails per day.

I receive 20–30 church e-mails per day and send as many. And I attend no less than 5 or 6 church meetings each week. And I spend a considerable amount of time in the office, learning about things just because I was present when they happened or because of inter-office conversation. So I know a lot about what’s happening in the church. Even with that, I occasionally learn things late and get caught by surprise. By comparison, a daily e-mail and weekly meeting is far too much for most church members (and I don’t blame them), and it still wouldn’t be enough to get them fully up to speed.

So I would argue that we can’t communicate with church members like customers. They’re more than customers. They want more information, want it earlier, and often want to be part of the decision.

We can’t communicate with church members like owners. There are far too many of them to give them the personal communication a small group of owners gets, and they want far more than what typical shareholders get.

We can’t communicate with church members like employees. They can’t handle dozens of e-mails per day and multiple meetings per week. They can’t handle the volume of information typical employees receive, nor can we produce that volume for our members without stopping a lot of the other things we’re doing.

And so our problem: churches and their members (and other social organizations) are confused about what kind of constituents their members are. The volume of information desired is often something just short of what employees receive, but that’s too much volume for the church to produce and for most people to truly be able to handle.

The Church as Pastoral, Strategic, and Social Organization

A final problem relatively unique to the church in its communication is that it serves as a pastoral, strategic, and social organization. Here’s what I mean…

As a social organization, the members of the church have relationships with each other. They talk regularly. It’s not uncommon for them to receive more church information (and occasionally misinformation) through casual conversation than through actual church communications.

So for instance, several church members notice that a family hasn’t been around for a while. They know that family had been upset by something that happened in the youth ministry a while back and now assume that’s why they left. They don’t understand why the pastor never did anything. What they don’t know is that the pastor met with that couple several times in a counseling situation, and the reason they left had to do with marital problems totally unrelated to the youth ministry problem.

But the pastor can’t say that. (S)He can’t announce it in the church newsletter each time a person leaves for reasons (s)he may fully understand, yet the church doesn’t know. Most people would generally disapprove of any sort of public announcement of their leaving when it’s not because of a move, and it would usually be inappropriate.

And yet, because of that lack of information, our social networks fill in the blanks with whatever we can most easily fit into them. There’s a legitimate lack of communication here. But it’s an appropriate one.

The church as strategic organization has another communication challenge. As a strategic organization, any significant decisions need to pass through a process. But as a social organization, a large number of people are emotionally invested in those decisions. If people learn about something in its earliest stages of the decision-making process, it may produce undue speculation, rumor, and consternation over something that will never come to fruition. If they’re not let in at those earliest stages, they’re likely to be hurt and offended for not knowing sooner.

Managing emotions and strategic decisions in a social organization makes communication particularly difficult. We’re not just dealing with formal lines of decision-making, we’re dealing with all the social and emotional aspects of this peculiar organization.

Your church has a communication problem. And it’s not as easily fixed as you might think.

Suggestions for better communication and better communication expectations

I’ve laid out many of the problems we’re dealing with in some detail. And as I said at top, I’m worried that I don’t have a great solution. I think so long as we continue operating churches as large, professional organizations, there will always be a gap between communication expectations and realities.

But I do think we can do better. I’ve realized several of my own failings in church communications, sought advice, and am trying to do better. In my following post, I’ll try to offer some resources and suggestions for the frustrated, regularly-blamed-for-under-communicating church leader. I’ll also offer some suggestions for the frustrated, under-communicated-with church member.

5 thoughts on “Your church has a communication problem

  1. Thanks for your post. I found lots of the insights and analysis helpful, useful and accurate! Just wondering, has the follow-up post happened yet, as I can’t find it? Regards!

    • Hi Craig,

      So sorry for my late response — and for not posting a follow-up yet. I began working on it and didn’t like what I had. I hope to get something out in the next few weeks.

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