Some help for your church’s communication problem

announcementsA while back, I wrote about why “Your church has a communication problem.” I said that I feared I didn’t have solutions for this problem. In fact, one of my best solutions right now is just to help everyone understand why the problem is occurring.

But I also promised a second post with some suggestions and tools that I’ve found helpful.

I’ve found that post more difficult than expected. I’ve given it two or three shots. One time it sounded cynical and condescending, the next time it didn’t actually seem helpful. And it was a little embarrassing each time because I recognize how badly my church and I have failed at some of these, and I felt ashamed to put out any suggestions as if I were any expert.

What I want to try to show the frustrated, under-communicated-with church member:

1 – Leaders aren’t trying to hide things from you. I’ve never seen something done that the leaders were intentionally trying to hide from the congregation. I’m sure it happens, but I don’t think it’s often.

2 – Leaders also aren’t trying to exclude you from a decision you should be part of. As I mentioned in the previous article, the lines for decision-making aren’t all clear-cut. And sometimes they are clear-cut, and we just make a mistake. I received a very kind e-mail from my lay leader earlier this year telling me she was thrilled about a decision I had made, but also stating that it was the kind of decision she should be in on from the beginning, not learning about after the fact. She was right. I should have known better. That kind confrontation was helpful.

3 – Some of the most damaging things I’ve seen have come when people who didn’t have the correct information began making assumptions, getting emotional about those assumptions, and sharing both the assumptions and the emotions with others. That just hurts us all. If you don’t understand something or you’re not sure you have the whole story (i.e. any information that you only have second-hand), you’ll do everyone a favor by going to someone directly involved.

4 – An announcement from the pulpit usually isn’t the answer. For almost every new program or event, the magic bullet for awareness is the pulpit announcement. But you don’t really want them all announced from the pulpit. Here’s why:

a) If everything was announced from the pulpit that people would like announced, it would likely consume 15 minutes of the worship service.

b) With that many announcements, people zone out. They may hear your announcement, but most of them aren’t listening. [See my suggestions to leaders below.]

c) You’ll think that announcement was the magic bullet you needed and that you’ll get a great turnout for whatever it is you’re doing. You’d probably be much better to focus energies on personal invitations.

See Phil Bowdle’s great post: “7 Reasons Why You’re Not Getting a Stage Announcement”

For most of this, you can replace “pulpit announcement” with “bulletin insert” or “prominent spot in church newsletter” or whatever mass media your church uses. In my experience, at least, though these are the first answers for communicating about events, they’re not all that effective.

5 – Go easy. I’ve seen a lot of anger and animosity in the church because people wanted more communication. I’ve hopefully shown why communication in the church is so tricky. Why part of it is our leaders’ fault, but why part of it also is beyond their control. And at the end of the day, communication isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the top priority for pastors. It’s not their primary area of training, and it’s not truly what you most need them doing. Top priorities need to be preaching well, leading a faithful worship service, being with people in times of need, and equipping people as disciples. There are times that those priorities will need to squeeze the others out.

What I want to try to show the frustrated, blamed-for-under-communicating church leader:

1 – You probably are under-communicating. You live in church world. You talk to lots of people. Something that you’ve known about for days, weeks, and months is still news to most others. You must keep communicating it!

2 – You need a decision-making structure. Do you have a clear structure in place that helps your leaders and your congregation know who should be in on which decisions? Are there guidelines you’ve established about when a decision requires a larger group’s input? (e.g. You make the call on the $80 repair, but your building committee wants input before the $800 repair.)

3 – You need a system for communication. A helpful starting point: take notes/minutes at each meeting. Leave a section dedicated to “decisions made” so that you can clearly see what decisions you have made. Whenever you make a decision, then ask, “Who else needs to approve this before it’s finalized? Who needs to know about it before it goes public? Who needs to know after the fact? How should we notify them all?” Put your answers to all of those in the “action items” portion of your meeting notes. Then follow-through.

For a lot of great help on church communications systems, let me refer you to Phil Bowdle. He’s doing this in a pretty large setting, as a full communications director, but you can still implement a lot of what he’s suggesting.

4 – Keep it simple. Have you found yourself giving 20 announcements each Sunday? If so, your people are hearing so much that they’re probably listening to almost nothing. Worse, they may be giving attention to the things that you’re less interested in them hearing (e.g. they take note of the scrapbooking party next week and miss your core discipleship groups, as if the two are equal a la carte options).

What are your top priorities? One or two or three. Keep those consistently in front of people. That means axing a lot of the rest. Which will not endear you to the people who want their bake sale announced for a month leading up to it. You can cave, but it’s more for your own benefit, not the benefit of the church. Or you can find ways to help people use other channels and preserve the pulpit announcements for only the top priorities.

5 – You’ll never be perfect. You’re probably going to continue being criticized for under-communicating. You’ll hear “we didn’t know about that” for things that have been announced in newsletters, worship services, board meetings, on Facebook, etc. It’s just the nature of church communication, I’m convinced. Don’t get yourself too worked up about it. And please, don’t forsake your pastoral duties to spend all your time ensuring that everyone is receiving the communication they want. Ultimately, your pastoral duties are more important. Forsake those, and you’re just the communications director for a social club.

Okay, there’s my attempt at a helpful, non-cynical set of suggestions for church leaders and members. How’d I do? What questions do you have? What would you add?

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