Giving Communication the Attention It Deserves

By Lynne M. Baab
Building Church Leaders Blog (a publication of Christianity Today), Aug, 2008.

Fifty years ago, strategic planning for congregations would probably have included a discussion about communication at the end of the planning process. The central question would have been,

“How will we communicate our new direction to the congregation?”

In our time, issues of communication are relevant throughout the entire process. Two significant cultural changes make communication an urgent consideration. First, people in our communities are no longer loyal to denominations or particular churches, and in many cases, they know next to nothing about churches and how they work. In order to convey a warm welcome and to express our vision and values, we need to consider communication as we plan every aspect of ministry.

Secondly, we are living in the midst of an explosion of communication options. Fifty years ago, people thought the twenty-first century would be characterized by colonies on the moon and cars that travel through the air. Instead, most of the biggest technological changes of the past two decades involved communication.

  • Who could have dreamed about the cheap and instantaneous messages we can send through blogs and email?
  • Who could have imagined the resources that can be placed on websites and downloaded onto home computers?

We can now take photos of church events and distribute them immediately by phone or email, post them on websites or blogs, or show them on a screen in worship. These technologies create amazing opportunities for congregations, and many of the desires and goals that emerge in a strategic planning process can be facilitated through new communication options.

Assessment Stage
Most strategic planning involves assessment and evaluation in the initial stages. Be sure to include an assessment of your congregation’s communication. Are visitors and newcomers getting the information they need? Evaluate

  • your outdoor signage,
  • the building (inside and out),
  • printed publications,
  • website, and
  • phone system

through the eyes of a visitor. In addition, are members and attenders getting the resources they need? Again, evaluate all your forms of communication through the eyes of people who attend regularly, perhaps polling them to find out about their needs.

Planning Stage
As new communication options have come on the scene, congregations often ask the question,

“What can a website (or blog or projection screen or list serve) do for us?”

As these communication options are becoming more familiar, I’d like to encourage congregations to change the question to,

“Here’s something we want to do. What communication options might help us do that?”

Perhaps a congregation desires to help members engage more deeply in personal faith practices. Many congregations have a history of providing devotional booklets at Lent or Advent, and sermons and newsletter articles are common ways of creating a focus on personal spirituality within a congregation. With the resources of the Internet now available, additional resources on spiritual disciplines can be provided to members through the congregation’s website. This might include

  • book reviews,
  • lists of helpful Scripture passages,
  • Bible study questions,
  • articles or testimonies by church staff or members,
  • material for small groups to discuss,
  • descriptions of seminars or classes to be held at church, and
  • links to articles on other websites.

These kinds of materials and links can also be presented on a blog.

With so many resources available on the Internet, congregation members often need help discerning which websites, online articles, and blogs are helpful and theologically sound. The congregation’s website or a blog by the minister or by a group within the congregation can be an excellent place to post links to help members find Internet information on many topics related to Christian faith development and ministry. For local outreach, overseas mission, children’s and youth ministry, and other congregational emphases, websites and blogs can be strategic sites for posting information and resources, as well as links to helpful websites and articles.

If the congregation’s goals include facilitating connections between people, numerous communication options can help. Congregational websites can be set up to allow people to post photos. One church website I viewed had more than 11,000 photos of church activities. Churches can provide a place on their website for members to share links to sites such as Flickr where photos can be posted. A blog by the minister or by a group within the congregation can provide a place for response and dialog. Many congregations have pages or groups on Facebook, Bebo, and other social networking websites, which encourage connections. A list serve for congregation members or subgroups within the congregation can facilitate email dialogue that doesn’t have to go through the church office. A wiki (open source web-based software that allows multiple people to contribute) can be a place for congregational leaders to create documents or for small groups to work on a statement of what they have learned as they studied a topic together.

When the Internet came on the scene, some religious leaders worried that online relationships would be superficial and perhaps even destructive. Many people in the younger generations, and an increasing number of people in the older generations, experience a seamless connection between their online and face-to-face relationships. Small group members email each other between meetings. Friends connect with each other at coffee shops and on Facebook. People discuss issues in person and through responses to blogs. As congregations consider ways to facilitate connections between members, these new means of communication should be discussed as an inevitable part of the way people connect today.

The two examples given here – spiritual disciplines and connections between congregation members – illustrate ways communication technologies can be discussed as a part of setting goals. Virtually every aspect of congregational life involves decisions about communication:

  • newcomers,
  • the worship service,
  • fellowship events,

and so on.

Placing an emphasis on communication in the planning stages rather than waiting until the end of the process will make things go much more smoothly and will make use of the amazing communication options at our fingertips today.

Mission Statements
Many congregations view the creation of a mission statement as a central and vital part of strategic planning. In fact, some congregations engage in a strategic planning process in order to create a mission statement.

Mission statements can be helpful, and the process of creating a statement can help congregations discern and articulate their unique focus. However, mission statements can also be overly bland and generic. Often they are too long to use effectively on brochures and websites.

Mission statements arose in the business world in the 1980s, and congregations adopted the practice, in the same way they have adopted so many other business practices. It is noteworthy that mission statements are falling out of favor in the business world because they failed to live up to their promise of creating vision, empowering employees and generating business.

The central problem with mission statements in congregations is that often the congregational leaders believe that with the creation of the statement, they have finished listening to God for direction and they have done enough to communicate their vision to the congregation. Effective church leadership involves a continuous process of listening to God for direction, and effective communication in our time must be continuous as well as multi-faceted.

In our increasingly visual culture, a good logo can be more memorable and effective than a mission statement. A brief slogan of 4 to 15 words can be more practical for brochures and websites than a longer mission statement.

Communicating the Vision
In the final stages of planning, communicating new directions needs to be considered. Traditional means of communication such as sermons, newsletter articles, and brochures remain significant. In addition, short articles on websites and blogs can play an increasing role.

Brian Bailey and Terry Storch, in their helpful book The Blogging Church, say that blogs are an excellent place to explain the “why” behind the “what.” Often, after a strategic planning process, the congregation is informed in a straightforward way about changes that will take place. A blog, through a series of short posts, is an excellent place to explain some of the thinking process that lies behind the decisions. Bailey and Storch point out the benefits of blogs by ministers, but they also recommend that congregations consider creating blogs that are written by a team within the congregation for the benefit of the whole congregation. Ministries within congregations can also consider creating blogs to serve the people involved in those ministries.

With so many new communication options available, communication needs to remain front and center in every stage of the strategic planning process. Being trendy and up-to-date is not the point; achieving the congregation’s goals through every available means needs to be the central focus. So many new forms of communication facilitate connections between people and enable congregations to communicate the central values of the Gospel. They can be wonderful tools to help congregations meet their goals.