Joe Porter serves as the communications and media director at Whitewater Crossing Christian Church near Cincinnati, Ohio. He took on the role full time after volunteering with his church for four years. He also runs his own photography business, Innovatory Photography. Before all the communications and photography work he was in real estate investment and studied psychology—”My creative side bloomed late in life,” Joe explains. He has no formal communications training, but calls himself a “complete nerd” when it comes to learning from blogs, research and other sources.
We continue our Getting Started series by talking to complete nerd Joe Porter:
How did the transition from volunteer to staff member go? Were there any specific issues or problems you had to overcome because of that approach to the job?
Joe Porter: Last year I was serving as a volunteer at Whitewater on the creative planning team. We plan the details of the weekend experience, and most of my role was to visually create the look and feel of each series as well as some writing. I began to see opportunities to improve how we communicated outside of the weekend experience. At the beginning of this year I was offered a staff position as the communications and media director.
The actual transition did not seem difficult. As a volunteer I was gradually given the authority to change and adjust how we communicated. I was 100% committed to the mission of the church and the vision of the leadership as a volunteer and that has remained as I transitioned to a staff member. There are some days that I still think to myself, “Wow, I cannot believe I get paid to do this!” (Don’t tell the pastors at my church.)
If you’re trying to get your church turned around to the idea of improved communications, where do you start?
Joe: I was able to gain traction by simply showing the leadership what quality design, writing and layout looked like. Once they saw the difference they were hooked. Again, it started with the weekend experience. Because of the weekend visibility, it might be easier to convince leadership to improve the bulletin before they improve the website. It will all come down to trust—trust in you and trust in the idea that the average person walking into your church is used to being communicated to in a creative and deliberate way.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known when you were getting started in church communication?
Joe: I wish I would have known how hard it would be to get the average church member’s attention. We are all bombarded with advertisements all day. It has been a challenge to get the message of the church to stand out. We started by not competing with ourselves. Instead of pushing every program every weekend, we only focus on two major announcements each week and do them really well.
What’s the biggest headache in church communications and how can newbies get over it (or get used to it)?
Joe: The biggest headache is having to actually enforce any procedures you put in place. This might be a quick email to someone who decided to print and post their own posters for discount tickets to a monster truck rally. I have the privilege of having great leadership behind me so I know they have my back should any confrontation arise. I also know that if anyone goes straight to the lead pastor with their concerns he will simply direct them back to me.
What was your first great success as a church communicator?
Joe: I would say the first great success was developing and implementing a comprehensive church communication plan. I actually began developing this plan while I was still a volunteer. I spent six months developing and writing along with the help of a team. We picked a start date and did it cold turkey. This included new promotion guidelines for the weekend, new bulletin layout and design, and an overall promotion criteria system.
What made it work so well?
Joe: I believe it has worked because it was very strategic and directly matched up with the mission of the church. We set out a set number of items we would promote any given weekend. That number was six for us. It might be two or it might be 10 for you. We believe the consumer (the church member/attender) can digest a finite amount of information any given weekend. This also made it easier for us to say no to some programming promotion.
Of the six promotions, we only promote two from the stage and graphically in the bulletin in addition to online. The target market must include virtually the entire church, and there must be a very large need such as VBS (lots of volunteers needed, etc.) The other four are promoted through text in the bulletin and on the pre-service program on the screens in addition to online. The target market is smaller on these such as a men’s retreat (about 50%). Anything outside of those six are promoted in other creative ways (social networking, website, targeted e-mail, etc.)
What was your first great failure?
Joe: I made the mistake of stepping into another ministry leader’s area too early in the process before I earned some credibility. While it was my intent to simply improve the process, it was not perceived that way. I learned that while some things from a creative communicator’s point of view will make you cringe, there is always value in taking a step back to ensure you approach it in the correct way.
That sounds rough. What happened?
Joe: The staff member responsible for the ministry center/welcome desk was approving and disapproving other ministries to promote from the desk without going through the proper communications system. I believed they should get their promotional materials approved/designed through us. He believed they were his responsibility. The problem was that this dance was happening on a Sunday morning instead of during the week.
We both sat down with our superior and talked out who was responsible for what. It was a very healthy conversation. It is ironic that I had a problem as the communications director because I didn’t communicate effectively!
How can you best make progress when you have little or no budget?
Joe: I do not believe that money is what is holding back churches from communicating effectively. There are so many great, free resources out there for design, web and video. With limited funds I would suggest focusing on web content first. A bulletin re-design might be a good place to start as well. Your church most likely has a budget for the bulletin. Work within that budget to create a truly engaging communication piece that everyone will see when they come through your doors.