Getting started in communications doesn’t always start in communications. That’s how it happened for Kelly Hartnett. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in counseling, she doesn’t have the background you’d expect for a communications director. But she served Morning Star Church in Dardenne Prairie, Mo., in that role for five years. She actually got her start with the church as the receptionist/bulletin girl and moved up to the director job, seeing the church nearly triple in size during her tenure.
Today Kelley is helping a new church plant and focusing on freelance writing.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known when you were getting started in church communication?
Kelley Hartnett: I approached my church communications role from my typical rose-colored, happy-go-lucky, rainbows-and-unicorns perspective. Most of the time, that worked out just fine. But sometimes it knocked me on my rear, to be honest. When you’re on staff at a church, you’ll see the underbelly. You’ll see people whom you love and trust behave selfishly. You’ll hear things about the “business” of church that can feel ugly. You’ll be part of conversations that don’t feel especially kumbaya. I wish I’d known that going in so I could prepare my heart a little better.
There’s a lot of pressure and expectations on a new communications person at a church. How do you handle the stress and pressure, especially for someone just learning the ropes?
Kelley: Well, if you’re asking me how I personally handled the pressure and expectations, my honest response is, “Not especially well.” (Ha!) But I did learn some things along the way:
- Have realistic expectations for yourself. No, you can’t get it all done… let alone get it all done well and quickly! It’s perfectly fine to keep an obnoxiously long to-do list, but learn to prioritize and develop a reasonable, sustainable pace. How? Next bullet.
- Develop a supportive network. Talk to people who’ve been doing church communications longer than you have, and get tips from them. If you’re not connected to anyone, start by jumping on Twitter and following the guest bloggers for Church Marketing Sucks. Then follow the people they follow. (Editor’s Note: Our list of Follow Friday recommendations might be a good place to start.)
- Set boundaries, communicate them and make exceptions only for good reasons. Let your church’s ministry leaders know your deadlines. Make exceptions for emergencies—but not for poor planning.
- Give people the benefit of the doubt. If you begin to feel pressure from demanding ministry leaders, remember that they probably aren’t trying to make your life miserable. Rather, they’re just super-passionate about their part of God’s big plan, and they want you to be just as passionate about it. They may not have stopped to consider that you may have 47 other ministry leaders just as passionate about their role, too.
- Have conversations. If your stress is work-related, talk to your boss. If your stress is people-related, talk to the person (not about the person!). Just don’t bottle it all up and convince yourself that if you were smarter, better, faster or more talented you’d be fine. Church work is just plain tough.
- Spend time with God. It’s really easy to slip into working for the church instead of for God. Be sure to keep your priorities straight: God, relationships, work (this will help when the ‘business’ of church I spoke about before becomes a problem).
If a church is just starting to get serious about communication, where should they start?
Kelley: Ask lots of questions—of ministry leaders, pastors, church attendees, volunteers and so on. Find out what’s going well and what seems broken. Meanwhile, read Kem Meyer’s Less Clutter. Less Noise. and Richard Reising’s Church Marketing 101. Then? Update your website, pretty please.
What’s the biggest headache in church communications and how can newbies get over it (or get used to it)?
Kelley: I’m not sure if this is the biggest headache, but it’s the one that came to mind first: Requests for platform announcements. Everyone wants the pastor to announce everything from the pulpit. There’s no way to “get over” this one: You’ll need to set up some guidelines on what information is “eligible” to be communicated through each channel you use—and then stick to those guidelines. And be sure to communicate to event coordinators/ministry leaders what communication support they will receive, so they know you’re not just ignoring them.
What was your first great success as a church communicator? What made it work so well?
Kelley: My first great success was launching a new web presence for the church. I suspect what made it work so well was that I took my time, rather than jumping on a quick solution, and I involved a small group of people along the way to act as a sounding board. Also, I’d had good conversations with people like Dawn Nicole Baldwin about branding and web as pre-experience, so I started from a good philosophical place, even though I knew absolutely nothing about web design and implementation.
What was your first great failure? What lessons did you learn?
Kelley: Long story short: I had this genius idea to include 3D glasses in the literature for a generosity initiative one year. We had some 3D art in the piece, so that was fun and hip and culturally relevant and all that jazz. Except people assumed we paid big bucks for those silly little paper glasses, and I heard lots of criticism about the church wasting money trying to raise money. My lesson? Perception is absolutely reality. It didn’t matter that I could show them how inexpensive they really were. I didn’t matter that we were frugal with the printing of the materials to create margin for the extra pop of the glasses. If you have an out-there idea, test it with a handful of people who represent a broad range of perspectives before you implement.