Ryan Spilhaus spent over four years at McLean Bible Church in Northern Virginia in a variety of church communication roles. “I worked with some incredible people, learned how to do ministry (and how not to do ministry), and taught myself web design,” Ryan says. These days he’s taking a break from church communications and working as a web designer with Cstraight Media. He also blogs with “remarkable infrequency” at RyanSpilhaus.com.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known when you were getting started in church communication?
Ryan Spilhaus: That good and “cool” communications aren’t the end goal—changed lives are. When you’re coming into church communications typically one of your first reactions is to try to change pretty much everything. A lot of times that’s a noble aim, but sometimes we can be a bit overzealous at the price of relationships. You have to learn to recognize when you’re doing something because it’s cool, or because it will be genuinely effective.
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?
Ryan: Don’t hole up in your office—get out and spend time with people. Whether it’s other staff members, volunteers or regular members of the congregation. Not only will you get to see another side of what’s going on around you and what God is doing with the church, but you’ll also meet and build relationships with people who can help you out when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Also, it’s incredibly important to build in time where you disconnect from work. It’s really easy to burn out if you don’t take time to turn off your smartphone and your laptop and recharge—mentally and spiritually. Not enough people establish an “email free” time. I’m probably the only web designer in America without a smartphone, but I love not constantly feeling like I have to check and respond to things that really aren’t urgent—and my wife appreciates it too!
If a church is just starting to get serious about communication, where should they start?
Ryan: Right where you are. It’s great to devour as many resources as you can, but in the end no other situation is exactly like yours. What works for someone else might fail miserably in your context. So definitely spend time on communications blogs and CFCC projects, but then spend time figuring out how the principles can be applied to your situation instead of just carbon-copying the tactics without thinking about the context.
What was your first great success as a church communicator?
Ryan: I think the biggest success I had was more of a personal one. After starting out as a sort of “generalist” communications assistant, I eventually taught myself web design/development and was able to utilize those skills to do things that we had in the past either had to pay for or just plain weren’t able to do. So on a personal level it was great because I was developing new skills (and eventually got a new job as web director) and was helping us to accomplish things we hadn’t even thought of before.
What was your first great failure? What lessons did you learn?
Ryan: I think generally any time I thought I was going to come in and make sweeping unilateral changes to something, I failed. Even when your way makes sense, is more logical, cost-effective and just plain “better” (at least in your eyes)—if you don’t have the stakeholder engagement and buy-in you need, you’ll almost always fail. I think too often we make decisions and plan things in a church communications bubble without getting outside perspective. When you wall yourself and your team off and refuse to listen to or interact with the other ministries and people in your church on a collaborative level, you aren’t going to get much done except frustrate and annoy people—who will then turn around and frustrate and annoy you. Silos are great for groupthink, but bad for ministry.
How do you deal with congregations that are stuck in a ‘That’s how we’ve always done it,’ mindset and are resistant to trying new things?
Ryan: Showing people why they are “doing it wrong” almost never works. The best way to change perceptions is to show people how good it can be. Start with the small things around the outside. You may not be able to change your bulletin or website right away, but you can start getting individual ministries really excited about what you’re doing by helping them out. There might not be much “glory” at first, but it will pay off as you build a group of ministries and ministry leaders who are supportive of what you’re trying to accomplish because they’ve seen firsthand how good it is.