Angela Bengtson started as a part time office helper at Zion Lutheran Church in Buffalo, Minn., 11 years ago. She started doing filing and photocopies, but today she runs communications and membership. She didn’t have any communications experience, but did have some aptitude for computers and an eye for pulling a page together.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known when you were getting started in church communication?
Angela Bengtson: If I had known any of it I would have been totally intimidated!
So was ignorance bliss for you? How have you learned how to do stuff without being totally intimidated?
Angela: Maybe not bliss exactly. Seeing the gaps and wanting things to be better is what drove me to make the improvements that I have. But I took things one one at a time, and mostly on my own initiative, and grew my own position to include the things that interested me.
I learn through keeping my eyes and ears open. I could spend all day every day absorbing all the inspiration that is freely available online through forums, blogs and webinars and still only catch a fraction of it. Some favorites that I have relied on include Kem Meyer and Steve Fogg. Mari Smith has great Facebook tips and webinars. Lately I’ve learned a lot from the #chsocm tweet chats on Tuesday evenings.
How do you deal with congregations that are stuck in a ‘That’s how we’ve always done it,” mentality and are resistant to try new things?
Angela: I’ve been lucky in that for the most part my congregation has pretty much let me try whatever I want (well, as long as there isn’t a cost … on a couple of occasions I have covered the cost of trying something out as a donation).
What was your first great success as a church communicator? What made it work so well?
Angela: Maybe the first redesign I did of our congregational website. I taught myself a CMS and replaced our original site (which no one had any idea how to update) with something which was much more useful to the congregation.
What was your first great failure? What lessons did you learn?
Angela: When I started using email lists I did it within Outlook and we ended up getting blocked by some email providers and staff were unable to send even one-on-one emails to congregation members. I learned to really make an effort to send people emails only about the information they want, and I got started with MailChimp.
How can you best make progress when you have little or no budget?
Angela: Always be on the lookout for free stuff—either tools or education. I am always on the lookout for free online webinars, ebooks etc. Our online communications are built around WordPress, MailChimp, Table Project, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. For print my main tools are Microsoft Publisher, a copy of the original Photoshop Elements that came with a scanner about 10 years ago and our network printer.
It sounds like you’re much more the model of boot-strapping, low budget, make it work communications (which I imagine most churches are). Do you have tips for making the most with what you have? What kind of awesome things have you been able to do with what you have?
Angela: I try to remind myself that although it is great to be inspired by what the ‘gurus’ are doing, I live in the real world. Zion may be a large church in our small town but it is no big-city megachurch and doesn’t have to pretend to be one.
I think making the most of what you have is more of a mindset than something I have tips about. It is just who I am and not something I think about. So I have a hard time answering that question.
What kind of awesome things have you been able to do with what you have?
Angela: “Awesome” might be a bit much. But an example that maybe combines both questions…
About two years ago I had started using stories about members of the congregation to highlight a couple of ministries in our monthly newsletter. Basically, the subjects wrote their own stories. Last year when you asked me to be part of the Table Project case study series I was inspired to completely revamp my approach based on your example. Now I email them out a list of questions, send them back a draft, and work together on finalizing it. I’m also working on ways to maximize that content once I have it and the two I’m most satisfied with so far are making the post into an image that I can share and tag on Facebook, and maintaining a board for these stories on Pinterest.
If a church is starting to get serious about communication, where should they start?
Angela: If a “professional” is out of reach, look for someone who is passionate about the ministry, has an eye for design (possibly demonstrated through hobbies), and the aptitude to learn the tools.
What was the greatest help to you as a new church communicator?
Angela: A supervisor who let me explore the areas that interested me and gave me space to learn by doing… first in Microsoft Publisher, then in web design, then in social media.