Meredith Gould has survived government, healthcare and church bureaucracies, all while helping them communicate better. She’s coming off a stint in healthcare communications consulting and is transitioning back into church communication after taking some burnout-inspired time off. Her experience includes working part time in the church, consulting for a Roman Catholic diocese, offering pro bono help in crisis communications, and she wrote the book The Word Made Fresh: Communicating Church and Faith Today (read our review). You may also remember Meredith as the founder of the weekly #chsocm chats on Twitter.
If a church is just beginning to get serious about communication, where should it start?
Meredith Gould: If you’re betting I’ll recommend starting with social media, you’ll lose that bet!
Yes, I’m smitten with social media, but urge churches to begin with a communications audit. I try to make a strong case for completing an audit before spending any resources—time, talent, treasure—on tactics that aren’t needed and won’t work.
A communications audit reveals gaps and disconnects in message, image, style, tone, design and content for whatever has already been developed for internal as well as external audiences. It will provide useful information for creating a strategic plan.
Creating a comprehensive plan that identifies audience, articulates message and then uses this information to choose communication tools is a cardinal sign of being serious. I do not consider creating a website or setting up social media accounts without clear objectives a sign of seriousness.
I suspect church leadership avoid tackling an audit because they fear it will be a lengthy, cost-prohibitive process. It need not be either.
By the way, I’ve completed so many that I can pretty much predict what most churches need to do next and it’s not set up social media accounts. Almost without exception, the biggest barrier to communicating at every level of church is the website.
Budgets can be a problem. How do you do good communication with little or no budget?
Meredith: Amazing how budget problems miraculously disappear once everyone gets real about the cost of print and paid advertising. I caution church leadership about clinging to these tactics when more affordable and effective options are available.
Most digital tools for church communication are free or very low cost, so it’s possible to communicate with little or no budget. Plus, it’s not impossible to find congregants who can and will provide strategic counsel or do the work of setting up and maintaining accounts pro bono because they understand this is ministry. And I know I’m not the only church communication professional willing to slide the fee scale to help churches that are committed to communications and willing to learn.
While I would not go so far as to say budget concerns are bogus, I do think they’re blown somewhat out of proportion. Want “good communication”? Start with clear, on-task conversations about what you want to communicate, to whom and for what purpose. Eliminate the refreshments budget for that by folks bringing their own coffee and snacks!
What was your greatest success as a church communicator? What made it work so well?
Meredith: Don’t know about my greatest success, but I count it all joy whenever I’ve persuaded church leadership to enter into prayerful discernment about what they really should be doing to communicate church and faith—and why.
And of course I’m delighted by how the church social media (#chsocm) chat has gained traction this past year. That #chsocm is recognized as the tag for content and conversation about church social media has to be one of my best contributions in this domain.
What was your first great failure? What lessons did you learn?
Meredith: I fail whenever I put a lot of prideful effort into forcing people or organizations to do something they’re neither willing nor able to do. I confess this is an ongoing challenge because I have a very strong personality and strong opinions to go with it. My passion for this ministry can come across as vehemence and impatience, both of which are counterproductive.
The lesson I keep learning and relearning is this: spiritual practices are essential to my well-being. Coming into conscious contact with God is the best way for me to avoid being a total jerk, albeit a well-meaning one!
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?
Meredith: I view resistance to trying anything new as a manifestation of fear—of the unknown, of looking silly or stupid, of change, of becoming irrelevant and unwanted. Recognizing these very human fears helps me shift from frustration to compassion.
When resistance manifests, it often makes sense to simply stop, breathe, share a prayer and then have a deeper conversation about what’s really going on before moving forward. Our faith and spiritual practices that support it make it possible to minister to those who are fearful about communication ministry.
As a practical matter, I will sometimes meet with church leadership individually to find out what or who they think is getting in the way and why. With the promise of confidentially, I use that information to structure a process to either help everyone move forward or decide to keep the status quo.