David Hansen is the pastor of St. John Lutheran Church of Prairie Hill, an ELCA congregation located six miles outside the small town of Brenham, Texas. We’re talking rural church. They’re a mid-size, inter-generational congregation. This is David’s first church and he’s been there for seven years.
Born and raised a pastor’s kid in the Lutheran church, David handles communication for his congregation as well as pitching in for the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod. He helps other pastors with digital media, teaches workshops and participates in the weekly Church Social Media chats (#chsocm) on Twitter. That’s where you can follow David: @rev_david.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known when you were getting started in church communication?
David Hansen: Anything at all about digital tools. When I started seminary, one or two people used high-tech Palm Pilots. About a third of the class used a laptop during classes. No one was teaching about using digital tools to build community.
By the time I was done with seminary, social media were becoming more and more a part of the life of our culture. And still, not one mention in the seminary. I wish, as I got started, that I had more preparation in how to be a communicator.
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?
David: As a best practice, you lead by example. People have to be shown the benefits of something, shown that it works. This is especially true with new technology and communications mediums.
So as a pastor, I try to get out there and say, “Look, this is what the congregation could be doing. This is what you could be doing. These are the people that we could be reaching together. Let me show you how it works.”
But at some level, communication is not a choice. We are called to proclaim. Period. That means that every congregation and every member of a congregation is called to spread the message that we have been given as far and wide as possible—we are witness to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. We have an obligation to use any and every means to do that.
I just don’t think that is something you vote on as a congregation or something you debate. Does anyone want to take up the “we shouldn’t share the gospel” side of the argument? Does anyone really want to cast a ‘no’ vote on the great commission?
What was your first great success as a church communicator? What made it work so well?
David: When I came to this congregation, I had this a-ha moment: I could take the things I did to connect with other people, and use it to build connections within the congregation and the community. And I just did. I started using my social networks for my ministry, I built a blog for the congregation, I used email to share news.
I believe that it worked so well because it was organic. It wasn’t a gimmick.
We weren’t doing the latest thing in order to do the latest thing. We didn’t have a social media presence because everyone said that is what churches were supposed to do now. Our online ministry was just a natural extension of our face-to-face ministry. It was real, organic conversation—which just happened to take place online. And people responded well to that authenticity.
What was your first great failure? What lessons did you learn?
David: I have, more than once, written or said something in my church communications that have caused pain for other people. Things that I said with the best of intentions that wound up being heard as hurtful or unkind. For someone who is deeply compassionate about other people, that was hard.
The lesson for me was this: Think about how your words can be misunderstood, because they inevitably will be.
Once the words leave my keyboard, I have no control over how people will look at them. And so now I do everything that I can to limit misunderstanding before I hit “send.”
How can you make progress when you have little or no budget?
David: That’s the beauty of social media!
With a budget of $0, you can set up an email campaign, establish a presence on the major social media sites, even have a place-holder website.
This year—seven years into my ministry here—is the first year that we have begun investing budget into the digital side of our communications program.
How are things different with a rural congregation?
David: A rural setting provides so many different challenges and opportunities than other settings. When I arrived here in 2006, the church was one of the few places that had an Internet connection that was faster than dial-up (although not by much). Seven years later, the number of people with connections is getting better—but cable connections and DSL still are not available in this area. Mobile technology has done a lot to level this out, but we still have to consider the large percentage of our population who is not online at all.
Rural communities also tend to be older than suburban or urban settings. We aren’t exactly known as the “early adopters” of technology. One can’t make the same assumptions about technology usage in this setting that one could make serving a church down the road in suburban Houston.
On the other side of the coin, because we are so spread out and sometimes even isolated, people in rural settings are often looking for ways to connect. If the church can provide the tools to help people connect to one another, people will use them.
In rural America, we love our communities. We know our neighbors—even if neighbor means five miles down the road. And we want ways to gather together and share our lives.
What’s worked well in a rural setting? What hasn’t?
David: Here has been my biggest surprise: the number of older adults who are passionate about using digital tools for church communications. The digital world provides so many ways to help home-bound members of the church to stay connected to their community. They can listen to the sermon podcast, read the bulletin online and participate in discussions. It has been such a great ministry tool with that community.
Any approach to communication that is either/or simply doesn’t work in a rural settings. I have seen churches in other settings go “all digital”—dropping their print communications. That would not be effective here. In this setting, we take a both/and approach.
At the end of the day, good church communications are about the community—and should reflect that community. If you try to use a cookie-cutter approach, it will never work.
More on Getting Started
If you’re looking for more help on getting started, check out the rest of our Getting Started interview series. Another resource that might be a big help is our new book, Dangerous: A Go-to Guide for Church Communication. It covers a lot of the basics, from big picture strategy to practical stuff like video and sound.