Getting Started: Denisse Leon

Getting Started: Denisse Leon

June 24, 2013 by

Denisse Leon has worked at Phoenix First for about five years. She started out as a communication specialist, mainly in charge of content for the bulletin, email newsletter and website, but now she’s the design manager. She oversees the church’s branding and design, along with day to day communications in conjunction with the communications director. She also participated in this year’s Creative Missions effort and you can follow Denisse on Twitter.

What’s the one thing you wish you had known when you were getting started in church communication?

Denisse Leon: You don’t need a title to feel capable to work in the field, you may not even need experience, but what you do need is two things:

1. Attitude: Skills can be taught, but not an attitude. Working in church communications for the past five years, have shown me that just like the corporate world, things can change any minute. The heavy deadlines can bring stress to the job at hand and without a good attitude, the dynamics of the project and the team can sacrifice the big ultimate picture, which is the blessing we have as communicators, to have a part in the message we are sending out to reach the lost.

2. Make Mistakes and Learn Something From Them:  My mother used to tell me: “The more you learn, the least you know…” I totally agree with her. Being an immigrant to this country myself, I find learning an everyday experience. Simple American phrases like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” would remind me of the time when I got all proud I had just became a naturalized American citizen and I went to our senior pastor and told him: “I am now a Yankee Doodle Donkey.” Yes, I thought that was the correct phrase… but I guess not… after I saw him laughing so hard at what I just had said.

What I learned that day was that my unintentional mistake allowed me to see that: 1. I still had a lot of American phrases to learn, and 2. ‘Mistakes’ can trigger you or someone else’s next big idea.

Well, that mistake of adding donkey to that famous American phrase surely inspired our senior pastor’s Celebrate America message that year.  So keep that child-like spirit, keep exploring, keep on trying new things, don’t disregard the little beginnings and learn from your mistakes.

What’s the biggest headache in church communication and how can newbies get over it (or get used to it)?

Denisse: I would say how to decide what to communicate, especially when you are told everything is important. The reality is that if everything that is important is communicated, then basically you have communicated nothing.

Prioritization of what gets communicated is critical for good stewardship of limited resources. To help with this process at Phoenix First, we developed a communication guide that showcases different event levels. Each even type is treated differently in determining what communication vehicle to use. In addition, we also use an internal online system where ministries submit their communications requests at least two weeks in advance. This allow us to plan ahead and decide the level of communication support we can provide.

Everything can be important, but not everything has to be communicated.

What was your first great success as a church communicator? What made it work so well?

Denisse: I guess I could say when we did our first live text/Twitter event at one of our Celebrate America performances. We had been using Twitter for awhile, but we wanted to make it be part of one of our events while engaging our audience. We asked them to text or tweet their answers to the questions our host would ask throughout the performance and their answer would appear on the screen feeds for everyone to read. I think what made it work so well was the collaboration with our drama and media departments to help integrated it in an intentional way that our audience couldn’t help but to engage.

What was your first great failure? What lessons did you learn?

Denisse: Relying on the computer spell check and not asking someone else to double spell check. We were working on putting together our annual conference class schedule package, and we were running behind on our printing deadline. We were so rushed to send it to print so we could get it on time that I relied only on the computer’s spell check and before I had someone else looked at it, I had already sent it to print. When I finally got to show it to some people, they caught so many mistakes and missing elements that it was too late to even ask the printer to stop the job. We ended up fixing the changes and found another printer that was able to rush our job, but we still ended up paying double.

After that, I learned: Always, always, always have at least one or two people that can go thoroughly through the entire document before it goes to print.

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?

Denisse: The whole concept of the “underdog” is such an element of the American culture. The advantage of being a newbie is actually great because you basically become the “underdog” but only for a limited time. You have the opportunity to ask tons of questions without looking dumb. I learned back when I moved to this country that people are actually very willing to answer questions and explain things when there is a genuine interest. In fact, people are dying to tell you about themselves. So be audacious and pick someone you would like to learn from and ask them to be your mentor, ask questions and spend time with God.

Phoenix First is a pretty big church. Does that make things easier because you have resources in place or is it harder because there’s that much more to do?

Denisse: I think it is like anywhere else, the bigger you are, the more there is to do and greater the expectation to be innovative.

A lot of churches making those first marketing steps don’t have a lot of help in the way of graphic design. How can they create stuff that looks good without a full-time designer or even budget for a freelancer?

Denisse: There are already so many great website that offer free resources such as seeds.churchonthemove.com, gracewaymedia.com, creationswap.com, lifechurch.tv.  We are actually very excited, we are in the process of launching our own very soon.

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Kevin D. Hendricks


When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998 and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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