Michael Buckingham is a longtime friend of Church Marketing Sucks, with 45 guest posts to his name, crucial leadership in the formative years of the Church Marketing Lab and big-time design skills. He’s the founder of Holy Cow Creative where he’s helped churches and ministries of all kinds communicate better. In late 2011 he stepped back a bit from Holy Cow Creative to cross the divide and go to work on a church staff. These days he’s the experience pastor at Victory World Church in Atlanta. Holy Cow Creative is still going strong, with Michael serving as more of a leader of creatives than just a creative. This dual role as a church staffer and a company man gives him a unique perspective.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known when you were getting started in church communication?
Michael Buckingham: That people are most important. I was so focused on the state of the church I missed that people are what’s most important. In this new role, as a pastor and under leadership that has that as their top priority, I’m embracing that truth.
Second is that it’s not about how things look but how things make people feel. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon of “kill the clipart,” “Jesus hates papyrus,” etc.—heck, I was driving that wagon, but it’s about so much more than how things look.
You came into an established communication team at a big church. Tell us the truth—was it everything the little guys dream of? Or do you still run into problems and frustrations?
Michael: It is indeed everything people dream of. We never disagree, we’re always thinking the same things and the money flows like honey. Magic.
Yeah, not really.
There are definitely frustrations and lots of things that I’m working on bringing change to. One of the first challenges as a team was to breakdown some silos and bring the team together. Now we have video and design and copy all working together; the team is becoming collaborative instead of focusing on simply completing individual parts of a project.
For this role it was also unique in the fact that though the team was established, they brought me in to bring change to the team. This role had been marketing and media director, but they wanted to expand what this team was and did, to something that focused beyond creating media and into the look and feel of church and how.
While this was challenging, especially as change brings resistance, it also helped reorient the team. It set the tone that we were making a shift in our course and approach. As relationships are built and trust earned, we’re shifting away from fulfilling ministry orders and to consulting with those ministries. That shift is happening and being embraced. But it’s a big shift and takes time to turn.
You also came in with an outsider’s perspective—you haven’t worked on a church staff before. How did your transition to being on a church staff go? What was your biggest surprise coming onto a church staff?
Michael: The biggest surprise, or change, wasn’t about the team but about me. For 10 years I’ve been focused on bringing creativity to how the church communicated and beauty to how it acted. I was focused on product, the end result. As a pastor and part of this church staff, people are the most important thing. It meant making a shift from being a creative to the role of a creative leader. Being honest, that was a shift in thinking for me and has been the most beautiful change that has happened to me through this role.
Not so much a surprise but a realization: Before coming on staff I was just Holy Cow. I’d fly in, assess the needs/challenges, tell them what they were, how to fix them and even though I was key in setting the foundation of a new brand, campaign, etc., I got to fly out feeling great that I gave them a solution that would serve them really well. And they still had a lot of work ahead of them. I never realized the amount of work let alone emotion that was attached to some of the solutions I provided.
What was your first great success as a church communicator? What made it work so well?
Michael: Helping my own church breakout free from clipart and putting all the visual communications on the church secretary. It happened by starting small and letting them tiptoe into it. As they saw and heard one thing work, they’d allow another and another. The big success moment was when the senior pastor started called before going into sermon prep. It worked because I let them take their time with it, I led with honor and patience as they learned the power of communicating beyond just words.
My first “big” success was my work with some series branding and development around the DaVinci Code movie. While churches were boycotting the movie I was working with a pastor to do a sermon that answered the uproar. I found myself on the Los Angeles Times radar and ended up in a couple live interviews on Fox News, telling the church to stop being so afraid of questions and instead embrace the opportunity to share truth.
What made it work so well is that it was me being honest from my heart. It wasn’t “the right” answer but it was the true answer for me. What made it work the best was the great support of the pastor I had partnered with, James Damude, that started the conversation.
What was your first great failure? What lessons did you learn?
Michael: Trying to force myself into a creative director role, which did not exist, at my home church. It’s how all this got started. I came back to God and the church. Coming back to God was easy. Coming back to the church was a struggle. It was low grade, mediocrity in so many areas and just fell short of how they were proclaiming God. I complained for a year until I finally listened to God telling me to stop complaining and start building solutions. I translated that to God telling me that I should be the creative director of the church. But it wasn’t going to happen, and my sight was set on something far smaller than what God was preparing for me. When I finally let go of “my dream” and exchanged it for whatever it was God wanted the doors flung open and Holy Cow was born.
The lesson: don’t try to get ahead of God’s timing or plan. Search for his shadow instead of expecting him to find yours.
One of the challenges church communicators face is navigating different ministries and their needs. Any tips on navigating that minefield?
Michael: As Holy Cow this is really easy: They bring me in because I’m the “expert” and I automatically have their ear. Even when they don’t listen and ask for more I simply have to say “we can absolutely do that, but do understand there will be extra cost.” Nine times out of 10 those “needs” disappear.
As staff it’s honestly a very big challenge that I’m still traversing and learning. The first thing I’m learning is people first, output second and that relationships, while key, aren’t easy. There are times when I have to confront some other personalities, there are times when I have to set things down and learn to pick the right battles.
The most important lesson, so far, came from Chipp Judd (our senior pastor brings him in to help us keep our lives healthy… highly recommended). He pointed out that one of my gifts, and why I’ve done well in this field, is that of prophecy. I see things others don’t. He pointed out the prophet must learn when to hold the prophecy and when to release it. I’m still learning to do that, but it’s been truly life changing.
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 writing and social media.