Two years ago I was hired for my dream job: communications director for a large church. I came with more than 20 years of experience in marketing consulting.
In marketing, my job was to help my clients’ prospects see them in the best possible light. I quickly discovered that communicating to a large, demographically diverse congregation is a different animal altogether.
Our congregation of 5,000-plus has seen its fair share of change in recent years, including the departure of a beloved senior pastor and other high-profile staffers. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about communicating in times of change:
In their quintessential handbook The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White advise using as few words as possible: “Edit, edit and edit again.” It can be tempting to buffer hard news with extra words, but this can appear to be an attempt to obscure the facts. Say as much as possible about what has happened, with as much transparency as possible, in as few words as possible.
By the time you need to communicate to your audience, you may have been aware of the situation for some time already, so this principle is important. You’ve probably done a lot of processing that your audience hasn’t. Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient, and prayerfully consider what it would be like to hear this information for the first time. Acknowledge that you understand how this change may affect your audience, and let them know that you care about them.
Define all your audiences, then be strategic about the order in which they hear about the news. We’ve identified our key audiences to include pastors, elders, staff, lay leaders, ministry participants, general congregation and then the community. Whenever possible, we try to cascade the information so that those closest to the epicenter (most affected) hear about it first, then ripple the information outward. Be intentional about who hears the news in what order, and how. But be mindful that in today’s social media age you won’t have much time. News will slip past your carefully ordered plan, so be quick about it.
In times of change, those affected want to know to whom they can go with their questions and concerns. The higher-level the contact you can provide, the better. Depending on the sensitivity of the issue, the senior pastor’s email address and phone number may be appropriate. Bonus: Having access to an answer person reduces the likelihood of speculation and gossip.
Sailors at sea know that the best way to keep from getting seasick in stormy waters is to keep their eyes fixed on the horizon, because the horizon does not move. In times of turbulence, it’s helpful to remind your audience of the things that are not changing.
For example, when we shared the news with our congregation about the departure of our senior pastor, we reminded everyone that our mission as a church had not changed, our roots went deep and that ministry would continue as usual.
Most importantly, we frequently remind our congregation that God is the head of our church (small “c”) and the Church (big “C”). He is ever constant, and always faithful. As long as we remain in prayerful dependence on him, all will be well.
What principles have you found helpful in communicating change? Share your experiences below.Photo by Derek K. Miller