Connecting with Your Congregation Through Crisis Communication Planning

Recently, our founder and CEO William Vanderbloemen had a conversation with Nick Bogardus, Founder and Chief Strategist of the Relational Advisory Group and VP of Marketing and Communications at Subsplash, to discuss emerging trends in church communication planning.

Nick started full time vocational ministry in 2009 as the Communications Director at Mars Hill Church, and a good portion of his time there involved crisis management. Following his time there, his most notable takeaway was that in the midst of a crisis, the best tool someone can have is a strong communication plan to refer back to when a crisis arises. Even when something scary, or overwhelming, or new happens, if you have a communication plan to refer to, the plan makes a case for you and takes a significant weight of decision making off of your shoulders.

Right now, we’re hearing pastors express that there is a gap between people physically attending church and those involved online, and leaders are left feeling like they don’t know who all is actually out there listening. A communication plan can help address that. While rebuilding and replanting your church in this season, it’s important to keep in mind that pastors are geared to be planning for sermon series and ministry initiatives, but a communication plan helps you say the right messages to the right people so that your initiatives go further.

But before your church or organization can implement a good communication plan, you must first understand why you need one. Ask yourself: what can a communication plan do for you?

Here are the things that Nick lists as concepts that a good communication plan can clarify:

Who you are as a leader, a church, an org, a team?

What you say has to match who you are. Clarify who you are to discern what you say. 

What do you want to say? 

What do you want your congregation or client base to hear? What messages are coming from your convictions, associated with your vision?

Who are you talking to? 

A mistake many pastors make is trying to talk to too many people- entire cities rather than those they know are in their audience, clearly receiving their message.

We want to also save you time and energy by informing you of the biggest mistakes Nick sees churches make in crisis communication. When forming a communication plan for the first time, there are some things that may seem obviously right or helpful that Nick, with his many years in communication planning, knows are not productive for your initiatives and messages. These mistakes are:

1. Not having a plan at all. 

Obviously, not every church can have access to something like The Relational Advisory Group to help walk them through creating a plan. This cannot be helped. But without any kind of plan, when a crisis comes, people’s responses will never end up being exactly what you want them to be. 

2. Trying to speak to everyone instead of to a target audience.

A mistake many pastors make is trying to talk to too many people- to entire cities, denominations, or people groups, rather than to those they know are in their audience, clearly receiving their message. The same way that a business creates client personas, a church needs to know their target audience. 

3. Having an insular focus.

It’s surprisingly easy to place the church as the solution to all of the problems, and try to draw people to the institution or the place, rather than to Jesus. When your church’s framing on social media, messages, and outreach makes much of the church, the ultimate Gospel message is lost. Don’t let your church lose sight of who the Savior is. 


4. Not delegating messages or cascading them outward. 

A good plan details who is sharing what so that the message doesn’t stop at some point along the way out. In order to prevent this, you need a plan detailing who exactly is saying what exactly during what exact time period to ensure that your audience is saturated with what you want them to know and where you want to take them. 

You may have wondered, or even had to navigate in a real situation, how to seek the path to healing in your church when something goes wrong. How much is leadership obligated to tell the congregation in a crisis? How do you decide where to be discreet versus what to disclose? And how can you know exactly how to respond in certain crisis scenarios? In order to speak to this, Nick shared some general pieces of advice that should be kept in mind in all crisis communication plans. 

  • Begin first and foremost with a lot of investigation into the situation. You might never be able to know the full story of something, but get as many of the facts as you can before you share it with your church body to prevent misinformation. 
  • Disclose necessary information based on the level of exposure. Communicate to the sphere that’s impacted. Outside of that, be clear, but broad. For example, if something occurs with the lead pastor, disseminate that information on a church-wide level. But if something happens within a specific department or sphere, it may be wisest to only inform those in that sphere. 
  • Always tell the truth. Do not lie or spin. That is not the role of the church. However, know that how you tell the truth should depend on who you’re talking to. 
  • You can love someone while still being aware of someone’s failing and accepting a decision to release them from ministry.
  • In succession planning, begin with getting outside counsel, then communicate your plan to the church body. People want assurances; they don’t want all the details. Your church wants to know that you have a plan and what your intent is. Set their expectations.

As we are left with a hybrid online and in-person church, this is an environment that leaders have never had to exist in before. You have to be able to function in two realms, physically and digitally. That requires a lot of communication and intentionality that you may not have previously had to depend on. In the past, you could rely on Sunday mornings to be the time when you could have everyone together and say anything that needed to be said. Now, you need a more robust plan to communicate effectively with everyone in your church body- those in-person, those live-streaming, those listening to sermons later, those reading your blogs, and those everywhere in-between. There is a huge opportunity right now to not neglect the necessity of having a good communication plan. We know that after a hard 18 months, you probably just want to be with your people. You want to connect with them and bring them in. A good communication plan is your best way to do that.