Why Communication Strategy Is Critical to the Future of the Church

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Imagine the scene: an underappreciated office worker goes to work every day.  They know how to do their job and dream of being able to do it with excellence, but their bosses don’t understand what their job really entails.  This causes some miscommunication and friction, but they press on.  Change comes slowly, until one day, a crisis launches them into the spotlight.  Suddenly, their bosses see that their unique skills are needed to navigate this crisis, and they’re able to come into their own.  

I’m guessing this is a narrative that sounds familiar.  It’s a version of the classic underdog story that many of us love.  For many church communications professionals, it’s also the story  they’ve been living since COVID-19 hit.  The question facing us now is, “How is this story going to end?”  

Will the church communications role remain a critical part of our church staff teams, or will we force it back into the shadows once things are under control?  

I’m a strong proponent of the former.  Church communications have always been critical, but it’s taken churches a while to admit that.  Then, a global pandemic hit and changed everything.  In the middle of a lot of uncertainty and fear, the churches who were already leaning into church communications were positioned to transition the best.  The ones who’d resisted had a lot more catching up to do- and, in many cases, they’re still asking lots of questions and struggling to figure out what to do.  If this is you, you’re probably waiting for the day that things return to normal.  But what if “normal” looks different after COVID-19?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what my boss, William Vanderbloemen, refers to as the “Hyper-localization of churches.”  We live in a world where people can suddenly watch whatever service or pastor they want online.  That means that the pastor of the future will be a pastor who can really speak to the challenges and shepherd a local congregation, rather than someone who’s just trying to be the best preacher out there.  Shepherding requires the ability to be able to connect with people using a variety of media.  In most cases, this isn’t something that individual pastors are going to be able to handle alone.  The communications role will be essential in helping the future church meet the needs of local communities.  

In the meantime, church communication directors are critical in making the most of this season and helping churches learn and grow in healthy ways. In order to create community– whether in-person or digital- we need communication.  That requires having someone at the leadership table who has the communication and strategic skill set, as well as the time and authority to carry out their plans.

It’s up to senior leaders and church communications directors themselves to help support and complete this narrative.  Will the underdog church communications role be given the place of honor it deserves, or will we go back to “business as usual” once the worst is past?

If you’re ready to embrace the future of the church communication director role, I’m sure that comes with a lot of questions.  I recently sat down with my friend Ryan Wakefield, the founder of Church Marketing University, to discuss some questions his audience has been asking about the church communications role.  Hopefully, it will be helpful for you, too, as you navigate this shift from “normal” to hyper-localized ministry.

Question #1:   Should the church communications role be on the leadership team?

The short answer to this question is yes, absolutely!  However, there are caveats.  

At the end of the day, I’m more concerned about the gifts and skill sets on your leadership team than whether or not your “church communications director” is on that team.  You need someone who embodies both the strategy and communications strengths at the leadership table because those two strengths, working together, are where the magic happens.  If you have someone who’s strategic but doesn’t have the communication strength, that strategy isn’t going to get you anywhere.  

If you’re a senior leader with a communications director who isn’t ready to be at the leadership table, they still need a direct line to leadership.  Furthermore, they need to be able to report to someone who embodies both those strengths and can understand what they need and help them grow.

If you’re trying to figure out who on your team might already fit this profile, you can use a tool like StrengthsFinder to see what strengths people lead with.  Then, whether your church comms person is the executive pastor, the senior pastor, or has another title, you know who needs to be in the loop in order to lead your campaigns.  Focus on the gifts of the individuals in your church and figure out actual titles later.

Question #2: How can Church Communication Directors lead up so that they get invited to the leadership table?

The best way to lead up is to verbalize your expectations.  Millennials- and I’m included in this- often have a hard time doing this.  We expect our leaders to read our minds, to want to promote us, or think about our strategic five-year plans.  While it would be great to have bosses that were that attentive to our needs, the truth is that most of us work with people who are incredibly busy.  If we want our leaders to help us get to where we want to go, it’s going to require some leading up.  

When you sit down to talk to your boss, say something like, “Hey [boss’s name], I really love this role.  I’m so passionate about it.  I would LOVE to have a track to be on the leadership team.  How can I improve my leadership skills?  What do you see in me that I can work on and improve so that I can make goals around that and become a better leader?”  Make it part of your annual review, and ask for feedback on those goals, even if your leaders aren’t bringing it up themselves.

Leading up is essentially building trust with your leadership team.  That’s the most succinct way I can put it.  I think it’s taking responsibility for your own leadership and creating a feedback loop of transparency.  It’s saying, “Here’s my responsibility and what I’m over, and here’s what I’m doing.”  It’s all about creating that feedback loop to create trust with leadership.  

If your leadership respects you but simply hasn’t invited you to be part of meetings or the leadership team, ask to be invited.  When you ask, communicate that it’s the desire for excellence that’s driving your question, not just a desire to be in the know.  If there was a time that you were able to be more excellent because you were in the know, remind them of that!  Communicate results, then ask for influence and responsibility.  This will help you to keep a respectful tone and continue to uphold that trust that you’ve worked hard to build with them.    

Question #3:  Could the church communications role be volunteer-led?

This is a question that many “normal churches” (churches of around 200 people) ask.  Because the leadership team at normal churches revolves around the senior pastor, the perfect structure for this role is going to depend on what the lead pastor’s gifts and skill sets are.  But no matter your size, you need to have someone on the leadership team who embodies those strategic and communications gifts.  

You need to have someone who is consistently connecting the dots between vision, strategy, and communication, and that person needs to be in those weekly meetings where you’re casting vision.  If these meetings are during the day, there’s a high probability that you’re going to have to pay them in order to make sure they’re available when you need them to be.  They also need direct access to the leadership team throughout the week- Otherwise, it just becomes a game of telephone and trying to guess what the senior leaders want, which leads to results that no one likes.  

If you’re a senior leader, especially right now, there’s so much pressure to have all the answers.  In ministry, there’s a level of that expectation to begin with, and there’s an inherent weight that comes with it.  You might find yourself thinking, “Well, I should know what the communications should be, and I should have it mapped out to hand over to somebody to execute!”  But with how rapidly things are changing, not only in our world but also on media platforms- you need to bring that communications person in BEFORE the plan is made, so everything is streamlined.  They have to be in the meetings and help you map out your strategy in real time.  If that means you have to pay them, then pay them.

Question #4: How do we know we’ve made the right hire?

I sound like a broken record here, but look for someone who has both the strategy and communication gifts.  It’s easy to want to hire someone to take tasks off your plate, but in today’s world, that’s not the best choice.  If you hire someone who understands how to communicate effectively, you can outsource everything else.  If you hire a specialist, their knowledge isn’t going to be good for as long.  Once an algorithm changes, or some new technology comes on the scene, your specialist is going to have a much harder time changing direction than a generalist.  

Basically, my advice boils down to this: Keep leadership and strategy in house.  If someone needs to know a lot about one thing (like videography, for example), you can usually outsource that.

Besides having the correct giftings, you want them to be a leader in two specific areas: leading up, and leading teams.  You’re going to want a team member who will keep you in the loop, and you need a generalist who can recruit or hire people who will meet your needs in a particular time.  For example, you may have a campaign that you’re running where you need high-quality, professional photos.  You may need a professional photographer for that campaign, but you don’t necessarily need one on staff all the time.  Find those contractors or volunteers who can fill those roles whenever possible, but make a staff position for someone who has the ability to be agile and build a similarly agile team around them.

Question #5: What responsibilities fit under the church communications role?

My vision for the future is that the comms director role would be more of a “Director of Experience.”  

An example of a church that’s doing this really well would be Grace Church in Orlando, Florida.  Kelly Adkins started as the Director of Communications and is now on the leadership team as the “Director of Grace Experience.”  She oversees comms, but it’s so much more than that.  She’s thinking about the experience from the parking lot to the pew- I call it the iphone to the parking lot to the pew and back again.  And you know what?  It makes a lot of sense, because all of those things boil down to communication.  

Everything is communication- whether you’re talking signage, ads, your website, emails, or even  your children’s check-in process.  But it’s an experience, as well, a journey from awareness of your church to becoming a disciple of Jesus and volunteering, being plugged in, and maybe planting future churches.  That’s what church communications has the potential to become, if we let it.  

But the reality, right now?  The church communications role is kind of a catchall.  I’m grateful that, in this time, leadership has seen the complexity of this role.  And I think this season has provided a huge opportunity for church comms directors to lead up, and to be able to report on the metrics that lead to church health and growth.  Suddenly, church communications directors have had to help leadership focus on the question of, “Okay, what’s important to us, and what channels are going to further our mission?” instead of having to incorporate every new communication tool their leaders discover.

In normal-sized churches (remember, that’s churches around 200), this means you need someone in leadership- whether that’s an executive pastor or associate pastor- who’s thinking about how communications fits in with assimilation and discipleship.  And that person has to think about the digital aspects of communications, assimilation, and discipleship first.  

In the corporate world, you hear the term, “mobile first” a lot.  For the church, I think we’re going to have to start thinking digital first.  That might mean you have to hire someone that can speak to the strategy and in language that will infuse the mission and vision of the church into everything you do.  But then, that might not be a bad thing at all.  

In fact, if I had to define it, that’s what I would define church communications as: infusing the mission and vision into everything the church does.  And a church that lives on mission?  That’s a church worth sharing and pouring your time and resources into.  That’s a church worth leading.  But most of all?  That’s a church worth calling your home.  

 

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