What’s the best way to stay connected with your congregation? That’s the dilemma of every person in charge of church communications. At our disposal is everything from verbal announcements to Twitter and bulletins to blogs. It’s the difficult task of the communications director to figure out which ways work for the church and which don’t. So how do you decide which tools are right for you and how much is enough? Let’s start with a rundown of the major players in the communication arsenal—conventional and new.
The Church Bulletin—This is probably the most prolific form of conveying information to the church. It’s usually a bi- or tri-folded piece of paper featuring upcoming events listed by date with a blurb about the event and who should attend. Generally, it also has the order of service for that day and a place to take down notes about the sermon. Pro: The bulletin is portable, gives the fidgety ones something to do during service, and can be saved and referred to, even stuck on the refrigerator for the whole family to see. Con: Sometimes there’s too much info for the bulletin and sometimes there’s not enough. The size of the page doesn’t change, so the size of the font usually does. Also, the bulletin can’t be updated or corrected without throwing out what’s been printed and starting over. And for the environmentally conscious, the bulletin uses a lot of paper for something most people either leave in the pew or throw away.
Platform Announcements—Before the invention of the church bulletin, there were announcements during church services. Pro: You get everyone’s undivided attention (if, that is, they’re paying attention to what’s going on in the first place). Con: They can kill the momentum of the service; they can make the service run long if the speaker decides to get chatty. And, anyone who misses the service misses the announcements.
Calendar/Newsletter—The church calendar or newsletter covers at least one month at a time. Pro: The calendar/newsletter only has to be done once a month or quarter. Plus, it’s something people can refer back to for the month or quarter. Con: The calendar/newsletter can’t be corrected, and items can’t be added or deleted if plans change. And like the weekly bulletin, calendars and newsletters consume a lot of paper that some will throw away without a glance.
Direct Mailers—Direct mail pieces are usually reserved to herald a special event or upcoming sermon series. Pro: Mailers can go out to everyone in the congregation and can be used to reach people who don’t normally attend your church. Con: Mailers can be seen as unwanted junk mail and get tossed in the trash.
Phone and Texting Trees—Phone and texting trees are a great way to efficiently contact specific groups with information that pertains only to them. Pro: Trees are efficient and programmable to only target specific groups. Con: Phone and texting trees can be seen as an interruption and annoyance, especially for people that fall into more than one group and, as a result, the church constantly calls or texts them.
Website—The church website is a must in this day and age. For certain demographics, if you don’t exist on the Web, you don’t exist at all. Pro: Your website can be easily updated as plans and details change, and it can contain more information than a church bulletin without sacrificing readability. Websites can grow or shrink according to how much information you have to communicate. Con: Not everyone has Internet access or the ability to navigate some complex church websites. Also, unless you are publishing an RSS feed it may be difficult for people to know when something on your site has been changed, added, or deleted.
Email—Email has the benefits of a mailer or newsletter without the time delay and the hassle of physical mailing. Pro: Using HTML, you can send an email that is just as well designed as a traditional mailer while simultaneously eliminating printing and postage costs. Con: Many people are bombarded with hundreds of emails a day, so it is easy for the church’s message to be lost in the onslaught or to be filtered into the junk mail folder.
Digital Signage, Slides, and Video Announcements—Digital signage is the newest implementation of this type of visual communication. It has the ability to be programmed to the day and pull live data from outside sources. Video announcements are a great way to draw people’s attention and gives you control over what is said and how long the announcements run. Plus, its gives you the opportunity to do the announcements more creatively than you could live. Slides on a loop allow you to create a look for each announcement and can be more attention-grabbing than print. Pro: On digital signage and slides, changes can be made quickly and easily, and it doesn’t matter if you have two announcements or 20. Con: Digital signage is expensive to implement (though it pays off in the long-run by saving time and reducing printing costs) and video announcements can be time-consuming to produce.
Facebook—Having a Facebook presence for your organization via a page or group is becoming as important as having a website. Pro: Having a Facebook page gives the church a foothold in the increasingly important social networking community. It’s a great way to interact with church members and can be a great way to spread the word about upcoming events. Con: Many church members may not be on Facebook and, unless they are pretty active, messages can be missed or not received in a timely manner.
Twitter—Twitter is the newest kid on the block. Once the domain of the hip/geek segment of the population, Twitter is now going mainstream as everyone from movie stars to soccer moms tweet the day away. Pro: Twitter is great for dispensing concise bits of information to the masses. Con: Your message has to fit 140 characters and Twitter, as a relatively new technology, is still foreign to most people.
So Many, How Do You Choose?
Finding the right combination of communication tools that reach everyone without over communicating to your audience can be difficult and may require some trial and error. Begin by learning how your congregation prefers to be communicated with. This can be accomplished by giving a short survey to your members. Ask how they currently get news and announcements about the church. Next, ask them about how they get news in general. This will help you determine if they are ready for some of the more modern communication tools. For example: how often do they check email and websites? Do they read RSS feeds or the newspaper or both? Find out how many are into social networking. It doesn’t matter how good a new communication tool performs if the people you are trying to reach aren’t using it.
Once you have a handle on how your people communicate, evaluate the tools you are currently using and determine which ones are effective. If you find that you are spending time on something that isn’t effectively reaching your audience then make a plan to phase it out. Remember that you are never going to make everyone happy—there will always be a minority that is still clinging to the communication tool you are phasing out, and they will express their displeasure with the change (trust me). It’s your job as the communications director to move those people into one of the new avenues of communication that will meet their needs.
When we phased out the paper bulletin at my church, there were a vocal few that responded as though the roof had just caved in. So, we did a calendar and a sermon notes sheet that they could pick up in the foyer on their way into the sanctuary. For the calendar, we did two months at a time on one 8-inch x 11-inch sheet of paper. The move saved us on printing costs, and we got back the time we were spending on design and layout each week. This satisfied those who needed something they could hold in their hand while also helping us use less paper and reallocate our time to more important tasks.
Implementing New Tools
This is where the survey of your congregation really pays off. As the saying goes, “When you’re one step ahead, you’re a leader; two steps ahead, you’re a martyr.” Make sure your congregation is ready for a new form of communication such as Facebook or Twitter. Begin by making it ancillary to your other forms of communication, giving people time to get acclimated to the new channel. It may not take off right away, but over time it could become the primary communications medium for a healthy segment of your congregation. Later, conduct the communications survey again and see if habits have changed, and then adjust your communications strategy accordingly.
Don’t Over Communicate
As you make sure you are reaching everyone, don’t repeat yourself so often that people start to tune you out or become annoyed. Mailers, phone trees, email, texting, and Twitter are interruptive forms of communication, so people will get annoyed if those channels are overused. Giving all of your leaders access to your phone tree could easily result in church members being assaulted by multiple phone calls from the church during dinner or family time. That’s not how most want to spend their evenings, and you might have a revolt on your hands before you know it.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to church communication. Your strategy must be tailored to your specific congregation and will require tweaking from time to time. Listen to your people; they will let you know if they are missing the message. Attendance will go down and calls to the church office requesting information will go up; however, if you over-communicate, complaints will pour in. Finding the right mix will take some time and effort, but it will do wonders for the health and activity of your church.