Grumbling is the least helpful communication strategy

Image Credit: Nate Nims via Facebook.

Recently, I received an email from a pastor wondering what they could do to improve their church communications. From what they shared, and from what I could see, they were already doing a lot to share the different opportunities their church was offering. And still some members were complaining that they didn’t know about things. In communications, there is always something that can be improved, but technical fixes and improvements often don’t address the heart of the problem.

Serendipitously, a meme on the same topic (pictured here) was circulating on social media this week. Clergy and lay people alike resonated with the topic, with some expressing that they encountered the same problem in education and other fields. This image struck a nerve, especially as many churches set aside time this month to show appreciation for their pastors.

Memes resonate with people when they name an (uncomfortable) truth, but their simplicity often doesn’t leave space for much detail or solutions. Applying the lens of capacity can help us to understand why we experience frustration with the effectiveness of our communications-related efforts.

The capacity to send

Communication-related challenges have long been an issue within the church. It is fair that churches have sometimes been slow to adopt new communication methods, but that doesn’t fully explain the problem.

Years ago, I visited a once-thriving church in the San Francisco area and had the opportunity to visit its archives. I was overwhelmed by the quality of the bulletins they had produced decades earlier. They were thoughtfully designed and, while dated, stood head and shoulders above what one would find in most local churches today.

This and several subsequent experiences led me to the realization that sometimes less is more. The bulletin mentioned above was produced when the church had an office manager who wasn’t spread nearly as thin as they might be today. No constant flow of emails to create and respond to or website to update. More volunteers eager to spend a few hours proofreading, stuffing and folding bulletins. In short, the church’s staff had the time to produce an excellent product.

Today, many of our churches operate with higher expectations and fewer resources to bring to a growing list of tasks. Few have full-time employees dedicated to office tasks, volunteers are scarcer, and the communication platforms they are expected to support (by some) have grown exponentially in ways lacking correlated with their effectiveness. In some churches, the sole content creator is the pastor, who is also expected to provide spiritual and administrative leadership and deal with any plumbing issues that arise.

Too many ways to communicate and too few resources conspire to undermine our efforts.

The capacity to receive

While some may suggest this is scarcity thinking, people really do have a limited amount of bandwidth for consuming the various messages that pass before them. With so many communication vehicles and platforms competing for a finite amount of time, the Information Age has been replaced by the Age of Noise. 

With organizations of all sorts trying to get our attention by any means necessary, the average person is bombarded with 6,000 to 10,000 advertisements daily. While it is difficult to fathom how that is possible, most analysts agree that the attempts to ‘connect’ have grown exponentially since the 1970s. Even if we believe the church’s message is more meaningful and essential, it is still competing to be heard in a bustling and noisy space.

Ads in Times Square

For example, the gift of (free) email has become the burden of the never-empty inbox. Where postage costs forced individuals and organizations to assess whether a mailing was worthwhile before sending, email changed the equation in ways that leave us all miserable and important messages buried in the heap. 

The same might be said of social media. Organizations of all sorts try to capitalize on these free-to-use platforms, which occasionally dribble out the reward of a few clicks/impressions/likes/etc. to keep users happy enough to sell for advertising revenue. For example, the average user of TikTok spends 95 minutes a day on the platform (roughly 80 million in the US), approximately 1.5 hours that they won’t be able to spend elsewhere. 

Overwhelmed with so many messages, we are all forced to decide what we prioritize. And what we care most about is likely to win out in the battle for our attention. This can lead to problems as local churches try to engage and inform their members. 

Discipleship demands our attention

I suspect the following scenario will sound familiar to many church leaders.

On Sunday morning, members are abuzz about the event that happened earlier in the week. As they leave worship, a church member complains angrily to the pastor because they didn’t hear about the event. The same event was announced in church on multiple Sundays, shared in the bulletin(s), newsletter(s), on social media and the church’s website.

Or maybe, the pastor initiates the conversation by saying that they missed the parishioner at the event, who is now embarrassed because they feel like they should have been there. They also say they had never heard about the event.

Too often, when situations like this happen, church leaders jump to the question, “What more can we do to communicate the event?” And sometimes, that is a legitimate question.

Too many emails

Understanding how overwhelmed people are with messages and opportunities competing for their time, other questions should also be asked:

  • Are church members really interested in the event they missed, or are they being polite?
  • Are we actually over-sharing the events we offer, and is our current strategy contributing to diminishing returns on our efforts to reach members?
  • How are we inviting our members to take responsibility for reading and listening to the messages we send to them? And if the church’s staff takes on all the responsibility for communicating, how is this calling them into active discipleship?

Good communication in any relationship is a two-way street. Despite the various capacity challenges that impact our efforts, members who take on the responsibility of being active communication partners make all the difference. 

So, if you have all the time in the world and ample resources to deploy, then go ahead and start that TikTok account. 😊 But with the added demands many churches have taken on already with livestreaming, unless the pandemic also brought you more staff, resources and/or volunteers, sacrifices need to be made somewhere.

For the average, overworked church office, my best advice is to consider how you can do more with less. If you are struggling to get people’s attention, ask what you can stop doing to right-size your efforts to be more effective with what remains. 

But whatever you do, try to let the grumbling of members who refuse to do their part pass in one ear and right out the other. Or better, invite them to contribute meaningfully by volunteering their time to proofread your bulletins, emails and newsletters. That would be one way to kill two birds with one stone.

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Patrick Scriven
Patrick Scriven is a husband who married well, a father of three amazing girls, and a seminary-educated layperson working professionally in The United Methodist Church. Scriven serves the Pacific Northwest Conference as Director of Communications.


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