“Communication works for those who work at it.” – John Powell

What are churches doing wrong when it comes to effective communication strategies? After almost 20 years as an administrative assistant, communications manager, educator, communications specialist or communications consultant (or any other title sent my way), I’ve had time to reflect on what we’re doing wrong when it comes to effective communication. Since my time as a professional has also been spent as a minister’s spouse and often working with or through churches, I’ve identified five mistakes churches make and ways to fix them.

1. No ‘keeper of the message’.

You’ve heard the fable of the ants walking on an animal unfamiliar to them. Each share what they see: a long flat surface, or hairy threads, or a sloping tube. Without communicating to one another and without a central leader to put the pieces together, they cannot understand that they are walking on an elephant.
We often run around in the same manner at church. Without one key person to help us keep a focus on our message and see the smaller moving parts and the big picture of our communication strategy, we’re not working as an organized body.

The ‘keeper of the message’ is one who should be thinking about the attitudes we demonstrate through communication, the vision and mission of the church, the audience itself and, most importantly, the purpose of communication in the first place. Churches need a designated keeper of the message, who should be included in all conversations about communication and who should have the authority to say when, where, how and, especially, no.

2. Relying on one channel (and not knowing what they all are)

One mistake churches often make is relying on one main piece, or channel, to communicate — and that piece is usually the print newsletter. Unfortunately, this channel reaches only one audience, and in today’s communication world, we must use a lot of channels to reach a diverse and vast audience. Often, if there are other church communication pieces, they are a scattershot of options based on recommendations from church members, knowledge from the administrative assistant, or “something we saw someone else do.”

A list of available channels should include print (newsletter, flyers, postcards, signs), email (personal, groups, enewsletter), website and blog (on both desktop and mobile/tablet), phone (personal calls, phone tree, text messages), social media (top platforms include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and LinkedIn, as well as others), on-site platforms (bulletin boards, marquees, digital signs), Sunday morning bulletin, Wednesday night program, Sunday school notices and verbal announcements (usually from the pulpit).

Note that these channels don’t have equal importance (or purpose) or the same audience, and yet we often treat them the same.

3. Not enough tools in your tool belt

It’s clear there are more than enough channels to reach our audience, but it’s unlikely that any one person (much less your ‘keeper of the message’) knows how to use all of those channels effectively. They need more tools to make the job easier, efficient and useful.

Thankfully, the advancement of technology has provided better tools than we’ve ever had before. Unfortunately, your staff is going to require time, space, training and probably some investment of money to be equipped. A few examples include online print design options like Scribus.net or tutorial sites like Lynda.com, e-newsletter templates like ConstantContact.com or MailChimp.com, easy website platforms like WordPress.com or SquareSpace.com, and resources like mashable.com, churchmarketingsucks.com or wired.com. Also watch (or search) for conferences and events for communication directors/managers.

4. Not receiving (or asking for) feedback

How do you know if what you’re doing is working? We usually measure the success of communication on whether or not folks show up at an event. However, attendance is only one small, and not very reliable, form of feedback. In fact, when I have conducted surveys for churches, most people reply that they don’t even offer feedback when communication is lacking.

We need to get better at asking, in as many channels as possible, how we are doing, whether people feel informed and, if not, why or how can we do better.

Some feedback can come in the form of metrics through website or social media sites. We can also conduct surveys using sites like SurveyMonkey.com or Wufoo.com. Also, make sure that the person who actually does receive feedback (perhaps your front desk receptionist) is in a position to make changes and feels ownership to pass along the feedback received.

5. Using insider language

Often the communication we do receive from our church includes abbreviations such as, “The CFJ Circle of OBC will meet in room L105” (to save space), partial information, such as “see more in the Announcer” (to save space), or references to previously mentioned news (to save space). All of this type of language, unfortunately, implies that some of the audience is “in the know” and the rest of us need to figure it out on our own. It feels exclusive, and instead of encouraging people to become more informed (through our main channel, most likely), it turns them off and away.

Another significant way that we use insider language is our obsessive focus on events in all forms of communication. We neglect (and often don’t know how) to tell our stories, experiences, trials, joys and journeys, possibly because we forget that not everyone has lived it with us. By only communicating our programming, we lose the opportunity to connect, be personable and provide entry points for those just joining in.

Effective communication in this chaotic and noisy world is not easy; however, noticing our mistakes and working to change them will connect us with our congregation and community and provide us the opportunity to be the presence of Christ in their lives.

Natalie Aho
Natalie has spent over eleven years as a professional in communications and another four years as an educator. She has an MS in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a BS in Education from Baylor University. Her specializations include social media, websites, content marketing, writing for the web and online community engagement, and she is a frequent presenter. She is a consultant for CHC.