Clear and trustworthy communication seems to be a struggle for most congregations. Is there a way to change that?
In almost every church consultation that we participate in we hear people in leadership and in the congregation say, “We need to improve communication around here” and “We just don’t know what is going on anymore.” Communication is often an area of struggle for congregations, but especially so when there is conflict in the air or tensions in key relationships.
One of the dynamics that we observe regularly is the power and influence of informal communication methods. We hear about, for example:
- Parking lot/coffee shop conversations in which church members share their views only with like-minded people. These are often the very people who are quiet during formal gatherings like congregational, council, or committee meetings. They know that they’ll be able to voice their true thoughts in a more friendly environment later, with people who agree with them.
- Social media posts in which frustrated members declare their opinions about the pastor, the council, the worship service, the youth ministry, and so on. Such posts can quickly become part of the communication fabric of the church, the “talk of the town”, so to speak. They can out-shout the authorized, public messages from church leaders and the formal communication methods that are in place.
- Personal emails to those in leadership or to other church members about other people. Rather than speaking directly to someone, complainants speak about someone, in a dynamic that we call “triangulation”.
- Family networks in which confidential information is shared so that a congregation’s formal decision making process (like the calling process, for example) is hijacked or short circuited.
- Informal petitions in which people voice their opinions without first having conversations with those about whom the petitions are circulated.
- Anonymous letters to the pastor or council.
What do such informal communication tools have in common?
Mainly: They have little to no accountability. Agendized parking lot conversations are often held with people who will not challenge, confront, or “rat out” someone voicing a strong opinion. Like-minded people are unlikely to hold members of their "tribe" responsible for any one-sided, stereotyping, or unkind speech. Councils can’t shut down destructive social media posts or control their distribution. In family networks it is virtually impossible to trace how a juicy tidbit of gossip gets shared. Angry petitions get circulated behind the scenes, in ways that are hard to track. In all of these communication methods people are free to say whatever they feel like saying because no one is saying, "Stop! Have you thought this through?" or "Stop! There's another way to look at this."
Interestingly, informal communications often come with a high degree of clarity in addition to their low degree of accountability. Their messages may be untrue, unfair, or unkind, but they are usually clear! “The pastor needs to go.” “The youth group is unhappy.” “The staff isn’t doing its job.”
Where can you find higher levels of accountability? In formal methods of communication: Pulpit announcements, church websites, bulletin messages, meeting minutes, council newsletters, and so on. In such tools there is usually more of a review process that ensures the accuracy, integrity, and charity of the messages being sent. Pulpit announcements are often vetted before going to the congregation. Meeting minutes usually go through a review and adoption process at the next meeting. Websites have approved administrators. Council newsletters are edited before being published. Bulletin announcements are too. The formal communications tools themselves tend to arise out of the authorization and approval of the larger community, and it is to that larger community that they are accountable, in a general sense.
The trouble sometimes is that formal communications tools can have a lower degree of clarity. With the more robust accountability involved with them people get more careful about what they say. They might even couch their language in ambiguities and nuances in order to avoid offending people or inviting unpleasant feedback. However, these ambiguities and nuances make it harder to interpret and understand the messages. The result can be that those in the “audience” are left wondering, “What did that really mean?”
Ideally, a church’s communication system should have both high accountability and high clarity. It’s hard work to do both at the same time, but it’s the best way to drain informal communication systems of their power and influence. For example:
- If people are able to understand and trust what they receive from pulpit announcements, church websites, and meeting minutes, and if there is a clear grievance process for them to use, then they will be less tempted to contribute to and participate in damaging parking lot conversations and nasty social media posts.
- If the council regularly provides transparent communications to the congregation then people won’t have to rely on family networks for their news.
- If council and committee meetings regularly give people opportunities to voice their thoughts and regularly call people to the work of listening deeply then people won’t have to rely on informal gatherings at the coffee shop to have important conversations.
Of course, not all parking lot conversations, social media posts, and personal emails are sinister or suspicious. But some are, and if your people are getting their church news from them or using these methods to share information irresponsibly (without accountability) then you have a communications problem.
So gauge the messaging at your church. Ask the least-connected people in the congregation what they heard in your leadership’s last communication. Are they clear on what was said, or is their understanding fuzzy? And explore how heavily people might be relying on informal modes of communication. Do they depend on social media posts and parking lot conversations more than council notes and bulletin announcements? It might be time to up your communications game by making your formal messaging more timely, clear, and trustworthy.