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Teaching church leaders to be clear and bold communicators


Free workshop available to mid councils, churches that want to tell their story more effectively

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Calvin Presbyterian Church in Long Lake, Minnesota, hosted a workshop for Presbyterian communicators Thursday. (Photo by Mari Graham Evans)

LONG LAKE, Minnesota — Media, says Mari Graham Evans, has always been social, for at least two reasons: It often features user-generated content and it sometimes goes viral.

Evans, the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s social media and media relations strategist, teams up with Gail Strange, the agency’s director of church and mid council communications, to travel the country putting on one-day workshops that help church and mid council communicators reach their audiences as effectively and as frequently as they can. The two completed one such workshop Thursday for about two dozen participants from Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area at Calvin Presbyterian Church in Long Lake, Minnesota.

Strange led off the five-hour workshop by helping each church represented begin to develop a communications plan using the mythical First Example Presbyterian Church as a model. Strange’s characterization of First Example will sound familiar to many Presbyterians: A 200-member, century-old congregation, First Example is “dedicated to nurturing spiritual growth and demonstrating the love of Jesus Christ. Our members believe the love of God extends far beyond the walls of the church as demonstrated through outreach ministries (locally and globally), education for children and adults and nurture and fellowship.”

Among First Example’s struggles: an aging church population, shrinking budgets, aging facilities suffering because of unmet capital needs, declining pledge income, fewer members who live near the church and leader burnout. From a communications standpoint, First Example does its ministry with fewer staff and volunteers than it once had.

Strange urged participants to establish some measurable and attainable goals for First Example (and their own church while they’re at it): increase attendance by 5 percent, boost member engagement across six program areas by 10 percent and grow the church’s digital and online presence by, for example, increasing Facebook comments and “likes” by 5 percent in a year, and Twitter followers by 10 percent. Oh — and cultivate some new leaders and volunteers over the next two years.

One good way to improve communications, she said, is to survey members on how they prefer to be communicated with, including text message, email, print communications and phone calls.

Strange has these additional tips for creating a communications plan:

  • It’s not imperative to carry out the plan over a set time period — a year, for example. Consider the timeframe that works best for your church and then lay out a reasonable timeline.
  • Don’t let the budget keep you from dreaming big. Consider all opportunities, then pare them down as the budget dictates.
  • Tweak your plan as needed. Measurable objectives can help you determine whether you’re meeting your goals.

After lunch, Graham reminded communicators what their task is: Churches “can be sources of inspiration and catalysts for change,” she said. “You offer hope and Christ’s love. It’s an awesome opportunity and, some would say, it’s our responsibility.”

About two dozen communicators from churches in the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area participated in Thursday’s workshop, held at Calvin Presbyterian Church in Long Lake, Minnesota. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

Meeting people where they’re at practically requires a social media presence: of the 7.7 billion residents of planet Earth, about 5 billion have cell phones, 4 billion use the internet and 3.5 billion are active using social media. More than half rely on social media exclusively to bring them their news. “That’s kind of discouraging,” she said, “but it’s an opportunity.”

The average American spends about two hours each day using social media. Residents of the Philippines spend more than twice that time each day, the most in the world.

But social media, even used well, is by no means a panacea for church growth, she said.

“Social media isn’t going to put people in your pews,” Evans said. “It can’t do heavy lifting like that. Media can work together to be effective, but not too well in isolation.”

Communicators can spend money to try to make a bad post more popular, “but it’s a waste of money,” she said. Instead, work on the basics, she urged: a strong photo, a clear call to action and a well-written caption. Churches can rely on a variety of sources for their social media posts: a pull quote from Sunday’s sermon, the Scriptures that were used the week before and those coming up the following Sunday, and videos and links to other posts and websites.

“Social media is very visual, and we are competing with a lot of short attention spans,” she said. “We have to make sure the content we are sharing is worth sharing. We are saying, ‘This is my faith community, and I’m so proud to be a part of it.’”

Churches do well to use social media to thank people who make ministry happen — especially those who do their work behind the scenes.

“It’s a chance for you to thank people who aren’t often thanked,” she said. “Why do you volunteer hundreds of hours each year at the church? It makes them feel special — but do it only with their permission, of course.”

The coming of Advent rings in what Evans called “a great social media opportunity.”

“It’s gorgeous photos of people lighting candles on an Advent wreath,” she said. “Advent is a prime opportunity for social media.”

To schedule a workshop, click here.

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