Communicating well is a critical element of every congregation’s mission. Showing the outside world what and who you are and what you do may bring new members and will sustain and boost the morale of existing ones. Effective communications within the congregation will make your church community more coherent, and will strengthen all your various ministries.
There’s no doubt that communicating is important, but how can you identify the essential elements in your congregation’s circumstances–and then put them in place? What, for example, is the correct mix of print and electronic communication? How much advertising should you do? We can’t give you all the answers to those questions here, but we hope that we can give you some useful pointers to how to make these decisions and then marshall your resources to carry them out. Click on the links below to read about specific items.
Print or electronic? Why it is a false choice
A few years ago there was a sharp movement toward wholesale embracing of electronic communications such as emails and websites and doing away almost entirely with printed newsletters, fliers, bulletins, etc. In our opinion, the completeness of this shift was often premature — not because emails and websites do not deliver on their promise (they do, if well-designed), but because many of those at whom they were aimed were not ready for them.
We would suggest that there is no place in the church for the “get with the program or get left behind” approach, and that you should set your parish communications policies–and the speed of your migration to all-electronic communications–with this in mind.
Practically speaking, what that is likely to mean is a mix of electronic and print communications, designed (as all communications should be) to reach the maximum number of people. Precisely what this mix will be will vary based on the age and demographics of the congregation: one with a greater preponderance of younger or more highly educated people will be likely to make greater use of electronic communications, while one with a lot of elderly parishioners may find it better to produce more printed materials.
In the Beginning was the Word…but don’t forget the visuals
We love words, but we also recognize that fewer is often better, particularly if it makes room for more pictures. Some people simply don’t react to words, however skillfully strung together, but you can often reach them with pictures. Avoid large blocks of visually indigestible text. Use images liberally in your publications.
Quality and design matter
Electronic publishing and the ubiquity of the computer mean that everyone now has the tools to produce professional-looking communications. As a result, readers have very limited tolerance for “amateur” looking ones, whether on paper or on their computer screens. While it can often be politically difficult to ensure that the person best equipped to produce high quality publications is actually responsible for doing so,it is worth the effort.
Fonts and colors
Just as electronic publishing has made it possible for anyone to produce superb publications, so it has tempted others to over-indulge in the use of fancy fonts and page decorations. We urge restraint in these things! Stick to one body font, and one heading font. Avoid excessive capitalization (it comes across as unfriendly), and simply never underline (use italics or bold instead, and use both of them cautiously). Avoid vivid and clashing colors and steer towards looks that are relaxing to behold. View also decorative borders and curlicues with deep suspicion.
For immediate blanket communication to a pre-selected list, nothing currently beats an email blast. We strongly advise parishes to conduct these using an anti-spam compliant email service. In common with many parishes and other dioceses, we use Constant Contact. You can upload your addresses to it, slice and dice the lists any which way, create different templates to suit your different needs, and send as many emails as you want for a single monthly fee. Another highly recommended eNewsletter service is Churchpost. Other services can be found with the click of a mouse button on search engines such as Google. Please note that it is, however, most unwise to place all your faith in emails: our experience suggests that an “open rate” of 30% is good for any message, even when of seemingly vital importance to the recipient.
Free diocesan hosting for parishes
If your parish does not currently have a web site, then it really, really should. Once you have a site, keep it up to date. At the very least, make sure that service times are correct — but preferably refresh the copy weekly.
Diocesan Web Hosting
The Diocese offers free web hosting to all parishes acting as a ‘reseller’ for a modern, reliable hosting company. For more information on this, please visit www.ednyhosting.org.
For smaller sites we strongly recommend using WordPress as a tool, both to build the site and to administer it. Instructions for getting started with Diocesan hosting and setting up a simple WordPress site using it are available here.
Video and audio
Parishes with video on their web site report that their presence on the web is a major source of new members and inquirers. One should note that this great success may be partly a function of the fact that only those most comfortable with the medium have so far used it–a video of an uncomfortable-looking priest shifting nervously from foot to foot would be unlikely to have the same effect. We urge you, however, to do your utmost to become comfortable with the idea of video and to embrace it. For advice on working with video and embedding it in your web site or linking to it from your emails, please contact the Communications Department.
Adding snippets of sermons, clips of your choir in full voice or other audio elements to your web site can hugely enhance its value. Again, if you need guidance, please consult the communications office.
Parish newsletters/magazines appeal mightily to those who relish the feel of paper in their hands rather than the buzz of electronics. They are an important medium for spreading the word. They can, however, also be a significant financial burden. In some cases, you may be able to meet this burden with advertising. Companies exist that will sell advertising (to vendors approved by you) at the back of your newsletter and print the newsletter for you at no cost to you. Contact the Communications Office for more details.
Get listed online
When new people come into your neighborhood and look for a church, chances are they will do it on the internet. Make sure they find you. Dig through the internet to find the directories that cover your area by Googling terms like church, [yourtown], community [yourtown], resources [yourtown] and make sure that you are listed, that your web address and contact information are there and correct, and that if you can add additional info such as service times or a brief description, you do so. See if your outreach programs can have a separate listing, too.
Paid ads in the press and a vibrant web site are important and valuable. So too is a positive story in the local paper about your church and its activities. If you want your local media to pay attention when you believe you have a story that might interest them, or to listen to your side of a story when you are already part of it, it pays to start developing your relationships now. This does not mean bombarding journalists with stuff they’ll never use–that will only be annoying. But if you first do a little homework, a gentle approach to those journalists whom you have first identified as likely to be interested (ask yourself what have they written about before) and an offer of help with their stories whenever they need it may begin a relationship that will be valuable later.
And do not forget that the diocesan Public Affairs and Communications department is available to provide advice on working with the press whenever you need it.
[wpfilebase tag=fileurl id=238 linktext=’2013 Sample Church Social Media and Digital Communications Policy’ /] ~ as presented at the 2013 Diocesan Convention
[wpfilebase tag=fileurl id=49 linktext=’July 2011 Social Media White Paper from The Episcopal Church ‘ /]- focuses on the needs of parishes