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August, 2011
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Communication: the key to all transition

by Chris Gambill with Natalie Aho
dmhall

Change is inevitable. Significant transitions do come, but because they occur infrequently, most congregations do not naturally have the tools to cope with them effectively. Transitions - positive or negative - create anxiety. Whether it’s hiring a new pastor, changing location, saying goodbye to a church patriarch or matriarch, adding or subtracting a worship service or even deciding how to handle a large financial gift – transitions can cause discomfort, distrust and conflict.

The primary way to decrease discomfort and anxiety and to increase trust during a transition is through communication: intentional, consistent, multi-modal communication. While effective communication is important to any faith community, it is vital during a time of transition. Communication engenders trust when leaders do what they say they will do. Effective communication can move a change process forward by creating positive energy and anticipation. Where transition can be foreseen, congregational leaders should create a communications plan and assign responsibilities.

Multi-modal communication

A multi-modal approach is essential. Every individual has a preferred way to receive and process information – some of us prefer to read, others to see, hear or witness an event. Church leaders should engage all communication methods – newsletter, worship bulletin, oral announcements during worship and other community gatherings, as well as online communication tools like the church website, Facebook church page, Twitter and email newsletters and groups.  

Visual communication is often neglected. One church that I know of did it effectively by placing a large, multi-colored timeline of the pastor search process and moved a large arrow along the timeline to show the congregation where the search committee was in the process. The same graphic appeared in the newsletter.

For oral announcements, it is important to find a spokesperson with excellent speaking skills and a presence that inspires trust. The speaker should have written remarks, prepared in advance, that give the appropriate amount of information. Be thoughtful and intentional about how much to communicate. Too much detail, too soon in a transition process can increase anxiety if those details change. Too little information leaves people distrustful and wondering what they are not being told.

When using online communication, it is important to remember that most of these platforms are accessible to the general public. For example, the church website is likely to be viewed by a visitor or non-member. Be selective about what is shared with the larger population. Consider providing a “members only” area, which requires a log-in. Emails should be limited to regular releases once a week to refrain from overwhelming inboxes. One suggestion would be to set up a separate news list that members can choose to subscribe to for information regarding a transition.

Talk among yourselves

Besides communicating effectively to the congregation during transition, leaders need ways to foster healthy communication from and among the congregation. Congregation members and leaders need the capacity to dialog about important issues. For example, during a pastoral transition, leaders must engage the congregation in a discussion of the gifts, skills and experiences needed in a new pastor.

Social media platforms like Facebook can be an effective means of online communication. Relationships and boundaries should be established before serious discussions begin. It is important for the congregation to encourage friendly engagement, learn about one another’s lives, and when meeting in person, reference status updates and photos seen online. It is a good idea to create a church covenant of guiding suggestions for online interaction.

Sometimes for efficiency, a church uses non-conversational methods for data gathering, i.e. surveys. Using a survey alone to gather data can be a mistake, because surveys do not address the emotional concerns and deeper issues raised during times of change. There is no substitute for a good conversation.

Planned dialog

Churches can use a structured process to ensure good face-to-face conversation about sensitive issues. This can be as simple as a community gathering with a volunteer moderator and a few ground rules. Or it can be a structured dialog led by an outside moderator such as one from the Center for Congregational Health. Both are appropriate, depending upon the anxiety level surrounding the topic and the skill level of lay leaders.

These days congregations rarely have conversations about the life of the church. Most time spent together is in worship, working or learning. Even fellowship events are usually unstructured and don’t facilitate healthy communication. Most leaders only hear from the most upset “squeaky wheels,” who may not accurately represent the majority of the congregation. Consequently, every faith community can benefit from regular opportunities for conversation without decision-making. I recommend quarterly gatherings for discussing “our common life together as God’s people in this place.” This type of relaxed forum allows leaders to take the pulse of the congregation and address needs before they become problems. And when the gatherings conclude, leaders can share the thoughts with the community at-large by posting on the church website, Facebook page or blog.

Good communication is the key to all transition, and it is a key to a healthy congregation. When a congregation has already established intentional, consistent and multi-modal methods of communication, transitions go much smoother and can become opportunities for positive growth.

To see how a congregation can actively use these communication tools, go to www.healthychurch.org or visit our blog, cntr4conghealth.wordpress.com.