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From Episcopal Teacher: "Calling All Teachers: Speak Up"

5/6/2013
By the Rev. Kyle Matthew Oliver

We talk to a lot of faith formation volunteers and professionals in our work in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching. One pattern we’ve noticed over the past six months or so is that formation folks are being asked to take on increasingly significant roles in parish communications. Often they are asked to serve as part of a team, writing newsletter articles or contributing regular content for the parish website or Facebook page. In more extreme situations, they’re asked to do double duty as both director of Christian education and director of communications. (We do not envy this latter group their challenging task.)

Wherever you fall on that spectrum, your work as a communicator and an evangelist will benefit from a study of Speaking Faithfully: Communications as Evangelism in a Noisy World by church communication specialists Jim Naughton and Rebecca Wilson.

It’s important for educators to be somewhere on the communications team, because the work of faith formation, in its fullest sense, should be one of the best sources of stories any congregation can tell about the work God is doing in their midst. The great contribution of this book is to refocus church communications on telling those stories – to the audiences who need to hear them, in ways those audiences can understand.

Naughton and Wilson write that reaching outside audiences means going beyond the "'member services' approach to communications" (so no homepage banners for signing up to acolyte on Candlemas) and telling your stories "where the people are" (social media, in case you were wondering, though the authors do not neglect more traditional outlets). And actually connecting with those audiences means, among other things, dropping the jargon:

"If your conversation about what your church has to offer is sprinkled with words like 'kenotic' and 'perichoresis,' if you declare a commitment to 'living into' an 'incarnational evangelism' through which you will enter into other contexts with 'Christ-likeness,' then start again – quickly – and mandate the use of nothing more sophisticated than eighth-grade vocabulary" (from Chapter 2: Aaron Sorkin Goes to Church).

Here we begin to see why teachers and mentors are well-positioned to contribute to church communications efforts. It’s a parish educator’s job to be familiar with the stages of spiritual development and to help design learning experiences that can speak to people in different places on the journey. That’s just the kind of thoughtful audience analysis Naughton and Wilson advocate.

Perhaps the most useful material in this book full of practical advice is the extended exercise of creating a parish editorial plan. This simple grid can help congregations find some clarity about what stories they want to tell, to whom, at what times, and in what ways. Its function is not all that different from parish educators' use of a good curriculum; both help bring consistency, focus, and accountability to ministries that can no longer afford to be haphazard. Here again, I believe Christian formation ministers bring important tools and perspective to strategic parish conversations about communications and evangelism.

Books like these can get preachy and pessimistic very quickly, but Naughton and Wilson avoid this trap more often than not. That’s partly because they are savvy consultants who know how to catalyze real change in the communities they serve. But it seems to come as well from their genuine hope and excitement about the new ways God is calling the Episcopal Church, and every church, to follow Jesus and witness to the gospel in our tumultuous times.

I was particularly moved by their reading, at the end of the chapter on crisis communications, of Mark 4:35-41, the story of the anxious disciples waking up Jesus for fear of the wind: "Not all crises are that easily solved. Sometimes the boat gets swamped and the winds don’t abate. Sometimes the ship goes down. But no matter how bad the storm gets, we have, in the midst of it, an opportunity to speak faithfully when people are listening. To do so calmly and with humility is an act of evangelism that can heal, restore relationships, and even bring about resurrection." I read a fair amount of the church marketing literature, and I can tell you that very little of it shows this level of spiritual maturity.

I highly recommend Speaking Faithfully to any church that wants to think carefully about how to reach out – and to all you faith formation practitioners who know just how many great stories are waiting to be told.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of Episcopal Teacher.

Comments
Susan Zimmerman
7/4/2013 8:00 AM
Your comments "...dropping the jargon...use eight-grade vocab..." is typical of my experience, with formation people. While in the majority, formation people were not usually adept with theology & philosopy and were the first to leave the Hebrew & Greek (Latin, French, German) classrooms. Traditionally, Episcopalians (and Jews) 'are' disciplined to think hard and patiently love
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