Managing Church Communications, Digital and Personal

[Note: All personal names, geographic locations, and names of churches or other organizations in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of study participants.]


For many North American churches, digital communications are still somewhat new. The 2010 Faith Communities Today (FACT 2010) national survey of 11,077 congregations found that the use of email by religious groups more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, from 35% to 90% of congregations. Use of websites rose from 33% to 69% during that decade.1

So are churches using these technologies wisely and effectively, or have emails and websites become shortcuts that allow clergy and other church leaders to avoid making important personal connections?

Email - Microsoft clip art MP900387718As the pastor of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in the Midwest, the Rev. Nick Foster learned the importance of managing church communications—both digital and personal—to keep them positive and productive.

One summer, after time away working at a local Christian camp, he returned to find a surprising email message from a member of the church staff. It said that the children’s education committee had decided to cancel Vacation Bible School (VBS) because not enough families had signed up their children.

“I was really frustrated,” he recalled. “You don’t just cancel something, especially like a week and a half out, when really that’s the time that people start gearing up and saying ‘Oh, maybe we’ll send our kids to Vacation Bible School.’ And so, I was frustrated that I hadn’t heard all of the dialogue that had happened.”

After talking with the church staff, Foster connected with the committee members, asking whether the cancellation had been announced to the whole community yet. The answer was no; there was still time to reconsider.

The head of the committee emailed him directly, explaining how the decision had been reached. Foster said he sees this as an example of the pitfalls of email communication.

“One thing that drives me bonkers is when you send an email to a whole bunch of people, and then they only respond back to you, when . . . everyone needs to be in that conversation. She responded back by saying she explained everything to me, but only to me. . . . we’re ending the conversation.”


Cultivating a Culture of Healthier Communication

Foster convinced the committee to give Vacation Bible School one last chance. Instead of the cancellation email, he spread the news that the VBS program might need to be cancelled if the registration numbers didn’t increase, and asked parents to let him know if there were reasons why their children wouldn’t participate.

“The committee was amazed that people actually told me why that weekend didn’t work. . . . They said, ‘Gosh, we wish that we could, and we do value Sunday school, but this weekend just doesn’t work because of this.’ Actually, it was the last weekend before school was going to start, so people were traveling.”

WELS Pastor and MemberNotice that Foster did not plow forward, forcing others to take the action he instinctively wanted to see—in this case, making Vacation Bible School happen. Instead, he sought out more information, accepted feedback, and used it to make a course adjustment.

Understanding the reason for the low numbers helped the pastor let go of his personal desire to save the church’s VTS program for that summer. It also helped him communicate the news of the cancellation to the congregation, which had self-esteem issues, in a more positive way.

Debriefing the situation later with staff members, he dug even deeper. He quickly learned how negative the discussions at the children’s education committee meetings had become in his absence:

“This is not uncommon at all. People say ‘Gosh, nobody ever signs up for these VBS [programs]. Do you realize nobody ever signs up to be a Sunday school teacher, either? My goodness, we have the worst Sunday school program. This church is terrible. …’ And that is something that I bring to the table, that if I’m at a meeting, we’re not going to let it get negative.”

He picked up on the fact that the way Sunday school teachers were recruited was becoming a cause for negativity at Our Redeemer. For years, the education coordinator had periodically made desperate pleas for people to sign up to teach Sunday school. So Foster offered to recruit enough teachers for the rest of the year—his way.


Directly Asking Specific People for their Help

He and a staff member brainstormed a list of 95 members they thought would be good teachers. Then Foster personally emailed each one, inviting them to attend teacher training.

“I sent them a specific invite and said you’ve been selected . . . as someone that has the gifts to teach Sunday school, and you’ve been invited to a teacher training, and we’re going to train you on such-and-such a date. Let us know which day works for you. And on all those emails that came back, more than 60%, I believe, responded with a ‘Sure, that sounds great.’ I think three people said no and then about 25 people ignored me, and that’s fine. But we did a teacher training, and we don’t have to ask anyone this year.”

This is an excellent example of a church leader stepping away from an easy shortcut that isn’t producing results. Foster chose to try something that more closely resembled the one-on-one approach that the Gospels depict Jesus as taking when recruiting and empowering His disciples. Such an approach can require time and hard work, but as a long-term investment in shifting the culture of a congregation, it may prove worthwhile.

“We have kind of made that commitment: We’re not going to put it in the bulletin. We’re not going to put it in the newsletter that we need teachers. We’re going to actually ask them,” Foster reflected. “It was a beautiful success.”


For Your Consideration

  • When do you make sure to communicate with people personally? When do you tend to use email?
  • Have you ever experienced a miscommunication caused by a poorly timed or poorly worded email?


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1 Thumma, Scott, “Virtually Religious: Technology and Internet Use in American Congregations” (Hartford, CT: Faith Communities Today, Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary, 2012). Downloaded 2/3/2014,


“Priceless”: One Priest’s Account of How TiM Training Equipped Her for Her First Parish

[Note: All personal names, geographic locations, and names of churches or other organizations in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of study participants.]


Many Transition into Ministry (TiM) alumni report that the post-seminary training was critical to their personal development as clergy. That’s certainly the case for one priest currently serving in the Caribbean.

“If I did not do that Transition into Ministry program, I’d be either in a madhouse, doing something else completely with my time, or one frustrated human being. I use pretty much everything that I did in the Transition into Ministry program.” The Rev. Monica Pereira

When we asked participants in the Clergy Into Action Study what the greatest influence in shaping them and their ministry was, 40% said it was their active participation in some form of focused self-development after seminary and ordination.

St James Parish Church Barbados croppedAs a recently ordained priest, Pereira was sent by her bishop to St. Stephen’s Anglican Church. She was surprised at how little support she received from her diocese to help her make the transition:

“I feel very lost if I don’t have a framework, and the [TiM] program provided me with the framework that I needed because this diocese had no framework. It was going to a parish…. there was no mentorship, guidance. I mean, nothing structured or formal or none of that. It was you figure it out how you figure it out.”

Pereira had attended the First Three Years program, a pilot project at Virginia Theological Seminary, where she received her Master in Divinity degree. For their first three years in ordained ministry, she and other graduates returned to the campus each summer for content training, structured reflection, mentoring, and peer support.

She said the program equipped her with tools for managing administrative issues and her own self-care, as well as doing theological reflection and liturgical work. “[It] gave me something to think about in terms of how I would order myself and how I would organize my ministry, and understand the things that I was doing…. and that was priceless, priceless,” she explained.

She described how she tries to respond to difficult interactions with parishioners. “Rather than taking the thing personally … let’s pretend we’re in [TiM] again and really break that down into its component parts and find out okay, what was it that got you upset? What was going on theologically? And to be able to process through that in a way that allowed me to take away some learning from it rather than get bogged down in the mess of it….”

Spending time in the United States gave Pereira new insights into the culture of her home country. She began to recognize elements that were contributing to conflict within the church—an unspoken fondness for interpersonal drama, for example, and a tendency to triangulate instead of addressing problems directly.

Besides practical skills and techniques, she gained self-knowledge that has changed how she approaches relationships and her ministry:

“I also learned how absolutely passive-aggressive I was—could not deal with the conflict directly. I was either passive-aggressive or bitterly sarcastic as my way of dealing with conflicts …. When it was extreme, I would just shut down, right down, have nothing to say, could not speak … but I think since then I’ve really moved away from those things … If I’m prepared to listen to what’s happening, listen to myself, listen to everybody else, be aware of what’s going on inside of me, and pay attention to all of the issues, I am generally able to help people calm down, help people see things from each other’s perspectives, and facilitate a resolution that works for the majority of the people involved.”

Church-goers on Santa Lucia croppedThanks to her increased self-knowledge and know-how, Pereira has found she is more able to envision future challenges and feel prepared for them.

She and a colleague were recently joking about how, in their diocese, when the bishop sends clergy off to rural parishes, it’s perceived as a punishment.

“I looked at him and I said, ‘That would be very exciting for me, actually,’” Pereira recalled. “… I would welcome it. I mean, I actually began to envision what it could be like … and how I would just map it out. … it’s very poor communities that we are talking about, and I got very excited mapping everything.

“ I’m like— in the first six months I could tell you what I was going to do. Very clear in my head what is possible and very excited about it as well, and all of the training that is possible and how we could get people in the community involved … some of the churches need rebuilding and so how we could rebuild the churches because they are a bunch of young people in those communities who have no work, who have trades and my hoping is we will all build a church, even just go from village to village, and rebuild the churches one at a time. There are some people who will provide the food. The church will provide the material.… We will have a good time.”


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