Simple factors to keep in mind as you communicate
In 20 years of strategic communications for clients ranging from Fortune 100 corporations and business startups to global Christian ministries and churches, I have learned a lot about how church leaders can be proactive when crisis strikes their ministry.
To hear the details of what I’ve learned, you could listen to the recent podcast interview I did with NewChurches.com, but in this space I’d like to share a big-picture overview of several key factors in church crisis communications.
1. Focus on being the church.
Pastors, especially pastors of a startup, should not take on the burden of trying to change the culture’s view of the church. When a church or pastor focuses on their profile in the community, it can take away from the focus on discipling their flock and just loving and serving their neighbors. My experience is that churches focused on and intentional about being the church, don’t find themselves in a crisis nearly as often as churches that are aiming to be something bigger than they probably should.
2. Remember that God is sovereign.
This may seem super-obvious, but we must remember that God is sovereign. He loves us and his church. He has a perfect plan for you, your family, your ministry and your church. Of course, sometimes his plan involves pain and hardship, but as we walk that out in faithfulness he ends up being glorified and we end up being sanctified, individually and corporately. We simply cannot walk in fear or serve our church in fear.
3. Most crises don’t escalate.
Most issues a pastor faces are going to be limited in visibility to the congregation. The vast majority of issues that happen in a church you have never heard of, particularly when they’re handled well and genuinely and with some transparency. It’s pretty rare that a crisis escalates to the degree you fear it will. Things usually tend to spin up when a church is overtly trying to move the perceptions of people outside the church.
4. When a crisis does escalate…
Sometimes crises do go beyond the walls of the church, and the prospect is terrifying. We live in a culture that is increasingly uncomfortable or even hostile to biblical truth, and a pastor who’s going to teach or preach all the truths the Word contains is going to tread into some issues that won’t be understood or accepted by a mainstream audience. This risk is essentially unavoidable, but there are some ways to communicate truth without compromise in a winsome gracious loving way.
5. How important is a crisis communication strategy?
From an external communications perspective, the best steps a church can take to mitigate those risks are (1) to plan ahead and (2) to build some trust in advance. A church’s leadership team must take time to sit down and examine the kinds of risk that they might face and what they can do operationally to mitigate them before the church gets into a difficult situation. Most of these things are tied to sex, money or power. You need to know in advance who from your leadership needs to be involved in response. You need to factor in what you owe your sending or sponsoring church and understand how that process should work in advance, so you’re not figuring it out on the fly or making mistakes. The reflex is to hide things to protect the flock. But you can do way more harm to the body by hiding issues, rather than just kind of ripping off the Band-Aid.
6. Think about the worst-case scenario.
A church leader should be constantly and humbly examining himself. When you hear of another church’s crisis, you should be asking yourself, “Could that happen here?” It should be a humble attitude of “Oh my goodness, we are a sin away from that!” You should use those events as teaching moments: “What policies do we have in place to keep us from that?” It’s important, however, to not view this primarily as a communications issue. It’s actually an operational issue before anything else. You can’t out-communicate a set of bad policies. Just take yourself to the worst-case scenario and ask if you have failed to put processes and safeguards in place that protect the body, your witness or standing.
7. View crisis as an opportunity.
Most failure comes in not knowing best practices and implementing them in advance. That is way preferable than doing it in the heat of the moment. That’s where mistakes are made. These situations are appointments by the Lord, in His sovereignty, opportunities for you to glorify him in them and for you to walk out faithfulness in front of your flock without fear. View it as an opportunity, instead of a landmine.
8. Transparency is far better than secrecy.
I encourage church leaders to communicate well internally and create a culture of humble openness. When you let them in on some difficulty in a thoughtful and healthy way, it builds a culture of trust. Then when something really bad does happen, having established trust internally will take you a long way. When a church has a culture of being a lockbox, then when something goes wrong, everyone jumps to the worst possible conclusion. When people understand who you are, they trust what you say. They’ve seen it played out in some tough situations in the past. The best crisis communication strategy is to be proactively communicating and building a reputation before there is a crisis.
9. Don’t be flippant about controversial issues.
A pastor must take into account that the words you’re using probably are going to be consumed by an external audience. Don’t avoid controversial issues, but think about how you engage on those topics. Humility goes a long way. Tone can make all of the difference. When you’re speaking on a controversial issue, don’t wing it. Vet your language and approach with trusted advisors who will knock the edges off. Don’t be flippant about issues you know are going to hit people in the heart in all kinds of different ways.