Full disclosures

The heart of any effective Communications Strategy is a radical commitment to communicating information. You have to believe that constituents need and deserve information in order to participate effectively.

Like schools and other human institutions, churches often rely on rumor, parking lot conversations, insider talk, and managed disclosure. And, as in other institutions, if people don’t have accurate information, they make it up.

Authority figures — including elders and ministers — are not always trusted; this lack of credibility tends to be a problem nowadays. Churches must work overtime to provide complete, accurate, timely, and widely-disseminated information. If any of those criteria isn’t met, constituents will be skeptical about what they are told and rendered ineffective, even hostile, as participants in mission, ministry, and giving.

The measure isn’t what church leaders feel safe in disclosing, but what constituents need to know. For example, members might be overly curious about the staff salaries, but they do need to know how much the church is spending on fixed expenses, including compensation as a category. Members don’t need to know what happens in pastoral settings, but they do need to know that pastoral care is provided effectively and fairly. Members might not need to know the grim details of leadership conflicts, but they do need to know that leaders are addressing difficult issues and have a process for resolving them.

In a world of constant information flows, church leaders can’t get away with bland assurances, avoidance, or “trust us.” People’s expectations have shifted toward full disclosure.

We are big advocates of electronic communications, and not just because they are less costly and more effective than older technologies. Electronic communications are also faster, sometimes even as fast as the flying of rumors. They are more democratic and avoid the appearance of managing the news to suit a certain cadre.

A disclosive leadership group can avoid the appearance of feeling entitled, above it all, or disinterested. Constituents will understand a leader’s mistakes or a program’s failure. They won’t accept a leader who seems disengaged, unaccountable, or arrogant. Wise leaders find that by communicating problems, they can unleash creativity and collaboration among constituents.

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Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of On a Journey, and founder of the Church Wellness Project.