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Interview with a Church Communication Professional - Sheree (Part 2)

Oct 17, 2016 9:00:00 AM

Interview with a Church Communication Professional Part 2

Part two of a two part series on Church Communication Professionals.

In the world of church communications, it is important for us to learn from each other and share what works and what doesn't. With that in mind, I wanted to interview Sheree Howard, an amazing church communicator who is currently serving as the Communications Director and Director of Contemporary Worship at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas, and give us all a chance to learn from her ministry.

Staying Focused & Motivated

How do you stay inspired/energized?

The science of how marketing/communications makes people behave is fascinating to me. I read everything I can about human behavior— not Christian behavior— human behavior. If you can understand the way people are uniquely wired, and how they connect to concepts and ideas, you have a better chance of pitching a message they’ll respond to.

For example, today’s church is heavily targeting millennials (buzzword, I know), so I pay attention to corporate communication models, that are already effectively reaching these forward-thinking young professionals, entrepreneurs and creatives. I follow trending pop culture books, blogs and articles written by the unchurched because it provides free insight into the minds of exactly whom we are trying to reach.

It’s inspiring to witness the catalysts that make a generation move, because they keep the art of communications from becoming stagnant and mundane. What works is also cyclical, which explains why so many millennials want to get back to their grandparent’s Sunday morning church experience.

What do you listen to at work (music, talk radio, silence) – feel free to share a favorite playlist or station:

I prefer silence in the office, mostly because my brain is constantly trying to sort through the myriad of terrible ideas I have.  I am also in meetings 75% of the time that I am in the office, so I crave quiet moments.

Thankfully, my pastor and chief of staff respect the way my creative process fleshes out, so they allow me the flexibility to work remotely when I need environmental inspiration or uninterrupted time. It’s a huge blessing!

Favorite blogs, websites, podcasts, or other resources you’d recommend to fellow church communicators:

In the interest of trying to get out of the proverbial church bubble, I gravitate towards resources in and out of church communications. With that said, I’m a HUGE fan of Seth Godin.

For church-specific communications, I have gleaned a lot from Phil Bowdle. His suggestions are generally applicable when you don’t have a large marketing budget.

My favorite resource for usable ideas and exchange of information is through online forums and Facebook pages of people who are actively working in the trenches of church comm. I can’t count the number of times I made a move in my department, based on something I read on Facebook.

Advice & Looking Forward

What advice would you give to churches considering adding this position?

  • The pastor isn’t the communications director (CD). People often choose a church (or stay at a church) when they feel connected to its mission and values, so having a person whose specific job is to focus on keeping that presence alive and everywhere is critical. A CD supports and communicates the pastor’s vision in everything the member/visitor sees or hears, so that the pastor can “pastor.”
  • Don’t let budget keep you from making a great investment. Start with a part-time person (if you must). In time, if you allow the CD to do what he/she does best, hopefully, you will see how the value of the position serves your church.
  • Hire the right, qualified person. Interview people who have experience, or have demonstrated the know-how and ability to rise to the occasion. Try not to hire a person just because they’ve been doing the bulletin for 32 years, or the part-time admin who just wants full-time hours with benefits. Church communications is not making bulletins and generating emails on its best day. It’s having a person who strategizes for your church and tells the story of who you are—not who you think you are. They objectively identify your strengths and weaknesses and develop a plan of how to communicate your value to the audience, both internally and externally.
  • Hire someone you’d want on your leadership/advisory team. A CD communicates the vision, manages the occasional negativity and offers insight into what’s working and what isn’t. Make sure it is someone you trust because he/she will be the mouth piece for your organization. Let him/her push back on your ideas and poke holes in your philosophy. It’s his/her job to make sure your vision and mission are not only crystal clear to you, but clear to the outsider—and easy enough for a church member to understand well enough to be able to share it with others.
  • Be willing to change. Do you often say “...but we’ve always done it this way”? Don’t be that guy.

What advice would you give to someone about to step into this role at a church?

  • Develop a Communications Plan. Do this in your first month, if possible. The sooner you establish guidelines for ensuring a cohesive communications strategy, the sooner you can go back to having friends. You wont be popular at first because you’ll likely make changes to the way they’ve always done it. Be confident in that.
  • Make mistakes. It’s ok and a good thing! It’s how you grow. Let the staff you’re serving know that you’re going to make mistakes. Be gracious to those who don’t know better. Be teachable.
  • This is a huge job, but you’re just the one to do it! Let’s be honest, you’re not taking this job for the money or the notoriety... CD’s are background singers. This role is important and you will have overwhelming days where everything goes wrong and you want to quit. Remember that what you’re doing has eternal purpose and elevates Jesus. If He called you to this place, trust Him when you struggle.
  • This is a bigger job than your leadership will ever comprehend. Initially, most people won’t understand what you do (besides making the bulletins), or how this is even a real job. Don’t get discouraged by this because that will change once you get rolling. Eventually, they’ll wonder how the church ever got by without this position.
  • Set healthy boundaries. This might be the hardest part of the job. As soon as people realize what all you do, communication requests will come pouring in. This is exciting because it means people see the value of your position, but be careful not to overcommit to projects that limit your ability to do your main job with excellence.
  • Be willing to push the envelope. Suggest things that are outside the box. Don’t be the “yes” man. Be the person who is consistent and is willing to have the hard conversations to stay mission critical.
  • Be Flexible. As much as we try to plan in advance, some things are out of our control. Your copier may decide to die on the day you’re printing the Christmas Eve bulletins. Your website will crash the week before Easter. Pro-presenter will re-format all your slides to Comic Sans 3 minutes before church starts (the horror!). The good news is— when our best-laid plans fail— Jesus doesn’t. 

Biggest challenge & opportunity in the next ten years?

I think our biggest challenge in the future will be the same challenge the church has always had... staying current, and doing whatever it takes to connect with God’s people. Change is hard. Everyone wants to feel a part of something greater than themselves, but many churches are so set in their old ways and traditions that they can exclude newcomers from feeling like they are a part of the greatest revolution. Who would want to be in that army?

As church communicators, we have the opportunity to affect healthy change in the culture, and foster a feeling of ownership in the mission. We have to help our church be more ok with reaching the lost than being comfortable. Church communicators get to be the vessel of sharing how that change can work. There will undoubtedly be innovative, new channels of communication in the next 10 years. We have to be ready to learn new procedures, software and cultural language.

Trends are constantly changing; some more quickly than others. We have to continue to be prepared to navigate the church through these changes carefully, so they aren’t positioned out of the marketplace, leaving them left behind.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to church communicators?

I’ve said waaayyyy too much already. Time for lunch!

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Seth Hinz

Written by Seth Hinz

Seth Hinz serves as Assistant to the President—Web/Media for the Michigan District of the LCMS. A graduate of Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Seth is passionate about connecting church-communication folks and equipping ministries to communicate effectively in the ever-changing digital age. Seth is married, has two sons, one daughter, and enjoys popcorn, Wes Anderson movies, and way too many things on Netflix.

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