By Eddie Pipkin

I got a kick out of this sight on the side of the road in my neighborhood.  I mean, what exactly is going on here?  Is somebody throwing away a perfectly good Happy Birthday balloon?  Is there an imminent birthday party that is being obscured by a row of trash cans?  Is it the garbage collector’s birthday, which is being celebrated by an attentive homeowner?  The possibilities are dizzying!  What it is for sure is a mixed message.  It’s confusing, a little disorienting, a puzzlement indeed.  Just like ministry communication can often be.  When we say one thing and then clearly communicate something else, we’re sending mixed messages.  Let’s stop confusing people, people.  When our message is clear and we live out our stated values, people get excited about who we are and what we stand for.

Of course, when we say one thing and do something else or loudly proclaim a value and then demonstrate an entirely different value with words and actions, we undermine our credibility.  New visitors can spot this kind of inconsistency from a mile away and are turned off by it.  Veteran attendees develop burnout from being told they need to embrace messaging, only to see it undermined by leadership.

There are many ways to get at cross-purposes in messaging:

  • Not everybody has clarity on what the messaging is. If we haven’t agreed as leaders on messaging priorities, we’ll be all over the place in what we’re communicating in public and in team meetings and even one-on-one conversations.
  • Not everybody agrees with the what the messaging is. If there is messaging clarity from the leadership (whatever the process if for arriving at that clarity), a successful strategy for communicating it depends on buy-in from all key players.  Sometimes a key player who disagrees just goes their own way and ignores the plan.
  • No one is clearly in charge of the messaging. As with anything that is important, someone has to be in charge of the overall strategy.  This person’s role is to promote accountability, to monitor progress, and to suggest creative strategies for implementation across the communication spectrum.  This is a classic case when people assume – particularly in smaller settings – that the chief clergy person is, of course, in charge of messaging.  Let’s not assume that the chief messenger and the chief strategic and accountability officer for messaging are the same role – pastors clearly need help and faithful accountability partners in messaging.
  • We know what the messaging is, but we’re not clear on the practical application of that messaging. This is one of the things that the person tasked with overall messaging responsibility helps us to work out.  Since their role is to spend time thinking about the implementation of the messaging organically into the fabric of our day-to-day and weekly communications, they can provide timely examples of messaging done well and opportunities missed.  Everyone benefits from training and feedback on effective messaging.  We should be employing the messaging creatively on every platform that is available to us on every occasion that is an option.

Since we are regularly communicating to people as part of our day-to-day and week-to-week routine, we can do the most good by having a clear consensus as to what kind of messages we want to emphasize and consistently and faithfully staying on script.  There are hierarchies to such disciplined messaging.  The overall church leadership can have a primary message (vision/voice), and then individual ministries can communicate that message in ways tailored to those individual ministries (whether they be youth, children, older folks, music, etc.).  And individual ministries can have their own agreed-upon and clearly communicated messages which promote the needs of the people who are served by those ministries.  Youth ministry may brand its own messaging geared to energizing the youth it serves, but that messaging should also fit within the scope of the overall messaging and vision of the church of which it is a part.

Where messaging consistency is most critical is when we are promoting our core values.  These are the values that we proclaim as most important to us – the values that establish our priorities and our personality as a congregation.  If we are proclaiming a clear set of values from the Sunday morning stage or our Facebook page, but our actions, programming, and day-to-day messaging are undermining those proclaimed values, we have an authenticity problem.  This is the very scenario that leads those skeptical of the “church thing” to people of faith as hypocrites.  Nobody likes a hypocrite, but people really love to stick that label on Jesus followers.  Why encourage the stereotype?

Here are some examples of mixed messaging I have personally encountered over the past six months:

  • This is an extreme example, but it actually happened to me a couple of months ago. When attending a very well-conducted praise service at a non-denominational church, the preaching pastor included a questionable joke in the sermon (a joke that, to my mind, was clearly Anti-Semitic).  Their motto and oft-repeated values phrase from throughout the service was “Caring Better for People.”  How a joke that traded in damaging tropes that have historically brought pain to an entire class of people was a demonstration of “caring” was beyond me.
  • Local churches in neighborhoods in which the Hispanic population is booming feature no Spanish on their websites, social media, or printed materials.  These are churches which embrace diversity and celebrate Hispanic members but offer no tangible acknowledgement of that demographic community.  (On the flip side, there are some local churches in the same area that are attentive to this demographic reality and lean into it with much success.)
  • A local church which prominently markets itself as welcoming and friendly but whose campus features highly visible “keep out,” “keep off,” and “no trespassing” signage in areas that might serve as places where the community could use some of the property’s amenities.
  • Local churches that tout diversity and inclusion, but whose websites and social media feeds (not to mention the up-front Sunday leadership) are . . . shall we say . . . exclusively vanilla in pictures and featured voices.
  • Local churches that promote discipleship growth as a core value but have no clear pathway to develop as a disciple. For someone who hears the message of the importance of discipleship and takes this message seriously, there is no clear course of study, selection of resources, or coach to help them begin their journey.  They find they are left to their own devices.

The problem of mixed messaging is primarily a leadership problem.  True, individual volunteers can sometimes blatantly diverge from a church’s proclaimed value statement, but it is up to the leaders who are equipping those volunteers to be sure that everyone is working in concert together.  It’s certainly up to leadership and staff to make sure they are all on the same page and working towards the same goals.

On this topic, I really like what Scott Cormode at Fuller Seminary writes in “Mixed Messages Cause Chaos.”  He zeroes in on the ways in which people are turned off by leaders pretending to have priorities that they then ultimately undermine.  He tells a personal story of a suggestion of receiving a suggestion from a volunteer to which he paid lip service because he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the one making the suggestion.  This person, seeing that nothing came of their earnest suggestion and disenchanted by the whole process, ended up leaving the church.  Cormode writes,

“They did not quit because we did not follow their suggestion. They quit because I claimed to take them seriously and then ignored them.”

Cormode takes full responsibility for his failure as a leader in that scenario.  He goes on to analyze how leaders can sell the messaging short in an effort to maintain control or avoid conflict:

Sending a mixed message is a particular temptation for those with power in an organization. If you are in charge of a youth ministry or are the one planning an event for your soup kitchen, you have power. And when someone disagrees with you, it will be very tempting to take the path of least resistance – to pretend you have heard them while planning to ignore them. If you do this, you will create chaos in your organization and shut down honest conversation. And without honesty, there is no learning. Your motives may be pure (like me, you may be trying to preserve someone’s feelings) but in the end, you make it hard for people to feel understood or to be effective.

He enumerates “4 Easy Steps to Messaging Chaos” (a sequence he, himself, borrowed from organizational scholar Chris Argyris):

  • Send a mixed message.
  • Pretend it’s not mixed.
  • Make the mixed message and pretense undiscussable.
  • Make the undiscussability undiscussable.

In this sequence, leaders acknowledge the organizational truth that clear and consistent messaging is critical to a healthy local church – they pay the idea lip service – but then they immediately put on a false front because they don’t want to sacrifice control.  This kind of posturing does real damage.

Staying on message in word and deed requires discipline and focus, but the payoff is worth the effort.  Consistency and clarity are the tools by which we build an cultural and organizational identity.  It enables people to feel secure and inspired in knowing who they are in relation to our community, how they fit in, and the impact that we all can have when we are working together.

How does your local church do in the messaging department?  Are you unified in your approach?  Or are you delivering mixed messages?  Do the people you serve have a clear sense of who you are and what you stand for?  Do they see those words lived out in your interactions with the community?  What would you change if you could?  (And for reference, you can!)