By Eddie Pipkin

Food has been helping me formulate ideas this week. Raw peanuts spaghetti squash, and oyster po’boys have been the pathway to enlightenment.  And I could drop some hints or set up a a couple of brain teasers to let you guess how.  But instead, I’m gong to practice something that is all too uncommon in leadership communication circles: I’m just going to come straight out and tell you — no fancy wordplay, subtlety, or assumptions — just clear statements, repeated if necessary.  Because glaring, unadulterated OBVIOUSNESS is one of the most potent (and yet most neglected) tools in our ministry toolkit

I was shopping at my local produce market when I happened upon this bin full of raw peanuts.  Hanging over it was this sign: “Caution: May Contain Nuts.”  I thought it was hysterical – and who knows if it was fulfilling some legal obligation, was entirely sarcastic, or was just someone who takes dangerous nut allergies seriously and was being thoughtful.  What stuck out was that it was just so obvious, and how often I hear church leaders complain about communications being so redundant and yet people routinely missing messages.

Good communications practices require obvious repetition.  We routinely make the mistake of thinking that just because information is permanently branded into our brains means that other people are giving that same information priority.  Less is not more in the case of making sure your congregation knows what’s happening: more is more.  A great example was my recent experience with a local United Methodist congregation that had taken every conceivable step to keep congregation members informed about the “Way Forward” General Conference process.  They had published numerous articles (in print and through email), included links in social media, held town halls and study groups, and presented regular updates during worship; yet immediately after the controversial vote, they still heard from people who said, “Why haven’t we been talking about this?”

We should take those outcomes with a grain of salt – there will always be someone who is willfully out of the loop – but we should not use that truth as a reason not to do our best in communicating as clearly and broadly as possible.  There are some legitimate considerations for why people aren’t paying attention:

  • People are busy. They are juggling a thousand different priorities, and just because your event or program or process is the number one thing in your life at the moment doesn’t mean that your average congregant is experiencing it that way.  Every organization in their lives is clamoring for their attention.  Don’t begrudge them limited bandwidth to pay attention to you.  Make it easier for them to do so by communicating often, making it easy for them to find information when the time is right, making the information clear, and explaining why it’s important for them and their families.
  • People will get to you on their schedule. Because they are busy, they will sort information on their own schedule, using whatever system works best for them.  Reiterating the points above (clarity, ubiquity, and ease of use), don’t make them conform to what’s easiest for you in distributing information – make it as easy as you can for them.  (If someone asks for info on an event, don’t roll your eyes at them and say, “Well, we’ve been printing that in the bulletin for the past month.”)  This is one of the reasons that web sites continue to be important.  It is still the place people turn to when they need information fast and want a clearinghouse from which to retrieve it.  But not just websites.  All platforms, because every person has their own preference.  Let them have it!
  • We are subtly giving them permission to not pay attention. Most ministries are using the same tired old announcement and event listing format, and it’s a format that reinforces people’s impulse to disengage.  People have clear expectations about the different kinds of events and ministries that will be interesting or useful to them and their families, and they immediately check out when the title of an event or the canned description of a program doesn’t appeal to them.  If we give them access to more information and if we creatively communicate the way this event or program will empower them or benefit them, we’ll see more response.  Also, as staff and leaders, our lack of enthusiasm in delivering announcements or writing descriptions can be toxic.  Listeners and readers can feel that ennui coming from us, and it is a distinct turn-off.

Here are some of the common misjudgments that local churches continue to make:

  • Don’t rely on Sunday worship to be the primary conduit for information. Definitely feature events and programs on Sunday mornings, but do it in ways that are effective (like giving people an immediate opportunity to ask humans questions, giving them a way to immediately respond other than an old-school sign-up list, and having people share stories about how awesome the event or program is).  BUT do not assume that because you share info on Sunday mornings that people will remember, retain, or respond.  Gone are the days when people came to church every Sunday.  Don’t put them in the position of missing one Sunday and missing out on info.
  • Do use all of your communications channels! If someone speaks on Sunday morning, have a version of that in your e-newsletter on your social media feed and on your website.  Put the info in as many written forms as possible and distribute it regularly and repeatedly.  Don’t clog up every feed with a seven-paragraph explanation.  Keep it short and sweet (but with an obvious link to where those who are interested can get to the seven-paragraph explanation).  And as a reminder, this is only a viable strategy if you have a clear point person for communications.  It is a detail-oriented job, but very important.
  • Do use creative strategies to reinforce your spoken and written communications. Cute logos stick in people’s minds.  Skits and videos have a powerful impact beyond paragraphs of text.  Banners and posters catch people’s attention who may never look at a bulletin or visit a website.

Even when we are good at practicing these essential strategies, we aren’t always great at sharing the right information.  Because we live with the information all the time, we forget to share what seems to us ridiculously obvious.  Here’s where the spaghetti squash came in for me this week.  I was in the kitchen helping my wife cook dinner, and she was coaching me through the baking of the spaghetti squash.  I had heated the oven, sliced the squash in half, scooped out the seeds, and applied the salt, pepper, and olive oil.  When we took them out of the oven, she said, “Oh, you were supposed to put them open side down.”  I had put them in open side up, so they were like little bowls, which meant the liquid pooled, rather than draining, but it had looked like the right thing to do at the time, to put the “skins” on the baking sheet, squash oriented right-side up.  Oops.  It had been such an obvious item for her – having baked a lot of spaghetti squash – that she hadn’t thought to mention it.

We make that mistake in our ministry communications:

  • We forget to include where things are happening or how to find that place in the building.
  • We forget to include a clear and easy way for people to get more info.
  • We use churchy phrases that may not be understandable to people.
  • We list costs with no mention of how someone might participate who can’t afford them.
  • We list volunteer opportunities without explaining fully the commitment involved.
  • We list things that look like they are for “members only” without explicitly indicating that everyone is welcome.
  • Sometimes we use exclusive or pejorative language unintentionally, like offering a “mom’s day out” instead of a “parent’s day out.”
  • We use group names without explaining who’s in the group or how others can join.

I recommend to every ministry that they have a volunteer or staff communications ombudsman, a person who is willing to regularly read all communications (on all platforms) and offer suggestions for things that might be confusing, misleading, incorrect, or incomplete for readers.

My last food experience involved a food truck at the county fair that stopped me in my tracks: they were advertising all manner of seafood, with an emphasis on oyster po’ boys.  Now, was I being biased, or was it utterly obvious that nobody should be buying seafood at the fair?  Sure, a nice hot bag of fried Oreos.  But oysters?

Here was a great example where a predisposition to judge would have been offset by a “fair food reviewer” giving me a new and unexpected perspective (and I mean fair both in the sense of “open-minded” and in the sense of “at a carnival”).  Maybe carny oyster po’ boys are an underappreciated epicurean delight, but they sure seemed like they were going to need some great marketing to get past an obvious bias.  Ministry can suffer from the same sorts of biases.  Maybe young people who hear you make a 30-second announcement about a 6-month Bible study are automatically rolling their eyes.  Maybe you and I are doing absolutely nothing to help them understand why such an intensive study would be relevant to them.

In aspects of study, service, prayer, and generosity, there are lots of things we take for granted as obvious for self-proclaimed disciples (and then grumble about the lack of participation in these spiritual disciplines).  Maybe they are not as obvious as we thought.  Maybe we can do a lot more at helping people understand why these disciplines are essential to their spiritual formation, the health of our faith communities, and the impact we can have on kingdom work in the world.

Any obvious observations triggered for you by this blog?  We love it when you share – obviously!