by Eddie Pipkin

Sometimes, you think something is obvious, but it turns out it’s only obvious to you.  In day-to-day life, misplaced assumptions can be a minor stumbling block or a major source of humor and comeuppance (more on that in a bit), but in ministry, thinking that everybody knows something just because we know something can sabotage our most sincere efforts at doing good work.  Thinking that things are obvious just because the ‘insiders’ know it is a great way to isolate and exclude ‘outsiders.’

My most recent moment of revelation on this topic came because of a punctured bike tube.  My former sister-in-law needed some help figuring out a bike tire repair for a ‘road bike’ (which involves different supplies than the standard bikes we all grew up riding as kids), so I had texted her some links to what she needed to buy, and she had responded with “And I guess we can YouTube how to change the tire.”  Now, she’s an accomplished former college athlete, so I razzed her about not having what, to me, seemed like a basic functional life skill – changing a bike tire.

Au contraire.  She pointed out that, unlike me, biking had never been her sport.  She was a tennis and swim person (neither of which involve bike inner tubes).  Yeah, but . . . I protested . . . everybody knows how to ride a bike . . . so, everybody should know how to change a tire!  It’s the one bike-related skill you have to have!

Then I started surveying other people, and the results were a kick in the hubris, if you know what I mean.

First, I found myself in the car later that day with my wife and my mother, and I asked them if they knew how to change a bike tire.  Neither did – or I should say, neither ever had – it turned out to be a common theme of the many subsequent exchanges with family, friends, and eventually complete strangers that they thought they had a handle on the basic concept, but it was a skill they had never had occasion to apply.  Lots of people answered with the response, “No, but I guess I could do it with a little guidance from YouTube.”

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you will know that I have written on numerous occasions about the dangers of making assumptions and allowing those assumptions to influence our ministry communications.  The now infamous Bike Tube Incident of 2022 was a reminder of how pernicious a habit assumption-making can be.

It’s so hard to spot in ourselves and our familiar circles that the only way to defend against it is to have systems in place to check what seems obvious and straightforward.

The usual thinking is that we have to be on guard against not shutting out visitors as they explore our spaces (both real-world and virtual), but if we’re paying attention, it is uncanny how even long-time ministry participants have gaps in their institutional knowledge:

  • Navigating our websites and social media feeds.
  • Understanding how to stay informed about events and ministry initiatives.
  • Navigating our physical campus.
  • Understanding our governance structure and decision-making processes.
  • Navigating the path to discipleship and utilizing the available resources for spiritual growth.
  • Understanding how we allocate our financial resources.
  • Navigating the best ways to get help and info from staff members and how to get new people connected and engaged.
  • Understanding the terms we use in worship gatherings.

Even if they have been long-time members of our ministry community, people know what they know and are familiar with what they are familiar with.  Although as ministry professionals (or ministry nerds), we may be acquainted with every institutional and programmatic nuance, regular folks are focused on what applies to them and their families.  We leaders assume that all fully engaged institutional citizens will take it upon themselves to stay informed about all aspects of church life (the better to evangelize), but regular folks have lots of bandwidth demands outside of their church lives, so they may only be tuned in to the things at church that apply to them.  That’s only natural.  We leaders need to give up the snooty attitude that such ‘disattention’ is somehow disloyal and a lack of meaningful commitment.  It’s not.

Rather, it’s on us, as leaders, to provide reinforcing layers of information, creatively repeated, and communicated on multiple platforms with vigor, so that people may know what’s happening and why whether they are church  nerds like us or practicing a more casual interaction.

Those check-up and check-in systems I talked about earlier are all wrapped around getting fresh perspectives on our communications choices, either by inviting in fresh sets of eyeballs to tell us how we are doing or by provoking fresh angles of observation in ourselves and in our teams.

Have a plan.  Make it mindful.  Schedule it regularly:

  • Give new people an opportunity to give you feedback as part of their onboarding process.  This is a GREAT opportunity to ask if they were able to “navigate” and “understand” effectively and, if so, what made that a smooth process.  If not, why not?  How can it be better?
  • Have independent observers whose job is to review all communications you are issuing.  This is an outstanding assignment for a volunteer (or team of volunteers) who review your communications on all platforms on a weekly, bi-weeklly, or monthly basis and report their observations back to you.
  • Trade observations with another church!  Form partnerships in which you evaluate and trade observations about communications with another church (or churches!).
  • Trade observations among internal ministry areas.  Have the youth group offer insights about the education ministry and the children’s ministry offer insights about youth ministry, etc.
  • Have staff and ministry leaders state clearly in leadership meetings what their current communications goals and implementations are.  What are they trying that’s new?  Where do they feel like people are struggling to stay informed?  How are they promoting interaction?  Make an emphasis on communication a regular part of leadership discussions.
  • Implement regular communications training.  This includes bringing in outside experts (in person or virtually), having your designated communications person (if you are lucky enough to have one) do training with your other team members, and forwarding online articles, videos, and other supplementary tips and tricks to your teams.
  • Hire a ministry media consultant to do an analysis of what you are offering and how it can be improved.
  • Regularly ask your congregation for feedback and give them a simple way to offer suggestions and ask questions.  The invitation of feedback / suggestions should be so ingrained in your routines as to feel natural and seamless.  People love having that option, and it promotes transparency, curiousity, and healthy dialogue.

When we’re thinking of people who don’t understand the church-y lingo we’re using (either in worship, small groups, or general ministry discussion) or don’t understand how different ministry functions, there are lots of things we can do to make their pathway easier:

  • Regularly define terms.  Occasionally, but regularly, pause to define a term or explain its history and meaning.  You don’t have to do it every week, but doing so occasionally can become a kind of liturgy in itself.  I love the beautiful variations by which pastors explain how communion works in the local churches I attend.
  • Use QR codes!  Those back-and-white patterned squares were all the rage seven years ago, then almost died out, then were revived by the pandemic and our need to look at menus on our smartphones.  Now, they are once again in vogue.  Try one in your worship communications as a way for people to find out what church-y terms mean and how communion works.  Try one on a promotional banner for adult ministries or disaster response.
  • Give people opportunities to see if they really know what they think they know.  Insert a little quiz about types of prayer or scripture translations or means of grace.  Congregants hear a lot of church-y terms that they sort of think they kind of know what they mean.  But do they really?  Make it a fun campaign to be theologically informed.
  • Explain things that seem obvious, but be creative in the execution.  Have a kid do a video about how the nursery ministry works (because the people with kids have obviously had to figure out how the nursery ministry works, but what if I have no kids but my neighbor with kids decides to visit – it might be useful to have an inkling).  Do a “Things I’ve Always Wondered” video series, where people can ask questions about your church.  Give updates about leadership and finances and where song selections come from.

As I was driving down the road last night, I passed a local Methodist church with a big, beautiful banner on the front lawn that promoted their Taize service.  Their excitement was palpable.  My wife said, “What’s a Taize service?” and I said, “You know . . . it’s a contemplative style of worship with . . . you know . . . contemplation.”  It was a weak answer to a question for which I should have known an immediate and informative answer.  And if I couldn’t answer it clearly, how in the world was a person just driving down the road going to know what this mystical worship form, a thingabout which they were supposed to be getting excited?

Let’s assume nobody knows anything, including us!  And in so assuming, let’s regularly revisit what is what and how things work and how we all interact with another.  And in so doing – by establishing and celebrating a constant state of curiosity and exploration – we will gain valuable insights about ourselves and each other.

How do you guard against the pernicious influence of assumptions in your own leadership?  How do you design and review communications so that stealthy assumptions don’t undermine the involvement of the very people you are intending to reach?  Do you regularly engage outside observers and fresh perspectives in evaluating how you are doing on the communications front?  Do you have some established strategies for helping people understand the church-y terminology of ministry and worship?  Share your insights and ideas in the comments section.