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The WHY of looking outward


The HOW of effective communications strategy can be figured out, maybe with outside help, and implemented without great expense.

The WHY, however, might be the hardest sell I have ever had to make as a church consultant. Church leaders find it difficult to imagine any audience beyond the members they know. Why should they be talking with anyone else? Why should they develop communications tools – and an attitude to go with them – that goes beyond news of the congregation, the pastor speaking to the beloved, prayer lists, and internal events?These, after all, are the folks who pay the bills. They are the ones who care deeply what the congregation is doing. They expect full attention.

If there is any interest in looking outward, beyond church walls, it tends to have a missional thrust, often in a noblesse oblige manner that treats folks outside as needy. They are, after all, statistically likely to be browner, less affluent, less educated and less homogeneous than the typical mainline congregation. It takes a major leap of imagination to view those outside as potential friends, as interesting in their own right, especially when they are demonstrably “not our kind.”

Another leap is required, as well. Most people stay with church because they value belonging, they feel at home, and they find church to be a safe place in a noisy, anonymous world. Setting their sights on communicating with that larger world requires setting aside the coziness of belonging and venturing into the very noise and not-knowing that church enables them to escape.

For that reason, I usually recommend that the pastor take the lead in looking outward. I recommend a special e-letter that goes only to strangers. It should bring the pastor to life as a trustworthy and interesting person, someone they might like to know, either through more writing or in person. It doesn’t sell the church. It sells the pastor as a person. It doesn’t deal with church issues, church events, or church offerings such as worship. It presents the pastor’s reflections on the life we share in this larger community – the schools our children attend, the potholes that never get fixed, the people struggling to find work, the celebration of a good harvest or a completed town project.

The pastor can intuit some of the community’s concerns, especially if he or she is active in the larger community, attending meetings, getting to know leaders like school principals, serving on planning commissions, speaking at service clubs, and just listening to the aches and heartbeats of diverse constituencies. The pastor will learn about employment troubles, for example, failing schools, the challenges of parenting, worries about health care, aging and dying. Those are just a few. They can be investigated, and the pastor can reflect on them, perhaps even offer some expertise. The message: “I share your pain. I like living here, just as you do. We are all in this together.”

Every e-letter should include a “call to action” – not an invitation to attend worship (we need to get over our obsession with Sunday worship), but a white paper on a shared interest, a speaker addressing something such as parenting, or a job fair, or an invitation to donate to a shared concern such as a family burned out of their home.

Over time, people will identify the pastor as someone who cares – not a professional who is building an institution, but a good person who cares about their lives. Over time, a small percentage will want to learn more about what makes this pastor tick. Now we are ready to have a conversation about faith.

Why does this larger community outside the walls matter? For one thing, they are children of God whom you have been called to serve. For a more practical reason, they are where your future as a congregation lies. This is where new members will come from, new leaders, new workers in mission.

The internal congregation might or might not ever get involved in this ministry beyond the walls. Their main contribution is to let it happen. Let the pastor devote a significant portion of time to people other than themselves. Let the pastor have the latitude to spend time in the community, research local issues, develop a good email list, write the outward-directed messages, and deal with follow-up.

The typical congregation’s insistence on controlling the pastor’s entire schedule, and having it serve them, is self-defeating.

I know for a fact that internal constituents will climb on board, too. They will sense the pastor’s dedication and enthusiasm. They will offer their own expertise. Helping the pastor deal with, say, financial stress among their neighbors will seem a lot more important than typical church affairs. The way to renew a church is to help people get outside themselves.

So looking outward pays off in many ways. We just have to let it happen.

About the Author

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of A Fresh Day online magazine, author of On a Journey and two national newspaper columns.


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