Watching it all burn down

Despite the ominous title, I’m in a productive place today, and I want to share a minor dilemma from one of my jobs. Maybe you’re in a similar position or maybe you have some input on an even better way to handle this.

So first, the backstory. Working for an historic Episcopal church in a relatively small city comes with some unique challenges. Perhaps they’re not unique across the spectrum of small cities and Episcopal churches, but they are unique for me. Most of my professional background is in media, academics, retail, or sports (and various combinations thereof). Three of those fields are dynamic and fast-paced. The other aspires to be dynamic and fast-paced but spends more time talking about how to be dynamic and fast-paced than actually… being…dynamic…and…fast-paced. In any case, I’m used to the response to new ideas being along the lines of, “Yes! Let’s see what happens!” or, “Well, that’s a good start, but what if we did this!?” With teams like that, it’s possible (and perhaps even preferable at times) to implement incremental changes and quickly see improvements in whatever area needed improvement. Everyone is on board and ready to shake up some element of the operation in order to make it more efficient, productive, innovative, or any other positive and forward-thinking organizational goal.

It turns out, an historic Episcopal church in a relatively small city doesn’t move so quickly and has little desire to start. This is not inherently a bad thing; there’s a reason people flock to established organizations like the Episcopal church. It’s safe, comfortable, consistent. The problem comes when that safety, comfort, and consistency cease to be productive. When I was hired, my position was new. In fact, it’s still just a trial position for the parish, and my responsibility is to get it set up in such a way that anyone could step into the role and maintain both the internal and external communication strategies without the community noticing someone else was doing the job. There are some issues and considerations with this, but that’s another blog post.

I first noticed an interesting pattern when I set up our social media accounts. Facebook existed prior to my arrival, but it was hardly maintained. There was supposedly once a Twitter account, but no one (not even me) was able to find it. Now we’re present on the three majors for our demographic (Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook) as well as Pinterest and Periscope. Snapchat is a work in progress with the new Youth Director, whom I am trying not to overwhelm in his first month on board.

People immediately started engaging–to an extent–on Facebook. Likes and the occasional share are the norm over there. Twitter got a few retweets from staff and a volunteer here and there, but we still (three months later) have only about 10 followers. Instagram was absolutely dead (This, too, is another blog post). I’ve taken several steps to promote the accounts, including begging the staff members and vestry to follow and share, printing (yes, printing) social media cards to hand out at events, sharing content from other Episcopal churches, frantically liking anything related to the church or the local community or posted by parishioners, and strategically scheduling content so it’s consistent but not overwhelming. This is the reason Hootsuite exists, and I’m getting my money’s worth.

Nevertheless, the majority of parishioners who would attend events outside regular services are still not leaping onto the social media train. They do, however, pick up flyers and marketing cards from a junked up table in the hall that haunts my nightmares, and they do respond to anything printed in the Sunday bulletin. The pattern, then, was that the central body of people already interested in our events are “paper people.” Despite my inclination to say, “Yuck. Paper people,” it’s really an easy fix. Just go with classic printed materials and shoot for an updated, unified brand. Done. Fine.

Even social media is an easy fix, really. The key has been to connect with our youth ministry and young professionals group and encourage them to share and invite people to events. One of the great things about this parish is that it’s so open and welcoming. I’ve long been devoid of a religious identity of any kind, and working here did not prompt me to begin attending services regularly. However, any events I attend for the job or for fun have been inclusive and comfortable. This church has endless capacity to unite younger community members who lament amongst their close friends that, “There’s literally NOTHING to do around here.” Sure, it’s not the most exciting city in America; it will never be DC or Miami. At the same time, you play the hand you’re dealt. There’s something to do here nearly every night of the week so long as you aren’t looking for it to be groundbreaking. If you’re with the right people, it doesn’t have to be. With a good group of positive and accepting, warm and enthusiastic people, all you need is a place to be together.


That was my motivation for the strong social media push, to showcase the parish as a place for young people to unite and perhaps find a ministry or the faith they may have been seeking. Again, not a religious person myself, I did grow up Catholic so I am aware of the line between inviting people to explore and forcing dogma down their throats (Disclaimer: This was not the approach taken by the parish of my childhood). Even if someone is strong in their existing faith (no matter the source) or their lack thereof, this church’s focus on community outreach and improving the condition of humanity could still be appealing. Even if you don’t become a member or you are not a Christian, you can rest assured the people under this roof will treat you the same as if you did. That’s a strong message and one I have hoped to incorporate into the branding of this parish. My focus has been on building it as a beacon of the community, an omnipresent entity at any and all community events from the social and cultural to the political and philanthropic. The idea is to weave the church into the fiber of the city so intrinsically, it becomes expected we will be involved in anything that enhances, nurtures, or improves the community. Part of this is branding that is clean and subtle but recognizable and strong.

This is where the need to blow it all up begins.

After about a month of “feeling out the landscape”–seeing where the communication holes were, bandaging the immediate leaks, and collecting data on the larger breaches–I had all I needed to devise my plan. People had begun coming at me from several directions, asking for design work and presenting me with sad but well-intentioned Word documents in which they’d turned some text red, centered it, and deemed the whole thing “a flyer.” I immediately modernized and upgraded the look of these…things, and the feedback was positive to the point I was swimming in requests for marketing materials and branded items. Some of the requests would come via email; others were drop-ins to my office. Still others came in the form of tags on Facebook but not of the church’s account. I was being personally tagged in events volunteers wanted promoted. This was not good. I am not the face of this place, nor do I want to be.

In all cases, though, these requests came without ample time to create the quality of work I would like. In some circle of the underworld, there is an endless loop of last-minute promotions requests and people who are very, very bad in life have to sit at a desk and fill them through eternity. It’s no way to spend the afterlife. I would know; I did it for most of August. I was working on building positive relationships with people by honoring their requests while still using all the research and data I’d been compiling to formulate an efficient internal communications plan. Whereas places in which I’d done or assisted in this process before needed to consider only the staff members of an organization, our mission here includes the staff, the vestry, and a litany of volunteers from a variety of backgrounds. Luckily, our vestry includes primarily attorneys and business owners, so they are as easy to work with as the staff members. I can recycle communication strategies that worked in media, in sports, and in retail.

With the volunteers, however, it’s not so simple. Last week, I created a promotions request form. It’s nothing innovative or unheard of in the grander scale of the industry, but it is a first for here. I’m a big fan of change. I’ve never been afraid to take a risk or to try another way of doing things. While I was creating the form, I was so proud of myself, thinking, “Hell, yeah. I’m going to usher these volunteers into the 21st century and show them how much easier and less stressful life can be with a little organization and efficiency. I’m not sure if I’m just a genius or the queen of all geniuses. They’re going to thank me forever!”


Then I sent the form to our staff. A few were on board, but a few responded with, “Good luck getting them to use it.”

“Well,” I was still confident. “They’ll start using it when I show them how much easier it is than trying to remember everything they might need.”

Them: “They won’t know how to fill it out.”

Me: “Then I’ll show them. It’s easy.”

Them: “They’re still going to come to you with last minute stuff.”

Me: “Of course they are, but this will limit that to once in a while, and it will give me time to work in the surprises.”

Them: “Everyone will think their work is most important.”

Me: “And I will show them my timeline and work with them so they know I’ll get it done.”

Them: “No one is going to know the difference between a .jpg and a .pdf.”

Me: “Well, then I will hold a lunch and learn!”

Them: “They won’t come to it.”

Me: “Who doesn’t like free food? I’ll tie it to a ministry.”

Them: “They’ll still just come by and demand you help them immediately.

Me: “Then I’ll tell them to patiently wait in line.”

Them: “They won’t.”

Me: “Then they won’t get the work they ask for.”

Them: “They’ll do it themselves.”

Me: “And I will tear it down.”

You can see how my responses became increasingly more negative there. I’m not a negative person. Truth be told, I would hate telling a parish volunteer “no,” but I’ve also managed teenagers, taught undergraduates, and coached children. I can tell someone “no” with my head held high, spouting a strong and logical justification for denying the request. I believe in people’s ability to change, and I don’t think this process here is any different. I’m certain they’ll push back a bit, but after the third deleted Facebook tag or the second email response with a copy of the form saying, “Please fill this out and return it to me before I work on your items,” they’ll either get it or they won’t. If they get it, we are stronger and our output is more streamlined. If they don’t get it, they’ll find someone who does.

The plan now is to make the change and then facilitate the change. It’s what I would do anywhere else. I just had to learn a church doesn’t work all that differently. Communication is communication; the theories and practices hold up no matter the setting. If there is a God and she’s the CEO of this place, she’d most certainly want her business to run smoothly, wouldn’t she?


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