Communication in the Parish and Life
A frequent concern of churches I pastor as interim is communication. Below are some principles of communication in a church setting which also apply to life.
1) Different people in the church get information in different ways. If a message is important, use many methods of communicating (newsletter, Sunday bulletin, announcements, bulletin board/kiosk, and special calls/mailings). It is nearly impossible to get the message out too much. It might seem that way to church leadership, but often “overcoverage” is just enough to get the news through to the fringes of the church.
2) Never depend on informal word of mouth or “the grapevine” for spreading information. My experience is that if you don’t try to use “the grapevine,” it often works well (sometimes too well!). But if you seriously do try to use “the grapevine” to convey a message, it will disappoint you every time in terms of people reached and final content.
3) For a message or announcement always assign a contact person for questions or further information. If a newsy message for the parish is without such, much time can be spent tracking down its source to learn details.
4) Anonymous letters, phone calls, etc. of a negative sort are best handled by not responding or reacting (throw away or delete). Given credence, such messages tend to multiply, causing much difficulty in the church. Signed messages can be addressed in private with the individual, or publicly, if the message warrants such attention.
5) Be wary of conveying messages. Never convey an anonymous message from someone to a third party even under the aegis of confidentiality. Ask the person to convey his or her own message, especially criticisms. In exceptional circumstances, ask to convey the critical message in that person’s name. If the person refuses both avenues, either make the message your own and convey as yours without mentioning the source, or decline to convey the message. Conveying a message (especially an anonymous one) can leave the messenger wide open to criticism by the recipient (the “shoot the messenger” principle) or by the source (“You conveyed my message wrong!”) See Peter Steinke below for more information on “triangulation” (getting caught in the middle)
6) Never pass on a rumor in gossip. Many times, the message is distorted or blatantly untrue. Instead, encourage the source to talk directly to the relevant person or organization criticized. On the other hand, ask to be allowed to pass on all compliments heard or overheard as freely and as accurately as possible, including their source.
7) When communicating, use “I” language expressing opinions i.e. “I feel bad because…”, or “I think this is important because” rather than bold declarations about what is or isn’t so. When listening be prepared to restate back what you have heard in your own words. This helps the speaker know you are listening and understanding. Most of interpersonal communication is body language and tone; a relatively small percentage is the actual words used. Be respectful in tone and body language as you speak and listen.
8) If communication begins to break down, consider mediation. Time is of essence: address the breakdown as soon as possible before situations deteriorate further. Either find a person in the church skilled at facilitation or hire a professional mediator. Resolution is simple at the early stages of a conflict, but often impossible even with a mediator as a conflict escalates.
Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue Edwin H. Friedman Guilford Press 1985
How Your Church Family Works Peter Steinke Alban Institute 1993 esp. pp.44-52