Getting Started: Ryan Spilhaus

Getting Started: Ryan Spilhaus

September 24, 2012 by

Ryan Spilhaus spent over four years at McLean Bible Church in Northern Virginia in a variety of church communication roles. “I worked with some incredible people, learned how to do ministry (and how not to do ministry), and taught myself web design,” Ryan says. These days he’s taking a break from church communications and working as a web designer with Cstraight Media. He also blogs with “remarkable infrequency” at

What’s the one thing you wish you had known when you were getting started in church communication?

Ryan Spilhaus: That good and “cool” communications aren’t the end goal—changed lives are. When you’re coming into church communications typically one of your first reactions is to try to change pretty much everything. A lot of times that’s a noble aim, but sometimes we can be a bit overzealous at the price of relationships. You have to learn to recognize when you’re doing something because it’s cool, or because it will be genuinely effective.

There’s a lot of pressure and expectations on a new communications person at a church. How do you handle the stress and pressure, especially for someone just learning the ropes?

Ryan: Don’t hole up in your office—get out and spend time with people. Whether it’s other staff members, volunteers or regular members of the congregation. Not only will you get to see another side of what’s going on around you and what God is doing with the church, but you’ll also meet and build relationships with people who can help you out when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Also, it’s incredibly important to build in time where you disconnect from work. It’s really easy to burn out if you don’t take time to turn off your smartphone and your laptop and recharge—mentally and spiritually. Not enough people establish an “email free” time. I’m probably the only web designer in America without a smartphone, but I love not constantly feeling like I have to check and respond to things that really aren’t urgent—and my wife appreciates it too!

If a church is just starting to get serious about communication, where should they start?

Ryan: Right where you are. It’s great to devour as many resources as you can, but in the end no other situation is exactly like yours. What works for someone else might fail miserably in your context. So  definitely spend time on communications blogs and CFCC projects, but then spend time figuring out how the principles can be applied to your situation instead of just carbon-copying the tactics without thinking about the context.

What was your first great success as a church communicator?

Ryan: I think the biggest success I had was more of a personal one. After starting out as a sort of “generalist” communications assistant, I eventually taught myself web design/development and was able to utilize those skills to do things that we had in the past either had to pay for or just plain weren’t able to do. So on a personal level it was great because I was developing new skills (and eventually got a new job as web director) and was helping us to accomplish things we hadn’t even thought of before.

What was your first great failure? What lessons did you learn?

Ryan: I think generally any time I thought I was going to come in and make sweeping unilateral changes to something, I failed. Even when your way makes sense, is more logical, cost-effective and just plain “better” (at least in your eyes)—if you don’t have the stakeholder engagement and buy-in you need, you’ll almost always fail. I think too often we make decisions and plan things in a church communications bubble without getting outside perspective. When you wall yourself and your team off and refuse to listen to or interact with the other ministries and people in your church on a collaborative level, you aren’t going to get much done except frustrate and annoy people—who will then turn around and frustrate and annoy you. Silos are great for groupthink, but bad for ministry.

How do you deal with congregations that are stuck in a ‘That’s how we’ve always done it,’ mindset and are resistant to trying new things?

Ryan: Showing people why they are “doing it wrong” almost never works. The best way to change perceptions is to show people how good it can be. Start with the small things around the outside. You may not be able to change your bulletin or website right away, but you can start getting individual ministries really excited about what you’re doing by helping them out. There might not be much “glory” at first, but it will pay off as you build a group of ministries and ministry leaders who are supportive of what you’re trying to accomplish because they’ve seen firsthand how good it is.

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Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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One Response to “Getting Started: Ryan Spilhaus”

  • J Fleming
    October 16, 2012

    That’s a lot of good advice, Ryan. Thanks for sharing. I think the most helpful comments are your answers to the last two questions.

    When God moved me into this job, I wasn’t sure why. When I got here it surprised me how laborious their processes were and how seemingly backward things seemed in relation to their publications and media offerings. With a graphic design background, I couldn’t help but try to encourage a few changes, regardless of the fact that I wasn’t hired as a graphic designer or a communications guru. Now after nearly three years, my job description doesn’t begin to reflect what I spend most of my time doing.

    After lots of prayer and planning, I started to show them what could be done with some of the outdated design software I had on a personal computer at home. There’s no way I could have explained how important Adobe CS was to my creative workflow without examples. Every church creative knows that the people who make the decisions would have had their eyes riveted in horror on the price tag – I had to show them what it could do – how it would benefit them. Eventually, with God’s help, I was able to show them how updating their image would bring in the demographic they wanted.

    Now, I have molded the job into something that better fits my skill set. In addition to the job description I was hired to accomplish, I have been given the opportunity to be responsible for numerous design and communication related tasks, all because I was bold enough to use the skill set that God had given me in a way that said “here’s one option of doing things” to the management instead of insisting they were doing things wrongly or that their way of doing things were old fashioned. Had I hopped into this job expecting them to drop their way of doing things in favor of “the industry standard way”, doors would have slammed shut.

    I don’t expect this job to ever be comparable to something in the secular world – we just don’t have the resources to purchase a large format printer or one of those fancy paper cutters that takes three fingers to operate, but we do have enough resources to effectively raise Jesus Christ’s name high, and that’s why I like this thankless job. I can use these abilities and these tools to further a message of hope.

    And I’m grateful for great church communication resources such as this website. When I start to feel alone in it all, I do some research and find that though I may not have anyone to bounce creative ideas off of here in the office, there are lots of church creatives out there who are willing to help.

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