How to Overcome Dysfunctional Church Communication

How to Overcome Dysfunctional Church Communication

June 9, 2014 by

When I stepped into my current position as communication director for a large church in the Midwest, I had been a congregant in the pews for close to 10 years. I knew what I loved about my church’s communications, and I knew what I would like to see improved.  I was eager to roll up my sleeves and get to work!

It wasn’t long into my first weeks on staff when the honeymoon phase started to fade. I became aware of some glaring areas where things weren’t quite—um—functional.

No one had overseen the church’s communication in a leadership capacity for several years. In the void, a number of small issues had grown to become significant issues. I realized that gently pulling these weeds out would need to be my first priority.

Dysfunction #1: Lack of Trust
My three-person staff had seen three senior pastors and multiple leadership models. During their 10-plus-year tenure, the philosophy regarding church communication had swung from one extreme (a vendor mentality where the various “client” ministries dictated what was most important) to the other (full empowerment to the team to decide what should get the most exposure) and back again.

Good-hearted, godly individuals, my inherited staff carried a decade of relational baggage and scars from the wounds of change. The result was a toxic culture of mistrust and cynicism. They frequently assumed that ministry motives were self-serving, and were frustrated that they weren’t being trusted as the experts in their areas.

I focused on building strong horizontal relationships with ministry leaders and casting a new vision with my team for what the communication department could become. As I did, I was regularly greeted with the refrain, “Yeah, we’ve tried that. It didn’t work.”

To combat the deep roots of negativity I did one-on-one coaching with each person, brought in a consultant coach and as a team we worked on bridge-building with some of the key stakeholders on staff. Over time we made a little progress in this area, but not much.

There were many days when I went home feeling like I was fighting a losing battle. Frankly, if this was the marketing agency I owned earlier in my career, I would have let go of all three early on and started over with a clean slate. But it’s not that easy in a church setting (can I get an amen?). The whole grace thing must be factored in as well. (Sigh.)

Thankfully, we serve a good God who works in mysterious ways. Over the course of 18 months, all three found jobs elsewhere and are thriving in their new positions. My new staff are free of historical baggage and are absolutely amazing in their positive attitudes. As a result, our church’s ministries actually enjoy working with my team and we have a solid culture of trust.

Dysfunction #2:  Ministry Silos
Over the last several years our church has gone through organizational streamlining. We went from 22 pastors overseeing two dozen ministry areas down to 12 pastors overseeing five ministry “hubs”: adults, children/family, students, mission/serve and core (which covers the weekend worship ministries, among other areas).

I observed that there was a surprising lack of understanding across the hubs regarding what others were doing. This resulted in ministries clamoring for communication visibility and competing with each other for attention. It also resulted in valuable opportunities lost for cross-promotion or collaboration.

My strategy for addressing this was two-fold: 1) to become a conduit for cross-ministry communication myself wherever possible; and 2) to provide environments where these cross-hub conversations could happen more naturally.

The really big win was establishing an annual all-ministry Preview Day. About 40 representatives from across all the hubs—as well as our communications, operations and database teams—gather for a day in April to hear all of our ministries share what they are planning in the coming ministry year. At this meeting, the communications team harvests tons of great information for the year ahead, and collaborative connections across the ministries are identified early. Bonus: We are able to become advocates for each others’ ministries!

Dysfunction #3: A Lack of Defined Priorities
As I already mentioned, for several years the many church ministries had been competing for communication bandwidth. The squeakiest wheels and tightest personal relationships yielded the highest visibility in church-wide communications. This understandably led to inconsistency, resentments and communication clutter.

Following a model suggested by Kem Meyer in her indispensable church communication field guide Less Clutter. Less Noise., I constructed a decision-making matrix to determine what types of initiatives would receive high, medium and light emphasis. I established qualifiers based on church values and priorities, and then asked all the hub leaders to sign off on the matrix. Endorsement by all of these leaders was key; that way when one of their own requests didn’t get the airtime they hoped, I could point to our earlier conversations and the matrix for the reason why. Because I had focused first on building relationships with these ministry leaders, this task was not as monumental as you might expect.

Relationships Win
You may have noticed that the common solution to addressing all of these dysfunctions was relationships. I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise… after all, God wants us to be his Church and one-to-one relationships are his basic building blocks. I’m particularly grateful for the senior leaders at our church who have opened doors to help me forge important relationships and empowered me to make important decisions. I can’t imagine tackling any of these issues without their support.

The common solution to addressing all of these dysfunctions was relationships.

Two years later, many of the dysfunctions hampering good communication at our church have been weeded out. I am happy to say that, because of a shared love of our church and broader kingdom values, lots of good communication and design work was accomplished during this time, in spite of all the sticky spots.

And I am thoroughly energized to see where God leads our church next. We are ready!

Photo by Colin McCloskey.
Post By:

Karen Shay-Kubiak

Karen Shay-Kubiak is director of communications for Elmbrook Church, a single-campus megachurch located in Southeast Wisconsin. She is also a closet tech geek who loves things like Evernote, online forms, project management systems and anything else that promises to help her squeeze more out of a day's 24 hours.
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6 Responses to “How to Overcome Dysfunctional Church Communication”

  • Katie
    June 9, 2014

    This is exactly the problem I have been having. I didn’t know how to think out of the box. Who would have thought the box was the relationship problem… in church?!

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    • Karen Shay-Kubiak
      June 25, 2014

      @Katie — I know, right??? Someone far wiser than I am suggested that I address interpersonal conflict by first looking at the heart issues. (Matthew 5:23-24)

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  • Claire
    June 10, 2014

    Karen – Thanks for your post. It’s really helpful. I’m wondering how you serve as a conduit for cross-ministry communication. We’re recognizing the need for that since our Communications Team tends to have a better idea what’s going on across ministries/campuses than our ministry staff. What have you found that’s worked effectively and efficiently?

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    • Karen Shay-Kubiak
      June 25, 2014

      @Claire, I’m so glad you found the info helpful!

      Three ways I’ve found to become a conduit in our organization:
      1) I invite myself to a lot of planning meetings. :-) When I was new to staff and still building trust, I offered to participate as a fly-on-the-wall observer to help me become an advocate for ministries’ initiatives. This was an easy ask, as you can imagine.
      2) We’ve built it into our project management templates in Basecamp that any church-wide requests with high emphasis include a kickoff meeting between myself, a ministry representative, our project manager and the person on our team who will be responsible for executing the request.
      3) I made the ask of our senior pastor (when I was relatively new to staff and could still plead ignorance of boundaries) to participate periodically in meetings where our hub pastors were gathered. As I mentioned in the article, I was blessed with great support from him and others from the get-go.

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  • Leigh
    June 14, 2014

    I love the idea of a ministry-wide conversation on ministry plans for the year in order to collaborate and prioritize. How was that presented, and how much lead-time did you give your leaders to prepare?

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  • Karen Shay-Kubiak
    June 25, 2014

    Leigh, I forgot to answer your second question. I gave the ministries about 3 weeks to complete the worksheets. This was necessary because our preview day follows close on the heels of other internal planning deadlines.

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