Communicating in a Christian institution requires a willingness to have faith in the best intentions of the people around us who assess our every move in a socially networked world, says L. Gregory Jones.
A well-known institution is in crisis. Students are protesting, occupying the president’s office. Time to call a press conference, read a prepared statement and hope for the best in the next morning’s newspaper.
The community has another vision for how the conflict plays out. Students videotape the press conference and stream it on the Web. Others live-blog while the statement is being read. The institution has lost before the press conference begins, planning for a communications world that no longer exists.
Does this pattern of communications sound frustratingly familiar? Christian institutions have tended to view communications as an afterthought when sharing good news -- if they have remembered to spread the word at all. And in times of bad news? The default focus has been defense, hiding behind prepared statements and vice presidents for communications.
We continue to take this reactive approach at our own peril. Too often, considering how to communicate about a crisis or a conflict -- or even an exciting new ministry -- doesn’t begin until after a decision is made. Yet, to be effective, communications strategies must begin at the beginning. It is certainly the responsibility of a leader to communicate effectively. But it is also that leader’s responsibility to create a learning culture in which every member of the organization is equipped and then empowered to carry the message on the organization’s behalf.
We fear giving away control -- not only to our staffs, but also to such tools as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs. But even though the world of communications has changed, this is not in fact control we’ve ever had. We’ve never followed our staffs or congregants into the world to see and correct moment-to-moment how effectively they carry our message as disciples. We have faith -- faith in our message, faith in our community and faith in the Holy Spirit.
Embracing a more strategic vision for Christian communications requires a posture of interpretive charity. And that begins with active listening and empathy. Jacqueline Novogratz doesn’t use the phrase, but does describe this phenomenon in “The Blue Sweater.” Novogratz is the founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, which uses entrepreneurial approaches to address global poverty. In the book, she describes a visit to Rwanda, where she spoke with a group of women.
“I began to understand that I could have listened better, for listening is not just having the patience to wait, it is also learning how to ask the questions themselves,” Novogratz writes. Later, she says, “I’ve learned that people usually tell you the truth if you listen hard enough. If you don’t, you’ll hear what they think you want to hear.”
We don’t usually start conversations by taking care to ask questions charitably and then listen attentively, do we? We assume we know what the other is going to say, and we think it is usually negative. We anticipate the whining, the complaining, the pleas to bring back “the good old days.”
You may be right about what you expect to hear at your denomination’s annual meeting. But consider how differently the conversation might unfold if you paused to ask: Who are my constituencies, and what do they think and feel about pressing issues? Are there others who share this view? How might we change our decision-making process to account for this point of view?
In improvisational theater, if another actor says something you don’t like, you can “block” it, but that ends the skit. Sam Wells, dean of Duke Chapel, suggests what he calls “overaccepting,” which is to take what the other says and reframe it into a larger context that enables the conversation to move forward.
It is possible, from a posture of interpretive charity, to appreciate meaningful disagreements. In “Going to Extremes,” author Cass Sunstein writes that people who are actually not very far apart in views diverge even more when they spend time with people who think like themselves. We assume that the other is the one who has become more extreme -- but we have, as well.
Meaningful disagreements, in which we learn to understand the other’s point of view so clearly we can repeat it back to him, clarify our own thinking and help us see our own blind sides. In Christian community, we love -- not demonize -- those who disagree or spread incorrect information. We keep the door open for productive relationships by loving our enemies.
Enemies are different from antagonists, and understanding the distinction is critical. Enemies are those with strong and passionate views. Antagonists intend harm and actually want to tear apart the fabric of our institutions. As the church, we tend to be too nice to antagonists and let them take over a conversation. We can’t exclude them, but we can allow them only on the sidelines. We do not need to respond to every ill-considered critique that flows from an antagonist’s lips.
But that is our impulse -- our own as individual leaders and our church’s -- to concentrate on that one loud voice. Doing so muddles our messages and alienates the many quieter voices in our midst. Instead of caving in to that antagonist, why not seek out meaningful disagreements with people or networks who are motivated by a love of the institution?
The very heart of our work is to spread the good news, to share this vision of the reign of God and help the members of our community see the part they can play in feeding the hungry, serving the poor, healing the sick and seeking justice. We have a story to tell, and we can’t afford to let others define the agenda.
Our work is not done when the crisis has passed or the new initiative has begun. We should always ask: Did we reach the people we needed to reach? Did we communicate what we needed to communicate? Did we listen? Did we make an impact? Can we learn from our mistakes?
If we don’t ask those questions, we can be confident that people in the blogosphere will.
Kelly Gilmer contributed to this reflection.