Do churches operate on need-to-know?

Do churches operate on need-to-know?

Churches should remember that telling the truth and trusting the people is the best policy, experts say.

By Vicki Brown

Many churches have cut back the number of business meetings held each year. Some have scaled back publications — particularly mailed-out print versions. 

Some large churches with communications staff or a department have eliminated them or severely reduced their resources.

Does communication make much difference in churches? Can’t most members find out what they need or want to know? The complex answer often boils down to the distinction between “need” and “want” — and who controls the desired information.

Sensitive personal matters — and confidential pastoral counseling sessions — should be protected, but keeping members informed and facilitating communication at all levels within a congregation must be nurtured, church-health expert Bill Wilson believes.

Doesn’t just happen

“Communication gets off-track internally first ... because we just assume communication will happen,” noted Wilson, president of the Center for Congregational Health based in Winston-Salem, N.C. The center offers communication training for church leaders.

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“When people think of upgrading communications, they talk about the mechanics,” he added. Early on, center staff thought in those terms as well, until they realized “just giving people more tools doesn’t get to the issue.”

Church conflict can contribute to communication breakdown. As a center consultant, Wilson assists congregations with conflict management. Often the first comments he hears from members are complaints such as: “We just don’t know what’s going on,” or “The pastor only talks to certain people.”

“Most clergy don’t do this (communicate) well. We encourage them to talk with someone in their church or someone they know who works as a publicist, in public relations or who is a communications person,” he said.

“They have to start with the understanding that communication is not: ‘Can you preach a sermon, write a column or post a blog?’”

Truth in love

Pastors and staff, lay leaders and church members in general need to rethink what “communication” means. Wilson challenges them to consider what the Bible teaches. Pointing to John 1:1, he said, “Jesus is the Word. ... God is conveying truth to people, and he uses several ways to communicate.” 

Part of the problem is today’s “low-trust kind of culture,” Wilson acknowledged.

The Bible commands believers to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), which means they do not have the option to keep quiet. They also must make sure the truth can be determined. Then they must express that truth in Christ-like love, which “is the hardest one of all,” he said.

The broader culture often contributes to the way people respond at church, Wilson believes. The Bible calls Christians to rebuke and exhort one another, as well as to be tenderhearted, forgiving and gentle. 

But believers watch the news and listen to political commentators who build their careers as provocateurs. Christians hear “snarky” news presentations and then they “throw verbal hand-grenades in church meetings,” he added. 

Wade Burleson, senior pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., believes church leaders should be transparent and most information should be available to members who want it. 

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“Full, open transparency is essential for a good congregation,” he said.

Facilitate openness

How can church leaders cultivate openness and transparency? How can congregations learn to communicate internally? 

Members often nod their heads in agreement at business meetings, in the hallways or at events, and then express their feelings in other venues. 

“We tend to wait until there is a major issue before we realize we need to learn to communicate,” Wilson said.

“How can we bring the parking lot conversation into the church? How can we have an honest, transparent meeting and still walk away from it as brothers and sisters?”

Burleson believes members should ask questions and attend meetings. Church staff, including pastors, should be proactive if they discover a problem.

Once in a church he led, Burleson discovered a group of members who questioned a decision. Members did not ask him about it directly. Instead, they chose to meet to discuss the issue. 

When Burleson discovered their plan, he contacted the leader and offered to meet with them, answer their questions and provide any additional information they wanted. He was able to satisfy the group’s need.

The larger or more complex a church is, the more difficult communication might become, Glenn Akins, Baptist General Convention of Virginia assistant executive director, believes. He is a member of Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond, a multi-site congregation.

Akins generally takes a business approach to church governance. “The larger and more complex a church is, the more members must rely on the management” in whatever form that takes — lead pastor, executive pastor or group of elders. “But there must be some level of transparency or accountability built in,” he said.

“It gets muddy when laypeople get down into management,” which is more evident in larger churches. “They can’t have every layleader involved in personnel management,” he said.

Akins also believes most church members, at least at Bon Air, are not interested in decisionmaking, but they do want to be informed about the decisions that are made.

“My experience as a pastor was that you could get most any information as long as you didn’t go beyond the understood boundaries,” Wilson said. In Baptist life, each congregation develops its own boundaries.

Based upon his ministry in the local church and now as a consultant, he said the old adage, “‘Tell the truth and trust the people,’ really does work most of the time.”