When the News is Good – by Rev. George Martin
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, Il (a Chicago suburb) responded to a free offer from Brick House Security, a company making GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) tracking devices. The church installed GPS devices on each of the figures in its outdoor nativity scene, including the Baby Jesus. The story received attention nationally (i.e. CBS and NBC) as well as in the Chicago media.
According to Rev. George Smith, rector of St. Mark’s, it gave him a great opportunity to talk about the significance of Christmas. “I got a chance to get the message out about the true meaning of the birth of Jesus,” he said. He posed to one reporter a question that he was asking himself, “If Jesus was stolen, and presuming the tracking device worked as it’s suppose to, would we find Jesus in a homeless shelter perhaps?”
At the end of Christmas no one had stolen any of the Nativity figures, but the story lingered on. The members of the church enjoyed the attention from the media. They had also been alerted by their rector through an email about the forthcoming media attention.
Not every story about the church in the wider media, of course, is framed in such a positive light. There are plenty of times when a church fight or conflict gets front-page news. Tragic events like a flood, a fire, or a hurricane can also thrust a church into the limelight of the media.
Most of the time, of course, what happens inside our church walls is ignored by the press. Reporters tend to seek sensational and controversial news stories.
“What’s new?” is actually a basic question that also interests reporters. The same question can apply to ministry in general, and in particular to things that may be happening in a church. To ask “What’s new?” is to frame the discussion about the future direction of the church as it looks at its past while starting to wonder about what God wants for them now. It’s also part of the task of interim ministry as a church considers how it should best frame its story or message to the wider community.
Sometimes an interim pastor comes into a church that is in real trouble, perhaps after some conflict or disaster. In other cases the congregation may have simply run out of gas, and now finds itself adrift. No matter what the situation, there is a basic kind of Public Relations (PR) question that must first be asked internally. “What is the message?” It must be asked again and again.
When those planes flew into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 everyone in America was forced to confront a new message about our safety and security. Many churches immediately responded by throwing open the doors of their church, and holding services within hours of that event. One Lutheran pastor said, “The church was full that night as we gathered in candlelight.” There was a strong message that church offered to its community by holding that service.
An interim pastor is in a unique position to help a church look at the way it relates to its wider community and particularly what steps it takes to share its story. Often the first step is to send out a press release.
In one interim pastorate I asked the secretary for a list of the local newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations. I had written a press release about the new educational series that was starting. A blank look came across her face. There was no such list. It was a problem easy to solve. Before long we sent out the press release. Even though it was just the local newspaper that ran the story, the church was back in the news, so to speak.
Sometimes a church has really good news to share with the wider community. I was in a church that thought it’s capital fund raising campaign was dead in the waters. Then, out of the blue, a member of the church said his family was willing to make a one million dollar challenge gift. I checked with the donor about announcing this gift. They would remain anonymous, but we could make a public announcement of the gift.
We alerted all in the parish that some major news was coming, and that we’d be holding a press conference on a particular day. We sent press releases to the local media. Follow-up phone calls assured us that reporters with print, radio, and television would come. A “Fact Sheet” was prepared to hand to the reporters. As the pastor of the church I made the announcement about the gift and along with the lay leader of the congregation answered questions. That evening and the next day it was the featured story in the community. It was the story that helped change a great many things about that church, and its visibility in the wider community.
There are also good issues that the media wants to talk about which a church can respond to in a positive way. There were a number of churches, for example, which offered classes discussing the controversy stirred up by the movie The Davinci Code. Another church found itself engaged in a controversy regarding a stone tablet featuring the Ten Commandments located in a public park. The response of the church was its offer to have the monument on its church property.
One of the basic rules in the world of public relations is that you want the members of the organization to know what’s happening as well as your boss. A basic practice rule is to first alert the members of the church about the news story that is being sent out to the media.
The second rule, especially in denominational churches is to inform the synod or diocesan office. Once a story is out in the media, whether it is a good or bad story, we have no control on who might be interviewed. A reporter might call a member of the church or go directly to the Bishop. Whoever gets called ought to be able to say, “I knew about this story.”
In the final analysis the question is “Who tells the story?” The Christian proclamation from day one is that we have a story to tell about the way God is working through our lives. We’ve always needed to use the right words and to frame the story in a way that accomplishes the most good. Many an interim pastor can help a church with this part of its ministry.