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July 2, 2009

Special report on the church and communications: Communicating effectively in the contemporary world - The new communications technologies -- The greatest challenges the church meets in communicating its message

In this edition:

1. Leadership inseparable from effective communication.
2. Interactive Web site will promote discussion and learning among priests.
3. Benefits of new communications technology for the church.
4. Tony Blair's address in Philadelphia: A church that communicates.
5. Bishop Kicanas outlines church communications challenges.
6. Grasping the moment and filling the vacuum - authentically.
7. How to communicate - and how "not" to communicate.

1. Leadership Inseparable From Effective Communication

"Effective communication is inseparable from effective leadership," according to Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. The NLRCM's June 24-26 annual meeting in Philadelphia focused on the challenge for today's church to communicate effectively.

I attended the NLRCM meeting and want to devote this edition of the jknirp.com newsletter to the discussions that took place there because they seemed uniquely valuable for the church's life in communities everywhere. After all, the church in so many ways, on so many levels is always a communicator. Perhaps this edition, then, might be called a "special report" on the church and communications.

Robinson said in an interview that the church today is challenged to communicate its teaching "in a way that is always relevant to Catholics, whatever their specific circumstances are." In the church's communications endeavors, "what one communicates and how one communicates" both are important, she commented.

The church has a responsibility "to incorporate the best practices, the highest standards of excellence, the most effective vehicles of communication and the most astute communications advisers in order to be out in front managing the church's message proactively, not defensively," Robinson said.

Ways the church might capitalize on advances in communications technology represented a key point of interest for participants in the NLRCM gathering.

The NLRCM brings leaders in business, the world of finance, education, philanthropy and other areas together with bishops, pastors, religious superiors and lay leaders in church-related organizations for discussions of key issues that concern the management of the church's temporal affairs.

2. Interactive Web Site to Promote Discussions, Learning Among Priests

I spoke during the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management meeting in Philadelphia with Jim Dubik, a retired, three-star Army lieutenant general. He is spearheading the NLRCM's development of an interactive Web site it hopes to launch by the end of 2009 to facilitate discussions among U.S. priests on matters of common concern like financial management, parish councils, effective ways to serve as a leader and even spiritual development.

The planned Web site has not yet been named, but Dubik describes it as a "virtual community of practice." He emphasized that the extensive consultations underlying this project's development ensure that the Web site will be "designed by pastors for pastors."

Dubik commented that priests already are a community among themselves and that the new interactive Web site will "give their community a virtual face."

Once it is launched, priests who log onto the site will be able to ask questions and share ideas, or experiences, or stories. The hope, as Dubik expressed it, is that by connecting priests in this manner "the good things going on" in many parishes can become "grist for learning in other parishes struggling in those areas."

In other words, the interactive site will offer priests an opportunity to speak with each other and to learn from one another. At times, for example, a question may be posted on the site such as, "How have you improved fund-raising?" Priests who log on will be able to share struggles they've experienced in this area, as well as success stories and valuable insights acquired through fund-raising efforts in their own communities.

So discussion is one important component of the Web site that is being developed for priests. And Dubik said there is a hope "once we mature this site" of providing "a similar kind of virtual community for lay leaders."

3. Benefits for the Church in New Communications Technologies

With "effective communications" as their meeting's theme, it isn't surprising that numerous participants in the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management's annual gathering turned attention to the new communications technologies.

The church "is moving along in some imaginative ways" in utilizing the Internet and new technologies, said Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities and secretary of the Leadership Roundtable's board of directors. But the church "still has far to go," he commented in an interview.

Butler said it seems sometimes that "changes in the tech world are almost too fast for the church's leadership to fully appreciate and utilize." At the same time, he noted, "Catholic publishers have some impressive Web-based offerings," the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops now features "an Internet resource on marriage and the family," and Pope Benedict XVI "has a new U-Tube channel."

Butler believes the benefits of the contemporary communications media for the church's mission have not been tapped fully. He explained:

"We now have the ability to connect our dioceses and parishes across the country with the rest of our Catholic institutions like colleges, social-service organizations and schools to work together for the first time and to share best practices and tackle common challenges facing Catholicism. But we are a long way from doing this just now."

Several participants in the NLRCM meeting insisted that a caring attitude is a key ingredient of effective church communications. Butler concurred and said, "You can't be heard unless the perception is there that you care about those with whom you are communicating."

Trust "plays a major role in whether people will be willing to listen" to the messages one hopes to communicate, according to Butler. Trust arises "from a conviction that the one talking has the humility to recognize that communication is not only two-way and 10 ways," but that each person's "gifts and talents are respected and welcomed," he said.

4. Tony Blair's Address in Philadelphia: A Church That Communicates

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed the National Leadership Roundtable's annual meeting in Philadelphia where he spoke, sometimes quite humorously, on the complex demands of communicating effectively in today's "transformed world" - a world that in communications terms has become "a different planet almost."

"Clarity of direction" and strong, but not arrogant, belief serve leaders well in communicating, Blair suggested. He said that people with "a clarity of direction" tend to be the ones who get their message across. While church leaders and communicators should avoid arrogance and should not forget faith's "essential humility," they should nonetheless be motivated by an inner conviction "that shines through," Blair said.

Teaching is important, Blair observed, but he insisted it is a spirit of love, compassion and service that draws others. Several times he urged church communicators to boldly proclaim the church's record in practicing the works of mercy and to call attention to the church's compassionate service in the world.

Blair became a Catholic in late 2007. He spoke in Philadelphia of his "very personal journey" into the church, saying that becoming Catholic brought him a sense of pride and "of homecoming."

He has been rereading St. Paul's letters, Blair said. Communicating effectively "was a tough business" even in Paul's days, he observed. Today, however, "the environment and context" in which leaders communicate "is dramatically different." A chief characteristic of this world is the "pace" at which messages are communicated and the extent of their "spread," Blair said.

Blair discussed the challenge of communications that involve acknowledging a problem, something gone wrong. There will be problems in a transparent, open world "because people are human," but there is "no point in thinking we can hide away," he counseled. Yet, leaders should seek a balance when problems arise, Blair said.

The balance he had in mind means acknowledging what went wrong, but pointing out where things "go right." For church leaders, he added, it means constantly being "out there" talking about the church's "central purpose."

5. Bishop Kicanas Outlines Church Communications Challenges

Participants in the annual meeting of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management in Philadelphia appeared to be in basic agreement that the address to them by Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., successfully got to the heart of the matter in capturing the church's communications challenge as it exists today. He is vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bishop Kicanas told the meeting he enjoys theater and commented on its relevance for communicators. "Great actors and actresses communicate," he said. "The language of theater needs to be crisp, punctuated with images and to resonate with feeling," he explained.

Similar qualities are needed in effective church communications, Bishop Kicanas proposed, though he cautioned that "the greatest blow to the integrity of the church's message and its effectiveness occurs when those who deliver that message are simply play-acting."

Five ingredients of effective church communications were presented by Bishop Kicanas. He said:

1. "Those telling the story must themselves be taken up by it. They must embody the story, live it."

2. "The church's message is best communicated succinctly with emotion and color, and in concrete language people understand and that engages them."

3. "The church, like theater, faces competing messages. The church has to light up its marquee, as it were, to entice people to come in to hear its story and be transformed by it. Technology can help deliver the church's message."

4. "While modern techniques and technology must be incorporated, these important tools are not the message nor alone can they deliver that message effectively, either on the stage or in the church. They can only assist."

5. "In dioceses and parishes it is important to create a 'climate of candor.'"

The church should not hesitate "to engage the modern digital technologies," which "can be vehicles for communicating," Bishop Kicanas told the meeting. Given recent advances in communications technology, he noted how people today Twitter and blog, e-mail, use Skype, Blackberries and I-phones, and choose Facebook partners. Still, he said, "communication, while enhanced by technology, rests on the power of the message and the authenticity of the communicator."

In other words, what technology does is to facilitate "the fundamental desire" people have to communicate and engage one another, Bishop Kicanas believes.

The bishop delivered a clear message to church leaders and communicators cautioning them not to fall short through the use of "abstract, theoretical, disembodied language."

He said, "Sometimes I sense that in our efforts as church to be clear, to articulate the truth, we fail to use language in our communication that engages. People get lost in verbiage and concepts that leave them cold and unaffected."

People "hope to find some deeper meaning" in the concrete world in which they find themselves, Bishop Kicanas remarked. The church, he added, "holds that meaning, but it must be communicated." He said it is essential "to grow more comfortable and skilled" at communicating with a world that has little patience for "the abstract theoretical language which we are accustomed to speak."

Bishop Kicanas urged the Leadership Roundtable to "help the church at every level to acquire and become proficient in communications and information technology" and to help it "develop interactive forms of communication that engage others, especially the young."

At the same time, conversion "underlies communication of the word and makes that communication convincing," the bishop said. The type of communication that "influences, convinces, changes lives" has to begin "by taking on the person of Christ."

The church's great communications challenge today is "to capture the attention, keep the interest of people who have so many places to turn" and who constantly are addressed by competing messages, said Bishop Kicanas.

6. Grasping the Moment and Filling the Vacuum - Authentically

I spoke about effective communications with Susan King, vice president for public affairs at the Carnegie Corporation of America foundation, who participated in the June 24-26 National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management meeting in Philadelphia. She is an NLRCM board member.

"Good communications on any front are authentic in sound and not sprinkled with obvious spin," King said. She also thinks that "church leaders often have an authentic spiritual side and a spiritual vocabulary that is very real to them, but can be difficult for people in this secular world to grasp."

King said that leaders trying to reach others "must not focus only on what they want to say and what they want to accomplish, although that is crucial." Leaders "must also see where their audience is, identify with the mood and culture of that audience, and meet their audience where they live." Thus, King explained, "you can't talk to business leaders as if they are business-school students or to college students as if they are high-schoolers."

A "real opportunity" has emerged for church communicators "in this information-glut age," King proposed -- the opportunity "for a voice to emerge that is spiritual, authentic, gentle and powerful," and "meets people where they are."

She described the present moment as a "time of great change and pain" for people. Yet, she said, this moment offers the church an opportunity to "connect directly" -- to talk with people "about unemployment, values, greed, trust and the need to find your way in a constantly renewed world."

King suspects that "in the confusion of the economic collapse and restructured world, there is a yearning for a quiet and a spirituality." Church leaders, she concluded, "must grasp this moment and fill the vacuum - authentically."

7. How to Communicate - and How "Not" to Communicate

Tom Peterson, founder and president of Catholics Come Home.org, believes that today's "consumer-driven society" is highly suspect "of market come-ons and schemes." People are just waiting for someone to trick them, he said. So he believes communicators in the church must "show people that we care about them."

In an interview he quoted the well-known aphorism that states, "No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

Peterson and Catholics Come Home received the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management's annual Best Practices Award June 26 in Philadelphia. The NLRCM recognized the organization's effective use of media, particularly TV ads, to invite Catholics who have drifted away from the church or left it for a specific reason and others who never were Catholic to make the church's acquaintance today. And the award honored Peterson for bringing skills honed during an earlier, 25-year advertising career to Catholics Come Home.

Peterson discussed effective communication and effective evangelization in an interview. He wants empathy and sincerity to characterize the TV ad campaigns developed by Catholics Come Home. And he advises church communicators that both creativity and relevance are important in effective communications.

"Putting forth a creative message in a relevant way is paramount," Peterson said of the work he does. But creativity is not sufficient in itself, he suggested. He doesn't want people merely to say of the TV ads his organization develops, "Oh, isn't that nice."

But compassion is essential in effective communications, Peterson said. "We really need to put ourselves in the shoes, the mind-set, feel the hurt of those who have not been at church."

For Catholics Come Home, evangelizing means spreading "the good news every chance we get through effective means." By "harnessing TV and the Internet," the message reaches "people where they are" -- in bedrooms, dorm rooms, offices, Peterson noted.

Its Internet site (www.catholicscomehome.org) is vital to the endeavors of Catholics Come Home. TV is its "prime vehicle," but in following up at the Web site, people discover welcoming video presentations and informative faith resources.

People who aren't Catholic hear via the Web site that the church may not be what they believed it was. The site speaks with practicing Catholics, encouraging them to learn "what holds people back from the church" so as to be "more empathetic and understanding when the time comes to speak with them."

Numerous Web-site testimonies by individuals who found their way into a parish reflect the organization's down-to-earth approach. The words of a woman who just "gradually quit going" to church will resonate with many. She says of her return to the church: "It's not as scary as I thought it was. It's a much more open and warm place. And it really is about love."