Simplifying Your Model

The multisite church movement has been around for some time now. Along the way to adding more sites, many churches have realized something: adding sites doesn’t necessarily mean growth. New locations are being added, but overall attendance and engagement isn’t increasing – at least anywhere near to what was hoped for.

Churches in this situation are almost always experiencing challenges to scaling their ministry across multiple locations. This is primarily a result of one thing: their model wasn’t built to scale.

Maybe it’s a program-centric approach to ministry, or systems for recruiting volunteers. Maybe it’s worship music style, or the way the church manages systems like finance, facilities, or communications. But what they’re finding is that the complexity that developed at the first site doesn’t work across the second, third, or fourth.

If your church finds itself in this position, it’s time to simplify. But how?

Here are a few ideas to get started on the path towards simplification:

IDEA #1: CENTRALIZE SUPPORT… ALL SUPPORT.

Think of two kinds of churches, at opposite ends of a continuum:

Church A has what I call the “legacy of the pastor-secretary” model. Each pastor or ministry department leader has an administrative support resource, dedicated to their ministry or possibly shared with one or two other pastors. The pastor comes up with the vision and strategy, and the administrative person helps with planning and execution. Functions like finance, facilities, tech, and communications are centralized, and the pastor-admin teams work with these centralized departments to do ministry.

Church B has what I call the “internal agency” model. In this model, pastors utilize centralized teams for all of their ministry needs: a marcomm department to create marketing and promotional materials (print, video, digital, etc.), an event planning department to help execute on events and initiatives (at least 80% of our ministries are, technically speaking, events), and facilities, finance, tech, or volunteer recruitment departments. Pastors rely on volunteers more heavily for lower-level administrative functions: room setup and cleanup, for example.

Church A has more redundancy of function across their administrative generalists; those generalists all design communication materials, all do room reservations/setup, all design and printing of materials, etc., and handle any other functions necessary for pulling off the ministry activity. It’s less efficient, and quality suffers.

Church B has less redundancy, because it has people who take on more of those functions: event planning, marcomm, etc.

The central agency model lets the agency act as a constraint on the volume of ministry activity that the pastors can generate, reducing the overall volume of activity. The central agency has the ability to say “no new thing in the pipeline” when they are full of things to execute on.

IDEA #2: REDUCE YOUR NUMBER OF LEADERS.

I know this sounds counterintuitive (all churches need more leaders, right?) but bear with me. In modern, growing organizations, leaders generate activity. Gone are the days of organizations filled with managers of managers who manage. And in churches, this is especially true. Leaders are developed or hired for the express purpose of generating ministry activity. But that increase in leader-driven activity can overwhelm the staff who are given the role of helping implement that activity.

There are three ways to get this under control:

  1. Hire more leaders to manage and control the amount of new stuff the existing leaders are generating;
  2. Hire more support staff who are able to help implement and execute ministry activity;
  3. Reduce the number of leaders generating ministry activity.

The first option helps manage activity better, but at great cost. Not many growing churches have layers of management in ministry, do they? (Maybe I’m wrong in thinking they don’t, but I think they don’t.)

The second option is also expensive. But if you had a lot more support staff, you probably wouldn’t be so concerned with streamlining your ministry model, since you wouldn’t be hurting so much.

The third option is the most direct path towards simplifying your ministry model.

IDEA #3: TIGHTEN YOUR ALIGNMENT.

I say this all the time: a strategy always starts with who. Who are we striving to best reach and serve in our ministry? Are we targeting families with young kids? People with felt needs? Upscale professionals looking for a high-quality church experience? People who’ve never been to church? This needs to be defined by your organization’s senior leadership.

Next, ask every ministry to define their who, and the specific objectives that reach and serve that audience. Then you can see how well they align with the defined strategy. The ministries that are most-aligned with reaching the audience that the leadership team defined are put in the “keystone ministries” bucket and get full support. Leverage them for growth, and hold them accountable for it.

Ministries that aren’t aligned with the defined objectives are let go. We can’t keep them going, so we sunset them over the next year. This includes events, even long-standing recurring ones. These aren’t helping us grow, so they have to go.

Some ministries won’t be aligned with these strategic objectives, but the negative impact on the church culture of getting rid of them could set you back more than it helps. These ministries should be put into the “maintenance mode” bucket. Don’t highlight them in your communications, don’t put them in the main menu on the website, and don’t feature them on social media. But they can continue to operate as they currently do.

In a way, these are all variations on the same theme, just different means to the same end. And they aren’t mutually exclusive; you can apply one or all of them.

But no matter which strategy you choose, remember this: begin and end with prayer. Your strategy doesn’t matter if God isn’t behind it.

Time for a Gut Check

Growing your church requires a lot of things: solid strategy, strong leadership, compelling content, planning and organization, and some technical know-how. Putting those together in the most effective way possible is essential to taking on the task of growing your church.

But every once in a while, you need to step back for a gut check moment. Strategy, leadership and planning are your engines of church growth, and those engines require fuel. So before you start planning, designing, writing, or meeting, take an honest look at your level of these three things:

Passion – all movements have energy that comes from the collective passion of lots of people. They share it, talk about it, and live it out.

What are you giving your people to be passionate about, that they can’t resist sharing?

Commitment – sustains you through the natural ups and downs that are unavoidable. Commitment is the multiplier to passion.

How are you best supporting the leaders in your community, helping their commitment remain strong enough to weather the ups and downs?

Directional focus – passion and commitment can take you anywhere, but you don’t want to go anywhere. You want to go somewhere. Make sure your teams have a clear picture of exactly where you’re headed.

How clear and well understood is your organization’s mission and vision, and how aligned is your staff structure to that mission?

Leaders need to ask these three important questions at least a few times per year. No matter how good your strategy is, no matter how strong your leadership, no matter how engaging your content is – if you don’t have passion, commitment, and a clear picture of the direction you’re headed, you won’t grow.

Teaching Series Graphics Aren’t Ads, They’re Book Covers

One of my favorite TED talks is by acclaimed graphic designer Chip Kidd. He’s a designer who’s worked for NYC book publishers for almost his entire career, designing book covers.

Just book covers.

The thing I appreciate most about Kidd isn’t his talent (which is significant) or his presentation style (which is flamboyant), but his respect for the authors of each book he works on. He treats every cover project like he’s designing a sacred vessel to carry the author’s artfully crafted work to the reader.

Anyone who designs graphics for churches should take their work just as seriously, because sermon series graphics* are basically the same thing as a book jacket.

Think about it: they’re both visual introductions to long form content. They’re both meant to spark enough curiosity to get someone to take action: “pick up this book” or “click on this link.” They both make a promise about what’s behind them, offering a glimpse without giving away the big idea.

Kidd refers to this as balancing clarity and mystery.

Clarity is the connectedness of the visual design to the information behind it. It’s how closely the design matches the content. Things like maps, wayfinding signage, and operating instructions need clarity.

Mystery is what sparks our curiosity. You look at a sign because you need to find your way somewhere. You look at a work of art because it makes you think.

Signs and directions should be easy to read, and take little time and effort to process.

Artwork should take longer to process, forcing you to dwell on it, and consider what the message behind it art is. Like this:

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*Sermon series graphics are the designed artwork we use in digital and print communication channels to show people what our current teaching series is all about. Look at any teaching-centric church’s sermon archives on their website, and you’ll see what I mean. Please don’t call these graphics “logos.” They’re not.

Thoughts on “Belong Before Believe”

People belong to a group based on its actions, more than its words. They choose to belong to a group when that group does things that they want to get on board with.

Every group that people belong to outside of church does stuff. Clubs, sports leagues, civic organizations… people join them to do, not to be.

If your church is putting “belong before believe” language in their marketing, you’re missing out on the wonderful opportunity that clubs and organizations are capitalizing on. Because in doing that, you’ve just created “us” and “them.”

In clubs and other organizations, there’s only “us.” And the pitch to join in is always built around the action. If you join in, you belong.

If you want to make people feel more interested in participating in the life of your church – regardless of how much of your theology they believe – just start doing things that make people want to join in, and tell everyone that they’re welcome to join in with you.

If what you’re doing is attractive, then people will join you.

Tourists or Pilgrims 

Pilgrims are seeking a purpose. Tourists are seeking an experience. A tourist might love the experience, rave over it, document it, relive it. But they aren’t committed to it.

Tourists share experiences but they don’t construct them. They’re in it temporarily, not for the long haul. Tourists are consumers at heart.

Pilgrims are on a mission. They have a goal, a purpose of becoming a different person. Pilgrims make things happen. They’re in it for the long haul.

Winning brands treat their audiences like pilgrims, not tourists.

The Social Flywheel

“What’s your social strategy?” 

I get asked this question all the time, either by other church marketing people, staff members at my organization, or marketing-minded folks in our congregation. You probably get that question a lot, too, and have a solid answer ready at your fingertips:

“We want to engage people where they are.”

“To create meaningful conversations online.”

“To build digital community.”

Sometimes the answer is more pragmatic, more functional: to reach more people with our great teaching content, etc. Or maybe your strategy is really a social calendar.

All good and worthy goals, except for one thing: your church probably has a building. And if it’s like a lot of other churches out there, that building isn’t quite as full on Sunday mornings as it used to be. Attendance is flat, or in decline.

So you respond by committing to get more active on social media, to reaching people where they are. You’ll build digital community, and it will translate into more community on Sundays.

Maybe. But probably not.

Social media can be a catalyst for growth, but isn’t just about follows, likes, and engagement. It’s not just about getting people to engage with your content. It’s about getting them to engage with your mission.

People who are more engaged with your mission attend church more often; attendance is a byproduct of engagement. Engagement is and always has been the primary driver of attendance at church. We can’t forget that.

Connecting with people in digital spaces is a great start. It’s how connections start, more often than not these days (think online dating). It’s critically important, but it’s only part of the puzzle.

IT STARTS WITH ASSIMILATION

All churches have some sort of assimilation plan, and it usually looks something like this: come to church, stop by the welcome center (or attend an event for new people), connect to a small group, start serving, etc.

And if you’re smart, you tell them to follow you on social media.

You reinforce that pathway through announcements, printed materials, preaching, and your culture. You use your church-specific language like “get plugged in,” “get connected,” or just “belong” (which I’ve always thought sounded a little strange).

You tell people you hope they’re coming to Sunday services (or watching online when they can’t get there in person), growing in faith, building friendships, serving, being involved in their community, and welcoming new people themselves. Because there’s just no substitute to the authentic, personal connection that happens when we’re in the same place, together.

But did you notice where the first step in that next steps plan started? “Come to church.”

So how are people getting there?

If your assimilation plan starts with a person’s first visit to church, you’re overlooking a few very important things:

  1. New people learn about your church on social media;
  2. The people already in your congregation are advocates for your church through social media;
  3. While new people almost always check out your website before they visit, more and more people are checking you out on social before they visit [insert “what’s on our Instagram?” panic moment here].

Here’s the key thing to remember: a lot happens before a new person’s first visit. Social media controls the narrative around your brand; it validates you, and help visitors feel better about their first Sunday they come in person. It helps them overcome their barriers to attending: Is this going to be weird? How do I get there? When does it start, and how long will I be there? What am I signing onto when I visit?

THE SOCIAL FLYWHEEL

I like to think of social media and your website as part of a flywheel, where momentum starts with social, and the mechanism is greased by your website. Other things play a key part in getting that flywheel going: in-service announcements, the design of your website, your church brand… but we can’t underestimate the extent to which social media is the primary driver behind that momentum.

Flywheels are often used to provide continuous power output in systems where the energy source is not continuous.

 

 

It starts with impressions. Simply put, if people don’t see your presence on social, they can’t act on it. While it’s easy to target specific demographic groups through social advertising, social media platforms use an algorithm to determine what you see in your news feed organically. If the content looks like a good fit with you, based on things like whether your friends interacted with it, whether you interacted with other things like it, or it’s relevant to your interests, they’ll show it to you.

We try to design content with social personas in mind. Personas aren’t actual people, they’re types of people that you keep in mind when you’re creating content. Think “non-churched millennial,” “skeptical but curious,” or “parent of elementary age kids.” Specific types of personas should influence your creative process as you craft content, whether it’s a blog post or an Instagram pic. Be as unambiguous as possible.

Design matters. The average user will see about 200 updates in their typical newsfeed per day. Assuming your content makes it through the algorithm into someone’s feed, you’re competing for their attention with hundreds of other posts every day. As someone scrolls through their social feed, your best chance of getting their attention with your content is visually. Posts with a visual are 80% more likely to be read compared to posts without. Getting someone’s attention starts with design.

But it’s one thing to get someone’s attention, to get them to stop scrolling and check out what you’ve posted. Getting them to engage with it requires more than just the design; people like, comment, and share things that are like-, comment-, or share-worthy. Which means you need to craft your content carefully.

Quality content gets interactions. Are you guilty of copy-pasting your bulletin or announcement wording into a Facebook post? I am. I admit it: in a pinch, better to have something than nothing, right?

Wrong. Brands lose engagement all the time because they post content that’s just. Not. Helping. People don’t unfollow brands because they don’t post often enough.

We follow a weekly plan that prompts us to keep our content distinct from what’s in our informational channels like our bulletin, app, and announcements. And if we don’t have something that’s distinct, we don’t post.

We’ve recently scaled back our pace of content posting, because we’re seeing much higher engagement when we posting 4-5 times/week, not 7-10.

Keep your “psych’d factor” high. A good website will help increase the likelihood that someone visits your church in person. Before they visit, people need to know what you’re all about as much as they need to know what time your services start. And the fact that they’re checking you out online first isn’t just a given, it’s great. Because you’ve got their attention, they’re ready to start getting excited about what you’re doing as a church, and being part of it.

In a way, they’re kinda psych’d.

There’s a methodology that app developers use to analyze funnel conversion for new users. It’s called Psych’d. While it’s designed for app marketers, it’s just as valuable for website designers, and especially church website managers like you and me.

It starts with the idea of looking at every screen, every click, every action step someone takes when they are new, and determining whether that increases their psych’d factor – “video preview of the service? Great stuff for my kids? Cool!” – or diminishes it “no pictures of people… wonder if I’ll fit in.” Then you design your new person experience on the website with that in mind.

Most modern churches are way better at the website thing than they used to be. But it’s always a good idea to reevaluate it on occasion just to make sure. And once they interact with your website, you’re on your way to engaging them with your brand.

But your brand may not be all that you think it is. The brand of your church is what sets you apart from other experiences that compete with church, whether it’s another church, a hike in the woods, brunch, or the couch. It’s not your logo or tagline. How you compare to the other experiences people are having on Sundays is the biggest factor in determining if someone visits.

We’ve all heard the term “brand promise.” It’s what you are telling people they’re getting on board with when they get on board with you. Would they wear a t-shirt with your church logo on it? Retweet your mission statement? They’re on board with your brand.

You use volunteers for all sorts of things: children’s ministry, worship services, etc. But as much as 80% of your congregation are already acting as potential outreach volunteers on social media. When someone’s on board with your mission, your culture, and your brand, they advocate for you. They amplify your message, carrying into their own networks of people.

They do that by checking in when they get to church, tagging their friends at church, and sharing your content on their own social media.

That’s why I call this the social flywheel. Your people’s interactions are what power your growth. No matter what you do to target people on social, how great your content and website are, how compelling your brand it, it’s ultimately the actions of your people on social that powers the flywheel.

Growth is up to everyone in your church, not just you.

A Daily Meditation of Humility for Communicators

 

“Just because you said exactly what you wanted to say, doesn’t mean they heard exactly what you wanted them to hear.”

 

Anyone in the business of communicating needs to say this to themselves every day. No matter how strong of a communicator you are, how creative or experienced, it’s easy to slip into the mode of “this is good, people will get it.” But there’s always someone out there who doesn’t.

Crafting any message, from an email introduction to an annual report, starts with understanding the listener. It’s a you-first way of thinking. And it requires a posture of humility. 

Humble is considerate. Humble is non-assuming. Humble leads the listener to this place: tell me more.

Humble connects with people, because it’s clear that we’re putting them first.

Everyone is on a journey. Humble communication starts with recognizing where your listeners are on their journey, not yours.

 

Strategy vs. Description

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

– Peter Drucker

We’ve all heard this before.

You know what else trumps strategy?

Execution.

If you’re in church communications or marketing, you’ve probably been asked “what’s your website/social media/advertising/marketing/app strategy?”  more times than you can count. 

I work for a large church in New England, one of the most “unchurched” (maybe “de-churched” is a little more accurate) regions of America. Missionaries from Asia and Africa come to the Boston area to reach people. And this is a good thing! We could use the help.

So needless to say, reaching people who don’t factor church into their weekend (or annual) plans should be a big part of any New England church’s strategy. But when we say strategy, what exactly do we mean?

Strategy vs. Description

Too often, churches describe the activities they think they’re best at, and call it strategy. They start with what they’re doing, and justify it as something that meets their most important goals.

Now what they’re doing might be highly effective. It might be the result of a lot of thought and planning. They might even put it up on the walls of their church (or maybe even an evergreen web page). But if it didn’t start with a deep consideration of who – who they’re trying to serve, reach, engage – then it’s not a strategy.

Strategies always start with one question: who?

And if you’re looking for the answer to who your strategy has best served, reached, or engaged, the answer is in your culture. The people who are attending on Sundays, interacting with you on social media midweek, serving and giving to your church… these are the people you’re reaching.

So next time you start talking about strategy, take a step back and ask yourself: are the people we’re currently reaching the people we are intending to reach?

If the answer is “no,” then it’s probably because you’ve taken the things you already do, the things you’ve honed to the point of doing them without thinking, and you’re just calling it your strategy.

Do this instead: back up, look at your local community, and ask yourself: “If we want to reach these people, what are the most pressing needs that I can meet for them?” Then go do that.

 

Overcoming Resistance

The War of Art, by author Steven Pressfield, begins with the idea that all of us have a barrier between the life we currently live, and the yet-unlived life full of creative potential within us. 

Creatives, whether artists/writers, entrepreneurs, or ad men (and it’s not a stretch to include preachers here), have deep within them a desire to create, to make, to craft. All are equipped with God-given talents, and putting them to good use honors and glorifies the One who gave them. That work makes us feel more alive, more connected to our Maker, more in tune with the universe as He created it.

Pressfield depicts the barrier between that fulfilled life and the life we live every day as a “dark antagonism to creativity,” the anti-Muse, the enemy within. It’s called Resistance.

Resistance takes many forms: fear, self-doubt, busyness, distraction. It’s the sum of all the things that keep us from acting on our desire to create, to make, to craft. It’s a malevolent force of nature, but within us, relentlessly pushing against our capacity to create. It usually wins.

In my experience, there’s a form of Resistance that is particularly troublesome for mission-driven organizations, and especially churches. In these cases, Resistance often sounds something like this:

I’m not a marketer, I’m a pastor.

I’ll leave the promotional stuff to the experts like you.

I’m too busy working on my ministry to spend time on marketing strategy.

I trust you communications folks to write the copy.

This idea that the work of creatively promoting some church activity or ministry is better left to others supposedly more well-equipped for this work is a form of Resistance that’s especially effective in today’s post-christian culture.

There’s no societal force pulling people in to the increasingly-foreign experience of church anymore. So leaders and pastors spend countless hours crafting experiences that help people grow closer to God, but spend woefully little time thinking about how they’ll get people to choose to participate in those experiences. As podcaster Rich Birch has said through his blog UnSeminary:

“Many leaders need to think as much about how they market and communicate what is happening at their church as they think about what they’re actually doing. In the same way that artisans wish they could just make their art and not have to find people to purchase it, we can fall into the false notion of believing that our quality experiences are enough on their own.”

Overcoming this type of Resistance is what this blog is all about.

This blog is my best to empower those self-declared “non-marketers” at churches and mission-driven organizations with the wisdom and tools for communicating effectively about their ministry.

It’s my own way of fighting Resistance, and I hope you find it helpful.