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Posted June 28, 2009

Church Management Roundtable Focuses on Effective Church Communication

National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management
Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed a gathering of Catholic leaders June 25 in Philadelphia on the complex demands of communicating effectively in today’s “transformed world” – a world that in communications terms has become “a different planet almost.”

Blair spoke to Catholic bishops and pastors, leaders in business and finance, educators, philanthropists and others attending the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management’s annual meeting at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“Clarity of direction” and strong, but not arrogant, belief serve leaders well in communicating a message, Blair suggested. Teaching is important, he observed, but it is a spirit of love, compassion and service that draws others.

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 their “spread,” Blair said.

Blair discussed the challenge of communications that involve acknowledging a problem. 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. This 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.”

With “Effective Communications for a Global Church” as its theme, the NLRCM meeting examined the potential a new communications era holds for the church.

To effectively employ new communications technologies, church communicators must be brief, personal and passionate, and use images richly, said Fred Fosnacht, founder and CEO of My Catholic Voice. Effective communicators also encourage dialogue with those they reach, he said. Thus, Web sites move beyond providing information to inviting their users’ participation.

My Catholic Voice is an Internet and wireless service primarily for young people between 18 and 35, Fosnacht said. It employs “the best Internet technologies and social networking capabilities” to share Catholic faith via what is called “Web 2.0.”

Fosnacht is a retired partner of the communications arm of Accenture, a global management and technology consulting firm. Many participants in the NLRCM meeting were, like Fosnacht, Catholics with executive experience in secular fields who share that experience with the church.

Established in 2005, the NLRCM brings these people together with leaders in the church to promote “best practices” in the church’s management, financial planning and human –resources development.

“Every organization can always improve the means by which it communicates its message,” said James Dubik, a retired, three-star Army lieutenant general. Dubik is spearheading the NLRCM’s development of an interactive Web site it hopes to launch by year’s end to facilitate discussions among U.S. priests on matters of common concern like financial management, parish councils or even spiritual development.

The extensive consultation underlying this project ensures that the Web site will be “designed by pastors for pastors,” Dubik explained in Philadelphia. Priests logging onto the yet-unnamed site that Dubik calls a “virtual community of practice” will be able to ask questions and share ideas or experiences.

Dubik hopes that by connecting priests in this way “the good things going on” in many parishes can become “grist for learning in other parishes struggling in those areas.”

In a major speech, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., vice president of the national bishops’ conference, analyzed the church’s communications challenge. Drawing parallels between good theater and good communications, Bishop Kicanas sad that “abstract, theoretical, disembodied language has little place on the stage or for that matter” in most church communication.

The church has a life-giving message, Bishop Kicanas stated. But he sometimes senses “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.”

Bishop Kicanas believes the church should not hesitate “to engage and use the modern digital technologies.” Yet, he insisted, “communication, while enhanced by technology, rests on the power of the message” and the communicator’s “authenticity.”

Opportunities to improve communications with the exploding U.S. Hispanic population were discussed during the meeting. Cesar Conde, executive vice president of Univision, urged church leaders to learn which media Hispanics turn to for information.

Univision, a Spanish-language multimedia broadcaster, ranks among the top five U.S. networks, Conde said. Seventy percent of U.S. Hispanics consume Hispanic media, he noted. Conde called attention to the church’s “unique, competitive advantage” to communicate with this community.

The NLRCM presented its annual Best Practices Award to Catholics Come Home.org and Tom Peterson, its founder and president. The award recognized the organization’s effective use of communications media, particularly TV ads, to invite inactive Catholics and others to take a closer look at the church today.

Susan King, vice president for public affairs at the Carnegie Corporation of America foundation, said in an interview that “a real opportunity” has emerged for church communicators “in this information-glut age” -- the opportunity “for a voice to emerge that is spiritual, authentic, gentle and powerful,” and “meets people where they are.”

This is a “time of great change and pain,” King stated. But it gives 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.”