5 Ways Parishes Waste a Ton of Money on Communications (and How Not To)

Now that churches have begun to take communications a little more seriously, they are beginning to spend money to help fix the problem.

The big kahuna of problems, the one that is getting worse by the minute, is this: if churches don’t learn to communicate to the younger generations now, they will have to close their doors in twenty years. Or sooner.

Churches have seen droves of youth graduate, go to college, and then never return to the pews, and churches have started to catch on. Parishes are scrambling to hire part-time communications directors, ministries are cobbling together budgets for new websites, creating communications committees, and marshaling funds for promo videos.

But what they don’t know is that in their beginning forays into communications, they are wasting hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on poor communications investments and many times aren’t much closer to fixing the problem as they were when they started spending.

As a voice crying out in the wilderness for the Church to invest in communications, these efforts are actually very hopeful to me. So don’t let my alarmist tone actually alarm you.

But I do want to help churches investment in this field wisely so that the investment yields a hundred fold (and so that people like myself get bigger budgets to work with!).

Here’s my concern: because churches don’t have the right definition of communications, their communications initiatives often end up leading them into costly, ineffective, long-term blunders.

So let’s avoid these blunders before they happen. I polled the Catholic Creatives group (a collective of over more than 1,000 committed Catholic designers, marketers, and artists) about this, and the answers boiled down to the following mistakes. I’ve anticipated some objections, so I’ve thrown in a little Aquinas style to address them. Let’s get started.

Mistake #1: “Getting Into” Communications

Their biggest mistake is thinking they need to “get into communications,” when in reality, they already communicate whether they realize it or not.
— Christopher Duffle, Architect



Your church already communicates through every experience that your parishioners have when they come to your masses, meet your staff, hear your homilies, walk by the bulletin board, and call your office. The mistake most churches make when getting into communications is thinking that “communications” refers to external elements: logo, website, videos, and social media.

The truth is this: your website and your social media emanate from your brand (your parish message) just as much as your homilies and your bulletin do.

To communicate effectively, the impression that people get from each interaction should be uniform. Every element of your communication, from a homily to a logo, should be shaped by the message you want people to hear. And if you don’t know what that message is, the external stuff doesn’t matter.

So if you hired someone to build you a website but you skipped over branding, go back and do it. Before you do anything else, the lion’s share of your time and money should be spent on your branding.

Again, “branding” doesn’t just mean a logo. It means understanding your purpose, your primary audience, your language, your visual aesthetics and what they mean, and how each part of a parishioner’s experience fits into your brand.

Don’t put the cart before the horse. Start with “wax on, wax off” before moving on to the crane kick. (You aren’t ready for this yet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzXK1hDkqYc).   

Objection #1:

“Sounds like too much of a commitment, though! We don’t really have the budget set aside for branding… We need a website tomorrow because people are calling us every day asking for Mass times.”

See Mistake #2, Committing Halfway.

Objection #2:

“We are totally on the right track then! We have a volunteer committee making the brand, and are looking to hire someone to redo our website in July!”

See Mistake #4, Volunteer Committees & Free Work

Mistake #2: Committing Halfway

In a resent Catholic Creatives poll, multiple people echoed and re-echoed their frustration with church communication initiatives: “Parishes don’t value this enough, so they expect the youth minister or parish secretary to also handle parish communications.”

Stop bundling communications with other jobs. Please.

Every church has to prioritize where its money goes. If it doesn’t decide to commit to good, strategic, thoughtful communications, that money will be wasted, because there won’t be results. No communication is only marginally worse than bad, haphazard, and unprofessional communication, no matter how well-intentioned.

Don’t settle for making communications a side note to the job of someone who isn’t trained or proficient in this. Don’t settle for treating it like icing on the cake. It is essential.

Objection #1:

“But Anthony... I value it, I just can’t afford to rebrand right now!”

Sure, for the sake of argument, I’ll let you have that excuse if you promise to do it next year.


Objection #2:

“We promise that we will ink that branding thing into our budget for when the fiscal year turns over; we just don’t want to do a cheap job on something that important right now. In the meantime, we just need a website that wasn’t made in the Jurassic Era.”


Proceed to Mistake #3:

Mistake #3 Jump first, think later

There’s a lot of pressure right now to jump into having a Director of Communications.

As soon as people on the parish council imagine the possibility of competing with Elevate mega church down the road, people begin to get excited. As soon as the parish secretary realizes that if a communications person gets hired, then wouldn't have to do the bulletin anymore or they wouldn't have to write the emails, they will put pressure to move quickly.

As soon as everyone realizes that they actually could have updated confession times on the site, everyone goes bonkers.

Even if you are saving money for a bigger branding investment in the future, and you need something to hold you over while you save for that, you should give yourself the time to strategize before you do something drastic.

Like, for instance, hiring a communications manager to help you be more efficient at communicating an unclear message.

As Chris Duffel, a Catholic thought leader on creativity and communications recently wrote, “First define clearly what's the problem is with communications at the specific parish. The more detailed the better. That's the hard part. If you have sufficiently defined the problem, the solutions are often obvious. If you have defined the problem as ‘we are bad at communications’ you haven't sufficiently defined the problem.”

This sort of strategy work will help guide you in prioritizing skills in your hire. An employee is a gigantic expense to add to your plate. Don’t let yourself be forced into hiring the wrong employee because you need to move fast.

(Pro tip: Freelancers or agencies can help buy you time before you make your first hire. I wrote a second blog about why churches should hire agencies before they hire communications managers. It has some great advice on this. Read about it here.)

When hiring communication people, we see this time and time again: parishes Frankenstein together a job description that should never be expected from one person.

A graphic designer is not an IT manager is not a web developer. Don’t try to hire a person to do all these things because you just happen to really need someone to fix the internet, and your website needs work, and both need to happen asap.

Objection #1

“Ok, cool, Anthony! We are starting a communications committee with volunteers who can consult and help us think things through before we do anything huge. Maybe they can even help us with some of the things you are mentioning, pro bono. We even have someone from HP’s corporate marketing team there!”

Hold that thought and keep reading.

Mistake #4: Volunteer Committees & Free Work

Volunteers can be incredibly helpful, and pro bono work is great. I would never frown upon free stuff, because I’m Italian, and we love free things.

However, we all know that free usually isn’t free. Volunteers must be managed by someone who really understands communications. The odds that your volunteer really knows communications well enough to do that is very low.

The odds that they’ll approach it with the same seriousness as a professional are even lower.

You definitely don’t want to delegate branding and website to volunteers and then paying a professional (your communications hire) to use tools crafted by amateurs. You wouldn’t hire a professional construction crew to build your church and toss them they keys to a volunteer-made crane when it’s time to raise the roof. Not safe.

You probably would get more mileage out of getting a professional crane and teaching a volunteer to use it. That’s exactly what a real branding process does for you.

Again, if it isn’t clear yet, here are the things that you should never ever give to volunteers:

Branding & Logo

Do that professionally. It’s the seed from which all the other things grow. Do this right, and your volunteers will have a solid shot at doing really good work. Don’t do this, and your volunteers will have great ideas, run in circles, do a couple good things for you, and most likely fizzle out when they aren’t getting traction.

Website

Your website is your mothership for communications. Most of the other things that you do are little X-wing squadrons that you send out from your bigger, badder, more important website. Don’t hire someone for $10k to do a video, and someone for $5k to do a website. Put your money into your communications infrastructure first.

Here are some things volunteers can be good at:

  1. Ideas

  2. Consulting

  3. Social Media (given good branding)

  4. Web Updates (given a good website)

  5. Photography

Objection

“Great! Actually, the person I was telling you about from the HP Marketing Team is interested in leaving his corporate job and working for us! I am trying to figure out how to hire him! He is a rock star.”

Finally, let’s move to Mistake #5...

Mistake #5: Going for Shiny

When parishes are really ready to invest in communications, they begin looking for their anchor hire: the director that is going usher their communications into the new millennium.

If your parish is ready to buy, there are some serious dangers that you need to be aware of and avoid if you want your program and your hire to be successful.

Firstly, don’t just get excited about shiny. You may come across resumes of people who have worked for very large companies -- someone who did marketing for American Airlines, or someone who did marketing for H-E-B, or someone who worked in the corporate office at Dell, etc. You’ll get very excited about the buffed resume and forget to focus on your strategy and the real priority of needs.

Secondly, corporate America has some really great things to offer the church world, but corporate experience isn’t the same as parish experience, especially because your parish looks more like a startup than it does a Fortune 500 company. Fortune 500 marketing departments often have an almost impossibly granular division of labor between roles. The person you will hire needs to be very adaptable to different roles and to organizational change. They’ll need to do many different creative tasks.

Whatever the case, if you have strategized and branded correctly before you hire this anchor, you will know exactly what you need and what role they will need to fill. Don’t lose sight of that vision. (And please, please plan to give your first hire a sizable budget. You can’t get results from nothing.)

No one person or one thing is going to be the silver bullet that fixes your communications problem. You will need a team to turn your brand perception around in your parish, city, or community. Whoever you hire will absolutely have a select skill set that is narrower than the needs that your parish has.

If you get the right person and don’t plan a budget for them to hire out agencies to help fill the gaps, you will burn your anchor out and lose the investment before you had a chance to see it bear fruit.

Go Forth and Be Effective

Congratulations -- now you know the blunders to avoid. If you’ve already made some of them, don’t worry. You can always get on the right track.

Just remember to value communications by doing it the right way. Get your strategy down, do first things first and take the time to make good choices, and make sure to hire the right person and give them a budget so that they can be successful.

Then proceed to communications, evangelization, and marketing success at your parish.

Marcellino D'Ambrosio