A Good Word 2020: Episode 1
Crisis: Happening Now at a Church Near You
In the first episode of A Good Word, a podcast offered by Baptist Communicators Association, Jim Veneman, BCA president, has a conversation with Margaret Colson, BCA executive director, about church crisis communications, a topic that is extraordinarily relevant in today's crisis-ridden world. In the 15-minute episode, Margaret talks about the inevitability of crisis in the local church, as well as the importance of churches planning and being prepared for crisis. Margaret quickly explains the root meaning of the word "crisis" and touches on how communications is a key to helping a church emerge on the other side of crisis stronger and more committed to its mission. She closes the podcast episode by discussing how crisis can offer a church opportunity to minister and witness in God-honoring, never-before-imagined ways. This is the first in a three-part podcast series focusing on crisis communications for churches.
Hosted by Baptist Communicators Association
Contributors: Margaret Colson, Executive Director, Baptist Communicators Association and Jim Veneman, President, Baptist Communicators Association
Upload Date: Oct. 9, 2020, 8:00 a.m.
Jim Veneman: Welcome, everyone, to our very first episode of A Good Word, which is brought to you by Baptist Communicators Association. I first want to thank Doug Rogers, who is in the background of all of this, making all these technical, amazing things happen so that you can get this information. Without Doug, you would not be getting it right now. We thank Doug for his help.
In the last few months I’ve had a number of conversations with Margaret Colson who is our executive director of BCA. We’ve talked about work that she’s been doing on her doctorate, specifically her dissertation, in the area of crisis communications and the local church. She has worked tirelessly for a long time, not just a few months but for several years, putting together all this research and information. In one particular conversation I had with her, she went down through, just right off the top of her head, she went down through the titles of every chapter in this dissertation, in this work, and I was just blown away by the relevance of it to where we are right now. This work that she’s doing is not going to receive the stamp of approval until later on in the fall, like in November, but I thought, “Wow, right now is when this is needed.” Sure, it’s going to be relevant way out there in the future, but it is supremely timely and relevant right now.
So I thought it would be a cool thing to let Margaret share some of these ideas with all of you because I really believe that it can help us as professionals but it can also help relationships that we have within local churches everywhere who are dealing with all kinds of crises in their communications efforts.
Let’s get started. I have just a handful of questions I’m going to ask. We’re going to break this down into three episodes that will happen on a weekly basis. During each conversation, I’ll ask a few questions, and Margaret will give her advice and a little glimpse at her research that I think can really help us. I hope you will join us each week for this. It’s really really excellent information, and so please make note on your calendar to check in with us.
My first question is this: You’ve been working, Margaret, for the last three years on your doctorate from New Orleans Seminary on the topic of crisis communications in the church. Is there a headline or a lead that you can give us to summarize what you have discovered?
Margaret Colson: Of course, there is! The headline is: Crisis will happen; prepare now. Crisis will happen, and we better be prepared with effective communications! Church leader Gregory Hunt, who has done research on this topic, said that crisis is not a matter of “if” but “when.” We can be absolutely certain that, at some point in the life cycle of a church, crisis will come. And, wow, crisis did come with our global pandemic. With that global pandemic, a global crisis suddenly became an every-church crisis. And it’s important to be prepared for the inevitable crisis. Our friend Carol Pipes, over at LifeWay Christian Resources, has said, “A crisis is unplanned. How you react, communicate and recover should be planned. Having a plan in place can help mitigate some of the chaos during a crisis.”
Jim Veneman: Margaret, lot of people may be thinking right now that hindsight is 20-20. How on earth could we have prepared for the crisis of this pandemic?
Margaret Colson: I have to be fair here. We really could not anticipate and prepare for the pandemic. It came upon us, and churches had to respond, and they had to respond quickly. One beautiful thing that I saw in our collective church crisis response was churches helping churches. Churches that were more savvy or experienced with their technology helped other churches learn quickly how to offer virtual worship services and provide online giving options for other churches. Also, associations and state conventions stepped out to help churches in their crisis response.
Although we really couldn’t anticipate the pandemic, there are some crises that we can anticipate, and we can put some crisis communications plans in place to be prepared. For example, some churches, depending on where they’re located, could anticipate experiencing the crisis of natural disasters, such as hurricanes or tornadoes, or any church could anticipate the possibility of a crisis related to an accident, such as a church bus accident or a youth camp accident that involves injuries or even, sadly, fatalities. In my crisis communications guide that I’ve put together, I listed more than 50 possible church crises—everything from church members getting sick following a potluck supper to sexual abuse of a child in the care of a church. A crisis can be sudden, coming into existence with little or no warning; or it can be smoldering—simmering on the front burner of our churches, so to speak, before ultimately boiling over. Wouldn’t it be better to anticipate crises and prepare a crisis communications response ahead of time—even if that response needs to be tweaked--rather than experiencing crisis and frantically scrambling to respond appropriately?
Jim Veneman: Margaret, from what you’ve just said, we understand that a crisis can come in many forms and flavors. There are just all kinds of different experiences. What is a crisis? How would you define crisis?
Margaret Colson: Thank you for asking because you are speaking to my inner word nerd that I am. The root word of the term “crisis” means “turning point,” and it originally referred to a person with a serious medical condition who reached a certain point where he or she would or would not survive. Hunt, our church leader, has said, in reference to church crisis, “A crisis puts us at a crossroad(s) where decisions must be made—under pressure—that will impact the course of our lives [or the lives of our churches], positively or negatively, from that moment forward.”
Jim Veneman: So, Margaret, what about communications? Where does communications actually fit into a crisis response?
Margaret Colson: OK, we are all professional communicators here, and, as such, we know essentially that communications is the building of a relationship. Again, looking at the root word, the term “communications” comes from the root word communicare which means to share, and it is also the root word for “community” and “communion.”
When church crisis occurs, in order for the church to emerge on the other side of the crisis stronger and more committed to its mission, effective communications has to occur. Relationships between the church and its internal audiences and its external audiences must be built and strengthened through effective messaging at the right time and through the right channels.
Our friend Marilyn Stewart, at New Orleans Seminary, has said, that, amid crisis, “Communicating with people … is crucial. People need that personal touch in communication.”
Jim Veneman: Margaret, you say crisis is a turning a point with the possibility of a positive or a negative outcome. How can a crisis lead to a positive outcome?
Margaret Colson: The answer to that question, I would say, might be my subhead, and this is when things really get exciting. That subhead is: Crisis offers opportunity. That’s right! Crisis offers opportunity.
But, let me be very clear here. When I say crisis offers opportunity, I am speaking of opportunity in a positive way, not a negative way.
Jim Veneman: So, how can people view crisis as an opportunity in a negative way?
Margaret Colson: That’s right. We’ve all seen that happen. That happens when crisis is seen as a self-serving opportunity. Christians should never ever use crisis as an opportunity to “fly under the radar” or to do something they wanted to do without getting caught or being held accountable. For example, we’ve all seen this happen, a natural disaster devastates a community. Even as some people are stepping forward in the crisis to help those who are suffering, others may be seeing the crisis as an opportunity to loot and pillage the community. Don’t stop me now! Obviously, I’m not expecting church leaders to loot and pillage literally, but they might do so figuratively—for example, they might make massive staff changes and “blame” the crisis. Resist the temptation and look on crisis as an opportunity to honor God in ways perhaps unimagined.
Jim Veneman: And, Margaret, what about crisis as an opportunity in a positive way?
Margaret Colson: Right. Julie McGowan, over at the International Mission Board, has helped me understand this a little bit better. She has navigated just a few crises in her denominational career, and she reminds us that a crisis can offer the church opportunity for ministry and witness that they might not have otherwise. She states, “A Christian witness, even if initially rebuffed in the emotions and uncertainty of a crisis, can still plant seeds of hope in all involved,” and she cites God’s promise in Isaiah 55:11, which we are familiar with, and that says, “So My word that comes from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.”
Crisis offers believers the opportunity to minister and witness in ways that perhaps they had never imagined. Remember what Ephesians 3:20 says. It says, God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” Who knows what God might do through crisis?
Time and time again churches have experienced horrific crisis—think about the tragic shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. That church has emerged victoriously with the faith of its church members strengthened and many people coming to faith in Christ as a result. This perspective has also been proven true when crises propel church leaders to make changes to ensure that crisis does not occur again, such as putting into place protocols to help prevent church violence or childcare protocols to help prevent child abuse in the church or accounting protocols to help prevent financial mismanagement.
But … such an outcome hinges, in many ways, on effective communications and church leaders being sensitive to God’s leadership in their words and actions in the midst of crisis.
A secular communications professional named Kevin Elliott has said—and I love this quote—he has said that crisis is “an unplanned opportunity to show the world who you are and what you’re made of.” How amazing is that?
Jim Veneman: For today, we’re going to put on the brakes. But I would encourage all of you to join us again next Friday for more thoughts and ideas that Margaret has about crisis communications from within the context of a local church. It’s really an important topic, and Margaret has some excellent ideas on that so I hope that you will join us then, but thank you all for being here today.