Episcopal Communicators urged to be discerning about message, methods, media

Communicators award honors for 2008 during annual meeting
March 23, 2009

Acknowledging an ever-expanding network of communications tools, members of Episcopal Communicators who gathered here at Camp Allen Conference and Retreat Center March 18-21 spent much of their time considering how to find the most effective methods and media to help the church spread its message.

"The heart of it is we need to be clear about what our message is," Julie Anne Lytle, assistant professor of pastoral theology and educational technologies at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said during the communicators' annual meeting. "What is the gospel we're meant to proclaim? How are we choosing to make disciples?"

Echoing media theorist Marshall McLuhan's observation that the medium is the message, Lytle warned the communicators to be discerning so that "what we're choosing as a way of [spreading the church's message] fits what we say we believe."

Bishop Coadjutor (bishop with right of succession) Andrew Doyle of the host Diocese of Texas warned that "on the one hand, we have to use the tools that are available to us to communicate well, but we can't allow those tools to become graven images … my salvation does not rest with Twitter," referring to a popular cell phone-based messaging network

Recognition of the importance of their work came to the communicators from far away from their meeting place in rural Texas. Anni Holden, director of communications for the Church of England Diocese of Hereford, read a message from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who said that "diocesan communicators are among the key ministers in the life of a diocese these days."

"Not only do they have to deal on the front lines with making sense of the problems -- and sometimes the tragedies of the church's life; they also have the privilege of finding words and images for the good news that every diocese has to share." Williams said. "I know how much difference it makes when this calling is executed with imagination and energy, and I pray that God will continue to give you just these qualities in your service to God's people."

Also during the meeting, communicators honored work produced during 2008 with the independently-judged 29th Polly Bond Awards. Leading the list of achievements were general excellence honors in five categories.

In the category of general excellence for newspapers with circulation above 12,000, the top award, the award of excellence, went to Episcopal Life. For newspapers with circulation under 12,000, the top general excellence award went to the Diocese of Southern Ohio's Interchange.

For general excellence in news magazines or periodicals, the top award went to Trinity Wall Street's News (Nicole Seiferth, editor). Trinity Wall Street's website (Nathan Brockman, editor) also received the general excellence award for websites. Episcopal Church Foundation's Vestry Papers (the Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman, editor) was honored in the newsletters category.

The complete list of awards is available here. Copies of the winning entries in the 10 writing categories are available here.

The communicators also began to develop a white paper which they said they hope will help make the case for communications ministries, especially during a time when many dioceses' and parishes' budgets face the implications of the global financial crisis. The paper will be available on the Episcopal Communicators website.

The communicators' meeting opened with an evening jazz Eucharist, led by the Trinity Church Houston Jazz Ensemble.

Sean McConnell, canon for communications in the Diocese of California, told the congregation during his sermon that jazz evolves when musicians who remember their musical and cultural roots also forget those roots to move into new forms of expression. Communicators have to do the same, he said.

"Every single one of us who is a communicator all has these things that we need to hold on to and we have to remember -- and we are the memory for the collective -- and it is our job to forget because we have to be reaching for that which is new all the time," he said. "That is the reason we come together every single year to talk about things like Web 2.0. That's why we come together every single time to talk about new technology."

In addition, McConnell said, communicators often have to tell others about how traditions of the Episcopal Church are being "broken open and made new."

Lytle said that communicators had to be both "story makers and story keepers" in order to fulfill both versions of the Great Commission found in the gospels of Mark and Matthew. In Mark 16:15-16 Jesus tells the disciples to "proclaim the good news" and in Matthew 28:19 he tells them to "make disciples." To do both, she said, requires communicators to know what methods and media will resonate with which parts of their audiences.

"I really see the value of mixed media," she said. "Different people have different lifestyles and different ways of engaging."

In terms of methods, she said, some people want a mentor to guide them in their faith journey; others may want what she called the "sage on the stage" who dispenses information. In terms of media, some people want to read things in print while others want to go online, and others look for other sources, and many people are attracted to more than one medium, she said.

These opportunities for what Kate Lehman, information technology coordinator for the Diocese of Bethlehem, called "ubiquitous communication" can also create difficulties, she and Lytle agreed. "Ubiquitous communication is great, but you are always in the network and you can't always be in the network or you will end up crashing and burning," Lehman said. "Jesus went into the wilderness to get away from the network to re-focus."

Lytle said "this is where we have to be honest and we have to have integrity. We cannot do everything we are being asked to do, and be faithful people. We can't."

"We have to get to the point where we are counter-cultural and right now we're not. We're trying to keep up with everything that everyone in the world is doing," she continued. "That's not going to keep us alive and if we can't stay alive -- if we can't feel joyous when we're a part of our communities -- how are we going to model and witness what it is that we're supposed to be excited about?"

Doyle echoed those concerns during his presentation. "They are tools, but they can't dominate our lives in such a way that we forget what the original message is supposed to be about," he said. "At the end of the day it's going to be real relationships and real discussions and talking with one another face-to-face."

The bottom line, Doyle said, is that "growth comes from spiritual wellness and servant orientation … it's not about the numbers; it's not about some new tool in the toolbox … it really has to be about deep spirituality that leads to deep action on behalf of our neighbors. Our culture will not put up with people who are not authentically Christian."

Doyle challenged the communicators, and by extension the people they work with, to stop seeing communication "as simply something that is shot out there to get the point across."

"What if we began to think of the communication ministry and vocation coming deeply out a desire to serve the Lord and serve the church?" he asked. "That's your potential and that's your work."

That attitude is not currently common, Doyle suggested. "Unfortunately, some of us leaders haven't helped you too much and I am worried -- concerned for your souls -- that maybe we've begun to think it's about spinning the situation, [for instance] taking whatever we did at the House of Bishops and making it sound good to our constituents," he said. "That's not the work. Each and every communication that we do has the opportunity of being the kingdom of God and our culture is waiting to hear that. They are longing to hear that."

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