Don’t Run from Denominational Chaos
News of denominational difficulties is not uncommon. In 2019, we’ve heard about United Methodists inching toward schism, Roman Catholics dealing (yet again) with sexual abuse, Southern Baptists arguing about racism, and more. When a denomination is in disarray, individual congregations have a decision to make: do they simply refrain from mentioning it in any way on their website, or do they tackle it head-on.
I believe the harm in ignoring denominational challenges on your website is likely greater than the harm from mentioning them. Here are three main reasons this is the case.
1. Been there, heard that.
If guests are checking out your website prior to their visit, there is a strong likelihood that they have already heard about the kinds of challenges that churches are facing today. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve heard specifically about the challenges facing your denomination. However, they are probably aware of denominational decline, sexual abuse scandals, or even Instagram wars over what tennis shoes a pastor wears.
A church that doesn’t acknowledge on their website what is going on in the larger church culture comes off as oblivious and likely to be hiding something. Don’t be that church.
2. People are seeking churches that do no harm.
Your guests may themselves be reeling from the harm a church has already caused them, yet still hoping they’ll find a new church home that cares about them. For example, LGBTQIA persons who feel deeply harmed over the fact that their denomination is debating their worth are not likely to visit a church which doesn’t clearly and expressly value and welcome them.
On a website, a “do no harm” ethic extends to both words and images. Make sure what you say and show are congruent with who you are as a church.
3. Your congregation wants curation, commentary, and clarity.
Many of your congregation members probably go to the website to learn what your congregation’s position is on controversial or timely topics. Most likely, few people in your church closely follow what’s happening within the denomination as a whole. Yes, their knowledge may be limited to knowing the “big picture” but not the fine details of particular denominational polity.
Your website is a place to curate and provide valuable links, offer pastoral commentary, bring clarity and focus by being clear about your congregational positions. It’s one of your tools to engage in a broader discussion.
7 Things You Should Do on Your Website
Let stakeholders have input
Before you post a very public position, make sure your staff and key leadership have seen the content of any pages you plan to publish and have had a chance to weigh in. Don’t surprise people or put them in uncomfortable positions by taking unilateral actions
If at all possible, get all of your staff and key leaders together at once for a meeting to talk about the church’s response. The more conversations you have to have, the greater the chance that someone will leak your news or miss critical information, plus you’ll waste more time.
Be clear about where information comes from.
If something is a denominational statement, say so and link to it. If it’s your church’s opinion or the position of your pastor, make that clear as well.
Remember that people who have not been part of your church in the past may have little or no understanding of how things work within your denomination. So, spell things out clearly, and assume readers may not know anything about your denomination. Here’s an example:
In February of this year, leaders from all of the regions that make up our denomination met for a “Special Session of the General Conference.” Decisions made at these events become part of the rules that guide our denomination as a whole. Normally a General Conference happens every four years, with the next one scheduled to take place in 2020. However, the special Conference this year was called to deal with one issue only: our denominational stance on whether LGBTQiA+ persons may be ordained as pastors and whether pastors may perform same-sex weddings. [Go on to summarize the results.]
At Grace UMC, we have been a reconciling congregation for 10 years, working to welcome all persons unconditionally, regardless of age, gender, ability, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or anything else that threatens to divide God’s family. [Link to further details about your policies. Go on to talk about what your church is now doing as a result of the denominational decisions.]
Provide a link on your homepage.
Create an image, an action bar, a header image, or some other feature that links to your congregational response page where people can learn more. The text should be brief and clear yet open. Examples:
- “Heard about [issue/crisis]? Here’s our church’s position.”
- “Concerned about [issue/crisis]? We are too. Click to learn more.”
- “Our response to [issue/crisis]. Find out more here.”
Clarify how and where people may ask questions.
May people contact a pastor if they have questions? Will you be offering congregational meetings? Whatever your methods, be sure to let people clearly know how they may openly or confidentially ask any questions they have.
Be sensitive to the personal experiences individuals may bring to the table. For example, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who comes to a pastor wanting to talk about abuse within the denomination is likely feeling vulnerable, worried about being dismissed, and seeking honest and truthful answers. In your publicity, be sure to highlight relevant pastoral care concerns, such as your awareness that the topic is very personal for some congregants or that you practice confidentiality.
Communicate with your congregation.
Let the congregation know about your website content related to the issue or crisis. Provide them the link in various ways, such as in your church newsletter, e-newsletter, and worship bulletin.
Remember that you don’t always need to put everything in every location. Instead, funnel people to your website. Keep announcements in most places brief and instead rely on your website to communicate the full picture.
Have a follow-up plan in place.
Be sure you have a point person who can respond to media inquiries, angry emails from congregants, threats to reduce personal giving, and even how you will respond to vandalism. Don’t wait until after something negative has happened to make your plans; proactively anticipate the possible negative actions.
Ideally, these sorts of details are already part of your church’s crisis response plan; if not, now is the time to begin work on your comprehensive crisis management process. Check with your denominational office and insurance company for templates and assistance. Here’s an example of what one such template looks like (in this case, provided by the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church).
Let extravagant hospitality, love, peacemaking, and grace be your defaults.
In the midst of a crisis, the tendency of people and groups is to experience stress. Stress leads to anger, disagreements and arguments, an inability to see others’ perspectives, and an inward rather than outward focus. As a church leader or communicator, you need to stay centered and muster the forces of hospitality, love, peacemaking, and grace as you respond.
Many of the negative comments you receive may not come via your website. Instead, they’ll turn up on social media when you link to your website as well as in online reviews on Google and other sites.
Your responses to others on those sites are like a window into the soul of your congregation. It may seem as if your responses are directed toward the person who made the original comment, but in reality they will speak more to others who will see the comments as well. Still, you probably do want to care for the person who attacked you online. Carey Nieuwhof has a terrific post on how emotionally intelligent leaders will respond to negative feedback.
What did we miss? Tell us your suggestions.
Do you have other tips to share about how your congregation is using your website (or other digital tools, for that matter) to deal with denominational strife? Leave a comment below.