Transparency and Communication During the Pandemic

By | April 5, 2020

Let’s face it. Churches generally aren’t good at communication. Nor are they great at transparency. But both are vital in these unprecedented times of pandemic.

So why are churches so bad at these things?

The answers are myriad, but several come to mind:

  • Clergy trained in homiletics may be great talkers. But they often are lousy listeners and even worse communicators.
  • There’s an innate sense in many churches that some things are off-limits, like the rector’s salary or total compensation package.
  • Clergy often deliberately silo information, placing some issues with a grounds committee, others with a personnel committee, etc,
  • There’s a fear in churches about sharing information. Especially in a period of sharp decline, there’s a natural tendency to play your cards close to the vest.
  • Anxiety may compound these bad habits. For example, with the sharp decline in revenue due to the pandemic, church leaders may fear that prospective members will avoid a church in crisis. Similarly, I have heard clergy say that they fear members will reduce giving if they feel that their church is a lost cause.
  • Concern about the morale of already stressed church staff.

But the reality is it’s never been so important to be transparent.

If you are clergy or a church leader, how many times have you had someone ask why a particular task or project isn’t being done, when there simply isn’t money to do it?

If we’re honest with ourselves, that happens all the time. I remember once, when serving as junior warden of a parish, being asked why the columbarium hadn’t been weeded. The simple answer was that we could barely afford the landscaping services we were already getting. No one had volunteered, and I had been too busy dealing with leaking pipes and broken toilets to spend an afternoon weeding.

Then there was the time I arranged for fixed acrylic storm windows over the barely viable steel windows in the church basement. One well-intentioned member asked, “Why don’t we just replace them?” A fair question, given that the windows let rain and snow in on a regular basis. But even with the project done at cost by a friendly vendor and member of a nearby church, the $45,000 price tag was almost twice our total annual maintenance budget.

These examples illustrate how lack of communication leads to misplaced expectations and misunderstandings. People look at their giving and feel that they are giving generously. And in many cases that’s true. But they also forget just how costly church can be.

For example, in one previous parish, the annual budget is about $1 million. That sounds like the church should be in a pretty comfortable place, right?

Not so much. Consider: A budget of this size requires that the church bring in $2,740 every single day of the year, including Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.

Or you can look at the underlying expenses to see the challenges facing that particular parish.

Costs to keep the building itself up and running come to $150,000 a year. That number itself is dangerously low, with maintenance funded at a much lower level than should be the case.

Then comes the rector’s compensation package. With more than $200,000 a year devoted to that purpose, his compensation consumiung ine out of every five dollars brought in.

Compensation for other staff salaries eats up another $300,000, while office costs were about $30,000 annually.

Toss in a woefully underfunded diocesan pledge of $80,000 annually and a token amount of funding for local outreach, and before long you’re already scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Of course, with the pandemic raging and the resulting financial fallout, it’s going to be easier for all but the most affluent churches to see the bottom of the barrel. Not only is parishioner income down sharply and plate offerings non-existent, but stock market losses have wiped out large swaths of investment income for endowed parishes. And that’s where tough decisions will come in.

The examples mentioned earlier underscore the importance of several things, including:

  • Ensuring that members and church employees alike understand the challenges facing the parish.
  • Discussing in-depth possible responses to the crisis, with a commitment to providing all church members and employees a seat at the table and an opportunity to be heard.
  • Providing sufficient information that your church community commits to the tough and often painful decisions needed to deal with those challenges.
  • Recognizing and encouraging those who do give sacrificially of their time, talent and treasure at a time when doing so may be more difficult than even.
  • Promoting trust and confidence in parish leadership.
  • Developing a strategic vision of where the church wants to be in another 5 or 10 years, so that it can work towards those goals.

The latter is particularly challenging for many churches, which often lack even a tactical plan for the coming days. In those situations, where the only planning is which hymns to choose for next Sunday, overcoming the dilemma posed by the pandemic will be difficult.

At the same time, the one constant in all of the objectives mentioned above is communication and transparency. Your parishioners and indeed even those just casually researching your church need to know the details. What are your hopes and dreams for the future? Your fears? What are your challenges?

Will you lose some members by doing this? Of course you will.

Will key employees leave if they realize just how shaky church finances are? Quite possibly.

But having this happen is far better than having people join your church or stay at your church under false pretenses, for when they learn the truth they will be more than a little unhappy that it was kept from them.

Similarly, well-placed sources here in the diocese of Virginia report that a number of priests in the diocese have tested positive for COVID-19. Yet there is almost no public information on this. Why is that? Sharing information would help people understand that yes, they too can get get sick. And it could help those who care respond directly to emerging needs.

And by being open and transparent, you also may well find that miracles do happen. Consider the delightful example of Sister Noella Marcelino, the Catholic nun and microbiologist famous in foodie circles for making gourmet cheeses using unpasteurized milk.

Early on, Sister Noella told superiors at her abbey of her desire to produce cheese in support of the nuns. One day, she prayed that someone would come to the abbey with expertise in cheese making. The following day, exactly that happened, and years later — and more than one quarrel won with local food safety inspectors — Sister Noella makes cheeses that are world famous. And in so doing, her abbey has become famous, recently launching a successful project to rebuild much of its existing complex.

Will every church meet with such a happy ending? Of course not. But the current pandemic and resulting social distancing makes clear that survival depends on being open to change and the possible need to let go of old ways of doing things,

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