Priests, Pastors, and Public Relations

Summer is approaching, and with it, the annual migration of priests. The newly ordained will soon be arriving at their first parish.  Some priests will move from one parish to another. Other priests will be appointed pastors for the first time.  Pastors will move from one parish to another.  Before any of them arrive at their new parish, they know at least part of what is expected of them.

  • Pope Benedict XVI, at his 14 Apr 2010 General Audience listed three Priestly duties -- the munera: teach, sanctify, and govern.
  • The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) reminds priests they are dedicated to promoting the interests of the interests of the faithful whose souls are now their responsibility so that all who belong to the People of God may attain salvation.
  • Seminary formation includes consideration of other lists of what will be expected
  • The bishop’s assignment comes with its own set of added expectations.

Walking through the parish doors adds yet another set of expectations, the secular expectations. The pastor will be responsible for bookkeeping, human relations, office management, fundraising, personnel supervision and evaluation, school operations, Sacramental preparation, curricula oversight, finance, and building and grounds among others. He’ll have several meetings each week, every week, and somewhere among all those demands on his time he’ll craft homilies, conduct marriage preparation, visit hospitals and care facilities, hear confessions, and celebrate Mass.

The list of expectations starts big and grows exponentially.  He knows what is expected of him but isn’t always sure how to fulfill those expectations.   The answers to “how” can come from an unlikely source – public relations.  Ministry and public relations have more in common than one might think. 

The Public Relations Society of America [PRSA] defines public relations as “… a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations [the Church] and their publics [parishioners].” A slightly different definition of public relations from BusinessDirectory.com reads “The profession or practice of creating and maintaining the goodwill of an organization's various publics" [clergy team, staff, and parishioners]. Public relations techniques can help priests identify potential problems as well as respond to them in a concrete way leading to a successful implementation of a specific change.

The first challenge a newly assigned priest faces occurs when he announces his first change.  Rarely will people say “Thank you for making the change”.  More often, staff and parishioners alike, will say “Father Smith didn’t do it that way”.  That sentiment is based on the phenomenon of Cognitive Dissonance; knowing what it is, why it occurs, and how it manifests is essential in any organization, even a parish. To be fully prepared for his new parish, each priest needs to be familiar with Leon Festinger’s research on Cognitive Dissonance Theory.

According to Festinger, individuals tend to seek consistency between their beliefs and opinions (their cognitions). People’s cognitions are normally in balance.  When cognitions are out of balance, a feeling of discomfort (dissonance) occurs. There are only two ways dissonance is resolved: the new situation is accepted and cognitions change, or its rejected and cognitions remain intact.  Specific examples of Cognitive Dissonance are:

  • an inconsistency between one's actions and one's beliefs. [Stop holding hands during the Our Father];
  • psychological conflict (discomfort) resulting from simultaneously held incongruous beliefs and attitudes [LGBT behavior is disordered; LGBT people are welcome in the church];
  • lack of agreement, consistency, or harmony [Pope Francis warns about global warming; some scientists say global warming does not exist];
  • performing an action that contradicts one’s beliefs, ideas, or values [Standing throughout Communion]

Public relations teaches that there are two truths about change:

            No change is small. No matter how a priest perceives a proposed change – small or not -- change feeds dissonance, and dissonance cannot be ignored.  If people don’t understand the change or why it’s occurring, they’ll likely reduce the dissonance by rejecting the change

            Changes require a clear explanation. If the reason for a change can’t be clearly explained using concrete examples, the change isn’t ready to implement. Understanding and planning for dissonance before the change improves the likelihood of success.

There are specific steps that can be taken both before, and after a change that encourage successful implementation.  Among them are:

            Provide opportunities for people to learn why the change is being made. The best way to do that is to engage people personally. Being in the gathering space before and after Mass and circulating during coffee time are what people expect.  Try being someplace unexpected. When was the last time people saw their priest in the parking lot before or after Mass? If there’s a school, do the parents in the student pick-up line ever see a priest walking down the line of cars? The more interaction the less dissonance.

          Help people change one or more of their attitudes.  Bulletin columns, altar announcements, and short orientation/formation sessions are all possibilities. Each parish has unique opportunities to provide information that fuels change.  The priest doesn’t have to do this all on his own.  Parish leaders can be extraordinarily helpful for distributing information both formally and informally.

            Provide new information that will outweigh the dissonance. Offer copies of church documents. Reproduce articles. Use bulletin inserts explaining why the change needs to occur. Make use of social media and parish web site.

            Reduce the importance of the cognitions (i.e. beliefs, attitudes). Use words like “can”, “may”, “should”.  Avoid concrete “must do” words.  Give the people the opportunity to accept the changes on their own terms.

While public relations principles provide suggestions for successfully dealing with Cognitive Dissonance, they also offer techniques that provide ways to successfully address the expectations that priests face. 

            Learn the organizational culture.  Every parish has a unique culture that has developed over time. To be effective, the priest must learn that culture and mold himself to it as much as possible. When people see him embracing the culture, changes he proposes will be more readily accepted.

            Don’t talk about changes no one will see. If the priest changes his day off from Friday to Monday, no one will notice until it’s mentioned.  Announcing a change, any change, feeds the dissonance people are already feeling, and often leads to the opinion that “Father is changing everything!”

            Don’t give specific information to general audiences. If, for example, the priest has an interest or concern with sacred music, it needs to be discussed with the choir director, not the parish.

            Provide information without embellishment. The more information given to the parish, the more opportunities for tension and dissonance arise.  A priest who prefers to be called “Father Jones” needs do nothing more than introduce himself that way; no explanation is needed. Anything more invites people to draw unfavorable first impressions or comparisons to the previous priest – Father Jake.

Public relations has a tenant for effective leadership that priests would do well to follow: Drive in your own lane.  It sounds simple enough; priests do priest stuff.  Choirs do choir stuff.  Liturgists do liturgical stuff.  It may not sound difficult, but it is a huge challenge. There are several things the priest can do to keep himself in his own lane.

            Accept the Wisdom of Crowds. The central thesis is that a diverse group of people will likely reach decisions that are better than any one individual or expert will reach. 

            Let committees do their job.  Committees are there to support the priest, take away some of the pressures, and provide expert advice. Liturgy, Art and Environment, Social Justice, and Athletics committees exist because people want to help – let them.

            Let them make mistakes.  If the mistake’s effect isn’t serious, that is, it won’t cause scandal, isn’t contrary to church teaching, or won’t introduce unacceptable dissonance in some fashion – let the mistake occur.  There’s a teachable moment in a mistake.  Letting a committee “run” with an idea gives them a sense of ownership that can translate to a more centered faith.

            Encourage a collaborative environment.  Inspire an environment of trust and inclusion. Encourage parishioners to see themselves as valued contributors, help them build their knowledge base, expand their personal networks, and motivate them to offer their ideas and perspectives in service of a common goal. Seek out and personally invite people to participate. When people are included in parish activities, their faith life becomes more central and more important to them and helps reduce dissonance.

Douglas Merrill, a former Chief Information Officer at Google, observed “All of us are smarter than any of us”. It’s a basic principal easily applied to a parish. Beyond the obvious applications of parish committees and staff, it applies to correspondence as well.  If what the priest writes isn’t confidential, at least one other person should read it. The priest should visit the parish web site as well as reviewing Facebook and Twitter submissions just to see what others see.   A grammar mistake or a misspelled word not only dilutes the effectiveness of the message but also invites a negative impression.

A priest can’t forget that he also has an external “audience”. Is the parish having a carnival?  Have the neighbors, police, and emergency responders been told?  Everyone knows that traffic for the Christmas and Easter Masses will be a special challenge.  Are police aware of the times when people will be entering and leaving the church?

Media expectations need forethought. Who can speak for the parish?  If the pastor isn’t available, can the associate or business manager act in his stead? How does the priest prepare for those times, scheduled and not, when called upon to face a TV camera crew?  The diocese will certainly provide guidance for responding to a sexual abuse situation, a new bishop’s appointment, and a move or elevation of a diocesan priest. It might not have time to provide guidance on the Pope’s latest comments.  The media will often have only a small window to get their story; if the priest can’t be available, makes himself unavailable, or says nothing more than “no comment”, an opportunity to mitigate negative aspects of a situation has escaped and can’t be recovered.  Every parish needs procedures in place for how to respond to these situations.  Getting in front of the “bad” stories sometimes means placing good ones ahead of time. The priest needs to be familiar with diocesan policy and the bishop’s preferences regarding media contacts. When a parish activity may be of interest to an external audience, and it’s within diocesan policy, consider inviting media coverage.  Media is more than TV; include print and radio sources.  Keep a list of local media outlets, phone numbers, addresses, email addresses and contacts.

Being prepared to appear on camera, whether live or taped, requires special skills.  Perhaps the diocese can provide some help.  The Chamber of Commerce is a possible source for help. A Toastmaster’s club is a wonderful source.  A local community college might offer a course or two. Parishioners can also help; there will probably be at least a handful that routinely do presentations as part of his or her job.

Priests arriving at new parishes this summer bring with them a monstrous list of expectations.  They have help in meeting them, however, from an unlikely source.   When combined, Priests, Pastors, and Public Relations form an unbeatable response to the challenges of the modern parish.

[Accepted by and pending publication in The Priest]

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