Communications

The sabbatical policy of our church was put into place more than 20 years ago and has functioned well through several pastoral sabbaticals. But the world is changing and not everything remains the same after the passage of time. One of the aspects of the sabbatical is the process of reporting. In order for the congregation and pastor to benefit from a period of separation, they need to know what has happened during that separation. When the sabbatical policy was drawn up, it was assumed that the reporting would be done in writing. Members of the congregation could read the report of the pastor. The pastor could read the reports of the boards and departments of the church. The policy assumed that these reports would be exchanged after the sabbatical. The process actually worked pretty well in the early years.

These days, however, we live with the expectation of a constant news cycle. Email has overtaken the U.S. mail as the channel for distribution of meeting minutes and other official communications. We are so used to constant communication, that we have no patience for delays. It is not at all uncommon for me to receive text messages on my phone when I fail to answer an email on my day off. People expect instant responses.

Since 2007, I have posted this journal online every day, so those who are interested are able to check in and see what I am thinking. Part of that process is that I sometimes forget that most people are not looking at this web site. Since I have written my reactions and recorded my adventures, I think that others know what has been going on. But having written a document does not mean that it has been read. Communication assumes both reading and writing. The journal, furthermore, is out of step with most blogs. My posts are long and require readers to take some time to process their information. They stand in stark contrast to the constant chatter of twitter feeds.

Early in my seminary career, one professor gave us an assignment to write a few aphorisms to live by. An aphorism is a pithy and short observation. They often contain general truths without being very specific. Aphorisms are the kinds of phrases that you often see on church signs and they are what tweets are supposed to be. It is said that Benjamin Franklin was a master of the aphorism. “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Others have claimed that much of the material that appeared in Poor Richard’s Almanac was simply collected from the conversation of the day and reflected the times more than specific thought by Franklin.

What I discovered back then, and am aware of now, is that I don’t think in aphorisms. I am challenged to say much of anything in one or two sentences. I’m no good at titles, something to which members of my congregation, especially those who read the church bulletin, are well aware. My preferred way of communicating is a personal essay.

In the church, however, it is always necessary to communicate important information in a variety of media in several different ways. We use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. We have an electronic newsletter and also produce a printed document that is delivered to some members through the post office. We have video monitors that flash announcements in the entryway of our church. We make announcements from the pulpit during worship. We print announcements in the church bulletin. We answer questions about church programs over the phone. We have learned that the best communicated messages have been circulated through a lot of different media. No single channel of communication accomplishes the task.

So communicating the results of the sabbatical will have to take different forms. There will be an element of storytelling and oral reporting. There will be a formal written report that will be included in the annual reports of the church. There are already the 92 essays that I have posted in my online journal. Sunday we showed pictures of the Japan portion of our sabbatical in the fellowship hall after church for people to see.

Right now, I am having an equal difficulty finding out what has been going on in the church during our absence. I have quite a bit of information, but there are plenty of questions and gaps in my understanding. The key to obtaining this information is listening. While I have the urge to speak and report what we have been doing, it is essential that I keep quiet and listen carefully to understand what the congregation has been doing. It is a good discipline for me to assume the role of a listener.

All of this is taking place in the context of an ever-changing world. The church is shifting its position in the social order. One of the things that we noticed in our travels is that our congregation is not unique in its older age profile, its worries about the lack of children and youth participation in the church, its struggles with commitment from younger members, and its anxieties about the future. It is easy to bemoan the changes. It is easy to become discouraged and even disgusted with what seems to be a lack of commitment on the part of church members, it is a reality. Those who choose to participate in the church and those who are called to lead it will have to wrestle with these issues long into the future. A change of leadership will not change the character of the congregation. And no congregation can separate itself from the realities of its social context.

As we come back together into a new season of the relationship between pastor an parish, we are well aware that the sabbatical has changed us. Now our task is to learn from what has happened as together we invest in the future of our church and move into the future together.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!