Some think that my job is a purely technical position. I do spend a lot of time with computers, websites, video-conferencing, social media and other technical media. Yet, those are just tools of the larger picture: communicating. I spend a lot of time with technology, but my work is really about words. Words are powerful things. We fail to realize, as church communicators, how powerful words are in shaping our narrative. Words affect the narrative storyline of the people who listen to us. And, our use of words can even effect our own understanding and worldview.
There is a collection of words that I want to dwell on for a moment. I am not going to attach them to any one person or specific situation. I have heard them in multiple contexts lately. The phrase goes something like this: “If this were the real world, someone would be fired.” Or, “If this were a business, he would lose his job.”
I have heard this phrase spoken in meetings, in one-on-one conversations and read it in emails. It is, in my opinion, a disastrous turn of phrase. Here is why: It furthers the narrative that the church is less competent and less important than the business world, or real world. I am not a fan of that narrative. I believe the church should strive to be as competent or more competent than any business. I know it is of more eternal importance. This way of thinking leads us to continue to operate in a “good enough for church” mentality. I believe God deserves our very best and our words have the power to direct our thinking in a way that is counter to that.
It also casts a broad assumption upon the business world. I have found over the years, that churches can be incredibly slow to let go of people who aren’t a good fit for a position. However, before I worked for the church, I worked in the communications industry. While that business setting seemed to have more flexibility to fire people, they often didn’t. Sometimes gross incompetence would go unchecked for years. Just spend some time reading the business press. Even more important, I found in my experience working in a for-profit environment, that businesses rarely fired someone for making a single mistake, even if it was a big one. Why? Two reasons. One, because it is bad for business. Good employees are expensive. They have to be recruited, hired, trained and paid. After a few years, a company has quite a bit invested in an employee. If that an employee messes up bad, firing them as a punitive measure is not cost-effective. That is especially true if they can learn from the mistake and become a stronger member of the team. Two, because businesses realize that big mistakes are often systemic. If some sort of tragic mistake occurs, wise organizations will look at a lot of factors. Was there enough training and supervision? Were there safeguards in place? Were expectations clearly spelled out?
Before you scroll down and comment, I realize these are also some broad strokes. There are some businesses out there who will fire at the drop of a hat. There are churches like that as well. There are also companies who allow and cover up incompetence to the point it harms the business or even harms people. There are churches like that as well. Churches too often keep staff out of a misplaced sense of compassion and benevolence. But that is whole other topic.
When I was in the radio business, I had a colleague who, like me, was on-air talent, or a D.J., whatever you want to call it. She was talented, committed and great to work with. One day, she started a song and turned off her microphone. She then picked up the phone and continued a heated argument with her boyfriend. She used some words the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t approve of. And here is the bad part, she hadn’t actually turned off her microphone. It was bad. Really bad. Someone finally ran into the studio to get her to turn her microphone off. But the damage was already done. She was called into the office and… not fired. She messed up. She knew she messed up. She knew she couldn’t mess up again. Yet, the company realized that firing her would only be punitive and there would be no other value. She would likely just sit at home for a couple of weeks and then go to work for the competition.
Given all the data, I am not sure what people are trying to convey with this phrase, “If this was the business world, someone would be fired.” I am fairly confident that it isn’t helpful.
If you are reading this, chances are you are a church communicator. Before you say, “No I am not!” hear me out. A church communicator is anyone who speaks on behalf of the church. That includes pastors, staff, Sunday school teachers, greeters, ushers and any member of the church who speaks about the church. You are a church communicator if you are preaching from a pulpit, writing copy for the church newsletter, or talking about church with a friend over lunch. In all those places, words have power. They set the narrative, they create a worldview. Let’s be careful out there.