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Ready for Better Communication at Church?

February 7, 2024 jill Blog
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By Margaret Marcuson

Historically, churches have always struggled with communication. Whether it’s trying to let people know about new programs, or recruiting coordinating volunteers, or communicating the vision—we face a long list of communication challenges.

Pastors I coach say, “We need a communications committee that works,” or “We’ve got to get someone on staff to handle communications.” As useful as those fixes can be, they don’t address the more fundamental challenge: addressing the emotional side of communication.

Communication is rooted in relationships. How and whether people hear you depends on what kind of relationship they have with you. This is true even in large churches where people may not know you personally. It’s true when a parent speaks to a child, when a president addresses the nation, and when I write you an email.

Edwin Friedman talked about this emotional side of communication in A Failure of Nerve. His ideas have helped me more than any other communication training I’ve had. Friedman talked about what he called three interrelated variables: direction, distance, and anxiety.


When you are trying to communicate with others, pay attention to what direction they are moving emotionally. Are they coming toward you or moving away from you? Do their eyes light up? Or do they glaze over? Typically, what we do when someone’s eyes glaze over is this: we keep talking. We think if we marshal better arguments they will come around.

What to do instead? I recommend you stop pursuing those who aren’t getting the message. Instead, connect. Stay in touch, without trying to persuade. Be patient—it may take months or even years for some folks.


When you set out to deliver a message, assess how close or far the person is, emotionally. You may have trouble communicating if the person is either too close to you or too far from you.

Too close: if there’s no emotional space, there’s no room to communicate. A parent can try like crazy to communicate the value of education with no response. Then the kid comes home quoting a friend’s parent, with the same message. Why? There’s more emotional space in the relationship, and so more ability to hear the message.

Too far: if you aren’t well enough connected with people, they won’t be able to hear you. There’s not enough of a relationship. They are too far from you emotionally. At church, this might show up in the finance committee when the chair can’t hear what the relatively new pastor is saying, but can hear it from a long-time member on the committee.


When people go to the doctor, they can find it hard to remember what the doctor says. It’s not just the medical jargon: their anxiety is higher, and they find it harder to process the information.

When anxiety in a congregation goes up, communication will be more difficult. Anxiety is like static. People simply can’t hear as easily. In a time of major transition, or when there’s a big conflict, pay even more attention to communication. Don’t be surprised if people act like they’ve never heard a message. They haven’t. Be patient.

If you pay attention to these three variables, you will almost automatically communicate better and be less frustrated.

10 Smartest Things You Can Do to Improve Communication

Take a look at this list – give yourself a pat on the back for the ones you’re already doing, and then experiment with adding in the new ones.

  1. Know the purpose for every communication. If you are writing anything, write this sentence first: the purpose of this __________ is ___________. You will automatically communicate better. If you are calling someone, know your purpose before you dial the number. When you’re facilitating a meeting, clearly state the purpose up front, and come back to it again and again.
  2. Define yourself. Say as clearly as you can what you think, want, believe, or hope for. The effort of getting clear for yourself will improve your communication.
  3. Don’t worry about convincing people, just say it. Let go of how people will respond to your ideas. Don’t try to talk people into anything. It never works in the long term, and your ideas get lost in the process.
  4. Focus on people who are motivated. Don’t chase after people who don’t want to listen. No matter how valuable your message, they can’t hear you. Whether they are church members or your own teenagers, the principle is the same. Look for those who are motivated, whose eyes light up. They are ready for your message – so share it with them.
  5. Communicate with the listener/reader in mind. Even as you are defining yourself, think about those who will receive the message. What motivates them? What language do they use? Help them hear your message.
  6. Avoid insider jargon. Assume people don’t know Christian shorthand, Bible stories, or church acronyms. It’s better to over-explain than under-explain. One of the best ways to make newcomers feel like outsiders is to talk in cryptic language.
  7. Listen as much as you talk. In any meeting or conversation, monitor how much you are talking. Stop and listen from time to time. Don’t be a pastor who monologues.
  8. When you listen, listen fully. Spend your listening time seeking to understand the other. Don’t be too distracted by formulating an answer. If you need to answer, it’s all right to say, “I need to think about this.” Then come back to them with a clear purpose and response.
  9. Over-communicate when anxiety is high (and at all other times, too). Don’t assume one communication is enough. Communicate multiple times and in multiple ways. At times of transition or stress in the congregation, anxiety will make it even harder for people to hear. Double your efforts to get the message out. Never take it personally if someone doesn’t get the message.
  10. Remember to keep it brief. We remember sound bites, not entire speeches. Leave people wanting more. Now more than ever, people need a short, clear message.

Margaret Marcuson helps clergy get lighter and less burdened by their ministry so they can have more influence with less stress. Get a checklist for sustainable ministry by visiting


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