Putting the Bullet In the Bulletin: One Year Later

At this time last year I was neck deep in designing the content and layout of a print piece that would replace our aging bulletin. As we’re moving into the fall season and ramping up communications for our fall kick off series, I’m taking some time to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes we made a year ago. Here’s the story.


 

Over the course of the past 25 years, the bulletin had seen little change save occasional updates like typefaces, logos, and some minor layout changes. But the basic gist—the half-folded letter, sermon series name on the front, songs on inside left, announcements inside right, contact info on back—had been holding on for quite some time. The bulletin itself was then filled each week with no less than 3 inserts, some of them also being half-folded letter, printed front and back. We were averaging around 2,200 words in every bulletin, it took a minimum of four hours to produce the print documents, and at least 20 volunteer hours to print, fold, cut, and stuff 1,850 bulletins. The majority of which were being thrown away or recycled.

So, in August of 2014, after some open and honest conversations with the leadership team, I set out to develop a new solution to our bulletin woes. The new layout needed to achieve a few particular goals in order to be considered a success:

  • Provide the information needed to welcome a new guest, familiarize them with our church, and begin the assimilation process.
  • Provide a clear means of gathering personal data for our assimilation and next steps processes.
  • Enhance communications on digital platforms (website, social media)
  • Be an effective use of available resources (time, money, staff, and volunteers)

The resulting design was a single 6 x 9 page, color printed on both sides, with a micro-perforated detachable card at the bottom. The look was fresh and colorful, unlike anything that had been produced in the church to date. The copy was reduced to under 300 words, our response card was refined, and next steps were given prominent real estate. In the “no news is good news” sense, the new format, now called the Connection Card, was well received in the first weeks of roll out. There was limited praise, but also surprisingly little negative feedback. A healthy win in my book.

So what now, a year later, can we take away from the change? To answer this, I’ve asked myself three questions: What have we gained? What have we lost? What needs to change?  Here are some answers to those questions.

What Have We Gained?

Focus

The original bulletin was loud and cluttered. It provided a solid 12 minutes of reading material to the average reader. We were promoting everything under the sun, providing song lists, overviews of the current series, and on and on. We approached the new Connection Card with a nod to minimalism, stripping down everything to the most important information. Some of it we moved into other channels, some of it we simply eliminated because it provided no real value. We used to say things like “the bulletin can have a life outside of Sunday.” But then we would put bins at the back of the auditorium to collect them. It made no sense. So the new bulletin was designed solely to exist on Sunday.

Color Printing, Relevant Design

Make no mistake, black-only photocopying makes a statement about how you truly value relevance—especially to savvy millennials who are steeped in fantastic design. You can draw a direct line from your creative efforts to cultural relevancy, an oft claimed underpinning of the modern church. The switch from black-only printing to a thoughtfully designed color piece communicates that we value the creative space and it helps set a precedent for what to expect from the rest of the church experience.

Better Data Collection and Assimilation

By reducing the type and amount of information we collect through the detachable connection card, we made the form less daunting than its predecessor. The process of revising that form shed enough light on our existing data collection and assimilation processes for us to begin taking action in other areas outside of the connection card. A few months later we restructured our entire assimilation process, including the build out of new environments, and have seen incredible returns on that investment. All because the new connection card forced us to ask “Do we really need this?”

Enhanced Digital Communication

Our new Connection Card was designed with the specific intention of forcing us to rely more heavily on digital communications. We couldn’t just eliminate the primary communication channel of our ministries without having a plan to support them elsewhere. But our website was out of date and social media efforts were only just beginning to pick up steam. In order to eliminate page after page of ministry clutter, we had to rethink the way we leveraged our digital channels. This, in turn, led to an overhaul of the website, the development of a social media strategy, and the cultivation of a more effective and dynamic means of communicating to churchgoers. Today, the Connection Card is not used as a promotional tool at all, yet we’ve seen growth in participation both digitally and in various real-life activities. Because we can connect with people on Facebook in a timelier and more frequent way, I believe we’ll continue to see growth in participation in the future.

What Have We Lost?

Agility

The virtue of building your church bulletin on a weekly basis is that if something changes that week, you can usually respond quickly to it. But we now produce our Connection Card on a series basis which can be anywhere from 3 to 7 weeks. Because we don’t use the Connection Card as promotional tool, lack of agility isn’t a major problem. But it’s still something to factor in if you’re considering a switch.

Volunteer Opportunity

The team that printed and assembled the bulletin every week predated my hire by about eight years. This team of nearly 40 volunteers had been working together for 9+ years when I killed the bulletin. I think this may be the biggest loss in the transition to the new Connection Card. Because it’s designed in-house, and then sent out for printing, and is only one page, the need to involve volunteers was eliminated. It was a broader change that needed to be made, but it did mean that this close-knit group of volunteers now had to find new serving outlets. Some did, some did not. The change even alienated a few volunteers because they felt they were being put out to pasture.

One-Stop Shop for Ministries

The previous bulletin provided a weekly place where most ministries could have a voice and a promotional tool. We used to provide an insert called “Next” that served as a promotional calendar for what was coming up. That was completely eliminated and so some ministries now have limited access to promotion. However, to my knowledge we have not experienced a downturn in involvement of activities put on by those ministries. That leads me to believe that we assumed the bulletin was more effective than it really was. The question is, are we now assuming the same thing in regards to our social media? A question for another time, perhaps.

What Needs to Change?

The switch to our new Connection Card, is, in my opinion, a success. It has met the goals it set out to meet and has been a useful tool in assimilating new guests and helping people take next steps in their faith. The tendency might be to leave well enough alone and move on to something else that needs attention. But someone once said to me “If it ain’t broke, break it.” It really annoyed me at the time, but now I understand it. It’s time to put the Connection Card under the microscope to see if there are ways to make it better. Where does it fail? Does copy need to be revised? Does the layout still feel fresh or is it time for a design update? Do the ministries that rely on it have more insight that I haven’t considered?

Conclusion

Nothing in our churches should be outside the realm of constructive criticism. We must constantly call in to question the tools and methods we use to communicate the Gospel, even down to the effectiveness of our bulletins. The Church cannot afford to be raising herds of sacred cows.

5 Steps for Designing Church Infographics

Infographic Design for Churches

In the early part of every year, my church, Parker Hill Community Church, takes a weekend for vision casting. We call this a Vision Weekend and we take this time to communicate what was accomplished through our church over the past year and use it as a springboard for what is ahead. This year we decided to take a more visually appealing approach than we ever have before.

Why Infographics?

Enter the infographic, a highly effective way to aggregate and visualize various forms of data in a creative and memorable way. Infographics have gained a lot of popularity in recent years. When they’re well designed, they are eye-catching and interesting, even if the data or subject matter is less so.

This was our first rodeo with an infographic. And as I’m somewhat new to legitimate graphic design, I had to learn on the fly. Here are 5 importants steps I learned along the way that will inform the way we approach data-driven projects in the future.

Set Your Constraints

Time and budget are the most common externally imposed constraints most church communicators will encounter. But what about self-inflicted limitations? When it comes to creative projects, the mind of a designer reels with possibilities. Setting up constraints on the creative end can be extremely effective all the way through the project. Think in terms of limiting the color palette, or design approach. For instance, our infographic is limited to ten colors and utilizes a flat vector-style graphic designed completely in Illustrator.

This approach gave us a predictable framework to work within, and allowed us to count on a particular outcome from the design. This was ultimately important because we had multiple destinations for the graphic: print, screen, and motion graphics. By planning ahead of time, I was able to make sure the final graphic translated accurately across all different mediums.

Infographics lend themselves to a limited palette. It’s helpful, when communicating data, to use color in predictable ways so that the viewer can quickly scan to find what’s important, what’s descriptive, etc.

Collect and Distill the Data

A lot of church goings-on are very metric-friendly and are quantifiable. (If you’re not already using a church database system to track these things, I would highly recommend it.) Connect with the ministry leaders that can get you accurate data and also provide insight for what goes into the information they give you.

The fun really begins when the info has been collected and it’s sitting in an ominous pile on your desktop. For my project, I started by dividing up the data into sections like Church Stats, Local Impact, and Global Outreach. Those three categories covered the three major areas we wanted to draw attention to during our Vision Weekend. Depending on the size of your project, you could easily add more, but that will also add to the complexity of the design project. The key is to create digestible pieces that can be quickly viewed and understood. As you assemble the data, look for the story it’s telling about your church or event.  The ultimate goal is to take a bunch of numbers and tell a memorable story with them using simple graphics and text. Keep the pursuit of story at the center of your project.

Get Inspired

There are a lot of ways you can approach the design of an infographic. Maybe too many. Austin Kleon says this about creativity in his book, Steal Like an Artist: “In the end, creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out.”

After our data was organized and we had a framework of the story we wanted to tell with it, I was feeling a little like “Okay, now what?” So I hit up one of my favorite infographic resources, Visual.ly, for some inspiration. One of the ways I source design inspiration is through scanning design thumbnails. Sites like Visual.ly, Behance, Dribbble, etc. are great resources for this method. I can pay attention to what grabs me at a glance, and what has a negative effect on me as well. If I lock into something, I’ll take a closer look. What I love about this process is the way a design begins to form itself in the mind. Shapes, colors, and ideas begin to find their place in the design before I’ve even opened up Photoshop or Illustrator. Relish this process of inspiration as you decide what to include and, more importantly, what to leave out.

Doodles and Wireframes

Now, I have Level Zero sketching skills, but my wife Jennifer, who is a too-legit artist, has taught me a lot, directly and indirectly, about the visual arts over the years. For every painting she does, she begins with an under painting—a sort of painted sketch that helps layout the composition and informs the rest of the work. This is an uber-helpful process when jumping into an infographic project.

Because of the scope of an infographic, sketching out the bones of the design is extremely helpful, especially when done to scale, or thereabouts, and in an “analog” environment. There is so much freedom in a pencil and an eraser. For me, it’s much easier to work this phase on a tactile surface with simple tools, rather than attempting to render it digitally. It comes back to the concept of purposeful limitations. If I attempt to wireframe or sketch an idea in Photoshop, I’m doomed. Inevitably, I end up choosing fonts, hassling with perfect pixel placement, wrestling with color, and on and on. But when I grab a sketchbook, kick back at my desk and just draw an idea (even though I’m deficient in any real drawing skills) I find that the actual production of the design in a digital space goes much smoother and my sketch becomes a roadmap for the rest of the project.

Wrap-Up and Delivery

This was our first step into the world of infographics, and we were bound to have some mistakes, mix-ups, and do-overs. One of them was a lack of clear understanding of what we were driving toward. As often happens, the project started out smaller than it ended up. What began as a simple web graphic, morphed into three large banners, a 2-minute motion graphic, a web graphic, and almost a print version.Next time around, we’ll spend more time on hashing out the plan for each deliverable version of the graphic so that we can spend less time repurposing designs along the way. And that’s true for any project.

I’m a communications guy playing in graphic design; words are my thing. I can’t stress enough the importance of getting eyes on the work before it goes before the masses.  (The best artists and designers I know are terrible at spelling and they like it that way!) If you’re neck deep in the design, you’re probably not in a position to be critical about the accuracy of content. That’s why it’s so important to get fresh eyes on the words and the data before committing to anything permanent. For me, there’s nothing worse than a typo or inaccuracy in a final piece—I get sweaty just thinking about it.

 

Church infographics are a ton of work, I won’t deny it. But they are well worth the effort. We’ve had members showing their visiting friends the infographic banners in our lobby, walking them through each of the different things we did. It allows people to say “Hey, I was a part of that!” and to see how their own giving and serving contributes to the larger picture. I’m also impressed by the way it pulls a team together. This project involved the majority of our staff in some way or another. And the reward of seeing the year’s work summed up in this way was truly inspirational. And now that we’ve done it once, we’ve got tons of ideas for how to make it better next year and we can’t wait to get started.

If you’re considering venturing into an infographic, I’d be happy to share more of our experience with you.

Check out the web version of the Parker Hill Year In Review infographic.

View the motion graphic video below.

Your Church Language Is Getting In the Way

I often wonder what it’s like to walk into church for the very first time. Long term exposure to church culture can quickly cause the “objectivity muscle” to atrophy. We go about our business, speaking the native language, practicing the rituals, forgetting that, to the unbelieving public, there is a major cultural barrier between us and them. Church, as it turns out, is a massive culture shock! And the language we use is a major factor.

One of my favorite examples of breaking this language and cultural barrier comes from Acts 17. Paul has been dragged up to the aeropagus to satisfy the curiosity of the Athenians. I find his first few sentences very telling, and very intriguing. He explains that while he has been there he has been “perceiving” and “observing” various aspects of their religious habits, citing inscriptions on altars to the “unknown god.” He was speaking their language. He took time to listen to the culture and desired to answer the questions they were asking, even if they weren’t verbalizing them. And what did they do? They let him in and said “we will here you again about this.” And that was right after he made claims about the dead being resurrected! He listened, he spoke their language, he answered their questions, and as a result some became believers and joined him. Paul was a master at tearing down walls.

In his book Branding Faith, branding and media expert Phil Cooke observes that we have entered into a “post-Christian society.” What he means by this is that we have isolated ourselves from the language and values of the culture outside of the Church in the same way that (post-modern) society has isolated itself by simply not acknowledging the Church’s values as society once did. Our worlds simply can no longer communicate with each other.

Fixing the Problem

What will it take to fix this church language breakdown? How can we learn to speak the language of the people we’re trying to attract? Here are a few possible starting points.

  1. Stop talking and listen. Listen to what the culture is asking and begin to answer those questions, as Paul did in Athens. More and more you will pick up the language and learn how to communicate more effectively.
  2. When the time comes to open your mouth, speak in a dialect they can understand. The “Christianese” and inside buzzlingo won’t translate. Worry less about sound bytes and Tweetables, and more about loving the people you’re trying to reach.
  3. Respect what they have to say, even if you don’t agree. Communication, as it turns out, is a two-way street. It’s unreasonable to expect that those we reach out to will instantly have the same values and “speech habits” that we do. A little respect will go a long way as they grow to trust your words and actions.
  4. Compelle Intrare – compell them to come in. With so many demands on our attention, it amazes me that anything ever gets through. As a Christian, my attention is already on my relationship with Christ. But that is obviously not the case with the culture outside of the Church. We must prove to be worthy of their attention just to get them in the door and there are many methods of achieving that. We just have to learn to speak their language.

How have your communications efforts surmounted the church language barrier? Share your thoughts in the comments.

 

 

A Blog for All Seasons: Church Communications and More

Blogging and Me

I’ll be up front with everyone, I’ve grown to loathe the word “blog.” I’ve had so many good intentions turn to false starts and wasted hours over the past six or seven years since I’ve been on the blogging scene that the thought of giving it another shot took some real consideration.  My biggest battle with blogging (sorry for the alliteration) has always been my inability to find my platform as a writer. I struggled to be inspired by anything enough to write about it and I wasn’t engaged enough in anything in my life to write about it. Recently, that changed.

Over the past three months dramatic changes have taken place in my personal, professional, and spiritual life. Enough to provide me with the justification to try this again in hopes that I can gain some clarity from the past and apply it to the future, and maybe help some others as well. I’ve been serving in church and para-church ministry for eight of the past 13 years. I’ve learned a lot and I’d like to give something back to the pro-Christians out there serving in churches and faith-based ministries, non-profits, and Christians in the private sector.

My intention is to narrow the scope of topics to three areas: church communications, professional ministry, and Christianity in private industries. I’ll throw some design, critique, and exposé into mix for a little seasoning now and then as well. 

Church Communications

I recently took a position as the Director of Communications at my church. I’m finding it to be a remarkable fit for my unique and varied skill set. Our church is in a great pattern of growth and is at the tipping point for many of its central communications outlets. It is my job to bring those outlets up to the next level to meet the demands that the church’s growth has placed on us and to plot the course for the years ahead. I intend to document this journey here and to offer up discussion on strategy, philosophy, and more for your own application. I claim no particular expertise, only experience and willingness to learn. This is where the primary focus of the blog will be.

Professional Ministry

Warning: The church body is made entirely of humans! And so is the staff that gets paid to operate it. Professional ministry is not a walk in the park. I’d even venture to say that faith-based organizations struggle with an added dimension of missional complication simply because faith plays such an important role in their work life. I mean, how can you really “clock out” on the work of the church? I know there are stories out there just like mine, many are much worse, I’m sure! It is not my intention to rant or commiserate here, simply to gently expose the obstacles inherent in faith-based career work. From the leadership to the followship, there is work to be done, so let’s talk a little about our experience and where it is taking us.

Faith at Work

Did you catch that fancy double entendre? If you didn’t, please try again. I’ve always felt that the workplace is one of the most effective daily tests of our faith that we experience. Whether it is a public or private organization, hostile or friendly to faith, self-employment or corporate, the work we occupy ourselves with every day, and the people we encounter, offer us the most opportunities to prove and improve our faith. That’s what I mean by “faith at work.” It requires a faith at work.

A Blog for All Seasons

I have always been fascinated by the concept of journey; it’s something you’ll hear about from me quite a bit here. And God has proven faithful in every season of the journey he has me on, even when I have not. I’m at a point in my professional and personal life where I can speak to the past seasons of my life with transparency and grace. I have desired for so long to be able to put some thoughts down, to reflect, and to help others learn from my mistakes and my successes–it’s refreshing to be able to offer something back. As I look back on the road behind me, and wonder what’s ahead, I can only know for sure that God will remain faithful and that I must use what I have to help others, even if it doesn’t seem like much. So welcome to my journey.