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10 steps on breaking bad news to a congregation and community

By Eric Seiberling

Whether the boiler just failed in the middle of winter, there’s been a break-in, or a staff member was unexpectedly let go, bad news travels fast and can create chaos in your church. The actions and words of the pastor and church leaders can shape the perception of how the congregation and community feel and may have broad ramifications that last well beyond the moment and must be handled with extreme care.

When you find your church in the middle of a situation, clear communication can be the best defense against the rumors, gossip and innuendo that often create turmoil. This creates the time and space for leaders to effectively address the situation instead of worrying about the perceptions of the congregation and community.

Here are ten steps your church needs to follow to get ahead of bad news:

1. Don’t panic.

It is easy to get caught up in the emotions of an event, whether they are sadness, anger, or despair. As a leader, people will reflect your emotions. Take a deep breath, remain calm and proceed. If your annual conference has a crisis plan in place, consult the plan before taking any additional steps and follow protocols.

2. Convene your team.

Get church leaders together immediately and share what has happened. Stick to the facts and do not add your own commentary. Be mindful if there are legal regulations you must observe in the case of personnel issues. This is a time for the team to be informed about what is going on and that they need to be careful of what they say and do. Take the time to pray as a group and outline what the immediate steps will be and the timeframe in which they will be carried out. Think hours vs. days for action as the longer it takes to respond, the more likely that trouble will grow.

3. Contact your conference communications director.

If it is an actual crisis or likely to attract more attention, your conference communications director will want to help you develop a plan. They are trained in handling media crises, and this is not a time that you want to be operating on your own. Don’t wait until you are contacted by local media to make the call. If it is an externally visible crisis, also inform your district superintendent as you do not want them to get caught off guard by a reporter if they are asked to make a statement.

4. Investigate what happened and the impact of the crisis.

If needed, confirm the facts around the crisis and get as much additional information as is legally permissible. Create a small team to seek to understand what happened and to assess the extent of the crisis. For personnel issues, this may be limited to the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC), while other issues can involve a broader team. Take the time to outline the potential impacts of the crisis and how to best mitigate them for the church.

5. Take the time to listen.

Depending on the nature of the crisis, take the time to listen to parishioners and monitor social media sites to understand what is being said and what fears are being expressed. Crises create fear, uncertainty and doubt, and as leaders, your job is to understand how people are feeling so you can address their concerns in a direct and compassionate manner.

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6. Develop your message.

As a leadership team, review what happened, the potential impacts and the concerns of your various audiences, then determine what you want to communicate. Develop a written response that everyone can agree with and that complies with any applicable laws. Do not make excuses or blame others for what has happened but directly own what your church is responsible for and apologize if it is appropriate. State the facts of what has happened (if permissible) and the steps that will be taken to address the situation. Never make negative or disparaging comments, but express hope, love and forgiveness for all involved. Consider having the church or conference communications director and legal counsel review the statement to prevent any missteps.

7. Determine who will deliver the message and what communication channels you will use.

Determine how you are going to share your statement as quickly as possible. Make sure to include online and offline channels, as well as address it Sunday morning. Identify a specific spokesperson to handle all inquiries and inform all of your church leaders to direct any inquires to that person. Often it will be the church pastor, lay leader and committee chair for the appropriate committee (like trustees for a building issue or SPRC for a personnel issue). If you are not the spokesperson, do not comment on the crisis but state what is in the agreed upon message and refer the individual to talk to the right person to discuss their concerns. Gossip often fans the flame of a crisis, and increases its damage to the congregation.

8. Get the word out.

The faster the church responds to the crisis with a well-crafted message and a method to handle any questions or concerns, the sooner the pressure will start to be alleviated and managed.

9. Monitor and react as needed.

Stay engaged in listening, adapting and responding to the conversation both on and off-line. Continue to accept responsibility for your church’s role in the crisis (as appropriate) but do not respond negatively or defensively. This will only make matters worse.

10. Learn from it.

Once the crisis is over, gather the team again and review what caused the crisis and how to prevent it from happening again. Also, take the time to understand the effectiveness of the crisis management efforts and how the team could better react in the future.

A response needs to happen in hours, not days. While churches need to act with deliberateness and caution, a slow response can allow a crisis to spin out of control. Take the time to get in front of the crisis and follow up as promised. Here are 5 more tips from United Methodist Communications on how to stay ahead of the curve.