By Chris Turner
Director of Communications, TBC
The reputations of churches today are just one crisis away from potentially being destroyed, and an overwhelming majority of churches are not prepared to manage even the slightest level of hostility that is becoming more prevalent in today’s American culture.
That may come across as a hard statement but it is unfortunately true. I’ve been involved in crisis communications and media relations for 13 years. When things come crashing down in a church’s world, those not prepared wind up taking huge hits to their reputations.
The most recent example is the church in Colorado (see related story, “Established Procedures Needed,” on page 3) that decided to abruptly change its decision minutes before hosting a funeral for a homosexual. It had initially agreed days earlier to do it, however the emerging issue was a video that had not been screened beforehand. It was finally reviewed right before the proceedings and church leaders felt it glorified a lifestyle with which they didn’t agree. The result: An avoidable crisis that turned out to be a reputational disaster for the church.
Many people are caught off guard when crises blindside their church and are absolutely unprepared to deal with the community and the media scrutiny that rapidly follows. The variety of crises is unfortunately endless and can relate to everything imaginable: impropriety, abuse, public comments, and so much more.
Surprisingly, crisis researchers have found the majority of non-natural disaster crises had been percolating for some amount of time before they escalated to “a breaking crisis.” That means something disruptive to the church’s operation, and potentially threatening to its reputation, took root and grew as part of it’s DNA until it erupted.
Here’s the reality, there are usually two types of organizations in the world: Those that have had a crisis and those whose crisis hasn’t yet happened. So, with the majority of crises slow in the making and preventable, here are three questions leaders of churches should ask themselves to reduce risks and lessen the possibility of a crisis.
(1) Are you creating favorable conditions for a crisis?
Obviously there is no way to control or prevent every crisis, but a significant number of church crises are due to denial; i.e. not wanting to discuss the hard possibilities before they happen. Crises drain away a church’s reputation and resources the longer they continue and the worse they are handled. Unfortunately, too many churches compound the issue and create self-inflicted crises because they don’t respond well or quickly to the issues in which they find themselves embroiled. Wise church leaders examine their cultures to identify if conditions are favorable for crises.
(2) Are you paying attention to the environment in which you operate?
Too often churches are so focused on doing their “thing” they fail to keep a pulse on the surrounding environment. For instance, churches across America should right now be creating crisis plans in light of what’s happened with this Colorado church. The point: review how a variety of issues would be handled and how leaders would express their positions. Both should be defined in a crisis communications plan that would help them respond positively, and at the least, limit the damage.
(3) Are your reacting quickly enough when a crisis develops?
Crisis response time is critical. Respond quickly and effectively and a church positively effects the conditions and trajectory of the crisis. Respond slowly and clumsily and people begin to get the impression the church’s leaders are incompetent and are not being transparent.
Crisis planning and practice significantly improves response time, but churches have to periodically evaluate their environments internally and gauge the cultural climate regularly to make sure they are ready to confidently and quickly act in case a crisis happens.
“Sudden” crises are much easier to prevent than most people believe, but it takes a willingness on the part of church leadership to engage the issue.
The Bible tells Christians to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. Wisdom dictates we should put as much effort into protecting our churches as we do in executing our ministries.