By Chris Turner
Director of Communications, TBC
Picture this scenario from a pastor’s perspective. A same-sex couple contacts you on Thursday and asks you to officiate their wedding ceremony. You politely decline. Friday the couple is making the rounds on the local news. In their mind, you’re a narrow-minded bigot violating their 14th Amendment rights. Your cell phone blows up with interview requests. You decline, and by Sunday when you pull into the church parking lot, news reporters and their trucks everywhere.
Driving through the lot, out the other side, and continuing on to Alaska may look like a reasonable option at the time, but it’s really not. What should you really do? Actually, it’s what should you have done long before now that would have made a difference and prepared you for the moment.
There are generally two types of organizations in the world — those who have had a crisis and those whose crisis hasn’t occurred yet. Preparation is critical if your church is to weather the storm and maintain its witness. Here are a number of tips to help you and your church be prepared for addressing difficult issues — not just the same-sex marriage issue — and to effectively communicate your position on anything.
Prepare your documents. This means the church’s constitution and bylaws documents. Make sure those documents clearly state where the church stands on membership and marriage and define those positions biblically. This is also a perfect time to rigorously address all the ugly scenarios that could unfortunately visit your church and have frank discussions about how the church would respond.
Communicate those positions to the church. Church leaders — both paid and lay leaders — remember your people. Prepare them. Don’t leave members of your congregation with no understanding of where the church stands and how they should communicate it. They are the ones who have to go out into the marketplace Monday through Friday and field questions about what their church and pastor are doing and saying. Equip them practically as well as spiritually.
Create speaking points. It is important that everyone understand how to clearly and concisely communicate the church’s position. Think about all the questions that someone might ask then formulate concise responses. Rehearse these so everyone understands what to say. The objective is to be as familiar as necessary with what was done and why so that they can be confident under the pressure of an interview.
Express empathy. Tons of research over the years reveals that what you say in the first 30 seconds determines how well you connect with your audience. Being empathetic (and not defensive) is key. Also, your non-verbal communications (body language, facial expressions, etc.) determine how believable you are. Being confident in what you are saying is absolutely the key to successful non-verbal communication, and confidence comes from preparation.
Remember Q+A+1. That’s Question, plus Answer, plus one speaking point. Politicians often ignore the question and jump to their speaking point. That is totally disingenuous. Respond to the question with a short answer then “bridge” to one of your speaking points. Some bridge words are: “but,” “and,” “however,” “at the same time,” “in addition to,” etc.
Q: “Wouldn’t you say that Christians are intolerant toward same-sex couples?”
A: “No, I wouldn’t say that. That is how they are often portrayed …
Bridge plus one: …“However, I believe most Christians desire to love their neighbors and are open to a dialogue that enables both sides to better understand each other.”
WATCH OUT! Avoid the media traps. Media traps are subtle ways reporters seek to trip you up to get you to say something you don’t want to say. Examples are: speculation (“How do you assume this will play out if …”), blind sources (“Someone in your church sent us information that …”), and personal opinion (“But in your opinion …”). Some others are abruptly interrupting your answers to disrupt your thought, trying to get you to affirm a negative statement, giving you the silent treatment and getting you to fill it, and an oldie but a goodie: the bait and switch where they tell you they want to interview you on one topic then switch to another during the interview. (In that case politely refuse to do the interview, saying, “That’s not what my understanding of the interview was to be and I’m not prepared to speak on that topic at this time.”)
NEVER say, “No comment.” Research shows that people who respond to questions by saying, “No comment,” lose all credibility, are perceived as distrustful, and assumed to be covering up something. Never say, “no comment.” Remember, develop those speaking points.
See the opportunity. In reality, most reporters on the local level are just trying to get some information to better understand what’s going on. The interview really can be an opportunity to communicate biblical truth in a humble way to an audience who may never have otherwise heard the gospel. See it as an evangelistic opportunity with a potential ministry component that could potentially help someone come to Christ and find a church home.
Remember, Peter instructs believers to be ready “in season and out of season.” The only way that is going to happen is if pastors, ministers, and church members think ahead and prepare. In so many cases it isn’t if the media will call, but when will they call?
And heading to Alaska is most often not an option.