What makes for a good congregational newsletter? Should it be purely informational, or should it have articles on theology? And what approach should the minister take in the publication?
When I was a small church minister, I took over the role of newsletter editor from our administrator. I have very high standards for grammar and writing, and so I wanted to have the last word on the contents. After all, the readership wasn’t limited to members. As Unitarian Universalist church consultant Rev. Charles A. Gaines advised, a newsletter should be sent to the largest audience possible, including the religion editors at newspapers, local realtors, and of course, donors. I used my editorial powers to shorten articles when necessary, but I also alienated a few members on occasion when I corrected their submissions. Was it worth it in the long run? I’m still not sure. Perhaps the real question is whether it’s a task the minister should take.
These days, web pages and digital versions are replacing printed versions. More and more newsletters are being sent electronically, sometimes to neglect of traditional forms (which we discussed in last week’s post). The production is much more likely to fall to a member or even a paid webmaster. Obviously, we can all use the time this saves us. But we should still make sure that our readers get the best impression of our congregations that they can. So at the risk of a very long post, I am going to list some of Rev. Gaines’s recommendations, amended a bit for the digital age.
• A newsletter should build morale. Morale relates to the positive feelings that come from having a sense of purpose, seeing results, and being confident about the future.
• Your newsletter should be targeted to various constituencies: your leaders, your contributors, other participants and recent newcomers. A congregation focusing on growth should devote 30% of your newsletter on recent newcomers.
• The first page should be directed to newcomers and fostering high morale. The lead article for each publication should be positive. There is always the temptation to announce some upcoming event that you want people to attend in your lead article. Resist the temptation and report on some positive accomplishment or result from some past event. Your church school enrollment is up by 10% – announce it! You just renovated the rest rooms – report it! Ten of you walked for hunger – report it! Whatever says to those who don’t know you well that you are accomplishing things and experiencing a positive momentum will help convince newcomers you are the place for them, as well as telling your current members that their efforts are worthwhile.
• A minister’s column is necessary, but it should have a pastoral approach rather than tell of church events. This column can be the only source for your outreach ministry to shut-ins and others who do not attend regularly. It also serves as a personal connection to newcomers who want to know you better. Minister’s columns are best when they appear somewhere besides the first page. If they are good, people will open up the newsletter to read them. If they are not, and they appear on the first, many won’t even open the newsletter at all.
• Don’t forget to apply the five W’s: who? What? When? Where? And why? To your articles. The why is both the most difficult to write and most often ignored. Then there is also the “how to” if you want people to respond. A generic request for “showing up” usually defeats your purpose. Sign-up sheets or spotting the person wearing the hat at coffee hour are more concrete and personal.
• Pay attention to your layout, printing, and paper quality [font type and color schemes]. The best newsletter content can be lost in a sea of words or it is hard to read or messy in appearance. Use bullets, columns, and borders to spice up the appearance and at the same time keep them in balance. Most people glance at a newsletter [or scroll through] so what they see at a glance counts. [Dark backgrounds and light ink may be more striking, but they can be harder for some readers, so use this look sparingly or with large type].
• Resist negative, cute, and code-word writing. “UUA” [or “SBA” or “ELCA”] saves space, but it doesn’t help newcomers know you. The negative headline “Budget Goal Not Met” might be changed to “Stewardship Increased by 15%” and still be true.
• Identify yourself with each issue. Your congregation’s addresses, full phone number, email and webpage addresses, and the names of leaders and staff members should be included. [On the other hand, anything publicly available on the website should not include personal information or phone numbers. This may mean making one version available only to members, or instead sending more sensitive materials – such as members’ ailments, contact information, and even children’s full names – in emails instead].
• Resist removing names from your mailing too early. The cost is minimal when compared to a contribution that may only come later, rather than sooner.
• Other recommendations: copy edit before publishing [an extra set of eyes is good]. Don’t be afraid of showing some enthusiasm! [But, I might add, don’t overdo it on the exclamation points!]
With digital versions, newsletters can be longer without affecting the cost. Photographs and graphics can brighten the page and illustrate events. You can even include links to outside events and denominational websites. How will this impact our readers’ experience and attention span? These are new questions that should influence how we arrange our articles and where we place information.
What are your congregations doing to respond to the change in media? And what have you heard from your members? We have a lot to learn!