Virtually News pt 2.

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!

Posted in congregations, elders, ministry, newsletters, newsletters, publicity, roles, stewardship, tools for mininsters, websites | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

virtually news – part 1

This is my third blog post. Like most ministers and rabbis, I have plenty to say and no end of opinions. Right now I am between congregations, but as a minister I had the forums of pulpits, newsletter articles, the occasional interview, and of course, personal conversations and counseling.

There are conventions around most of these transactions. We get training (however rudimentary) for pastoral counseling, and there are any number of books and traditions on crafting “sermons that work.” Today I was considering passing along some excellent advice for church newsletter editors from Rev. Charles A. Gaines. I found it very useful when I took over that task from our church administrator.

But now many congregations no longer send out a paper newsletter. It is so much more cost-effective to post the news on a website or email it to everyone. Unfortunately, that leaves out a number of people who do not have access to the internet or have a hard time with attachments. And sometimes this includes the older people who nurtured, grew and financed their religious home through tough times and costly projects. They are thereby cut off from the life of the congregation and the events that keep people close. They may not hear about life passages. They don’t even know about their opportunities to support the institution they love. As for me, I just prefer a hard copy that I can carry around with me to read at odd moments, or file for future reference. I have more than enough to read online, and I appreciate being able to step away from the computer and read about people now and then. And I confess, it often made its way into the bathroom.

It’s normal for us to lose patience with old technology and slower methods. But I still believe that it is cost-effective to create and mail some sort of printed newsletter for those who need them. Furthermore, it is the loving, considerate, and respectful thing to do for our members, whether they are wise, crotchety, or absent. And then we can also have some around for visitors to take home with them as well.

What do you think? How does your congregation handle this issue?

Next week, I will get back to my original topic, which is the content and design of newsletter on paper vs. the plastic medium of the internet, and some of the issues that virtual news creates. I am sure that we all have lots to say.

Posted in communication, congregations, elders, newsletters, newsletters, respect, stewardship, tools for mininsters, Uncategorized, websites | 2 Comments

It’s All in the Family

One of my mentors, Rev. Charles Gravenstine, believes that the only really effective kind of pre-marital counseling is to have the couple prepare and discuss Genograms. Genograms are family trees of behavior that were developed by Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson. A Genogram is a graphic tool that allows ministers and couples to visualize hereditary patterns and psychological factors that will effect their relationships. It can be used to identify repetitive generational patterns of reactions, family cultures and behavior and to recognize inherited tendencies, like addictions or diseases.  

 All sorts of counselors, clinican and geneologists use genograms in their work, as they not only reveal the past, but also warn of the patterns that people are likely to fall into, whether unconsiously or just unthinkingly.  

 For instance, one family may treat differences by ignoring or even estranging the offender. They know no other way of handling conflicts. A person entering into a marriage may have no way of knowing that his/her behavior is extreme or even negotiable. But the unsuspecting partner may benefit from knowing that their arguments may result in silence and withdrawal at best, and know how to interpret the treatment. Indeed, the couple may be able to discuss their ways of arguing and even negotiate some changes in advance. It requires each individual to have some frank discussions with their own families in order to unearth many of these patterns, but weddings offer an excellent reason for reminiscing and most couples find it enriches these relationships. In fact, many people are relieved to know that their behaviors were learned, and that they do not have to follow the family trend. They can take control of their actions and their fates. Forewarned is forearmed. 

 Other examples of family patterns include father/son estrangement (typical of Eugene O’Neill’s family, as well as addictions), domestic violence, and depression

 Genograms are not that hard to use. The trickiest part is learning the symbols for the different elements, and using them consistently. One step is to buy the original book, Genograms: Assessment and Intervention by Monica Goldrick and Randy Gerson. There are also computer software programs that diagram the chart for you. One site to check is Another is Genopro, which has a free trial program available at You can also google some of the many sites available online.  

 Even if you don’t you use Genograms consistently, they are an excellent tool for clergy, whether for pre-marital counseling, marriage conflicts, or your own personal family perspective.  

 The past is always present. But we can only appreciate it if it doesn’t have the power to control us.

Posted in addictions, divorce, families, family conflict, family patterns, growth, marriage, pastoral counseling, pre-marital counseling, tools for mininsters, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Clergy in Crisis

Most people go into the ministry to make the world a better place by inspiring people to live more Godly and courageous lives. We hope to be both models and mentors to people in their struggles to find meaning out of suffering, cruelty, and frustration. And we want them to feel the wonder and mystery of creation.

But we ministers are human too, and are subject to the same problems and frailties. We struggle with fear, weakness, and despair. We wrestle with doubt about our purpose and direction, and worry that we are not wise enough to serve our congregations through the conflicts and difficulties that arises. Even success has its costs, requiring knowledge and authority that we’re not sure we have.

Ministers have a high burn-out rate. Sometimes it’s due to a crisis in faith, but I think that most of the time it is because we feel that we are failing our congregations. We do not feel that we have the wisdom, the skills, or the discipline we need to lead a church or synagogue. It’s hard to achieve our goals. And that affects all of our relationships – with members and leaders, with our families, and even with God.

It’s a spiritual crisis, but with practical solutions.

I started this blog as a forum for congregational clergy to address the issues and practices that lead to better ministry, to look at common problems and find help and support during crises. As a Clergy Coach, I find that religious leaders rarely take the time they need simply to focus on the bigger picture and to create practical, workable goals. I plan to use this blog to present weekly topics and suggestions to enrich your calling. I hope this blog will help you to become a more centered, skillful and satisfied minister.

Posted in burn-out, calling, congregations, goals, God's work, ministry, rabbis, spiritual crisis, Uncategorized, vision | Leave a comment