Pastors and Leaders: Ignore the Power of Media At Your Own Peril

Last week, Freedom House Church in Charlotte, North Carolina was confronted by the incredible power and influence of the media. When a member of the church’s leadership team sent an email to the congregation asking for “only white people” to greet at its front doors in an effort to “bring [the church's] racial demographic pendulum back to mid-line,” the leaked email set off a firestorm of criticism. The church, realizing the mistake, immediately apologized the next Sunday to the entire congregation. It was an unfortunate incident, but as I’ll point out, similar conversations in church and ministry leadership meetings happen all the time. Conversations meant to be perfectly innocent, can backfire with serious results. To that point, here’s a few thoughts:

1) First, it’s important to note that the church handled the crisis response very well.  Kudos to Pastor Troy Maxwell who immediately apologized and publicly offered to make things right. He didn’t blame anyone, he just took responsibility. That’s what a good leader does in difficult situations.

2) What is said in leadership team meetings isn’t necessarily public information.   In this case, I can imagine the church’s legitimate concern that potential visitors see the racial diversity of the congregation. Remember – the email in question was actually sent by an African-American staff member. So it’s intention wasn’t racist. However – read out of context, it sounds very different.

3) Understand that in a digital age, there are no secrets.   Emails get leaked. Texts are forwarded. Facebook and Twitter posts are shared. Leaders: never say anything in an email or in a meeting that you wouldn’t want shared with the general public.

4) Respect the media.   Sure you may not like much of secular media, but respect it in the same way a swimmer respects the water. If you don’t realize the influence of media today, chances are high that you’ll drown.

Seminaries and Bible schools don’t teach pastors and church leaders about the media, but they should. It’s a big reason we launched The Influence Lab. Learning how the media works – and how it can work for you – will be incredibly important keys for successful ministry in the 21st century.

What do you think about how Freedom House handled the crisis?

 

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 17th, 2013 at 5:39 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Robyn Bridgeo

    After giving a presentation of Social Media Ministry, a seasoned leader shared his appreciation with me. When I asked him to friend me on Facebook, he informed me that he didn’t use social media. I looked at him like completely shocked and said, “who better to set the standard for social media etiquette than you as the leader?” He thought for a moment and then said, “you’ve almost convinced me.” I was extremely disappointed, that this leader was being driven by fear, instead of turning it into an opportunity.

  • richdixon

    Perhaps I’m missing the point, but it seems the problem was the original discussion. I’d say the pastor should have apologized for an environment in which the skin color of the greeters was even an issue. Sounds like a situation in which he was sorry they got caught rather than being sorry for a racist closed-door conversation. Certainly you must guard what gets posted, but in this case I’d say what got posted reveals a deeper problem.

    You said “I can imagine the church’s legitimate concern that potential visitors see the racial diversity of the congregation.” That sounds like code for “let’s make sure they know there’s white people here.”

    What happened to judging by the content of character rather than color of skin?

    Assuring the “proper” mix of skin colors isn’t diversity–it’s politically correct racism and has no place, especially in a church.

    • Josh

      There are some very fine lines in this discussion and I think it’s fair to say that any one of them could have been misconstrued in any number of ways. To that end, Phil’s post is primarily focused on the handling of the situation and I think his logic is sound even if you disagree with the justification.

      I will say that although I agree with you that phony efforts to reach some contrived, “stereotype checklist” diversity is politically correct nonsense, I don’t have any way of knowing the impact of having only black greeters with regard to white church attendance in Charlotte, NC. I can tell you from personal experience from my college applications that I was denied opportunities (I’m white) given to people of other racial groups in the name of enforcing diversity, but I really don’t think it’s the same thing here. There’s no capacity on who can visit your church, short of the fire code. Presumably, you want every person you can fit inside the building to attend.

      People of every color need Jesus, and if Freedom House is attempting to demonstrate their cultural preference for a multiracial congregation for whatever reason, then I can see no better place to set the tone for that than at the front door. Sometimes little touches to make more people feel welcome are reasonable. The historically self-segregated church denominations don’t have to be the model for newer churches.

    • http://philcooke.com Phil Cooke

      In a perfect world, perhaps Rich, but I’ve worked with literally hundreds and hundreds of pastors from all racial and cultural backgrounds who passionately desire racial and cultural diversity in their congregations. Remember the old saw: “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.” Was Freedom House’s strategy flawed? Yes. Was the email poorly communicated? Yes. But I’ll always lean toward leaders who’s goal is to welcome all people – even when they make mistakes trying to make that happen.

      • richdixon

        I’m trying to picture Jesus in the discussion saying, “Let’s make sure we have the right mix of Pharisees and tax collectors at the front door, or everyone won’t feel welcome.” It’s preposterous!
        In this case, the leaked email only revealed a well-intentioned but very broken notion of diversity.

  • maryhutchinson

    Social media has supercharged the housewives talking over the clotheslines in the back yard of yesteryear. Anything said, heard or left open to be photographed will be in the public fodder. And the bigger the mistake, the more wide the story will spread. This has come to pass at a time that the Church in America has become marginalized by the mainstream media. They are looking for reasons to show us looking silly, biased, sinful, stupid. We as the Church have to be more on guard in our hearts, actions and communications.

  • Maryjo Petersen Castro

    One of the churches faux pas was not considering the recipients perspective; how they might interpret the message sent. When you keep yourself in the congregation’s chair, when you are conscientious of positioning yourself in other people’s shoes, the chances of communicating without offending are much greater.
    On the issue of racial diversity, I believe you have to be intentional with your strategies to make all colors of skin feel comfortable and welcomed in your church. Only white people to greet at the doors is a little over the top and obvious. I think they probably meant well, they just misunderstood the power of communication via media.

  • Suzanne Niles

    It is surprising to me that this incident even occured. I have to wonder why anyone would not see the potential hail storm of negativity that would follow the transmission of such a request. The fact that anyone cares “what color” is greeting makes me concerned. Why not request someone who loves others in the name of Jesus and is filled with the joy of the Lord? And don’t say I am being ignorant of the world condition and it’s prejudices. We can all see the world condition in the news everyday. What we don’t see enough of is people loving others in the name of Jesus. Put that at your churches front door!

  • Josh Reid

    The issue here is about churches being media aware. – Not media afraid mind you.

    The example highlighted here should serve as a timely warning for all churches great and small. Phil’s points 3 & 4 really sum up the problem here. – It’s one of churches not understanding media, which cripples the church.

    It’s a big & relevant problem, but I see the main issues for the local church as:

    1. We run a 20th Century church in the 21st Century. – ie: We expect people to come to us still, where the people expect information to go to them.

    2. We don’t understand that media is not in the entertainment business, but in the business of influence. – Movies, TV & Music are the philosophers of our day.

    3. We are afraid of the ‘secular’ media because of experiences like this one, and so we stay right away from it. – This ostracizes ourselves from the world at large and is the reverse of fulfilling the great commission.

    4. We don’t understand how to engage the media. eg: we don’t know how to write a simple media release which will get picked up.

    5a. We don’t understand that we may as well be living in the ‘Truman Show’ – we should live, act and respond to criticism as though everyone has already seen everything that we’ve ever done. – scary huh?

    5b. We act one way in ‘real life’ but post opposing views on new media. Once we do this people see what we are really like.

    6. When Christians do use media they often use it …badly. Bad religious art is still bad art, and that reflects badly on your church.

    7. Our church staff don’t understand the concept of confidentiality. – Just because you know something, doesn’t give you permission to tell anyone else.

    Today ‘Prophets’ are different to the Old Testament Prophets. Back then they didn’t tell us nice things about us – they gave us warnings – stern warnings about the things we are doing wrong and need to change if we don’t want to die. ….So, I say this a little tongue-in-cheek but… when it comes to media, I think the local church needs to heed the warnings of Prophet Phil. :)

  • Doug Weber

    It’s interesting that everyone seems to be more concerned about this particular incident than about the issue at hand. Media is a powerful tool and we need to respect it in the church. I think the response of the church was excellent. Looking at some of the major corporate social media blunders in recent years, those that survive the blunders take responsibility, apologize for it, do what they can to make it right, and make corrections so that it doesn’t happen again. Good for Freedom House for stepping up to the plate!

  • Mommahiggy

    Petty. Just plan on the media being petty.

    I agree however that, even if the thought was shared in a meeting, that, “Maybe we need to balance out our greeting staff, because newcomers might be more receptive,” it should never have been put to anyone in an email. If someone was responsible for making that change, it should have been handled by asking individuals to step in and telling others, “We’re starting a rotation.” Everybody would be happy that way, and if the intent was purely for the sake of newcomers, the goal would be achieved without seeming manipulative.

  • JenniferLeClaire

    I think the church handled it poorly, but their PR team was quick to try to clean it up. They contacted me within hours of posting a video on our site with a statement of apology. The damage was already done. The story had already gone viral. Churches do need to learn about media relations.

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  • Kem Meyer

    It’s important that we show we’re human, not perfect. When people make a mistake as a part of the church (in judgement, context, reality or perception), the best course of action is for us as leaders to admit it straight up. It demonstrates vulnerability and courage. That act alone disarms the drama and starts to help build (or re-build) trust. The worst course of action is to try to avoid the consequences of a misstep with avoidance, spin or a cover-up. Mess-ups happen! We can try to minimize the drama, but we can’t try to circumvent all negativity. That’s when we’re tempted to cut corners and re-write history to control the fallout.

    The fallout is not in our control. But, our response is. This church responded well.