How Unity of Fairfax Created a Plan, Strategy and Content for Internal and External Communications
“At the foundation of building community is the element of communication.”
The simple words above, written as part of a workshop on transformation, were the impetus for lay leaders at Unity of Fairfax, Oakton, Va., to build a Communications Team. Now in its third year, the team has learned and accomplished much in a short time, and we are pleased to share our experience of the process. This article reviews how we identified and prioritized needs in 2011; how we came together to meet pressing needs in 2012; how we developed a plan and process for new projects in 2013; and how we moved from development and implementation modes into maintenance mode in 2014. Here’s how we did it:
1. Identify the Needs and Priorities
Volunteers participating in a three-year program called the Transformation Experience (TE) identified better communications as a key need. One TE design team determined the need to improve the flow and character of internal communications. Another design team targeted the need to create a new website and establish a social media presence. These design teams crafted their respective missions, goals and objectives, and immediately set to work. In March 2012, the internal communications team presented a two-hour workshop called Can You Hear Me Now? which provided a forum to discuss concerns and solutions for improving the flow and tone of communications throughout the church. This workshop reinforced commitment to holding quarterly community dialogue meetings to keep people informed and connected, and to affirm inclusiveness, one of our five core values. This was also the ideal time to unveil the preliminary website, which was nearing completion after six months of daily effort between our web development team and our web service provider, OneEach Technologies, along with frequent meetings of the newly organized communications team.
2. Combine Forces, Build a Team
It wasn’t long before we realized that these two initial design teams, along with a newly formed external communications and marketing team, should merge into a Combined Communications Team. As a group of 15 people with a wide array of interests and skills, we felt it was important to get to know each other, bond as a group, and find ways to recognize individual passions and strengths so that we could establish a well-functioning, Spirit-based team. Sub-teams met separately to work on specific projects and also came together monthly to share ideas, concerns and updates. One early project was to incorporate the Unity Identity Program branding for all our materials, signage and website. This led directly to a joint effort with our New Members and Welcome/Worship Teams to redesign our welcome visitor packets. See the One Goal Plan Template for details.
3. Clarify Mission and Role
With the tangible successes from our initial projects in hand, we could then use that information to develop a proactive plan for new projects. However, it was important for us to not only be clear about how we could best support our church, but also to routinely communicate about our teams as much as we did about our projects. Before the planning process began, we responded to some church members’ confusion about our role. Some wondered if we were merely adding a layer of middle management as an approval-granting body. Change is hard, no matter how worthwhile or noble its intent. We decided to promote our open meetings (yes, people came!), hold semi-annual informational dinners to report on our new website and email system, and to create a Communications Manual to be used by lay leaders as a guide to inform members, friends, the public and the media about Unity of Fairfax news, events and activities. With this kind of exposure, we were also able to attract new volunteers with experience or interest interfaith-based public relations, marketing, editing, photography and design.
4. Develop a Plan and a Process
Along with new members came an infusion of new ideas; soon we had more potential projects than we could implement. We wanted a tool to record goals and strategies, set priorities, track progress, and communicate internally about projects and accomplishments. To build the 2013-14 plan, the team met several times to list specific concerns, suggested actions, points of contact, target dates for completion, and outcomes. A two-year plan template allowed us to pace ourselves and not stretch our volunteer team—or limited budget dollars—too thin. Deidre Richardson, 2012- 13 Combined Communications Team leader, says, “I encourage ministries to adapt the template and sample provided here to create a communications plan tailored to their community. Even a very simple plan provides a point of focus, discipline and accountability, and honors the sacred services of creative communicators who share their Spirit-inspired talents and passions.” Having a clear layout of projects in hand not only helped us prioritize and manage ongoing activities, it also gave us the information needed to request an advertising budget from the board of trustees. The recent budget included funds for:
- advertising in local publications
- new outdoor signage
- informational brochures
- updated visitor welcome packets
- posters for special events
Other projects required no funding: we created consistent descriptor language to use in all our communications, prepared a photograph release for minors form, a boilerplate for submitting news releases, a website style guide, and the Communications Manual. The team also increased our presence on social media through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, MeetUp Groups, and YouTube. Word is spreading about the well-kept secret that is Unity of Fairfax, and it is reflected in increased attendance at services and special events.
5. Maintain Momentum
Over the course of two years and with great commitment by many lay leaders, we had created three specialty teams—internal, external and website/social media—to meet the communication needs of our church. We launched a dynamic new website, increased our presence in the wider community, and consistently aimed to ensure that members felt informed and that they had a voice in their faith community. Starting in January 2014, we transitioned into what might be called maintenance mode: we merged the three specialty teams into one Communications Team, we now meet quarterly instead of monthly, and we rotate the positions of team leader and scribe in order to share the responsibility and knowledge base. Recognizing the importance and value of a strong communications effort, the board of trustees and senior minister authorized a part-time paid staff position that was filled by one of our newest team volunteers. Lay leaders beyond those involved with our team have successfully implemented large publicity efforts for several campus-based events since Fall 2013, including a noted speakers series, a recycling education campaign and a large health We have indeed used the elements of communication to strengthen our spiritual community here at Unity of Fairfax, and we support and encourage other ministries who seek to do likewise.
Can You Hear Me Now? Workshop, March 2012, Resources:
Reaching Out in a Networked World: Expressing Your Congregation’s Heart and Soul by Lynne M. Baab, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers | Alban Books (2008)
Healthy Disclosures: Solving Communication Quandaries in Congregations by Kibbie Simmons Ruth and Karen A. McClintock, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers | Alban Books (2007)
Getting the Word Out: The Alban Guide to Church Communications by Frederick H. Gonnerman, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers | Alban Books (2003)
Speaking Faith: The Essential Handbook for Religion Communicators, Religion Communicators Council; 7th edition (2004)