Whenever we work with a church to help them get unstuck, we always begin by engaging in an assessment to determine what’s working and what’s not. In nearly every instance that I’ve facilitated this process, it’s not very long into the conversation before someone on the leadership team expresses, “We have a communication problem.”
Generally, they’re not talking about the communication that happens with the congregation, though I could write a lot on that topic as well. They’re typically suggesting they have an internal communication challenge within their staff team.
It’s always fun to see how the lead pastor reacts when that perspective is verbalized for the first time. Usually they flinch a bit, because their gut doesn’t agree with that assessment. You can see their brains processing that information while at the same time they’re thinking about everything that currently happens to communicate with their team.
In nearly every instance that I’ve facilitated this process, it’s not very long into the conversation before someone on the leadership team expresses, “We have a communication problem.”
That moment doesn’t last long, though, because leaders love to fix problems. It’s a nasty addiction we have. As soon as we know something is wrong, we want to immediately implement a change to turn it around.
In this instance, since we heard “communication” problem, our immediate response is that we need to communicate more. So we we add another meeting to the calendar where we invite more people to attend so that we can share more information. We increase the number of email messages or, better yet, create another team newsletter no one will read.
The problem with this response is that what is presented as a “communication” problem is rarely a communication problem.
In his recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Art Markman, Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, described the challenge like this:
“[W]hen you ask someone questions about how they feel about their workplace, people can answer that pretty readily; most people have a sense of whether they feel good or bad about their work and the company. When you ask for more specific information about what is making them feel good or bad, though, people often grope around for a rationale that could explain their feelings. Whether it does explain them is hard to judge.”
In other words, employees sense that something is wrong, then they blame poor communication for causing the problem. I’ve learned, though, that’s it’s rarely the problem. Instead, it’s a trigger to dig deeper. There’s a core issue below the surface, and we need to continue looking for the root cause for what’s wrong.
Let me give you some examples of what I’ve discovered. Maybe your “communication” problem is really one of these issues instead.
1) It’s not a communication problem. It’s a lack of vision and strategy problem.
Without clear vision for where the church is going and how it’s going to get there, it leaves people guessing as to what they’re supposed to do. You can have meetings every hour of every day, but if there’s not a clear plan for the future (especially what needs to happen in the coming weeks and months), then people are going to complain about poor communication.
2) It’s not a communication problem. It’s a complexity problem.
The more you do, the more moving parts there are. Every program and event requires planning time, physical and/or virtual space, promotions, people, leadership, money and so on. Again, you can send email messages with all the details all day long, but delivering more information is not going to fix the complexity problem. Instead, it will only compound the noise and lack of clarity.
3) It’s not a communication problem. It’s a systems problem.
When you don’t have appropriate systems, every decision requires a meeting. Can we start a new ministry? Let’s schedule a meeting to talk about it. Can we schedule an event? Let’s talk about it at our next meeting. Can we spend the money? We’ll decide at our next meeting. Can we promote this on Sunday morning? We’ll determine the platform announcements at our next meeting. Good systems empower people to make decisions on their own without having to wait for someone else to make the call.
4) It’s not a communication problem. It’s a role clarity problem.
When people don’t know what they’re supposed to do, they will oftentimes blame it on poor communication. Why? Because they’re waiting for someone to tell them what to do. The better option would be to define the roles so that everyone knows how to win. That begins with a written role description on the front end, a healthy onboarding process for new team members and regular checkpoint conversations to provide feedback and coaching.
5) It’s not a communication problem. It’s a lack of project management problem.
Churches are so focused on Sunday every week, that they rarely develop the project managements skills necessary to deliver on anything else. That’s why I’ve started recommending that every church of every size implement some project management solution to track projects and tasks. Our team uses Asana. There are many other solutions out there. You need some tool, though, that will help you track who is doing what by when. Email does not work for this purpose. And meetings are a poor stewardship of time and money for this purpose.
This is one of those lists that could probably go on and on. I’ve hit some of the common challenges that can be disguised as communication problems, but we could certainly name many more.
The point is that when you hear someone say there’s a communication problem. Stop. Listen. Lean in. Continue to try to determine the core issue behind the symptom that has been verbalized.
And, remember, more communication rarely solves the “communication” problem.