Communications and the personal touch

By Susan Fawcett

When I went to seminary I had a secret dream. In any conversation, of course, I would have tempered it with a healthy measure of sarcasm and cynicism. Nevertheless, there was a spark of hope that, upon becoming a priest, I’d spend my time doing any of the following activities:

1. Offering brilliant (and sometimes salty) pastoral care to young and old.

2. Writing and delivering humorous-yet-insightful sermons.

3. Creating programs and curricula that would transform lives.

4. Reaching new heights of contemplative enlightenment.

5. Humbly and diligently serving the poor and sick (often, involving the sensitive use of other languages).

6. Being remarkably wise and kind and yet profoundly humble.

7. And, generally saving the world.

Unfortunately, what I functionally spent the most time doing in my first year after seminary looked like this:

1. Event planning

2. Volunteer coordinating

3. Struggling to effectively use six different (and ineffective) means of communication to attract said volunteers and to lure people to come to said events.

I do not need to tell you that this was, indeed, frustrating. It became clear very quickly that none of my programs would work if I didn’t communicate, communicate, communicate. So I sent out a newsletter. I contributed material to the weekly bulletin and the monthly newsletter and parish website. I started my own church blog and sent out my own mailings, and filled weekly emails with sassy photos and hip fonts and links to interesting YouTube videos. This work was not wasted. But it did take up a significant chunk of my workweek. Six hours of potential priestly world-saving, down the drain.

It is now a year later and nothing has changed. I still kill precious time updating the youth blog and trying to make the email look smart. I still run out of time to write the monthly newsletter. I still find myself bug-eyed with frustration whenever a volunteer, who has received countless emails and invitations and notices about an event, asks, “Oh, when is that meeting again? Do you need me? What will we be doing, again?” Thank you, friend, for making it abundantly clear that a significant chunk of the time I spend writing things for you is a big fat waste.

Except that it’s not a waste. As much as I want people to care about how we’ve reformatted the youth program, and started revolutionary new curricula, and built a great theological foundation for some other major change in the parish, people actually seem to care about the other stuff that I thought was just filler: personal stories. Case in point: A few months ago, at the beginning of the summer, I wrote this cute little newsletter article about the intersections between vacation and Sabbath. Short, chatty, with a theological point—A-plus, right? Except nobody noticed that part. They all commented, however, on the story about my own vacation. For three Sundays in a row, half the people in the handshake line after church said, “You’re going to West Virginia on vacation? On a motorcycle?!?”

It seems that I had forgotten how important it is to be, shall we say, personal. Self-revelatory, at least a little. Open. Approachable. In short: myself (as opposed to being my job). Interestingly, over the course of this communications-ridden year, it became clear that people were generally far more tolerant of whatever news I wanted to push on them when I was asking about them, and allowing myself to be asked about. Miraculous.

Incidentally, after learning this genius little secret, the communications get easier, because you’ve finally set aside your own professional anxiety and remembered that the people at church are far more important than the programs at church, every time. Which means that you’ve shown up as yourself, not as The Priest, in conversations with your parishioners, and that you’ve begun to trust them, and they you, and you now know who you can just ask to help you, and who you should just remind to come to youth group on Sunday morning. And, an extra bonus, this leaves a little more energy (if not time) for all the humorous-sermon-writing and general-world-saving.

The Rev. Susan Fawcett keeps the blog This Passage. She serves a parish in the Diocese of Virginia, and supports the work of the General Convention publication The Center Aisle.

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