If Religious Life is Dying, PR Won't Save It


This article originally appeared in Issue# 11

Some new ideas on the organization of communications and public relations programs in religious congregations today.

Some say that religious life, as the Church has experienced it for the last 200 years, is nearing the end of its historical moment. Those exploring the life cycles of religious congregations throughout history say that religious communities in the 1970s have begun to show all the signs of entering into the "breakdown and disintegration" period — stress, doubt, decline in numbers, demoralization.

While some might despair at such news, others remember that the key tenet of the Christian message is not the Crucifixion, but the Resurrection! Historically, religious life has been through several periods of decline in the 2000 years of Christianity, and it has always resurrected in creative new forms to meet the need of the Church at each time. In Shaping the Coming Age of Religious Life, the authors observe that 'a glance across history makes it seem reasonable that religious life will last as long as the Church. It has shown a remarkable staying power despite its many ups and downs.

So as religious congregations rethink their purposes and regroup their resources for new centuries of service to the People of God, new skills will be needed by the leaders of those orders — theories of modern management, administration, organizational development and social change along with a thorough grounding in theology, psychology and pastoral ministry.

Ten Steps in Communication Planning

  1. Define your objectives.
  2. Research your publics.
  3. Modify objectives to reach goals that research shows are attainable.
  4. Decide on your strategy.
  5. Set up themes, symbols and appeals.
  6. Blueprint an effective organization to carry on activity.
  7. Chart your plan for both timing and tactics.
  8. Carry out your program tactics.
  9. Collect and analyze feedback.
  10. Assess results. Adjust new objectives accordingly.

PR is Management Function

They also need to understand the role and function of communications and public relations in the administration of their order as a non-profit organization in the human services area. As hospitals, universities and other public service institutions have learned in the recent past, an effective communications program, internally and externally, is a necessity today and can positively influence the acceptance of new directions and create support for new developments.

If religious life, then, is to be "born again" in the late twentieth century — and the signs of new life are all around especially in communities of women — we will need talented and effective communicators to interpret, articulate and visualize religious ministry, not so much to save the past, but to prepare the way for the future.

In the last decade, religious life has seen a proliferation of programs for religious orders in many areas of contemporary management. The establishment of congregational goals in a management-by-objectives style is now a common experience for the executives and staff of many communities. Incorporating as non-profit organizations and restructuring accounting systems to conform to federal tax codes is another sign of the acceptance of modern business practices in even the smallest congregation originally founded simply to "help others."

But the state of communications in most orders is still far from adequate for a contemporary social service organization. Perhaps because of an historical reticence to deal with communications at all — "seeking publicity," for example, was considered a sin of pride — few congregations have any history of awareness of the beneficial effects of even the most basic of communications or public relations efforts.

"Those who cannot define their audience run the very real chance of not having any audience at all."
Marshall McLuhan

Furthermore, it is disturbing that some congregations, usually small ones, come to communications as a last ditch effort to try to save the community from extinction. These groups, often frantic for new members, develop the premise that advertising, audiovisual shows, or a new brochure will, of themselves, bring new members to their doors.

This belief in the power of the media is not supportable by research in attitude change or theories in the dissemination of communication and is, therefore, a delusion. If a religious community is dying - public relations won't save it.

Only if a religious congregation is on the rise already with new members and programs to meet the needs of the contemporary Church can a communications program be a positive step — not so much to bring in new members directly — but rather as an aid, a tool, a strategy to help the congregation accomplish its newly-defined goals.

Though this approach to communications is still new for many orders~ it is definitely a growing trend. It is also an approach that fits the philosophy of contemporary religious congregations that see themselves as agents for change both in Church and society.

Activities vs. Strategy

To develop this kind of communications approach, a congregation must stop thinking of communications as certain isolated activities (putting out a newsletter, writing press releases or producing a radio program) and start thinking of communications as a strategy — getting a specific message to a specific audience through carefully chosen channels in order to change certain relationships or stimulate certain actions.

Furthermore, if communications is to be seen as a strategy to help accomplish long-range goals, then congregations must also be willing to go through a process of setting those congregational goals and objectives prior to organizing its communications program. However, as indicated earlier, this is becoming a common experience for more and more contemporary orders.

Another thing that will have to change is the structure of relationships in the congregation between leadership and those trained in communications — the writers, photographers, media producers, editors, graphic artists, etc. — who actually do the work of mass media projects. In the past, creative and talented members were often left to "do their own thing," or allowed to develop communications activities according to their own insight or personal style, without guidelines, objectives or criteria for evaluation.

A New Model

The accompanying diagram is an attempt to model what a communications program might look like from a strategy point of view.

It develops communications as a "rocket ship," directed toward long-range congregational goals and given thrust and power by the community's values and ideals. Without this organizational flow, communications activities can tend to exist for the sake of themselves, continuing year after year simply because no one ever questioned their purpose or role.

Structurally, the model can be explained in more detail by looking at three specific aspects — communications activities, the staff and the communications commission.

It used to be that public relations was used to keep change at bay on behalf of instutitutions represented — whereas P.R.'s real challenge is to meet the public's new demands.
-James Lindheim at 1979 meeting of Public Relations Society of America


In the model, it can be seen that communications activities, while separate from one another in goal or purpose, are seen as parts of a whole. Their description as goals (ministry-sharing, vocations, development, etc.) rather than specific projects (newsletter, TV program or slide/tape show) frees the congregation to think of communications as an aid to accomplishing a larger goal rather than perpetuating a project even if it no longer helps achieve the goals for which it was intended.

To accomplish any goal, a congregation could choose one or several specific projects. For example, to communicate administrative information, one could put out a newsletter, but one could also develop a telephone message system or a bulletin board announcement program or any of a dozen proven ways far an organization to communicate with its members. In this model there is nothing sacred about a newsletter if another communications method would accomplish the goal better.

It should also be noted that not every congregation will have all the goal-activities listed in the model. Only a few common ones are included for the sake of space.


The staffing of a congregational communications program has always been a problem area. So often the whole job is only loosely defined and put on the shoulders of one person who must be writer, editor, photographer and layout artist as well as typist, organizer and researcher.

In the model, the staff is like the 'crew' of the rocket ship, each specifically trained to do specific tasks to keep the ship on course. Such a staff is directly related to the activities that have been decided upon to carry out the congregational goals. If, in the long-range planning, it is determined that a yearly photographic Annual Report is needed by the administration to communicate the status and spirit of the congregation, then the communications staff must necessarily have writers and photographers who can do that project professionally. If they don't have the skills "in house" then it makes sense to hire others "outside" who do.

The organization of the staff itself is not determined by this model. It might follow the traditional organizational model of having a full-time organizing manager or "director" with access to part or full-time support -- typists, photographers, writers, graphic artists, etc. Or it might follow a more contemporary design as a "team" — several community members with various talents and gifts, who share leadership depending upon the project at hand.

In any case, an increasing trend will be to involve dedicated lay professionals on congregational staffs as well as to subcontract to professional agencies for specific projects if no one on the staff has the talent or training for doing a needed job.

Communications Commission

Just as the crew of an airplane or space vehicle depends upon an outside "control tower" to monitor external forces and coordinate alternative flight plans, so too, the communications staff needs contact with others who have a larger view to help determine if activities are on target with evolving congregational objectives or are reaching their intended goals.

This might be done through the establishment of, say, a 10-or-12-person communications commission, developed to assist the staff with research, long-range planning and evaluation of ongoing activities. Such a commission might be made up of one or more of the communications staff, representative members of the congregation at large, lay professionals who would volunteer their insight and expertise in the communications field and one or two members of the administration, familiar with the details of congregational programs and long-range planning.

Depending upon the needs of the communications program the commission might develop a variety of functions from serving as a formal "board of directors" with power to hire, fire and evaluate staff to a more informal "advisory board" role. But certainly one of the chief roles would be to facilitate the feedback loop from the various audiences to which communications activities are directed. This could be accomplished by informal evaluation or by commissioning formal quantitative or qualitative research.

In summary, this strategy view of communications is not only sound management for contemporary religious orders today but is also a creative force for enabling religious life to be "reborn" in the near future.

As congregations develop and adapt their structures to meet the needs of ministry in the 21st century, communications can serve a vital role, internally and externally, in helping each congregation achieve the purposes for which it was founded.


Here are two good professional resources on planning and organizing effective communications systems:

Ross, Robert D., The Management of Public Relations/Analysis and Planning External Relations.

D'Aprix, Roger M., The Believable Corporation, American Management Associations.


This article is excerpted from a longer one in the 2.980 Multimedia International Yearbook. .

Author Bio: 

Elizabeth Thoman, a pioneering leader in the U.S. media literacy field, founded Media&Values magazine in 1977 and the Center for Media Literacy in 1989. She is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and continues her leadership through this website, consulting, speaking and as a founding board member of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA).