June 19, 2014

Crisis Communication Project and Other Stuff

I am currently taking a Crisis Communication course as part of my PhD program at Regent University. It is interesting that this course coincides, timing-wise, with a real crisis occurring at my church, Paradise Church, in Phoenix.

I have blogged about my church before, but never with detail on the issues that seem to plague this small Evangelical church body. In some ways, I think the church itself has been doomed (I know, that is a horrible thought) from the start, given that the history of the church has been sprinkled with leadership crisis since its founding back in 1984.

In fact, I can recall two major crisis that have occurred over the last 30 years. One crisis was not made public (per se), but caused a split in the church. I was not a member at that time, but a regular attender at one of the larger Bible churches in nearby Scottsdale. My parents, however, were members, coming in at the end of that crisis, and staying on through a number of leadership changes until things seemed more settled. I found out about the issues from a former pastor who was working with me in Children's Ministry. He didn't tell me everything about the case, but he gave me enough detail to know that some serious business had occurred, serious enough to cause the church to split, and serious enough to require several leaders to step down from ministry.

Over the course of a couple years after this incident, the church struggled financially and with message/identity issues. I started attending this church in late 2007, mostly because my son was Jr. High age and was active in their youth ministry program. The church seemed to get straightened out for a time when one of the associate pastors/interns was asked to take the lead role. In 2008-2011, the church seemed to be back on track to overcome all the struggles it had formerly been embroiled in.

No organization is immune to crisis, and churches are no exception. In late 2011, the lead pastor stepped down, citing burnout, and stating that he was taking a lead role in a smaller start up church in Phoenix (that is in and of itself speculative). He left the church in the hands of the associate pastor, a man whose father had been the first pastor called to the church when it was planted in 1984. He had a long history with the church, was well-liked by the members, and generally a good preacher.

In 2012, the executive leadership team and the board started a search for a new lead pastor. Why the associate pastor was not called is beyond me. He was a candidate until the board decided they had found a better person for the job. This better person turned out to be the wrong fit, and over the course of another year, ushered in our current and most lasting bout with crisis.

We are now in survival mode, and there is a very good chance that the church will close its doors permanently. Within the last month, the Youth Pastor, Associate Pastor, and Operations Director have resigned. The word on the street is that the Children's Pastor is leaving as well. In fact, as of this Sunday, we will have no officiating pastors remaining on staff. The church is currently being run by the board members and a group of volunteers.

Now, I realize that there are many churches across this nation in similar situations. Many churches do not have lead pastors. Many function on volunteer workers. I am struggling to wrap my head around the details of how and why churches exist amidst so much competition for members and member dollars. To me it would make far better sense to merge congregations, share the load and financial resources, and build community through combined efforts. I don't 'get' why churches choose to be autonomous and struggle when they could be strong, be healthy, and be proactive by working together with other small, but struggling congregations. Oh well...I digress...

So back to the topic of this post --

The Lord has placed my church history, struggles, and crisis in front of me, and He has given me opportunity to explore organizational issues since I started at Regent. I believe this is His will for my life, and the courses that I have taken thus far have been to prepare me to minister to churches, whether in crisis or not, in the future.
  • I wrote my first paper on my church for my COM 631: Organizational Communication course. The paper was entitled, "Paradise Church: Strategies to Enhance Member Communication Effectiveness" and looked at ways to improve communication using digital media.
  • I wrote a second paper for my COM 785: Family Communication course entitled, "Family Communication and Storytelling." I used Paradise Church as focus of that paper, and continued on the theme of using digital media to enhance and strengthen member communication.
  • I wrote a third paper for the same class entitled, "New Media Studies: Social Identity within Age-Restricted Groups in the Church." This paper was proposed during my COM 700 Introduction to Doctoral Studies class, in summer 2013. The subject of this paper was cultural community building and looked at the demographics and the cultural change within organizations.
  • I am currently writing a fourth paper for my COM 652: Crisis Communication course. This paper will focus on image management and reputation, and once again, Paradise Church will be the subject of the study.
  • Lastly, my major research project for COM 703: Qualitative Research Methods will be an ethnography (or a cultural study of a specific group of individuals) on crisis within the church. I am interested in exploring member experience, perception, and commitment in churches in the midst of crisis.
If you consider what I have written about over the past year, it is clear that the Lord had something in mind for me regarding this church, in particular, and the issues affecting the members and community culture. I am not sure what the outcome will be, but frankly, there is a pattern emerging that places Paradise Church at the forefront of my scholarly research.

My next series of classes will probably shift my focus from Paradise Church to another subject. I will be taking Social Media and Internet Marketing along with Historical/Critical research methods in the fall. Right now, the SM class is a gimme for me. It is a 500-level course, and I know the professor who teaches it. It will have an applied project, and I am thinking I will focus on SM and Education (I can use my students for guinea pigs). The Historical/Critical class is going to be my favorite, and if possible, I hope to conduct a Rhetorical Analysis of Ojibway Culture using John Tanner's autobiography, "The Falcon" as a primary source text. I don't see any studies revolving around Paradise Church for fall or for spring 2015.

Perhaps the reason the Lord is having me focus on my church is that it is such a good example of what not to do before, during and after a crisis. If the Lord desires that I learn how to minister to churches -- then what better subject than to focus on one dealing with communication issues and leadership crisis. I am not saying that all this has happened just so I could get paper topics, may it never be! No, I just think the timing was right for me to focus on something like this while I was studying about the topic in my courses at Regent.

As I consider the nature of my church, and I think about the future, I can surely say that I will not be one of the members who stays to see things through to the end. It is not that I want to leave a sinking ship, by no means, it is just that I have spent about 6-7 years at a church that didn't meet my needs. I know, how superficial is that statement? Yes, it is truth. I have been part of this church based on the "need" of having a place close by where my son could be involved in youth ministry. This was why I left my big Bible church, which I loved, to come to a small church that I liked. I did it for my son, and now that my son is 21, and on his own, I am ready to love a church again. Please know that I do like Paradise Church. I like the people a lot, but there are no ministry opportunities for me outside the website (which I help with now), and there is no place I can serve specifically geared toward my gifts. I am no longer called to serve in Children's ministry, and I have never been involved in Women's ministry (outside of doing Bible Studies when I was a SAHM). I am looking for a place where I can be involved in an active way, using my gifts and talents specifically for ministry. I am open to the Lord's leading, and I know that my needs, my wants, and my goals for ministry will align with His plan for my life.

I was just thinking about this situation, reflecting on what has happened, on my part in the story, and on my path forward. I am trying to make sense out of this reality (a communication theory called sense making -- whereby individuals try to make sense out of their current situation). What am I to do? Where do I go? What church do I attend?

Right now, my heart is saying that I am supposed to see this crisis through to the end of my project. At that point, the Lord will let me know where He wants me to fellowship next. Part of me wants to go to a Bible church, whereby the method of preaching is not "feel good" but expository teaching. I miss line-by-line preaching from the Word of God. I miss hearing the message of the Word over the message of popular culture. Yes, I want a good old fashioned Bible message. The Lord knows me well, and He knows the plans He has for my life. I am trusting Him to open doors, to provide answers, and to show me the way. He is good, so very good. He is so very good to me.

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