Thursday, August 15, 2013

4 Years Later: Nothing Changes in TEC Advertising (UPDATE: Except the responsiveness!)

UPDATE: If you click on the newest Episcopal Church advertising link, you now get the following rather than the ads:
Many thanks to those of you who have given us constructive comments on the billboard and postcard suggestions we had posted.  We agree that the concept needs more work, and we are going back to the drawing board with your ideas in mind.  We sincerely appreciate your feedback and encourage you to keep sharing your ideas and, when appropriate, your criticisms.  We take them all seriously. 
Well put and a good response--something that was not in evidence four years ago. So, things DO change! Well done, Episcopal Church Center staff!

As a prologue to this post, I want to say first of all that I love the Episcopal Church. I am an Episcopal priest because I love the combination of Word and Sacrament, the "big tent" theology that welcomes everyone, and the conviction that the love of God in Christ is transformational in people's lives. I'm one of a diminishing number of so-called "cradle Episcopalians" and a member of likely an even more rare group: Generation X cradle Episcopalians. I've spent nearly 20 years in the ordained ministry and with everything that is wonderful about the church there is one thing that continually amazes me about it:

How many times we shoot ourselves in the foot. Repeatedly.

Almost four years ago, I wrote a blog post critical of the Episcopal Church's new advertising campaign which came up with this attention-grabbing ad (sarcasm) which they paid a significant amount of money to put as a full-page ad in USA Today (see above). Not only was I underwhelmed and lamented the waste of time and money that this represented, but I also recalled the not very helpful fact that if any congregation wanted to use this ad and put their own church's name on it they were invited to "email us [Episcopal Church Center] and we will create a personalized ad for you." Had no one at Episcopal Church Center heard of Photoshop? Could we not be trusted to take the artwork provided and personalize it? Apparently not.

In the midst of this I was also notified by legal council at Episcopal Church center that I was not permitted to use the Episcopal Church shield unless I obeyed strict guidelines on its use. I could not put it on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other items in my Café Press shop. I was informed of this after I logged into my shop and found the images had been blocked and then had to ask why they were blocked. I haven't had time with my day job as parish priest to pursue the matter further. But apparently my efforts to advertise the Episcopal Church were not received in the spirit with which I offered them. Clearly no one was permitted to deviate from official materials.

In my blog post, I contrasted the USA Today ad with two ads that my colleague Frank Logue, then a parish priest and now Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia, put together in short order from the suggestions of two colleagues via Facebook:

The ad to the left is image-based rather than text-based, it has an attention-grabbing headline, it shows a picture of an actual ministry of the church with actual people. It shows a great view of a lovely worship space (of which the Episcopal Church has more than its fair share). Finally, it invites people to worship and service in the Episcopal Church--two things we do very well. What it does not do is explain all of the reasons that you really should give the Episcopal Church a try, in excruciating detail.

The other ad highlighted the multicultural nature of the Episcopal Church, gave a brief dig at the Republican Party, but otherwise pretty much said "we're a diverse, multi-age, multi-ethnic church" without using any of those words. Brilliant, and probably took him about an hour on his computer.

Fast forward four years and the Episcopal Church has now come up with brand new, cutting-edge, advertising materials that feature several phrases on a stained glass background, such as the ad:

Another clergy colleague has already voiced his opinion via an excellent blog post. My opinion is that we've progressed from wordy two-color bullet point ads in 2009 to less wordy, more snarky, and still image-less ads in 2013. Given the background graphics, this is something that many of my colleagues and I could have done in 15 minutes on a computer, if we had wanted to sound like a mother scolding her grandchildren who never write, never call, and just don't visit often enough. I won't inflict the others on you, but suffice it to say that they ads reinforce the stereotype that we're a bunch of old, rich, cranky white people who can't understand why our children and grandchildren don't come to church anymore. As someone on Facebook said in response: "These new ads somehow blend hipster elitism and stick-in-the-mud traditionalism into the same gooey mess."

Contrast that with the materials from the diocese of Ohio, which feature ads like this: 

Note that this does not conform to the national church's style standards (doesn't have the new shaded shield), but it is way more effective than what came out of the national church.

I would like ads worthy of the wonderful church that this is. I would like things like the advertising materials that the church posted but without the text, so that people could add pictures and their own clever text to the background. Perhaps even a repository where people can upload their own ad ideas. It is time to let go of the corporate command-and-control and bad 1980s style advertising and get into the twenty-first century where anyone with a computer and a basic image-editing program can do this kind of thing with a few resources at his or her disposal. And without offending anyone.

Give us the tools. Get out of the way. And talk to folks who don't currently go to church before you do this again. Please.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Relief and (Re-) Development: Desparation and Dependency

Good intentions without action don't accomplish much, but what action is needed?.
I recently finished reading the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) by Robert Lupton. Perhaps the best part of the book is this one: 2001, six years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and long after the city should have shifted to long-term development projects, churches and mission organizations still "market" the crisis and volunteers continue to flow into the city by the thousands, distributing free food and clothing to "victims." When relief does not transition to development in a timely way, compassion becomes toxic.
He quotes Roger Sandberg, former Haiti country director of Medair, in defining a progression from relief to development:
First stop, relief. Relief work occurs during and immediately following an emergency and includes not only life-saving interventions but also the alleviation of suffering.
Second stop, rehabilitation. Rehabilitation follows and overlaps with the relief phase. Rehabilitative work increases the capacity of a local community, enabling them to better respond to future crises. Rehabilitation also seeks to promote projects that restore services or livelihoods to a preexisting or improved level.
Third stop, development. Development interventions follow and overlap relief and rehabilitation phases. Development work is long term. It seeks to improve the standard of living for a population over many years or decades. In the best-case scenario, relief and rehabilitation inverventions are done with long-term development in mind....Very roughly, we might say that relief, rehabilitation, and development phases respectively last months, years, and decades.
This particular distinction between relief, rehabilitation, and development has been on my mind in the last several months in three areas of my life: local, national, and international.

On a local level, as a parish priest I respond to urgent crises through small grants from my discretionary fund--a fund set up by the church to be used at my discretion (hence the name) to address needs as they arise. Most of the time, it is used to do things like provide two quarts of oil and a tank of gas to needy folks heading for San Francisco or a hotel room for a mother and her kids fleeing an abusive husband/father. This is all good to do, but leaves me feeling dissatisfied because I know that I'm simply doing relief work, not solving the underlying problems. It also frustrates and angers me when I see an unending procession of need, sometimes event the same people over and over again. I have the dual feeling of being angry at being taken advantage of and yet ashamed of that anger because i know that ninety-five percent of thse folks have few other options.

On a national level, I've watched with increasing frustration as our national debate regarding cuts to the Supplimental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) between, if you believe the two sides, the heartless, cold-blooded Republicans and the bleeding-heart, dependency-fostering Democrats. Below the partisan posturing is a disagreement about whether (and when) relief of suffering should stop and whether (and when) government should be in the business of rehabilitation and development to help people lift themselves out of poverty and need. There seems to be little discussion of how the government can facilitate increasing the capacity of people to respond to future crises--just whether we should still send checks or not. Additionally, the notion of separating people into "givers" and "takers" strikes me as a profoundly unhelpful way of wrestsling with the need to go beyond relief to rehabilitation and development. Throwing a drowning person a life-ring will not foster dependency. Jumping in and trying to hold them up means that both of you end up drowning.

On an international level, several months ago I spent a week in Haiti. That country is perhaps the poster child (yes, I appreciate the irony of the phrase) for perpetual relief verging on the toxic. Literally billions of dollars have been spent there, often with major strings attached in the name of accountability. At the parish I serve, St. Edward's, we are a part of consortium of churches and a school that have a relationship with St. Patrick's Church and School in LaCorbe, Haiti. Having had a relationship with people there for many years, we are beginning to discuss how to move from continually addressing immediate needs to building the capacity for the community to begin to provide for themselves. There is certainly a tension between what they perceive as their immediate needs and what we hope for as far as long term rehabilitation and development. Part of the challenge is that we have the luxury of taking the long view. A good example is that there is a need for a power source at this fairly remote chruch and school. As enlightened, developed-world folks, we would prefer to set up a small solar installation that would then be self-sustaining. However, our partner in Haiti would like a gasoline generator so that he could haul it around and use it for a variety of congregations and schools. Both make sense in their own way. On the one hand, we don't want to do what so many NGOs have done in Haiti and impose our own will on them. On the other, we don't really want to perpetuate a reliance on expensive fossel fruels. Difficult decisions.

I have no easy answers to any of this, but it does strike me that we need to be having these sorts of conversations at all levels of government and within our churches. Just writing a check, as much as it helps in the short-term, stops at relief without moving beyond that. If we can get to the point of true partnership where we help people to get and stay on their feet, perhaps we can move beyond the gridlock in both government and society.