Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Future of RCA Communications...

It's been a privilege for me to participate in the 2009 General Synod as a delegate and as one invited to participate here on the RCA's General Synod blog. All my interactions with staff have been positive and affirming. This year's Synod was well-run and there was a good spirit in evidence from beginning to end.


As I've previously written here, the one aspect of Synod 2009 which did not seem to me to have worked well was our deliberations on the communications issue which culminated Tuesday with Synod approval of two bundled recommendations that the Church Herald cease publication. The extensive debate surrounding the six communications-related recommendations was commendably respectful and thoughtful. The parliamentary intricacies were occasionally daunting (including at least one challenge to a ruling of the chair, a reversal of the vote on the first recommendation which had initially appeared to pass by one vote, bundling five recommendations and subsequently unbundling them into two groups, etc.) but very well-handled by General Synod President Carol Bechtel.

To many of us, the main problem seemed to be the sketchiness of the three options presented to the delegates by GSC. Each seemed to envision the possibility of some future role for the Church Herald in an overall communications strategy. In retrospect, I firmly believe that assigning three such options to the advisory committees was a regrettable miscalculation. Especially problematic was the shortage of objective data which could have better informed the deliberations of the delegates. A primary reason why the advisory groups produced more than forty different recommendations was the fact they were based on a variety of assumptions which sometimes seemed contradictory. More substantial resourcing of the deliberations could have improved their quality. That's now water under the bridge. Hopefully a few lessons might be learned from this experience which may be beneficial to future General Synods.


I am struck by one apparent irony about RCA communications. While it may be true that members "voted with their feet" so to speak with regard to the Church Herald's diminishing subscription base, there would appear to be no empirical evidence that the RCA Today publication (which is very good) would necessarily fare any better if it were sustained solely on a subscription basis. RCA Today is supported by assessments and distributed extensively but not through subscriptions. So comparing one publication to the other is (in terms of viability), akin to comparing apples to oranges. None of delegates who spoke in support of the recommendations that the Church Herald cease publication acknowledged this crucial distinction. Yes, the subscription model no longer seems to work for a printed denominational magazine. Everyone at Synod seemed to agree that electronic communications is the wave of the future. And that is precisely where there seems to be a glaring inconsistency between Tuesday's Synod actions and the behavior of online consumers of information about the 2009 RCA General Synod!

At least two "official" blogs covered this year's General Synod--one on this official RCA General Synod web site as well as a separate one operated by the Church Herald. Commendably, administrators of the two blogs consulted with each other in advance and cross-promoted both blogs. A marvelous example of cooperation! It is striking to me that, for whatever reason, that the activity level at the Church Herald blog appeared to be higher than it was here on the RCA's official General Synod blog. That seems to empirically contradict the assumption that RCA members have decisively "voted with their feet (i.e. magazine subscriptions)" to effectively "kill" the Church Herald. Online, at least, it would appear that considerable interest remains in the independent perspective which the Church Herald provides. And everyone at General Synod seemed convinced that the future of RCA communications is becoming increasingly electronic. So, might that suggest that there could be a future role for an independent voice such as the Church Herald?

I am truly not interested in tilting at windmills, so to speak. Ecclesiastes 3:2 applies to organizations, too. But I wonder if the high level of interest in the Church Herald's General Synod blog might point to a viable future role in some electronic form?


  1. Lee, I believe something needs to be said to this, while it may be that people a choosing the Church Herald blog over this one by preference, it may also simple be that they found that one first. I saw you blogging the GS when I walked by your table, and upon return to my table I decided to see what you had written. I went to the Synod page to go to the blog link. It did not go anywhere for me, so I tried googling and eventually came upon this blog. If I had instead when to the Church Herald since I know that name, as do many others, as my next step, I may not have come to this blog at all. Using online hits to an relatively unknown blog to measure may not be as accurate as one might like.

    Further, this illustrates the necessity of the resolution that was defeated. Our communication at this point needs to be examined at all levels. Dead links to blogs covering the General Synod while the Synod is sitting should not be. Even finding the link would be difficult if I had simply come from the main RCA page in light of the horrible page layout. An independant assessment would have allowed these things to be examined and would have given grounds to argue to continue the Church Herald while that assessment was done. That too, however, is water under the bridge.

    As for the RCA Today, as a vehicle of communication for "Our Call" something many people in the denomination are still very unfamiliar with, examining its readership to see to whether it is a useful tool would have been helpful. I know in the congregation I serve more people read it and find the stories of church plants, revitilizations, etc to be valuable and encouraging. My goal in severing the two discussions is that while I wanted the RCA Today readership examined and reported back on as to how effective it is at communicating, I did not want it to be combined with the Church Herald for the very fact that in my understanding its purpose is radically different.

    As it stands, a great deal of hard work is in store for people who need to function with funds that are insufficient to bring about what the General Synod has directed them to do. I wish them the best, and hope due to these limits they come up with something far better rather than far worse.

  2. Jim, While I would not make a huge statistical claim about comparative blog usage, the differences in activity levels were sizable. The Church Herald blogs generated at least five times as many comments. I don't know the comparative page view stats but the I don't think it's reasonable to dismiss this much empirical data as easily as you seem to advocate. This data is something objective which was regrettably lacking in the General Synod's deliberations about this issue.

    The decision to kill something as long-running as the Church Herald was made by Synod on the basis of virtually no empirical data. Subscription comparisons are invalid since RCA Today is not dependent on them at all. Who knows whether the "free" RCA Today is actually read by as many people who care enough to pay for a Church Herald subscription? We had no relevant data on which to base so momentous a decision.

    It seemed to me to be a case of "shoot first and ask questions later." When in doubt, use caution. That seemed to be lacking Tuesday.

  3. I will give you that. I voted based on the empirical evidence in the churches in the classis I represent and the congregation I serve where very few people read the Church Herald even when it was free.

    However, I will agree greater information is never a bad thing as long as sufficient time is allowed for it to be properly digested. In interest I went to the Church Herald blog which, by the way, I did not even know existed (so much for my reputation as a web savey person) and was amazed at the number of bloggers they had writing for them. If I knew there were that many blogs on GS agregated in one place, I would certainly have went there. It would have been interesting to read and comment on many of them.

    I will agree in retrospect the entired approach was flawed from lack of information, lack of recomendations from the task force, and not have the first recommendation was not simply to get an outside source to examine all our communications to develop an effective communication strategy with no mention of the various specific tools we currently have. Without that even what we have done does not necessarily address the problem of ineffective communication.

    I support the RCA Today not necessarily because it is more effective than the Church Herald, but because I believe it is the sort of communications Our Call needs. I have already had feedback since arriving home when I mention these decisions on communication expressing concern that RCA Today will change due to the decisions of GS because they like it the way it is.

  4. Jim, I too like the RCA Today and commend their efforts to fulfill their mission. I believe that some combination of the two could have worked (as I proposed in the amended R-65 which the Synod approved). Implementing that would have almost certainly required considerable wisdom and flexibility. It might have proven unworkable but I thought there was some reasonable chance for success. A comparable example is that when the CRC approved its every-family support for the Banner, it effectively merged a separate bi-monthly CRC publication roughly comparable to RCA Today. The options presented to the advisory committees were based in part on that parallel example. I regret that the Synod did not see fit to give that a practical chance to succeed.

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