Archive - April, 2012

The Failure to Communicate

Mike McCurry

My friend Mike McCurry has an interesting viewpoint on communications within the nonprofit arena.  He recently penned the following “excerpt” as part of a foreword to my soon-to-be-published book  “We Must Speak:  Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century”.   I am particularly struck by his comments about fact versus opinion in today’s 24/7 media arena.

Most of us remember (at least if we are Baby Boomers) the classic Paul Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke,” in which the jailer grabs Newman by the scruff of the neck and proclaims, “What we have here is a failure to communicate…”  Much of the work I have done since leaving the White House in the 1990s involves helping nonprofit organizations communicate more effectively because, frankly, many of their efforts result in nothing short of failure.

There are many reasons for this.  Organizations doing good work for noble causes often believe their worthiness is self-evident.  Surely anyone can see the goodness in their labors.  Often an “aw shucks” humility causes an organization to refrain from tooting its own horn, again believing the world will see the merit reflected in its good works.  Then there are the budget issues: Many organizations under-invest in communications in favor of putting more resources where the program can help those in need.

In theory, those are good reasons to put communications lower on the list of priorities.  But they represent bad thinking when one considers the enormous challenge of trying to advance a cause in the public marketplace of ideas and keep it current in the eyes of an ever-distracted public.

We know a lot about the changes that are happening in the bewildering world of technology and communications. “Mass communications” as we once knew it no longer exists. Yes, network television reaches millions with news reports every night at 6:30, but the audience share has contracted significantly in the last 10 years. Yes, daily newspapers still count, but circulation is down and readers under age 35 are far more likely to read the “daily paper” online rather than in print.  We do not gather for “appointments” with those who deliver important content.  We want the content when we need it, and we expect it to be online, available 24/7, and accessible without hassles.

What we are not sure about is whom we can trust to get the story right.  So many sources, so many blogs, so many Internet sites, so many loud and angry voices on cable TV and talk radio tell us what to think. Our heads spin with constant bombardment from messages designed to sell, persuade, incite, provoke, and arouse. We don’t get much comfort. We don’t get much context. We don’t get people helping us put information in a framework that allows us to ponder the important things and choose the right things.

My old boss in the U.S. Senate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once said, “We are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.”  Yet everyone seems to have “facts” supporting the incontrovertibility of their own “opinion.”  And the information is overwhelming and oppressive.  As another friend of mine, Joe Nye, writes: “We live in an era with a plentitude of information but a paucity of understanding.”  Too much opinion. Too many facts. No one to help us make sense of the mix. That lack is the root of the failure to communicate.

The “failure to communicate” can prove fatal to many a good and worthy cause.  We cannot let the failure to communicate effectively impede the work of The United Methodist Church.  Our cause is just too important.  We are about saving souls.  We are about bringing disciples to Jesus Christ and transforming the world.  We are about spreading the gospel good news, and that sacred trust means we must communicate effectively and relentlessly because everything in our being cries out that the world needs to hear the great, great story of Jesus and his love.

Mike McCurry is former press secretary to President Bill Clinton and an active lay leader in The United Methodist Church.  He teaches Sunday school, serves on the board of governors of Wesley Theological Seminary, and is finishing his graduate work there for an M.A. degree.  He was twice a delegate to General Conference from the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference. He is a member of the General Commission on Communication and the executive committee of the denominations Global Health Initiative and its Imagine No Malaria campaign.



The Colors of Small Town Poverty

Poverty in small town America is often overlooked, and the children of small town poverty are ignored. This fact was brought home to me several years ago when we moved back to my old, very poor neighborhood in a small town in central Oklahoma. The move was necessitated by the need among our elders for care as they experienced declining health. We settled into my grandparents home which had for years been the family base. It was a grand old farmhouse, in need of significant repair, that had been moved into town in the early 1900s. (Actually it was the amalgam of two old houses, but that’s another story.) The neighborhood had fallen even further downward than when I lived there as a child and it wasn’t exactly upscale even then.

The adjacent lot where our neighbor–one of the town’s more colorful characters–lived was overgrown with waist high weeds entangled around a half dozen rusted hulks of old cars, tractors, pickup trucks and assorted farm implements, all beyond any hope of restoration. Rusting skeletons. Just down the road, the first elementary school in town, abandoned and partially caved in on itself, was used by another town hermit as a residence. Across the street in mid-block an abandoned house was surrounded by overgrown vegetation. A 1930s era pickup truck sat in the yard on bare rims, rusting away. Across from that lot an old city fire truck, driven there perhaps forty years ago by a collector who had long since moved away, sat in a collapsed garage with a full grown elm tree thrusting through its bed.

Our neighbors to the north kept a hog for slaughter and our neighbors to the south hunted deer in season and fished, not for sport, but for food. A block south was a 1950s motel with individual one room cabins. Located on Route 66, it now served as short term rental accommodations for those who could afford no other.

This was small town poverty. Its color is rusty metal red and weed brown.

The Stresses of Poverty

At the end of the workday in early evening I would go out on the front porch and often I would hear shouting and screaming from different places in the neighborhood. The police were frequent visitors as the shouting sometimes turned into fighting. Mostly domestic violence. Sometimes late at night it would awaken us from sleep. The sound of poverty is yelling and shouting. People stressed to the breaking point. Day in, day out and especially at the end of the month.

This remembrance occurred as I read the Annie E. Casey Foundation report on children living in poverty. It says concentrated poverty, defined as areas where 30 percent or more households fall below the federal poverty threshold, is on the rise. The 2010 federal poverty threshold is $22,314 per year for a family of four.

The report estimates 7,879,000 children in the U.S. live in poverty, and the number has increased from 9% to 11% over the last decade. The number in concentrated poverty has risen 25% since 2000. These statistics make my heart ache. As the Casey report says, families with children living in poverty “are more likely to face food hardship, have trouble paying their housing costs, and lack health insurance than those living in more affluent areas. Children living in areas of concentrated poverty are also more likely to experience harmful levels of stress and severe behavioral and emotional problems than children overall.”

For the nearly 8 million children under age 18 living in areas of concentrated poverty in the United States, critical resources for their healthy growth and development – including high-performing schools, quality medical care and safe outdoor spaces – are often out of reach. The chance that a child will live in an area of concentrated poverty has grown significantly over the last decade. — Data Snapshot on High Poverty Communities, Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Going to the Mountain

I was talking to a little boy who lived next to the firetruck with the tree growing through it and he told me his grandmother was taking him to “the mountain” to ride his bike that evening. We were in central Oklahoma where there are no mountains, so I was curious. I questioned him, “What mountain?”

“You know, the one down by the big lake at the bottom of the hill in the woods,” he said.

After a few more descriptive tidbits, I realized the mountain was the rubble from city excavations dumped alongside the city sewage treatment facility at the edge of town. This was his playground. And, in fact, I recalled having played there myself at his age. But things should have changed for the better since then.

And that’s what make my heartache. Things, apparently, haven’t changed that much, at least not for the children who live in neighborhoods trapped in poverty. They are invisible. And in the inflamed rhetoric so prevalent today, they are viewed with disdain, not with concern. Added costs, a burden.

For me, the church was a way out of that neighborhood and the debilitating conditions it harbored. The people of the church encouraged, nurtured, supported and provided opportunities that helped me to see a world beyond the “mountain” by the edge of the sewage plant. But today in my denomination we’re talking about small local congregations as ineffective, inefficient and a drain on resources. And it makes me worry about the children who know the local police officer better than they know the local pastor. They know the angry words and violent behavior better than they know lovingkindness and peaceful living.

Ways to Move Forward

Overall, the poor are overlooked in our society. The rural poor are invisible. The Casey report makes several proposals for addressing poverty. Mostly it refers to urban poverty, but never the less these are steps in the right direction:

  • Promoting community change efforts that integrate physical revitalization with human capital development through public/private partnerships to create mixed-income communities;
  • Leveraging “anchor institutions” to build strong, supportive communities for children and families such as hospitals, universities and other “anchor institutions” to create cradle-to-career pipelines that improve opportunities for disadvantaged children;
  • Promoting proven and promising practices in the areas of work supports, asset building and employment with intensive, employment-focused programs targeting working-age public housing residents through United Way, community colleges and other organizations for integrated delivery of education, employment training, work supports, financial coaching and asset building services;
  • Connecting neighborhood improvements to citywide and regional efforts. Increasingly, families must look to the surrounding metropolitan region to access opportunities;
  • Increasing access to affordable housing in safe, opportunity-rich communities for low-income families, particularly families of color. Strategies for achieving this goal include inclusionary zoning, tenant eligibility guidelines that prohibit discriminatory admission practices, marketing to attract a diverse applicant pool, and housing mobility programs for families with Section 8 vouchers.

From Rural to City Life

These do not fully address the dilemma of rural poverty. As we rush headlong toward urban, suburban and exurban living, the rural poor, as rural life in general, becomes less visible and more neglected.

I would add:

  • strengthening regional community colleges and expanding their training to include technical skills;
  • installing broadband into rural areas and making it accessible through public schools and libraries;
  • strengthening public education.

The rural and small membership churches are, or can be, local anchor institutions that make a difference. Considering a more expansive role for small membership churches could move them from being viewed as liabilities to assets. This, too, is discounted in much of the conversation about how and where ministry should be carried out today. And it begs the question that Jesus was asked by some of his followers when he told them how he wanted them to behave: to care for the sick, ill, imprisoned, thirsty, and poorly clothed, those who are overlooked. To care for them is as if they were caring for him, Jesus said. But his followers asked, “Lord, when did we see you?”

I’d hazard a guess he would say to me, “When you spoke with the little boy who was going to play near the city sewage yard. That was me.”

Faith in Crisis and Easter Hope

“Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists,” writes Andrew Sullivan. “Ignore them,” he says, “and embrace Him.” His provocative essay appears in The Daily Beast and Newsweek.

Another commentator writes that politicians have reduced the evangelical tradition to a “pathetic caricature,” subordinating a “rich tradition of social justice to a narrow and predictable political agenda.” Michael Gerson writes in his Washington Post column that politicians are giving religion a bad name.

E.J. Dionne, also in the Post, adds his voice of concern: “I want to suggest that what should most bother Christians of all political persuasions is that there are right and wrong ways to apply religion to politics, and much that’s happening now involves the wrong ways. Moreover, popular Christianity often seems to denigrate rather than celebrate intellectual life and critical inquiry.”

The Changing Nature of Faith

On one hand, it’s notable that this discussion about the nature of faith is occurring in public media. Only a few years ago, it would not have happened. It’s also notable that the commentators are not professional theologians but persons of faith writing about faith and culture as they experience it in their daily lives.

Sullivan’s claim is deeply compelling, especially in light of research by the Barna Group and United Methodist Communications that confirms that young adults are turned off by the captivity of the faith to dogmatism and judgmentalism. Faith has been co-opted and collapsed into political and economic ideologies, and this causes people to turn away from the church and even to reject the faith.

And yet, as Sullivan notes, we yearn to understand the mystery of the universe and our place in it. At the root of this yearning is a search for the holy. We are asking why we are here and how we find meaning and purpose. These are faith questions.

Religious Truth Expressed in a Reasoned Way

As I have been writing these past few days, I believe this presents not only a challenge to the mainline denominations but also an opportunity. The mainline groups have long expressed values that are born of faith, in ways that appeal to people of different faiths and no faith. The mainlines have an ability to express religious truths in a reasoned way that translates to the secular culture. They are concerned for the common good.

United Methodists have discovered that providing people with a way to act on their desire to serve others encourages those outside the church to reflect on the meaning of faith and how they might relate to a faith community. Doing this also results in outward bound mission for those in the church and gives them a way to actively express their faith.

When this is done in a strategic way, communicating in a way that interprets the faith and the faith community, it serves the wider culture and energizes local congregations as well. It provides a way for the church to demonstrate active, meaningful faith absent dogma or politics. It’s about service and the common good. It’s about being present in the culture.

Pessimisim vs. Hope

There’s a lot of pessimism afoot today about the church and faith. I even sense in some quarters panic and desperation. It’s true that Christianity in the United States faces a crisis for all the reasons these commentators list and more, but I’m not pessimistic about the future. Not, that is, if the church embraces its place in society to seek the shalom of God and to be the servant people God calls us to be.  The message of Easter is a message of resurrection and hope; it is a message of renewal and new life.

As Christians consider the dark day of suffering that is marked by Good Friday, looking toward the hope of Easter morning, I am reminded of Paul’s admonition to the Christians in Philippi:

Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night… (Philippians 2: 14,15)




Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century

I have been concerned about the growing absence of voice of  the church in culture today when communications has never been more integral to our lifestyle.  My thoughts around this subject have spawned a soon-to-be -published book called We Must Speak:  Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century.

I see this book as a call to the leadership of the mainline communions and to my colleague communicators to rethink communications within the mainline denominations.  Is there a loss of voice?  Should we elevate communications to a strategic level?

I invite you to download a preview of the book here.  I welcome your thoughts on communications as an integral strategy for the church.

You can also view a short excerpt from a webinar here in which  I recently participated with fellow communicators.


A Saturday Evening Before Palm Sunday Meditation

The blind lady played the tambourine. A man shuffled forward using a walker. A shy little girl stepped to the front. And the lady who seemed a little out of touch came alive and beamed as brightly as an evening star. The impromptu choir at 61st Avenue United Methodist Church had formed and they were ready to lead a rousing rendition of Swing Low Sweet Chariot on the Saturday-evening-before-Palm-Sunday worship service. And sing they did!

Bodies came alive. Energy filled the room. Folks swayed and some, ever-so-slightly, allowed themselves to dance. This congregation of  people knows hard times. Some live on the street. Most struggle to get through each day. For them, life is not kind.

But when the Rev. Paul Slentz asked for a song request and “Swing Low” was given, the place came alive. He invited anyone who wanted to be in the choir to come forward. Normally there is no choir. And ten or so people made their way, some haltingly because of physical limitations, to the front of the room. The pianist hit the keys and the music gushed forth.

They sang with as much energy as I imagine those who shouted encouragement to Jesus in Jerusalem did two thousand years ago. One lady in particular beamed with joy. It was a transformation from her earlier downcast manner. Then it had seemed as if she were detached from the world but now her face was one big smile.

This morning as I re-read Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, I happened upon this description of her experience in worship when Renola, an African American lady embraced Kenny, an emaciated young man dying of AIDS, from whom Renola had kept her distance.

Lamott writes that during the singing of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” Ranola watched as everyone stood but Kenny. He was too weak to stand. She melted. She went to his side and “lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang.”

And Lamott puts into words what we felt last evening at 61st Ave. UMC. “I can’t imagine anything but music that could have brought about this alchemy. Maybe it’s because music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.”

We’re broken and battered, some more than others. Sometimes our wounds show, sometimes not.

Swing low sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home. Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down. But still my soul feels heavenly bound.

Our hearts beat for that heavenly place we call home. Safety from the storm. Respite from the struggle. Sweet sounds without the noise. Last evening at 61st Avenue United Methodist Church, the noise quieted, hard times were forgotten and tender hearts came home.