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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tips on Talking to the Media

Wendy Bailey, our Regional Presbyter, has posted some excellent advice on speaking to reporters. Experience has shown that, as the General Assembly makes some of its more controversial decisions, pastors may find themselves contacted by newspaper reporters and other media people, to get their views on the issue.

Publicity is good for local churches, and most pastors I know are more than happy to get the names of their church in the news. In this situation, however, it's important to be precise and thoughtful in replying to questions. Off-the-cuff responses can be easily misinterpreted or taken out of context.

So, it's a good thing to think in advance about what to say. Wendy's best piece of advice, in fact, may be that it's OK to ask the reporter to call back a few minutes later, to buy yourself a little time to formulate a response or scribble out a few rough talking-points for yourself. (Don't wait too long, though, because the reporter probably has a deadline looming.)

Please remember, too, that Wendy and I are more than willing to talk to reporters, if you want to refer them to us. You may also want to suggest that they talk to one of the Presbytery's commissioners to General Assembly. Monmouth's commissioners this year are the the Rev. Doug Chase, Brick; the Rev. Barbara Hicks, Lakewood Hope; Beverly Marsh, East Brunswick; Jim McGuire, Point Pleasant; and Young Adult Advisory Delegate Peter Stelljes, Yardville.

Now, here's Wendy's advice:

As we prepare for General Assembly, it is not unreasonable to expect that commissioners or pastors or presbytery leaders will be called upon to interpret the actions of the Assembly or explain what’s going on.  We will do our best to keep everyone informed of the many happenings of the assembly here on this blog … but I thought it might be a good time to share some tips I’ve put together for dealing with reporters and the media.
There are many times in which leaders in congregations and pastors will be called by the media for comment or information. Whether it’s a crisis or disaster in your congregation or community, an opinion on local politics or social issue, or a decision of the national or regional church, there are tips to make the interview more effective.


Depending on the issue, you may or may not be the best person to speak to the reporter. If your congregation is dealing with a crisis or emergency it is a good idea to identify one person who can answer questions and interview with the media. If you are not that person, it is appropriate to say something like, “I understand you have a lot of questions, the best person to speak to is …” and then give them the name and contact information for that person.


If you are the right person to speak, but you are not prepared to talk to the reporter when they call, it’s appropriate to say something like, “I will be happy to talk to you, this is not the best time, I will call you back.” You will also want to ask the scope of the story and ask yourself if there’s anything else you need to know from them in order to prepare. Find out, too, when the deadline is, so that you can reply in a timely manner. Then gather your thoughts, facts and information before calling back.


Reporters are all working on very quick deadlines. Be sure you get back to them as soon as you can. If you miss their deadline, or they move on to someone else, the story will be told without you. If you get back to them right away, even to explain what is keeping you from giving the interview right away, you will be establishing a good rapport with the reporter which will help you in this story and the longer term relationship.


Prepare the message you want to get across and make a list of talking points. Remember that although the reporter is gathering a story, you are the one who is telling it. Tell it the way you want it reported.


Think of the words you want to use to explain the issue or situation, but keep your points simple and concise. Remember that electronic media are looking for sound bites … seconds, not minutes, and newspaper reporters and bloggers are looking for quotes. Give them to them. Make their job easy. Most reporters are writing for a large and diverse audience, so this is not the time to use “church-ease” “presbyterian-speak” or show off your post graduate vocabulary


Be sure that you understand the question that you’re being asked and be sure to answer that question. The question may help to suggest ways to focus or phrase your response.


This sounds like it shouldn’t need to be said, but if there’s bad news or a bad situation, it’s ok to acknowledge that. Be direct and authentic about the situation and how you feel about it


Most reporters, even those focusing on religion, have no idea how churches operate, let alone the Presbyterian Church. Be prepared to explain even the most basic ideas to them, respecting their competency in the process.


Again, this shouldn’t need to be articulated, but it may be that the natural response is to say something snarky or argue with the reporter. Don’t do this. Always remain respectful.


If there is a story brewing that you know you will be called on, don’t hesitate to make the first step by creating a press release or calling your local reporter. This gives you the ability to shape the story. You can even suggest headlines that better capture the mood and ideas that you think are important about the story. The more work you do for the reporter the more likely the story will run as you would like.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Live Internet streaming of the General Assembly

Live streaming of the 221st General Assembly, meeting in Detroit, Michigan from Saturday, June 14 through Saturday, June 21, is available online on the PCUSA website.

A pdf version of the summary of the General Assembly schedule can be found here.

Only plenary sessions (meetings of the whole General Assembly) will be streamed. That means the only streaming on Sunday, June 15 will be from 2:30-4:30 pm, and there will be no live streaming at all on Monday or Tuesday, June 16-17, because that's when the General Assembly committees will be meeting.

Most observers have found that the most interesting time to watch live streaming is on Saturday evening (June 14), when the new moderator will be elected, and, later, on Wednesday evening (June 18) and all day Thursday and Friday (June 19-20).

It's not clear at this time when the various committees will be reporting. although this information will be available later in the week on PC-Biz. (Search for "docket" under the Explorer tab, or search for the Bills & Overtures Committee report (which recommends docket amendments).

In past years, the most controversial items have been scheduled for Friday afternoon and evening. If there are more than 2 or 3 controversial items, one of them may be scheduled for Thursday as well.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Hole in the Roof

Anyone who's been watching this blog has undoubtedly noticed there's been a long gap with no new posts. My last post was in October, 2013, just days before I ended up in the hospital with a pulmonary embolism in each lung. Various complications ensued, which led to several hospitalizations and a rehab stay of well over than a month, all told. Then, I had a lengthy period of recuperation at home, during which I was on disability. I returned to my church and presbytery duties a few weeks before Easter.

It's been a whirlwind since then, catching up. My breathing still isn't back to 100%, but I continue to progress.

I thought I'd restart this blog with a couple of photos that have a story behind them.

The first one you'll see is an exterior shot of the Morning Star Presbyterian Church in Bayville. I've been involved with that church since its inception in the 1990s, supporting and encouraging the Rev. Myrlene Hamilton Hess and her late husband and co-pastor, the Rev. Ed Hamilton, as they went about the challenging work of church-planting.

I was honored when they asked me to preach at the congregation's chartering service, as Morning Star officially became a congregation. I preached a sermon called "A Hole in the Roof," in which I told the story of a church that kept an opening at the apex of their dome, as a symbol of the importance of staying open to new things the Holy Spirit may be doing in their midst.

I didn't think too much about that sermon until several years later, when I again attended a worship service at Morning Star for the dedication of their building. I was astonished when Myrlene told me the church had a cupola because of my sermon!

She explained how the concept of a hole in the roof had been an enduring theme in their congregational life. When it came time to design the building, they told the architect they wanted to keep a hole in the roof somehow. His suggestion was a cupola, providing borrowed natural light while still keeping the rain out.

The second photo is an interior shot of the church sanctuary, looking up towards the cupola.

I told Myrlene I'd seen all sorts of things happen as the result of sermons I've preached, but never before have I had a sermon result in architecture!

It was all very gratifying. We preachers don't often know much about how our sermons impact our listeners - especially Presbyterians, who can be a pretty reticent bunch at times.

How is it for the church you know best? Do you keep a hole in the roof, so you can remain open to the Lord's leading in mission?