Stories Worth Telling



By George Mitrovich –

Pastors are not publicists; they are called to preach, to craft sermons not press releases. That’s a given, but therein lies a problem.

Despite the lack of ambiguity in Matthew 5:15, the great majority of preachers have neither written nor circulated a press release; and almost certainly never called a news conference. The question is, why?

Absent Christian churches the social fabric of the United States tears apart; no informed observer of American society doubts that truth. But our secular society is clueless of this incontrovertible fact – and the measure of their cluelessness is directly attributable to the failure of church and faith communities to share their stories.

When I suggest to clergy that society needs to hear their stories, to tell the good news of their church’s deeds, they invariably tell me it’s inappropriate, that it’s inconsistent with their calling as men and women of the cloth, of their duty to remain God’s humble servants.

Seriously, that’s bunk.

This is what I know as a press aide to Bobby Kennedy in the presidential campaign of 1968 and press secretary subsequently to two United States senators, as well as having advised countless other public officials on media: If you don’t tell your story your story won’t be told. Period.

As former president of the San Diego County Ecumenical Council, whose membership stood at 125 Christian churches, including active participation by the Catholic Diocese, I was aware that every church in the council and hundreds more beyond, everyday performed invaluable public services – but unknown to the public and unreported by media.

In a world of Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Skype, YouTube, emails, the means of telling “your story” are greater than at any time in history; the reach of social media is vast and failing to use it is stupid – seriously stupid.

More than one billion people around the world use Facebook, and while the probability of your church’s story being noticed is doubtful, that is not an argument for rejecting social media.

Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church of San Diego.

Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church of San Diego.

With more than 500 “friends” on Facebook and a sizeable list of people wanting to be my “friends,” I use it to post notices about the four public forums I run in San Diego, Denver, Boston, and Washington D.C. I also use it to reference important articles I believe they should read, and op-eds I’ve written.

As any Facebook user would, I know who’s posting likes and who’s posting comments. But I also know people who post nothing are reading what I write because some of them, in chance encounters, tell me.

If my postings are effecting others, stirring their consciences, stretching their minds, even moving them to action, all because I have shared my “story” on Facebook, how much greater would the effect be if your church shared your story?

Social media offers platforms that in the great arc of history never previously existed and if your church is not engaged in social media, you are failing your mission.

Since your members already know your story, and are a part of your story, it is not your members in need of being told but the broader community; the people you must inform, believers and unbelievers, of the great contributions made by your congregation.

But as a confessing Christian and an individual who cares about issues of social justice, the urbanized and sophisticated liberals that form no small part of my social network, one that spreads from the breakwaters of the Pacific to east of the Berkshires, many of whom are not men and women of faith, are utterly clueless of the debt owed Christian churches and the faith community. Do I tell them? Of course, I am not reticent about witnessing to my faith, but their ignorance is profound.

As I have long contended with clergy to witness to their faith by telling their churches’ stories, so too have I contended with them to once a year call a press conference on the State of the Church and report what your church, your faith community, has contributed to the commonweal. The president does it at State of the Union. Governors do it. Mayors do it. Why then are clergy silent on the State of the Church?

I’m an individual with deep political ties, but preachers are a major force in my life and I know the angst many feel as they go about trying to do good. It’s a difficult profession and it can wear down its most committed, so the idea of adding new duties to tell the church’s story, seems undoable. But surely there is at least one person within the church with some kind of media or public relations experience that would lend a hand.

At the same time, it is worth getting to know your community’s local journalists. If you are in ministry, you should visit the newsroom of your local newspaper, television or radio station. If you are active in your church, you should get to know the local beat journalists and take them to lunch.

If the White House, agencies of the federal government, members of Congress, governors and state legislatures, mayors and city council members, and companies and businesses and corporate America, feel the need to know media, to tell their stories, why not the faith community?

Let me illustrate my point by profiling two churches in my city of San Diego that make a major contribution to our city and region: First United Methodist Church (where I’ve been a member for 40 years) and The Rock, a conservative evangelical megachurch.

First United Methodist remains a major player in San Diego, despite declining membership, by providing social and cultural services. In 2012, through its members and clergy, our congregation ministered to more than 1,200 prisoners; presented choral concerts attended by 3,386; participated with San Diego City Schools in their Everyone a Reader Program helping hundreds of kids to read; each Sunday distributed more than 100 meals to families in need; offered more than 100 turkeys on Thanksgiving and Easter to those without means to have traditional family dinner; provided dinners once a month to more than 1,800 people; offered conferences by its parish nurse on such pressing concerns as Alzheimer, as well as giving flu shots to congregants; had 500 people participate in tributes to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and through its counseling center, headed by top professionals, provided therapy to more than 1,000 people in need, independent of means to pay.

These accomplishments are worthy of recognition. Ironically, while some within the congregation at First United Methodist know this impressive story, most do not. If your own members and friends are clueless, there is no chance the communities and city beyond will know the debt owed.

The Rock Church, on the hand, is an entirely open book to the community. Under the remarkable ministry of Miles McPherson, an ex-NFL player, drug addict and alcoholic, who experienced a miracle conversion (and McPherson’s testimony of his conversion is one of most dramatic I’ve ever heard), and has a remarkable and unique civic engagement program for members and friends. And The Rock tells its story.

McPherson invited The Rock’s congregation to become civically engaged, and more than 2,000 committed to the program to devote their time, energy and money to the church’s outreach efforts. In one year alone the total number of hours contributed exceeded 600,000 and McPherson estimated in-kind contributions made to San Diego was greater than $10 million.

On Good Friday of this year, with more than 4,000 gathered for worship at Petco Park, the home of the San Diego Padres, and with 500 Rock volunteers on hand, the church partnered with several ministries to benefit the San Diego Food Bank (4,000 pounds of food donated), God’s Extended Hand, Monarch Schools and Kaiser Bloodmobile (67 pints of blood), as well as downtown area residents.

“Easter is a time of hope and for every way people can be lost, we want to find a way they can be found,” said McPherson. Hope came that day in the form of care packages, toiletries and blankets for the homeless; it came in the form of Feed a Family program, where families in need could apply for meals; it came in the form of ministries designed to provide practical support in the areas of cancer, sexual abuse recovery, suicide loss, and human trafficking. It also came, as the church’s news release said, “in just plain encouragement in trying times.”

That was just one day in the life of this extraordinary ministry of civic engagement; and with more than 30,000 attending Easter Sunday services at the Rock’s two campuses, the resources available to expand the church’s services to community and city increased exponentially.

It is sometimes too easy to focus on big churches sharing their stories of extraordinary contributions made to community and city, to state and nation. The truth is that every church contributes to the welfare of America – from store front ministries to Renaissance inspired Cathedrals; from churches with thousands of members to churches with fewer than 50; from fundamentalist to liberal churches; from churches that celebrate Mass and churches with rock bands, every church plays a redeeming role in holding together the fragile fabric of our society – and there is no chance our society survives without this incalculable gift to the people of the United States and the world beyond.

But people and society won’t know if the story isn’t told.

George Mitrovich is the president of two public forums, The City Club in San Diego and The Denver Forum. Additionally, he chairs The Great Fenway Park Writers Series for the Boston Red Sox.



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