Communication shouldn’t be this hard. Just last week I messaged someone on Facebook and immediately thought, “I really should have sent an email instead.” I often find myself trying to craft an email for a conversation that should be in a phone call. It’s so easy to reach out the wrong way, and I wonder how many times I fail to get the response I expect simply because I choose the wrong channel.
In this article we’ll look at seven different ways you can connect with your prayer supporters. We’ll check out strengths and weaknesses, and we’ll find out how to choose the right channel for different types of communication.
1 – Snail Mail
For the longest time, ink on paper was the only way missionaries could connect with supporters back home. With so many faster options available today, it’s easy to wonder if this old-school “snail mail” still has a place in the missionary toolbox.
The short answer is, “Yes.”
“More than 64 percent of consumers told us they ‘value the mail’ they receive in their mailbox…”
“…65 percent of adult Millennials say they prefer to read something on paper…”
Joyce Carrier, Deliver Magazine, January 30, 2012
Perhaps the simplest reason to continue sending snail mail is that many supporting churches still expect it. Prayer letters are posted on church walls. When the frame with your name has an old date on your last printed letter, people start to wonder whether your ministry is still worth the investment. It’s sad that conclusions are reached over such trivial observations, but it’s often true.
Some churches are happy to receive print-friendly letters electronically, and they’ll print them for you. Others expect to tear open an envelope with your name and return address. You’ll need to know your supporting churches well enough to meet their expectations.
Snail mail also provides an opportunity to exceed expectations and to show special appreciation. One of the side effects of today’s constant electronic communication is that a handwritten note truly stands out. John Coleman explains, “They let the people in our lives know we appreciate them enough to do something as archaic as pausing for 15 minutes to put pen to paper in an attempt to connect and sustain a relationship with them.” (Harvard Business Review, April 5, 2013)
2 – Phone
If snail mail shows us the slow, methodical side of communication, a phone call can give us the other extreme. Immediate and (usually) unscripted, a voice conversation is an ideal long-distance platform for collaboration, for persuasion, or for seeking counsel. I’d consider other real-time voice technologies like Skype or FaceTime to be equivalent to a phone call — maybe even better when video is added.
Voice and video conversations communicate non-verbal cues far better than the written word can. Subtleties of pause, pitch, and volume say a lot about the message behind the message. Adding facial expression and body language through a video connection enhances the depth of communication.
There’s another giant advantage to voice communication. In any tense conversation, many of us tend to stop listening. Instead, we start planning out what we’re going to say when the other person finally stops for a breath.
This happens in face-to-face communication, and it’s even worse when a conversation is written or typed. There is nothing to hear after we’ve spoken, so there is no listening. Even the 30-second delay of a typed “instant” message leaves a gap in the discussion that we naturally fill with our own thoughts. A real-time voice conversation minimizes this delay, and gives us the best chance of actually hearing what the other person is saying.
Instead of listening, we start planning out what we’re going to say.
So, maybe you need some wise counsel from a trusted advisor for a sensitive situation, and you want to speak with them on the phone. It can be hard to just call out of the blue – especially when you live in a different time zone. You never know what they might be doing, and it’s tempting to start the conversation with an email instead. After all, you’re giving them the courtesy of reading it on their own time, you may think.
Unfortunately, sensitive conversations that begin with email often don’t end well.
Consider using your email only to request a time for a phone call. Offer several openings, and ask them to suggest a time that works for them. This invitation respects their schedule while offering the clarity and transparency of a real-time voice conversation.
What About Texting?
International texting can incur some pretty hefty fees – especially if you’re going to try to have a meaningful dialog. Texting also shares some of the same limitations as other forms of “instant” messaging, but it carries almost the same urgency as a phone call. One commonly-quoted statistic says that 90% of text messages are read in the first four minutes. Our mobile phones have become almost an extension of our person. With our phones always on hand, texting implies a demand for attention, so use it respectfully. As a channel to reach your supporters, consider using a text message only as an invitation to schedule an urgent voice call.
3 – Email
Ah, email – the blessing and the curse of our electronic lives. Who hasn’t at some time felt overwhelmed by the number of messages in the inbox? How in the world do you get your message noticed amid all those other competing emails? That’s a question for a whole series of articles that I’ll be posting in the coming weeks, Lord willing.
The question for today is, when and for what should I send email?
A broadcast email is one letter sent to many – perhaps all – of your supporters. Whether this email comes weekly, monthly, or quarterly is less important than that it comes consistently and predictably. Also important is the preference of your supporters. Some churches have volunteers that manually process every missionary letter to distribute to their members. With that type of labor involved, sending small weekly letters can become overwhelming to some, and less-frequent but more thorough communication is preferred. As an individual prayer partner, I prefer to be “drip-fed” with small updates. I love to hear about even the minor prayer requests, and the answers to those prayers the next week. (I shared a bit about how I process my prayer letters back in a previous post.)
If you have the time and the tools, consider dividing your list of supporters to send different letters at the frequencies that work best for different groups of your supporters. In upcoming articles, I hope to talk about tools that can help you with this division.
After all the work you invest in crafting that regular, consistent, predictable email, you still hear from only a fraction of your supporters. That can be frustrating and disappointing. In a comparison of email effectiveness in different industries, the “Religion” category enjoyed the highest open rate. For missionaries, that’s good news. Still, even with that top spot, less than half of the emails were recorded as being opened. (The real open rate is likely higher than reported – for all industries – because the email isn’t counted as opened unless the reader allows their mail program to display images.)
Don’t let yourself be discouraged by the people who don’t write back. Take joy in building relationships with those who do reply. There are also email tools you can use that will let you know who opens your emails – even if they don’t actually reply. That extra feedback can be encouraging. I’ll plan to write about those tools soon.
Individual emails can help keep up relationships with those who respond to your broadcast emails. Just keep in mind that any conversation that starts to turn sensitive may need to graduate to a phone call if the relationship warrants that.
Everyone seems to have their own opinion on whether a prayer letter should be just simple text, rich text with graphics, or a printable attachment, and what format to use for the attachment. This article is getting rather long, so I’ll explain my position in a later post. For now, here are my recommendations:
- Make the body of the email mobile-friendly. A simple plain text or HTML e-mail without pre-formatted margins usually works. If you’re using a fancy HTML template or stationery, you’ll need to make sure it’s mobile-aware.
- If you have a printer-friendly version of your prayer letter, include it as a PDF attachment only if it is less than 1MB.
- If you can’t get your printer-friendly version smaller than 1MB, then make it available from your website or a file-sharing host like dropbox, and include a link to that PDF in your prayer letter. (Consider the public and permanent nature of the web before hosting it on your own website if your prayer letter has sensitive information.)
- Some churches may request a Microsoft Word (.docx) format to make copying and pasting easier for them. If you choose to offer a Word document, I recommend linking to that file from your website or file-sharing host — and not attaching it — regardless of its size.
4 – Facebook
With its mobile apps and frequent activity for many users, Facebook is becoming a popular platform for missionaries to engage with their prayer supporters. The constant attention people give this app does make it rather effective in relationship building. Or I should say it can be effective if people see your messages.
Facebook is an increasingly busy place. On average, nearly half (47%) of a Facebook user’s news feed is invisible, according to a Facebook for Business report, simply because the user doesn’t scroll down far enough to see it. The news feed is just too full. And even scrolling the story into view does not mean that they actually read the story or click the “Continue Reading” link to see the entire post. Trusting Facebook to deliver important information is like sending mail to a mailbox that automatically trashes the bottom half of the stack without even showing the outside of the envelope. If we combine this failure to deliver with the email research finding that less than half of received messages are ever opened, we might conclude that only about 25-30% of Facebook posts are actually read.
OK, it’s honestly a little more complicated than that. A recent update to the News Feed algorithm restores some of a user’s invisible half when other people like, share, or comment on a post. That adjustment can be either a boon or a bane for your posts. If your updates are engaging and people respond quickly, you increase your chances of being bumped up into that top half. Yay for you! On the other hand, if you’re not noticed soon after you post, you’re now even more likely to tumble into that dreaded, lonely chasm of silence at the bottom of the news feed.
This Facebook page is not about the missionaries; it’s about the visiting mission teams.
Please don’t think I’m against using Facebook for ministry messages. Not at all. This social sharing is perfect for certain types of communication. When a church team comes to help with a special project, for example, a Facebook page is a wonderfully effective way to share pictures, videos and updates with their friends and family back home. See Andy Bonikowsky’s Aierdi Farmhouse page as an excellent model. Notice how most of the photos and updates are not about the farmhouse or the missionaries. Instead, the page focuses on the visiting teams who have come to help. If you can point your guests to your project’s page before they leave home, many will encourage friends and family to like the page in order to follow what they’re doing on the trip. This natural sharing means more awareness of your project, which can lead to more prayer support or more visiting work teams.
5 – Twitter
- Each message must be 140 characters or less. Sometimes that’s not easy.
- Even if you think it’s easy, your tweet may not be understood as you meant it.
- Example: each of these points fits in a tweet, but some can take a few tries to interpret.
- What I said about Facebook feeds being half invisible — it’s even more true with twitter feeds.
- Evangelists and preachers often tweet lots of quotes and verses – increasing personal visibility.
- Mention a twitter handle (ex: @EdifyHub) in a tweet, and they’ll get a notification … unless they turned off notifications.
- Retweet or “favorite” someone else’s tweet to show appreciation. They’ll get a notification for that, too.
- Urgent prayer requests with names in them? Probably not. Twitter is NOT private, not reliable.
- You can DM (direct message) one who follows you. Supposedly that’s private, but not guaranteed.
- Conversations? Yes they’re possible, but often ineffective. Also – always PUBLIC. Easy to forget that; be careful.
- Personal information is expected, in moderation. Show that you’re human with non-ministry interests, too.
- Yes, you can post images and short videos.
On mobile feed, they’re easy to scroll past. Say bye-bye to your intended impact.
- Update 11/2/2013: Twitter’s iOS and Android updates added previews of photos/videos to home timeline this week.
- Twitter for ministry: create a separate account to tweet local believers. Don’t use the same one your supporters see. #noise
6 – Website / Blog
Having your own website or blog gives you a “home base” for all of your communication. Unless you’re in a “creative access” location or you work with a people group that are hostile to Christians, having your own website can be a powerful help in deepening your relationship with your supporters. Every other channel has noise that surrounds your conversation, but on your own website, you can control the atmosphere around your message.
There are two key ways to use your website:
- Describe your ministry philosophy and your expected opportunities while raising support.
- Communicate with your closest prayer supporters while on the field.
As you introduce yourself to churches and try to line up meetings, some of them ask you to fill out a standard questionnaire to decide if you are a fit for their ministry. Other churches are content to accept whatever information you may have available. Your website is a place to offer as much information as you want to give and they want to read. Be aware that the quality of the content on your website can influence their opinion of the quality of your potential ministry.
Back in the email section, we talked about people who respond and show a specific interest in your ministry. Instead of (or in addition to) sending out weekly emails to those supporters who show an interest in your ministry, you may choose to post your more regular updates on your website.
There are many platforms that make this easy, and we’ll discuss helpful tools in future posts. For now, I’ll give you these recommendations to look for when building a website.
- Use a mobile-friendly theme. Often you’ll see these called “responsive” themes.
- Make sure your blog’s “RSS feed” is easy to find. Some platforms and themes do this automatically. Your supporters have other interests, and they’re not going to keep coming back to your website just to see what you’re up to. This RSS feed allows your supporters to subscribe to your articles in a “feed reader” and see your updates as soon as you post them – along with everything else they’re watching on the web. This lets them view your website on their terms. Check out feedly.com for an example of a feed reader. (It’s free.)
- Post regularly and predictably – just like email.
- Post carefully. Especially if the people you serve have internet access, be discriminating about what you post. Consider using only initials when referring to people on your field.
- Remember that your website is public. And even if you take something down, it’s not really gone. A tool such as the Internet Archive Wayback Machine can uncover old versions of your website. You can never completely delete anything.
Truth be told, most of your supporters are not going to subscribe to your website or check back regularly. But those who are engaged enough to do this are more likely to support you with more informed prayers, so this effort is not wasted.
Like email broadcasts, websites have many options that deserve much more attention. I intend to explore website options and recommendations in greater detail in future posts.
7 – Video
How do you take an email recipient and excite them about your ministry? How do you explain the impact of a building project? How do you communicate the emotion of a recent disaster? When standard text and photos aren’t enough, consider using video.
See how The Wilds Christian Camp used video to share about the recent fire on their campus. The medium of video clearly shows the fire’s impact on the camp, almost bringing you on site to see it for yourself. The interviews with the camp staff help share the trust they place in God. Video helps create an emotional connection to the ministry that is far stronger than what can be built with just photos and written words.
Video is also useful in preparation for a visiting mission team. Help them visualize the area before they arrive, and you’ll build excitement and anticipation for the work ahead. You can also lay a foundation to help them better understand the work they’ll be doing as you take them on a guided tour.
There are three primary places that missionaries often make video available:
- Facebook – free. Video posts are subject to the same News Feed decay as normal Facebook posts. Video is one of the more engaging and sharable types of posts, though, so it may be just the ticket to get you bumped up to the top with the latest News Feed changes.
- YouTube – free for short videos. Remember, you don’t control the surrounding context of your video once your supporter hits YouTube, so be sure to turn off the “Show suggested videos when the video finishes” option.
- Vimeo – only paid “plus” or “pro” accounts can turn off the suggested videos at the end.
Regardless of which option you choose, you’ll still need to find a way to let your supporters know that you have a video. Any of the previous communication channels can be used to let them know where to find it.
I promised seven different channels you can use to connect with your prayer supporters. I’d like to leave you with a bonus list of other ideas to consider:
This week, choose one channel that you haven’t used in a while, and reach out to one of your supporters that way. Be sure to communicate with a purpose that fits that channel.
I know I barely touched some of these topics, so I’ll plan to come back later and explore them in more detail.
Please Leave a Reply below to let me know what I missed, or where you’d like to see some more information.