What internal communicators can learn from the church (and vice versa)

Companies and churches may have different aims, but the two have plenty to teach each other about using communication to build a thriving, collaborative community.

People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

The best, most fulfilling places of work and worship tap into this profound human desire and use it to rally diverse groups of people around common, cooperative goals.

How does that happen? Just as important, what prevents organic, genuine connections from forming?

Here are four things that churches do (both good and annoying) that internal communicators can explore to create a more harmonious, healthier—possibly even holier—environment.

1. Don’t force it. Of all my grievances about going to church, none generates more ire than the dreaded meet-and-greet, in which a pastor or other way-too-cheery person in the pulpit encourages everyone to greet someone near them. It sounds innocuous, but I rarely return to a church where perfunctory chit-chat is foisted upon the congregants.

Many companies do some painful variation of this, whether co-workers are compelled to solve puzzles together, complete a scavenger hunt or, perhaps worst of all, talk about their feelings.

Great companies and churches alike know that no one likes to be coerced. Teamwork and cooperation are important, but rather than force it, gently encourage dialogue organically—preferably in milieus featuring free pizza and adult beverages.

2. Allow for questions, answers and dialogue. There’s a church in Florida with a weekly Q&A meeting. It’s an open, welcome setting where you can submit questions anonymously. Doubters and skeptics are welcome.

Some companies allow for Q&A, but they do it in a large group setting to deter anything but softball questions. Having a space where employees can anonymously submit concerns or frustrations helps to build trust and foster transparency, as is offering a time when execs talk with staff and field questions. People won’t commit to a community unless they feel heard.

3. Encourage the formation of smaller, collaborative groups. Churches do this well. Just about any church you go to will be eager to have you “plug in” to a small group. This is how genuine connections form within the context of church. Small groups are where real conversations take place, burdens are shared and bonding occurs.

Just as it’s difficult to get past, “Hi, how are you?” on bustling Sunday mornings, you might work next to someone for 10 years and never go beyond surface-level conversations.

Facilitating the formation of small groups—whether by common interests, hobbies, work-related issues or charitable causes—can break down communication barriers and increase overall unity.

Have a group of people who like to work out or play basketball? Why not spring for a group gym membership? Encourage your musicians to jam and your gardeners to grow together.

Small groups are a gateway to creating personal connections.

4. Substance matters more than style. One common reason cited for millennials’ exodus from religion is the growing disillusionment with the perceived shallowness of services on any given sabbath. Fed up with clichéd activities such as passing the plate as emotional music swells or celebrity pastors’ requests for money for a new building project, many have simply left and not returned.

Whether at work or a place of worship, humans crave substance. Superficial style may get people in the door, but all the fancy coffee in the world can’t atone for a lack of respect or being treated like an anonymous cog. A generous pet bereavement policy is no replacement for meaningful contributions, celebrated work, relevant training, flexibility or the opportunity to advance.

Churches and companies that take their people for granted—and instead rely on superficial frills and baubles to keep them at bay—shouldn’t expect to keep them around long. Substantive benefits that enrich people’s lives and make them feel valued, however, have staying power.

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