By Chandler Vannoy
In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Leadership in Turbulent Times, she documents the leadership of four United States presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR).
FDR’s presidency was the longest tenured by any U.S. president and spanned over some of the most pivotal years in U.S. history, including the Great Depression, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the decision to enter World War II.
One of the sections of the book focuses on Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats.” During the depression years of the 1930s, these chats were used by President Roosevelt to communicate with the American people.
He delivered these speeches to the nation to help share progress on how the government was working to overcome the bank crisis and boost morale. These chats were unlike any other presidential addresses.
FDR took to the radio to give an update to the nation in an informal and conversational tone. He did away with the eloquent speeches normally heard from the White House.
Instead, according to History.com, FDR “took care to use the simplest possible language, concrete examples, and analogies in the fireside chats, so as to be clearly understood by the largest number of Americans. He began many of the nighttime chats with the greeting, ‘My friends,’ and referred to himself as ‘I’ and the American people as ‘you’ as if addressing his listeners directly and personally.”
As the book was explaining the effect these fireside chats had on the country, I couldn’t help but think how important communication is to any organization—especially churches.
In the same way FDR led through uncertainty, church leaders are constantly dealing with change and complexity.
Of course, it’s not on the same national scale, but our mission of making disciples is of even greater importance. Eternity is at stake. So here are four lessons we can learn about communication in church leadership from FDR.
1. When there is silence, assumptions are made.
If there’s a lack of communication, people tend to assume the worst. In FDR’s case, the nation assumed no work was being done to resolve the bank crisis issue because they weren’t hearing anything.
In reality, the opposite was true. Nimble work was being done to put together a plan. FDR saw a need to fill in the gap for the nation so wrong assumptions wouldn’t perpetuate.
Our churches need the same thing from pastors and other ministry leaders. We need to communicate quickly and often, even if the information we’re sharing isn’t “final.” Those we lead want to hear that we’re making progress.
For example, if you’re in the beginning stages of putting together a plan to resolve a parking issue that is frustrating many, share that church leadership recognizes the issue and is working quickly to address it.
Silence creates a gap that is easily filled with false assumptions. Close the gap by communicating progress, no matter how big or small.
2. The complex can be made simple through effective communication.
FDR was challenged with one of the most complex issues our nation has ever faced. While trying to save the nation from the Great Depression, he was learning new financial terminology and bank processes every day.
But he couldn’t get on the radio and use these complicated descriptions. He had to put it into a format everyone would understand. He had to use plain language to explain complex issues and programs.
In our churches and ministries, we aren’t having to explain how the stock market works, but we can easily assume everyone understands our internal jargon.
When we communicate, we need to put it through the filter of someone who has never been to our church and doesn’t know all the details and acronyms.
We need to share the progress that is taking place but clarify all that’s confusing. Complexity leads to confusion. Simplicity leads to clarity.
3. Constant and clear communication boosts morale.
In a nation as large as America, it’s easy for success stories and positive momentum to never be heard by the majority. This is true for us today, but even more so in FDR’s time when there was no internet or social media.
News traveled much slower then. This means during the time of the Great Depression, no news meant bad news. This is exactly why his fireside chats gave a morale boost: the nation heard progress was being made.
Were all their troubles going to be taken care of overnight? No, of course not. But their pain was noticed. The same goes for our ministries. As church leaders, it’s easy for us to put our heads down and neglect moments we should be sharing.
When Sunday is on the horizon, it’s hard to slow down and share the wins happening right in front of us. In turn, our volunteers and staff will miss them as well.
Build in time for win-sharing. Add a 15-minute huddle on Sundays for service teams or create a “Wins of the Week” email you send out.
Here are just a few examples:
- Share about the first-time guest who signed up to join a small group.
- Tell your teams about the small group member who prayed out loud for the first time in their group.
- Introduce the church member who invited their Starbucks barista to church, and they actually showed up.
Share the wins. Once you slow down and look for them, you’ll realize they’re everywhere. And when you start to share them, you’ll see the morale of your team improve. Your leaders will start looking for things to share.
Who doesn’t love celebrating? Everyone loves to be on a winning team.
4. Communication is the leader’s responsibility.
Effective communication begins and ends with the leader. If the leader isn’t creating a culture that values and elevates clear communication, the rest of the team will not follow.
FDR took the responsibility upon himself to constantly think how they would present their plans to the nation. History.com says:
“Though he worked with speechwriters, Roosevelt took an active role in creating the chats, dictating early drafts, and reading aloud revisions until he had almost memorized the text. He was said to be fond of ad-libbing, explaining why official versions of his speeches often vary from the actual recorded version.”
This wasn’t just some project he assigned to a staff member. Roosevelt took ownership.
As John Maxwell says, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” The same goes for communication. If we as leaders in our churches don’t own this, no one will. That’s the bad news.
The good news is we control this more than we realize. If we focus on crystal-clear communication, we will create a culture that values simplicity and speed of communication at all levels.
After all—to slightly alter Maxwell’s words—effective leadership rises and falls on communication.