2023 Convention


Religion Communicators Convention 2023 – April 19-21, Chicago


The 2023 convention is a wrap! Full of great presentations and networking opportunities, it was wonderful to once again gather in person. Below are various highlights and summaries that show how “Listening to Life: Telling Stories that Matter” impacts what we do as communicators.


Tuesday, April 18

Pizza reception
Listening to Life: Telling Stories that Matter” kicked off Tuesday, April 18, with an inspiring and thought-provoking sharing by Ali Abu Awwad, a prominent Palestinian peace activist and proponent of nonviolence. Thanks to Shanley & Associates for sponsoring the reception.

Wednesday, April 19

Keynote Deborah Douglas: Illusion of Fairness: "Objectivity" in the Age of Inclusion

Keynote Deborah Douglas: Illusion of Fairness: “Objectivity” in the Age of Inclusion


Our keynote presenter was Deborah D Douglas, Director of the Midwest Solutions Journalism Hub – Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.

She spoke about the war in journalism over objectivity, a method that drives how we frame and source stories, how we need to ask questions and craft the narratives that create our understanding of the world. She dove into how well we accomplish the goal of this method of testing information – it is often a high-stakes effort often with life-or-death implications.

The key is in the discipline of the craft. Journalism should be objective, use facts.

Objectivity would have a lack of bias, personal beliefs or feelings. It should have a transparent approach to evidence. She really lifted up the word “transparent,” and showed how important this is.

Deborah pointed out there is an inherent bias in each of us, and we have to overcome this as journalists to create truthful and meaningful writing. Objectivity is achieved when you look at the bigger, fuller

picture. It should not be confusing and should help the reader reach their own truth, uncolored by the viewpoint of the writer.

She gave an example of the recent events which shook Tennessee and wondered if any news reporters or outlets reported what the preachers spoke about at the pulpits the following Sunday–what were the messages? Hope? Resilience? It’s unlikely these messages were reported on at all.

For some historical context, what were the reports during the time of slavery, or lynching happening in the Southern United States? Were they unbiased? Likely not.

“What passes as an objective viewpoint in many newsrooms, is really what passes as newsworthy,” she said.

Both sides of the story must be present for the objectivity, authenticity and transparency.

With censorship such as banned books, erasing or changing history, it alters the narrative for many people so the full story is not given.

Deborah had attendees go through an exercise where they wrote out core components about their identities, then had to choose to cross off one. Attendees swapped with a neighbor and had to cross out one more aspect of someone else’s identity. They chose between full legal name, race/ethnicity, language, religion/spirituality, life values, and possessions. This exercise pointed out what each person finds most important about themselves, and what they would be willing to erase from someone else’s personal identity. The results varied and were incredibly interesting.

Deborah’s message on objectivity can be summarized in this equation:

Excellence = Context + Complexity + Voices + Authenticity + Proportionality

Summary provided by Julie Brinker, Church of Scientology Nashville

Luncheon plenary: Stories of Hope & Resilience: Exploring the Pandemic’s Impact on Congregations

Stories of Hope & Resilience: Exploring the Pandemic’s Impact on Congregations


The luncheon plenary was presented by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Scott Thumma, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Hartford International University spoke about how congregations are changing over time, and especially how the pandemic impacted them. The research he had conducted followed 15,000 people in their experiences during and following COVID-19. The research data shows that there is a story of hope and resilience in the survey data: congregations are willing to change to meet new challenges, people are certain they will emerge stronger than before, are thinking in new ways about their vision and mission, and have embraced new opportunities for ministry.

Scott brought up that many congregations were able to collaborate with others during the pandemic and are more often the ones that are now thriving and optimistic going forward.

Dr. Allison Norton, Faculty Associate in Migration Studies and Congregational Life for Hartford International University, spoke about specific examples of churches who took new opportunities for change in ministry during the pandemic. There has been a rise of online donations, an opportunity that would not have been showcased if not for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tracy Simmons, a Writing and Social Media Consultant on Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations study, spoke about examples of various churches. One such example was a church who went online and doubled in size, another church contacted each member to ensure they could log into zoom and knew how to work it each week, and still another church actually purchased chrome books for each member!

Tracy brought up the community of Boulder, and the events they went through in addition to COVID-19, they had gone through wildfires, a mass shooting and the death of George Floyd. This community brought together a new ministry to cater to the needs of the parishioners who were reeling from these events.

Building Community through Conversation

Building Community through Conversation


Teresa Faust, Senior Manager of Research & Metrics for United Methodist Communications and Board Member of The Great Reset spoke about how community roundtables are connecting people together.

The Great Reset journey began five years ago and since 2021, the not-for-profit has expanded conversations to half the United States and ten countries across the globe. The topics range from education, religion, race, immigration and more, and the group seeks to afford a space to listen, first, and be heard. The goal is not to change your opinion, or anyone else’s. The goal is to share space and maybe learn something from one another along the way.

Teresa had each table intentionally separate from those they knew well and seek out new faces and friends and begin conversation. She posed questions to lead each table in in-depth, meaningful conversations around religion, diversity, and the strength we find in each other.


Slide Presentation:

Building Community Through Conversation  – part A

Building Community Through Conversation – part B

Building Community Through Conversation – part C

Building Community Through Conversation – part D





Analytics for Action: How to Avoid Overwhelm and Use Data for Making Decisions

Analytics for Action: How to Avoid Overwhelm and Use Data for Making Decisions


Heidi Thompson, the Senior Consultant for Shanley + Associates conducted a workshop about how to sift through the mountains of data and reporting that’s now available with most modern online tools. How can publishers find useful insights in their website analytics, social media reporting, and email data?

She brought up how data can be used by religious communities to inform daily work including the differences between data fishing versus utilizing data for decisions.

To utilize data for decisions:

  1. Start with a plan
  2. List your (good) questions
  3. Develop a hypothesis
  4. Investigate
  5. Take action!

Heidi spoke about social media algorithims and how things have changed, especially in the past year, to navigate toward specific groups and business posts and how traffic has decreased from social media (such as Facebook) to websites overall, while showing less content from personal friends and interests that people follow.

The power in how we make our decisions is going to come down to one or two (or three) metrics that we can identify.


Thursday, April 20

Reinvesting in print, wisely

Reinvesting in print, wisely

ACP president Celeste Kennel-Shank facilitated this roundtable discussion, which began with staff of several publications sharing about their print redesigns. They had to fully redesign while continuing to adapt to the current journalism landscape.

Steve Thorngate, managing editor of The Christian Century, shared how even simple changes can make an impact on readers and should be taken with caution, much foresight and announcements for readers, and listening to any feedback once the redesign has launched.

Other contributors to the panel discussion included Rose Schrott Taylor and Dartinia Hull from the Presbyterian Outlook; and Danielle Klotz, Executive Director of Anabaptist World.

The discussion launched into a full room discussion on redesigns, what has been successful or not, and the progress made through successful redesign.

Religious Organizations and Crisis Preparedness / Response

Religious Organizations and Crisis Preparedness / Response

Greg Dunn, Senior Counselor for Kurth Lampe Worldwide, spoke first about reputation–how to first build a great reputation. He said you must start with a blank space and map out how you’d like to be perceived by others. From there, you have to work every day to fulfill this image. If you say you’re working on something, you must be truly working on it. Your word is key, after all, it takes years to build up a reputation and just minutes for it to come crashing down if there is a mistake, crisis or problem.

A mishandled crisis can be damaging to any organization, perhaps even moreso for faith-based entities whose reputations are perceived to be grounded in integrity.

If you can spot a crisis coming, the best idea is to predict and handle – make a plan for what to do when it all comes to light.

What not to do (aka top 9 ways to make your crisis worse):

  1. Bury your head in the sand
  2. Wait until the situation goes public
  3. Make media the enemy
  4. Stand strictly on reputation
  5. Rely on outside channels
  6. Lean on jargon
  7. Assume truth will win out
  8. Shut out stakeholders
  9. Ignore human element

He spoke about communicating the truth in crisis management. Not only must you tell the truth, but adjust it to include the correct emotional response, clear messaging, and will be validated by other sources as true.


How to Tell a Story with Photos: From the Perspective of a Photographer

How to Tell a Story with Photos: From the Perspective of a Photographer

Charissa Johnson, a Photographer and Editor with Charissa Johnson Photography, spoke about how to approach any project.

She went into first deciding how a project should be mapped out–should it be airy and light or dark and moody? This will all depend on what you are trying to convey. She also flipped it to the perspective of an editor on deciding what kind of photographer to hire for a project–pick someone who utilizes the correct style based on what you need, be it journalistic, posed or documentary.

She further went into the finer details to convey a full story in a project. Showing various parts of the project so it all comes together into a fluid story is key.

Charissa defined the “rule of thirds” for the attendees where you frame a picture based on how to direct their eye in the photo. You would not want to frame a photo with something dead in the center of the photo as it does not direct the eye in a meaningful way, rather you would frame a photo with the focal point on a point that meets with the rule of thirds.

She described how to best produce the project for an editor through the selection of the final images, and how content plays a role versus the aesthetics and how different subject will impact the final product.

The Decline of Organized Religion is not your fault. It is your problem.

The Decline of Organized Religion is not your fault. It is your problem.

Bob Smietana, a National Reporter for the Religion News Service helped attendees see a look at the complex factors driving the decline of organized religion in the US – and how congregations are trying to adapt.

He gave examples of many congregations who have successfully navigated the past twenty years where the majority of small churches have had to close, and more and more people are disassociating with organized religion (the “nones”). Those who have been most successful have rolled with the times, joined with others, allowed in new members who may look and act differently than the current members of the church, and opened their arms to new missions.

“We may need a cultural rehab for churches,” he said. And part of this will include congregations having open, honest conversations with one another.

He likened the transformation to the “couch potato to 5k” method. In other words, start slow, and build up to the full run. Focus on small groups and spiritual development and build up to the complete.


Slide presentation:

Reorganized Religion – Smietana, part A

Reorganized Religion – Smietana, part B

Reorganized Religion – Smietana, part C

Reorganized Religion – Smietana, part E


Bob Smietana is a national writer for RNS based near Chicago, covering evangelicals, weird religion and the changing religious landscape. A veteran religion reporter and editor, he is author of “Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why it Matters.”

Tips for Improving Your Videos

Tips for Improving Your Videos

Will Nunnally, a Video Producer for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), spoke about the demand for video content. Since it is a specialized skill set, how do we utilize our resources to make the best content for our audience?

He walked the attendees through misconceptions that drag down quality from pre to post-production and explored creative solutions to improve the visual content on a variety of platforms.

Will was able to cover the basics of video production such as exposure and sound quality, along with the need to do as much possible to avoid edits in post-production.


Link to Mr. Nunnally’s presentation here: https://we.tl/t-WedwaH0NBE

Podcasting: Things Not Seen

Podcasting: Things Not Seen

Dr. David Dault, the Host and Executive Producer of Things Not Seen: Conversations About Culture and Faith, took an in-depth look into the ins and outs of podcasts.

Dr. Dault shared with attendees how to create a captivating podcast with the big Cs:

  • Capture
  • Clean-up
  • Combination
  • Conversation
  • Charisma
  • Culture


Through excellent capture with perfect sound quality, with the combination of conversation and charisma, you will feel the culture emanating from the podcast as long as you also spend a little time in the clean-up to ensure perfection.


He discussed examples utilizing the big Cs and how to source the best information, and what it would take to have an impact on listeners through podcast conversations.

Friday, April 21

Reporting from Conflict Zones: Spotlight on Ukraine

Reporting from Conflict Zones: Spotlight on Ukraine

Gregg Brekke – Executive Director – Associated Church Press
Chris Herlinger – International Correspondent – Global Sisters Report

Chris Herlinger, international correspondent for Global Sisters Report, and Gregg Brekke, ACP executive director and freelance photojournalist, shared about their recent assignment to Ukraine and Poland for National Catholic Reporter’s Global Sisters Report with observations about a two-week trip in February that took them across Poland and Ukraine to meet with Catholic sisters, clerics, humanitarian workers, refugees and war survivors.

Chris also spoke about GSR’s new series on sisters in conflict zones, Hope Amid Turmoil. A highlight of the discussion was a presentation of some of Gregg’s videos and photographs from the trip, and Chris shared his observations on what set this trip apart from his earlier assignments to Poland and Ukraine in 2022.

Gregg told stories of the spirit of patriotism still alive and well among Ukrainians. He also spoke of the tenacity of a Catholic nun who went above and beyond each day looking for ways to help whether it was bringing a crate of oranges to youth so they would have fresh fruit or look for medicine that people need.

They spoke of the trauma the Ukrainians have experienced, but also how many of them were using their trauma to give to others, and in this way finding hope for the future.

Both Gregg and Chris are veteran award-winning international journalists – as a freelancer, Gregg has traveled to Central America for GSR, and Chris has been a full-time international correspondent for GSR since 2015, covering numerous refugee and migration stories.

Keeping the Faith: the opportunities and challenges of faith-based solutions reporting

Keeping the Faith: the opportunities and challenges of faith-based solutions reporting

Bekah McNeel spoke about solutions journalism as a helpful and engaging approach to produce rigorous and insightful stories.

She went over how it works in faith-based and church media. Audiences look to faith-based outlets to counteract mainstream media bias, and solutions journalism can help meet that need, while still holding powerful people and institutions accountable, and encouraging critical thinking.

The key to solutions journalism is that it’s rigorous, evidence-based reporting on the solution. The four pillars are:

  1. Features not only a person or organization but a response to a problem
  2. Provides available evidence of results, looking at effectiveness, not just intention
  3. Discusses limitations
  4. Seeks to provide insight that can help others respond, not just be inspired

Why do these four pillars matter to faith-based audiences?

Principles like healing, redemption, honesty, justice and compassion are part of most religions. Solutions Journalism takes these things seriously, and reports on the impact they are having in the world.

She had the audience go through a story, and look for each pillar to see if it is included–what is the problem and the response? What’s the evidence? The limitations? What insights are included? And do the visuals reflect the response?

Bekah walked everyone through questions you can ask as you hone a solutions story. Who is doing it better? How does the response work? Is it being tried elsewhere, what are the barriers to replication? What does the research say and what do the critics say? From there, you can plan a solutions story and work through it.

Link to Ms. McNeel’s presentation:

Faith-based Solutions Journalism 101 pdf

Representing the Religious Other: Telling Another’s Story

Representing the Religious Other: Telling Another’s Story

The panelists for the luncheon plenary were Adlai Amor, who works as Associate General Secretary for Communications for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and is a practicing Presbyterian; Sally Hicks, who works for Faith & Leadership (a learning resource for Christian leaders) and is a practicing Jew; and Jan Rizzo, who works for The Deaconess Community of the ELCA and is a practicing Lutheran.

They answered the question: how do you speak for someone and stay true to your own voice?

Jan said, “people of faith are people of faith,” and never found there was an issue that would pose a problem for her working for another religious organization. She also brought up that you would need to be open-minded in working for another faith organization.

Sally spoke of her Unitarian upbringing, then Jewish conversion, and how this shaped her life and allowed her to see clarity with regard to her position as editor of a Christian publication. She is able to view it both from an ecumenical lens and as an outsider.

Adlai spoke of the conscientious effort of the Friends Committee to be aware of and allow for various religious holidays, and set it up for those who work for the organization to take a chosen day off for religious reasons. This allows Muslims to take a holiday for Eid, or Jews to take a holiday for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, and others to take a chosen holiday for spiritual or religious purposes even if they are not a member of Friends.

The consensus of the panel was that this work is enriching and allows for a beautiful religious diversity in their organization and has personally enriched their own lives.

The giving crisis: How your fundraising can respond to grow in a time of turmoil

The giving crisis: How your fundraising can respond to grow in a time of turmoil

Michael Duerksen – Founder & CEO – buildgood.com

Inflation, erosion of trust in society, post-pandemic burnout, and a decline in household giving…nonprofits are really up against it. But not all hope is lost. In this session, Michael Duerkson walked us through a practical framework to implement that keeps donors connected—and giving.

He dove into what motivates people and what creates a habit–a prompt helps to motivate someone, and with this acknowledged or celebrated that motivation becomes habit. People who give to non-profits are unusually kind and generous people, and they should absolutely be thanked. If they do not want to be thanked, you can always say, “I know you don’t want to be thanked, but you deserve it and we’d like to say thank you.”

One important point to track is that asking for donations with postal mail works better than asking for donations through email.

It is also important to send reminders to those who send you monthly donations giving them various options such as “I would like to opt out of monthly giving,” “I would like to increase my monthly donation to __,” or “I’ll keep giving the same amount.” Many times this type of reminder does encourage your donors to give more.