How I use a communications policy and branding guide

How I use a communications policy and branding guide

I don’t normally use my personal blog to write about work issues. But today, I’m going to use this space to talk about communications director stuff because it’s a convenient way to share information. If you are one of my regular readers, please feel free to just skip over this one.

I’m part of several groups for communications directors on Facebook. These groups have been an incredible resource for me to gather information and find out how other churches deal with issues we collectively face. I’m usually pretty quiet in these groups, gathering more information than I share.

Recently, someone asked if anyone had a communications handbook they could share. One of the things I love most about my job at The Sanctuary Church is creating process and strategy, so I mentioned that I have created several documents. A good number of people asked me if I could share my policy. Rather than e-mailing them individually to each person who asked, I thought it would be easier to post here. I also wanted to explain how I use these documents.

Two years ago, one of my projects for the summer was writing a Communications Policy for our church. When I started in this job eight years ago, I didn’t feel the need to have a set of “rules” to help me determine what we would and would not communicate as a church. Back then, we often had so much room in our weekly bulletin that our office manager would use clip art to fill the white space.

Much has changed since then. Not only has our church grown, which creates more requests from leaders to communicate events, but the way we communicate also has expanded. These days, not only do I have to decide what we will communicate each week, but I also have to determine what communication channels will be used for each type of event. Almost every event makes our weekly e-mail and printed bulletin, but not everything will be announced from stage, get a printed postcard or advertised on Facebook and Instagram.

Working at a church is so different from working at a newspaper where I could objectively determine what type of news deserved to be covered without worrying about hurting anyone’s feelings. When you work at a church, you are dealing with people who you also do life with. These are awesome people with great hearts who are trying to serve the community. I love these people personally, and I want to help them as much as possible.

But the reality is we don’t have the time or space to communicate every event or activity that every person would like us to promote. Instead of deciding what I can and can’t promote on an individual basis, every time someone asks, I created my Communications Policy to set boundaries. Now, when people ask me, I don’t have to invent a set of rules each time. It’s clear what we will and won’t communicate as a church. I also try to give people ideas for how they can communicate their personal projects to our church in a more organic way.

One of the most helpful parts of the document is the section called, “Tiers of Communication.” In this section, I break down what communication channels we will use to promote an event, based on how large the audience is in our church.

One thing I have learned is that by trying to communicate too many things or communicate them all equally, I am actually working against myself. As the Communications Director, I have to decide the main message I believe is most important for our church members to hear each week. By giving them too many choices or too many competing messages, I am actually making it more difficult for them to hear and understand the main message.

I use the Communications Policy in two ways: 

Often an attender of our church will ask me if I can communicate a personal project they are launching in the community. I use the pre-written policy as an objective way to explain why I can’t do this. It’s not personal. It doesn’t mean I don’t love what the person is doing. It’s just the policy.

I also go through the policy page-by-page with new ministry leaders. It helps us all get on the same page so they know what to expect. I ask every ministry leader to fill out a “media plan” to explain their upcoming events, and to do this within a set amount of time (usually six weeks) before the event.

The second document that has been very helpful to me is our branding guidelines. I took most of these ideas from the branding guides of much larger churches, and I’m still working on making this document “our own.” (Since this document is only used internally, some sections are basically copied from other churches. I am still working on updating this document.)

Even though it’s a work in progress, the branding guidelines have been helpful in several ways:

When ministry leaders are communicating their own events to a smaller group, I can give them this booklet so they use the same standards we do when we communicate to the entire church. The guide helps ensure leaders use our logo, colors and fonts correctly. It also explains the “style rules” we use in writing.

I also have used our branding guidelines with outside companies who might be working on a project for us. For example, we have been working on a renovation project in our space, and I shared the document with our interior designer so she would have the exact colors we use in our color pallet.

Here are the links to both of these documents.:

The Sanctuary Church Communications Policy

The Sanctuary Church branding guide

Let me know if you find these helpful!

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Tearing down fences

Tearing down fences

While I was away on Friday driving back and forth to pick up Andrew from that film camp, I got a text message from my husband that said this: “I’m taking down the fence.”

What fence? I responded in my mind, but not with my fingers.

Surely, he doesn’t mean the six-foot fence that surrounds our backyard, keeping people from randomly roaming onto our property.

He couldn’t mean the fence that probably cost many thousands of dollars for the previous owners to build.

Not the fence that has given me great peace of mind when my children are playing in the backyard.

Could he be talking about the fence that might someday keep a hypothetical dog that we have talked about purchasing from potentially running away?

From the day we moved into this house four years ago, my husband has been talking about tearing down our fence. We’ve discussed it several times since then, but I always assumed this was an idea for a project he would work on after the kids had all gone off to college or maybe once we retire. I didn’t know he meant we should take down the fence right now!

When I got home, I walked through the house and straight to the backyard. For the first time, I could see from our deck into the prairie behind our house without anything obstructing my view. It was amazing!

Still, I felt a tinge of uncertainty as the reality set in that the fence was gone. What was making me so anxious?

I’ve been reading a great book the past few weeks by Bob Goff. The book is called, Everybody, Always. In it, Goff tells stories about how he has been convicted in life to try to love everybody.


I often choke back tears as he writes about the woman in his neighborhood that he cared for as she died of cancer. I feel inspired by how he learned to sky dive, just so he could spend more time with his son doing something he loved to do. I get motivated reading about the parade that he organizes in his neighborhood every year, just to create a sense of community.

I listen to his stories and I tell myself that I want to be like that. I want to do stuff like that. I want to live like that.

But then reality sets in, and I realize that what I really want is to live inside a fence.

At the church our family attends (and the place I work), we have four core values, which we call our “code.” One of them is that we want to leave isolation for community. It sounds so simple. So fun. And really like a no-brainer.

The truth is, it’s easier to live in isolation. It’s easier to hide inside a fence. In fact, it’s cozy.

Living in community sounds fun. But then you have to start dealing with reality. People get cancer. Their husbands walk out on them. Their kids do stupid things. When you live in community, you can’t just sit inside your nice fence, pretending you can’t see over the six-foot wooden barricade.

But an amazing thing has happened during the past few days since my husband tore down our fence.

I’ve been mad at myself for holding onto that fence for so long. I can’t believe how much prettier life is now. I can see all of the white flowers that are blooming across the prairie. I have an even better view of the sunset, without having to stand on my tippy toes. When people walk by on the trail behind our house, we wave and yell, “Hello!” I feel silly that we didn’t remove that fence a long time ago. We’ve already spent four years looking around it and through it and over it when we could have been enjoying our beautiful view!

Sure, there’s always the risk that someone I don’t know will meander too close to our yard. There’s a very real possibility that a coyote or fox could run through our yard during the night. And we will probably bother our neighbors at some point with all of the kids that gather in our back yard.

But that’s OK. Our house is so much better this way.

I want to remember that next time I’m tempted to build a fence.



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Life in the Middle, Episode 7

Life in the Middle, Episode 7

It’s been way too long since Alayna and I did an episode of Life in the Middle! Now that she’s no longer in middle school, maybe you thought we would have to stop making our crazy videos… But she’s STILL a MIDDLE child!

In Episode 7, we go shopping for a Father’s Day gift for my hard-to-buy-for husband. You won’t believe WHAT we end up buying and HOW we plan to use it! Only at the Neal house….


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Experiencing the college vibe

Experiencing the college vibe

We are only three weeks into summer, but so much has already happened that I feel like I need to make some attempt to write about it all on my blog.

We’ve had many highlights already… The boys have both been working everyday as swim instructors. Matthew has been playing a ton of baseball. Alayna spends two to three days a week at cheer camp. And Jayda has more than doubled her hours at the gym now that she is on the competitive gymnastics team.

This past week, I was preoccupied all week with the fact that Andrew was at a film camp at Taylor University, which is about four hours away in Upland, Indiana. Of the six colleges we’ve visited so far, Taylor is one of our top picks because of its amazing film program. While we’ve only visited schools that offer some variation of a degree in “film,” Taylor is one of only two colleges we have visited that has a major that specializes in creative film making, rather than leaning more toward broadcast journalism.

When we visited there this spring, our tour guides gave us some info about a one-week film camp for high school students. I asked about it, and one of the faculty members told me the camp was already full. She suggested we add Andrew’s name to a waiting list. A few weeks later I got an e-mail saying they had opened a few more spots, and Andrew could attend! I found out later they had only opened TWO additional spaces.

Sending him off to film camp was a growing experience on so many levels. All of our kids have gone away to camps for a few days or a week. But this felt so different because he was actually going to a place where he could potentially be living for the next four years. It gave me a glimpse of what it’s going to be like for him to move away and go to college.

I was a mess the first day. I missed him so much.

He was nervous when my husband dropped him off, and I spent the evening texting him with words like, “Try to enjoy the time.”

By the time the week was over, I almost felt like I was picking up a different kid than the one we sent off. He found me at the campus Chic Fil-A, and came walking up holding the promotional poster for the movie he had directed the previous week.

The 18 students at the camp had broken into three groups, and each group created a short film during the camp. Their days also were filled with classes to learn the various elements of movie making, from writing a screen play to directing, cinematography and editing. It made me realize that up until this point, it’s been rare that Andrew has been in an environment in which he has been able to learn from instructors with skills in the specific area of film making that interests him.

When he was younger, I taught him how to edit in iMovie and then we both mastered Final Cut Pro. Back in elementary school and junior high, HE was the one who would gather groups of friends and put on his own film camp.

High school has offered him a few broadcast journalism classes and a film class. But those were taught by English teachers. While his teachers have invested a ton into his pursuits, they also have said that he knows more about video editing than they do.

Finally… he got to spend the week under the instruction of professionals in the film industry. He also got to work with current students who were able to speak into his passions and interests.

During the closing ceremony of the film camp, one or two students from each group gave a short speech about the film they had made and the process. It was so fun to see Andrew represent his group, along with another student.

When he’s at home, Andrew’s creative mind seems to always be working on his next project. He’s always telling me about ideas for a screen play. Every week, he takes off in his car to scout out a potential filming location. And he is often trying to recruit his friends to accept roles in his projects, which he creates all on his own.

It was so refreshing for him to spend a week with other students who shared his passion and interest in film making. I loved that he really got to learn more about the process from people who were farther along in their pursuits. And he got to specialize in just two areas — cinematography and directing — rather than trying to pull off every aspect of creating a film.

The camp also was so helpful to get to experience first hand what it would be like to live on a college campus. He was able to sleep in a dorm room, eat the cafeteria food and experience campus life. By the end of the week, I think we all felt better about the next stage of life for our first born. Thinking of sending him to college has been such a scary idea, but seeing him grow and flourish after just one week away made me super excited for his future!


How’s your summer going so far?



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Back when a giraffe was special

Back when a giraffe was special

I know it’s been a few days since you’ve heard from your amazing self-recognized official gorilla birthing photographer, so I thought I better check in and let you know what has been happening around here. I’ve been laying low due to all of my fame and notoriety lately, as well as the constant ambush of questions that come with being such a notable photographer.

Oh, who am I kidding? I’ve been running around wearing my five blue ribbons around my neck, just hoping someone will ask me if I’ve seen any wild animals give birth lately!

Seriously though, everywhere I go (and by everywhere, I mean the two places I’ve gone), lots of people (and by “lots,” I mean seven) ask me the same question: “Have you submitted those gorilla photos to the zoo yet?!”

I’ve pretty much been waving a flashing neon sign in the world of social media, trying to get the zoo to notice my photos by tagging them, using their hashtag, leaving comments on their posts and even sending them an e-mail. I’m starting to think they actually like their own beautiful non-bloody baby photos better than my raw, straight from the womb, umbilical-cord-still-in-view version.

I did find it exciting that more than 800 people have visited my blog post about the gorilla birth. And I might have spent 30 minutes today trying to figure out how I could find out when other wild animals are in the final stages of pregnancy and then stalk them just to increase my blog readership. It would be kind of like when I used to write those LOST recap posts.

Since I haven’t figured that one out yet, I’m just going to randomly throw in some photos of other animals that I used to think were cool back before my standard for a good zoo photo was elevated to include wrinkly-skinned babies that are less than a minute old. Ah, the good ol’ days… when giraffes were special.

Dang, I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that I was impressed by a seal doing a backbend…

Or even an orangutan eating kale…

I have had several people ask me what time the gorilla actually gave birth because they also were visiting the zoo the same day I took those photos. I went back and looked at the time stamp that my camera puts on the photos, and I was amazed to see that I took the first photo in the set at 2:14 p.m. and the last photo at 2:18 p.m. That’s four minutes. I was literally in that room for the exact four-minute time span required to see the gorilla baby moments after his/her birth and before they shut down the exhibit. I found that to be amazing.

Let’s celebrate by remembering how cute it is when someone feeds lettuce to a giraffe:

I’ve also been asked several other important questions that I think I should answer here:

Q: Was it the gorilla’s due date?

A: I don’t know.

Q: Was the gorilla angry that so many people were watching her give birth?

A: I don’t know how the gorilla felt.

Q: Why didn’t the zoo workers run into the gorilla habitat when the baby was born?

A: I’m guessing they didn’t want to get torn to shreds by a massive gorilla who might be a little overprotective of her newborn.

Q: Have you submitted those photos to the zoo yet?

A: I’m a 3 on the Enneagram. (AKA, yes.)

Ahhh…. but remember when I thought an orangutan was cool?

Well, you’ll have to excuse me… I have to go take some photos of some baby birds in a nest. Because… you know? Remember when that was a big deal?


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How I ended up at a gorilla’s newborn photo shoot

How I ended up at a gorilla’s newborn photo shoot

On Friday, I had one of the most amazing photography experiences I have encountered. In fact, it happened so quickly, so unexpectedly and the moment felt so surreal that even when I looked back at my photos this morning, it was hard to believe I had taken them.

Somehow, I walked into a precise location at an exact moment and had the right equipment that was set up and ready to go. All of that still feels a little mind boggling to me, especially when I think about what it took to even get there.

Last week, I sat down to map out our schedule for the summer. Our kids have reached a stage in life in which I no longer get to control the calendar or have a say into each day’s activities.

Our two boys both started jobs as swim instructors, and when swimming lessons begin next week, they will be working five mornings a week. Andrew has a film camp this summer, and he’s also in a local theater production with practices every night for a month. Matthew plays on both a school and travel baseball team and will have practices and games seven days a week through July. Alayna made high school cheer and starts practice next week. Jayda made a competitive gymnastics team, and she will be practicing 10.5 hours a week.

I looked at the calendar and realized we would have ONE day when everyone was free between now and the end of July. I asked (begged, really) if we could do something as a family. I had hoped to go to Starved Rock, but they voted for the zoo. They were all willing to spend a day with me, so I certainly wasn’t going to argue!

Friday morning, I purchased a membership to the Brookfield Zoo, and off we went!

I can’t remember the last time we all went to the zoo together. Seeing all of the young families there reminded me of the times I pushed THREE kids packed into a double stroller while pregnant with our youngest. I was finally free to just walk along with four totally self sufficient people, and yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling I should take my camera, along with my huge 500 mm lens and monopod. That’s a lot of equipment to carry around the zoo all day, so I also took our big plastic wagon that we only use these days to carry mulch. I packed a big lunch bag, and threw it in the wagon, along with my camera gear and sunscreen.

My kids were all in a great mood, and thankfully, no one complained when I got out my camera to shoot photos of the giraffes or zebras. We headed to the dolphin show, but we were a few minutes late, so we decided to make our way to see the monkeys instead. Tropic World is always one of the busiest exhibits. It’s broken into three large areas, representing three different parts of the world.

I patiently waited to get a good viewing spot in the first room where I could fully extend my monopod and not hit anyone in the head with my huge camera lens. We moved on to the next room, and I told everyone to go ahead while I waited to get some good shots of the orangutans.

I walked into the next area with the gorillas, and I could see my kids on the upper ramp across the room for me. I found an open spot looking directly at the gorillas so I extended my monopod and took off my lens cap.

Something unusual was happening, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I could see a ton of red on the ground and the gorillas were tossing something around. It looked like one of the animals had been injured. Or maybe they had put raw meat in the feeding area, but I was pretty sure gorillas mainly eat plants. I could see a long cord hanging from one of the gorillas, but my brain couldn’t process it fast enough. The woman standing next to me said, “Do you think they will send someone in to help her?”

Then, she turned to see me with my camera. “Did you get that on video?” she asked excitedly.

“I just walked in,” I said. “What happened?”

She explained that the gorilla had just finished giving birth. That long cord was the umbilical cord!

I zoomed in, and I could barely see the baby. The mom seemed mostly concerned with cleaning the blood off of her hands. She seemed obsessed with consuming as much of the blood as possible that was covering the straw where she had given birth. (I read later that many animals in the wild feel the need to eat the placenta right after giving birth.)

The other gorillas gathered around her, circling the mom and the newborn.

Finally, they moved back and I could see the baby.

I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so I could barely even see the baby with my naked eye. I couldn’t wait to look at my photos on my camera to see in sharper detail what I couldn’t see in real life.

I tried to move up the ramp to get a better vantage point. That’s when I realized that two zoo workers were slowly making their way down the ramp, asking people to leave. Everyone was totally calm. No one was rushing into the gorilla habitat.

I asked the workers if they knew the gorilla was going to have a baby that day.

“We knew she was pregnant,” they responded. “We want to give her some time alone now.”

They saw my camera and let me stay a few extra moments, snapping photos. I was mentally beating myself up that I had lingered in the other room instead of walking into the gorilla area with my kids. But later, I realized that if I had been with them, I would have been asked to leave much sooner, and I wouldn’t have had the same awesome viewing spot that I did.

I guess I always imagined that zoo animals would be taken into a sterile room to give birth and assisted by a veterinarian. It’s hard to remember that they are wild animals and want to give birth just as they would in the wild. The other moms around me all seemed to be just as emotional as I was that we had been able to witness such a special moment with that mother.

A few years ago, I heard someone give a talk about “luck.” She said that luck isn’t just something random that happens to you. It’s a combination of being in the right Location with the right Understanding, Connections and Knowledge to make the best of the situation. That was definitely the case for me that day. My gut told me I would regret it if I didn’t lug that huge camera around all day. I walked into that room with my camera already set up on the monopod and ready to go. And I was blessed to find an open spot in a crowded room with a perfect view.

All of that combined to give me a photography experience and a day at the zoo that I will always remember!




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