In September, Ron Bartlow was part of a staff team from the Desert Southwest Conference Camping and Retreat Ministry to attend Sustainable Pathways: “Expanding Your Mission Through Marketing.” In today’s guest post, he shares with us about the experience.
What’s Your Story?
When I was 15 years old, a Diaconal Minister of our local church encouraged me to come to her elementary summer camp as a youth volunteer. Up to that point I had been a participant at church, learning and growing in Christian faith, but at a bit of an arm’s reach. In hindsight, I was probably leaning into being “nominally religious.” After that week of camp, though – a week of leading Bible studies with a cabin of rowdy but intrigued 4th grade boys, going on hikes with children and caring adults amid towering pines, and singing songs around a campfire under a canopy of more stars than I had ever seen before – my life began to change.
I became a repeat volunteer, returning year after year; initially to escape the heat of the Arizona desert for a week amid the cool mountain pines, then to live a week within a fullness of community I didn’t regularly experience in my local church, and finally because camp was helping me to grow not only as a follower of Christ, but as a nascent leader. The experiences at camp played a significant role in directing my life and nurturing my faith. I believe in the power of camp.
That’s my story, and I’m sure if you are powering through this verbose post, you have your own story to tell, too. We serve in roles related to camping and retreat ministry precisely because we understand the powerful ways that sacred space, time apart, intentional Christian community, and natural environments combine to touch the heart, mind, and spirit. We talk about “because of camp…” and “camp changes lives…” We know how experiences at camp encourage life transformation, building confidence in youth and providing restoration for busy adults. We routinely hear stories of why camp matters to our participants and supporters.
If only everyone knew the power of camp! Staffing could be a breeze, our cabins might be filled, our endowments over-funded… Ah, but I lost the plot there; because the inspiration and power of our mutual story is not about what it might do for us if everyone knew it, but what it can do for those hearing it. And for people to hear and know the positive impact camp can have in their lives, we have to tell them; and that is where marketing plays its important role in our ministry.
From Transformational Experience to Marketing
This year’s Sustainable Pathways event focused on “Expanding Your Mission Through Marketing.” Over the course of our few days together a number of us from different camps and conferences heard from presenters and discussed among ourselves the importance of marketing, best practices, and how to effectively communicate with others.
Debbie Nelson from DNA Creative Communications began with Simon Sinek’s “The Power of Why”, connecting the “why” with the idea of “brand” and reminding us that brand is not what we say we are, but what others say we are. The foundation for marketing and “Brandraising” – Debbie’s second presentation – is not only being clear on why we do what we do, but helping others to be clear about it as well. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” Sinek repeatedly asserts. Positive marketing begins when we can bank and tell stories that articulately and powerfully share why we exist, why we do what we do, and why anyone should care. Debbie’s final presentation featured practices for mastering and managing content.
Jennifer Rodia from United Methodist Communications discussed marketing, both in how to reach the wider community – drawing particularly from the Barna Group’s recent book “ChurchLess” – and how to effectively communicate faith in the 21st Century – particularly through the development of a social media marketing plan. Graphic designer and “camper dad” Jacob Souva (@twofish on Twitter) shared how to make the most of one’s marketing budget, including when to work in-house and when to pursue outside help. In small groups we compared, discussed, reviewed, and stole ideas from one another about what marketing elements we utilized.
To me, the foundation to it all – from discussing the importance of marketing, to how to develop a marketing plan, to drafting an editorial calendar, to utilizing social media – was the starting point; why we do what we do. In “church-speak” we might equate marketing with evangelism or outreach, sharing with others the core of church and gospel: Jesus changes lives. Throughout history the church has utilized a variety of means, technologies, concepts, and stories to share this in ways that inspire.
Whether we’re drafting brochures to highlight summer camp, tweeting inspirational quotes with beautiful pictures of sunrise over our camp’s property, or brainstorming highway billboards; whether we’re talking with a prospective camp parent or presenting an annual report to a judicatory; whether we’re seeking funds for a new dining hall or graciously accepting a bequest from a long-time supporter – we are marketing our brand, and our brand begins with why.
If you missed the event but are interested in more, here are three suggestions raised by the presenters and one I was reading at the same time:
- Brandraising: How Nonprofits Raise Visibility and Money Through Smart Connections, by Sarah Durham
- Content Marketing for Nonprofits: A Communications Map for Engaging Your Community, Becoming a Favorite Cause, and Raising More Money, by Kivi Leroux Miller
- Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them, by George Barna
- The Social Church: A Theology of Digital Communication, by Justin Wise (something I was reading)
Having been out-marketed in his sales of Papua New Guinea Pigs when a neighboring country, Papua New & Improved Guinea, began selling theirs, Rev. Ron Bartlow settled into a day job of ministry in The United Methodist Church. Currently serving his fifth appointment, Ron is both co-pastor at Trinity Heights in Flagstaff, Arizona and part-time Director of Camping and Retreat Ministries for the Desert Southwest Conference. He offers no comment about whether he still slays vampires at night.