By Varghese Alengaden
Indore, August 7, 2019: Thirty years ago whenever I got an opportunity to address the gatherings of priests and religious in a few dioceses, I had proposed to appoint a fulltime person for building public relations and create good will among local people.
At that time hardly anyone understood the purpose of the suggestion. They felt the need for building public relations only when the church personnel started experiencing opposition, harassment and elimination from politicians and fundamentalist groups.
Yet Church did not take this mission seriously. They appointed as public relations officers persons with no knowledge and experience of dealing people and the government. They were never given any training.
Many priests and nuns are not prepared to face challenging situations. Some petty government servants and local politicians make principals and school managers to run from pillar to post. The police remain passive spectators when schools and colleges are attacked. The students’ parents too remain indifferent when the schools face opposition and violence.
In the recent years some dioceses did form crisis management committees, but they met only when a problem arose. They should have met often to find ways to prevent a crisis. In some cases, priests and nuns were forced to pay huge bribes to settle the crisis. Yet crises do not end there; they only continue.
The complacency and self-righteousness of clergy and religious do not make them accept their ignorance and inefficiency. Many do not learn practical tips to prevent or solve crises. Those who refuse to attend programs that deal with capacity building and crisis management face maximum crises. Some nuns resort to night vigils and noisy prayers to resolve the crises.
Common causes for crisis:
1. Aggressive colonial missionary Legacy:
The missionary work was carried out with the patronage of kings and emperors from the time of Emperor Constantine. Christianity was connected with the European colonial expansion. The missionaries followed the style of the Church as existed in Europe.
Establishing the institutional church was given more importance than teaching the way of Christ as a spiritual movement of universal values. In India, the majority Hindu population tolerated the colonial missionary aggression because of their universal family spirit and their appreciation of the educational, medical and other humanitarian services the missionaries provided to people. Hindu kings even built churches.
Obsessed with the dogma of the uniqueness and superiority of Christ, belief of no salvation outside the Church the missionaries were aggressive and self-righteous in their dealings with other religions they considered ‘pagans.’
Their evangelization was limited to taking students of the other faiths to church to recite the Christian prayers, imposing the logo with cross on the school uniform, erecting statues of Christian saints in the school campus, distribution of the Bible to people of other faiths, and writing Bible quotes on the walls.
Many priests and religious even now do not feel the need to review their ways of running their institutions.
Added to this are some fundamentalist retreat preachers and theologians, who still speak of “Blood of martyrs is the seed of Christianity” from the security of their retreat centers and theological institutes in the cities. They seldom reach out to simple nuns and priests who face trouble.
2. Routine transfers of principals and directors
Clergy, religious and bishops are possessed by the demon of routine –routine prayers, routine celebrations, routine meetings, routine retreats and routine works. Often these routine practices are unproductive and outdated, but hardly any effort is made to review their impact on the lives of persons.
One unproductive routine rules is the transfer of clergy and religious who hold responsible positions of public interest. These transfers adversely affect the mission of an institution especially when the church faces hostile forces. In the past frequent transfer did not affect the institution because people’s attachment was to the institution.
Trust of people is gained with long presence, hard work and relationship. Frequent transfers disconnect the relationship. Trust and relationship are not transferable. The new person will take many years to build trust and relationship.
The arguments for transfers are: If one person stays in one place for long he or she would become uncontrollable; the person would be attached to the place and people; all should get an opportunity to hold positions; he or she is long time there.
These arguments are made by those with no clarity of vision and mission in the context where the Church faces opposition and false propaganda.
Before entrusting someone the responsibility of leading an institution or social work he or she should be given proper orientation in leadership.
If job descriptions are clearly given, no conflicts will arise. All should be aware of the vision and mission of the institution and should personalize them.
Political leaders and fundamentalist groups nurture their constituency by lifelong presence and contacts with people, who trust them. Priests and religious fail to sustain the relationship and experience rejection and alienation because of their transfers.
3. Lack of effective public relations and cordial behavior:
Very few priests and nuns read newspapers and secular magazines. Majority do not know the protocol and designations of government officials. Many do not know general information about the city, town or village where they live and work.
Those who are heads of educational institutions often exhibit immature and impulsive behavior to people who come to their office. They lack cordiality and respect. This not only gives bad image of the institution but also creates hostility.
The bad behavior and statements by priests and nuns are one of the major reasons for the crises facing Church institutions. They do not realize that the colonial era is over.
Building effective public relations with all sections of people and learning to behave with respect and patience can prevent many crises. Principals, managers and heads of institutions must be humble to update themselves through training, exposure and personal study.
4. Ignorance and alienation from the context
Ignorance about sociopolitical context and the changes happening in the world make most religious and priests to keep away from public meetings. Such ignorance lands many clergy and religious in trouble. Principals who are not fluent in local language also create problem for the institutions.
Principal should play the role of a leader in society and win people’s confidence. They should attend local social programs when invited. They should also be ready to deliver impromptu speeches. Knowledge about sociopolitical and religious issues is important to interact with people on such occasions.
5. Internal conflicts and lack of collective vision
During the Last Supper Jesus expressed His two major concerns. One was about the way of life and the rule which should guide his followers. He summarized all the laws into one: “Love one another as I have loved you.” He wanted “love one another” as the identity of His disciples.
The second concern, the prayer of Jesus was for the unity of His disciples.
The internal conflicts and divisions have damaged the Church’s image and weakened its mission very badly. Neither the Church leaders nor those facing trouble from hostile forces seem willing to change their attitudes and methods. They Ostrich style with complacency will only lead to self-destruction.
Practical tips for effective mission and public image
1. Change the transfer policy of heads of public institutions and train for lifelong productive mission.
2. Appoint principals and heads of institutions only after giving them training in leadership, professionalism and socio-political scenario.
3. Introduce developing skills of communication and public relations in all stages of formation.
4. Participate in all public programs organized by secular organizations and people of other faith. Go to such programs after doing homework of gathering information about the organizers.
5. Appoint a person or a team with competence for public relations in all institutions and communities. Provide required facilities for the work. They shall also prepare strategies to prevent and resolve crisis and troubles.
6. Introduce regular evaluation of all activities of institution and community following the principles of transparency, participation, accountability, communication to all members. Every work should be treated as community mission and ensure the involvement of all members.
7. Nurture the media without selling our values. The Public Relation Officer should coordinate media management with dignity and self respect. Never go for “paid news.” Learn about the who is who of the local media.
8. Make use of the service of experienced professional lay persons in our mission/institutions as advisors and patrons.
9. Educate all members of the community and institute about the changing sociopolitical scenario and the threats to prepare them to adopt new ways –“New wineskin to contain new wine,” to meet the new challenges.
10. Abandon everything related to the colonial past and fundamentalistic in our practices and preaching such as dress, uniform of schools, logo, and prayers.
11. Accept the truth that pluralism as the heritage we have received from Jesus and avoid any kind of imposition of Christian practices on students and teachers of other faith.
12. Promote the inclusive spirituality of Jesus in all our policies and activities. Abandon all practices based on the exclusive mentality of “ours and theirs.”
13. Speak the local language at the gathering of parents especially when most of them do not understand English. All communication to parents should be in their language.
14. Respect local customs and rituals of other faiths instead of imposing Christian prayers and traditions on students and people of other faith.
15. Place photos of great Indian leaders and saints of all religions on our walls and notice boards. Write symbols of other religions and inspiring quotes from other scriptures, besides the Bible. Large majority of students and teachers in our institutions belong to other faiths. Honoring them will surely create good will.
16. Welcome all who come to meet us with cordiality and respect. Every meeting is to be taken as an opportunity to create better public image and publicity. Demands and requests could be refused politely.
17. Train the staff and workers to be cordial to all who come to the campus and provide clear communication.
18. Conduct review meetings with all staff as often as possible. These meetings should be opportunity to educate and equip everyone to prevent any crisis and confusion.
19. Prepare the staff and students to be ambassadors who create positive public opinion about the institution. If you take them into confidence and share your vision then they will be the most effective defenders of your institution.
20. Prepare the parents as partners of the school. Take them into confidence and establish regular cordial communication with them. When you have won the confidence of parents no politician or government official will dare to trouble you. The routine transfer of principals will damage this relationship and the mission of Christ will suffer.
21. Publish a monthly newsletter with information about the school activities to keep the link with the parents. A well prepared message from the principal in local language is an opportunity to share our vision and concerns to parents.
22. Form an alumni association to keep in touch with all former students. Send regular information through news bulletin and personal correspondence. Appoint a person to keep contact with the former students regularly and coordinate their programs. The purpose is to continue the mission of mentoring and accompanying in their life.
23. Invite the former principals and other sisters and priests who served the school and made influence in society in the past whenever program are organised for the parents and alumni. Provide them opportunity to meet and talk to parents and alumni to sustain the friendship and good relationship. Since it is a community mission personal ego and complexes of individuals should not stand in the way of gaining maximum good will of the local people. The school should pay the travel expenses of the invitees as a gesture of honouring them.
24. Review the co-curricular activities in the school and analyze their impact. Abandon the routine and unproductive ones and innovate creative and educative programs for the holistic development of the students and teachers.
25. Make education less expensive and beneficial to the last and the least. Abandon expensive uniforms, activities and excursions which benefit only the rich. Bearing Lasting Fruit (Jn 15: 15) from all even from the ‘last and least person’ (ref. Mahatma Gandhi) should be criterion of all decisions.
26. Create opportunity to invite and honour prominent citizens and leaders of various organisations in the city / town to our institution. Organize small functions of short duration to celebrate different events such as birth anniversaries of great people and festivals of different religions. These prominent people could be honoured as guests of the function. This will help us to nurture good relationship with them. Send the news and photographs to the press. They will spread positive opinion about the institution and our works.
27. Children who study in the school, the teachers who teach there, parents who come to the school and all who enter in to our campus should feel belongingness. They should cherish only happy memories of the school. Principal, staff and all workers should create a positive and happy atmosphere in the school.
28. Pay decent and just salary to all staff and workers. Don’t wait for the government to force us to do it. The staff and the public know to calculate the income and expenditure of our school. While we proclaim education is a mission why do we make it a business?
29. Don’t use shrewdness of business people to earn more profit by not appointing permanent staff to pay less salary, escape paying provident fund and other benefits to the staff and workers. Follow government rules in all matters.
30. Prepare a brochure about our institution clarifying the vision, goals, policies and salient features of our institution. Make it with more in secular perspective with the focus of nation building. It should not appear like an aggressive publicity to Church and congregation. Present the name of the registered society with registration number and year instead of colonial expressions like province and provincial. Avoid all kinds of terminology inherited from the colonial era in the brochure. Give this brochure to all who come asking for information about the institution and its activities.
31. Transparency wins the trust of both the co-workers and the public. Sooner or later we will be forced to publish details of the source of our income and expenditure by the government. Why don‘t we take initiative to publish them without waiting for the Govt. to ask us to do? As a public institution we are expected to be accountable to the public. Let us be the salt and light to the world by setting example of transparency and accountability.
32. Instead of organizing routine orientations for teachers, students and parents by any one available from the locality who would speak of theoretical ideas copied from the books and internet invite persons with competence and experience who would motivate the audience. Don’t count the cost when the program is of quality.
33. Capacity building and updating of teachers should be made top priority. Explore the possibility of exposure for teachers which will be both motivational and educative. Make provisions in the budget for such expenses. Quality teachers with commitment and motivation are essential for the quality of education and standard of school.
34. Presence and active participation of principal in all orientation and training programmes should be mandatory. This is essential for the follow up of all training programs. As Jesus, the Good Shepherd, principal shall set example by leading from the front.