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Perceptions vary on Adventist Church's communication commitment, effectiveness

Finances, finding qualified professionals among challenges, spokesman says at 20th annual communicators workshops

Steve Vistaunet oversees six Seventh-day Adventist Church Communication departments in the United States' Pacific Northwest. Yet only three of them, he says, have made the financial commitment to hire a professional communicator to serve in the position.

Many church leaders point out that department directors are often given the role in addition to other responsibilities.

"I don't think it's a lack of desire, it's a lack of finances," said Vistaunet, assistant for Communication to the president of the church's North Pacific Union.

For many local church administrative offices it's often a luxury to have a full-time communication professional working to report on church business meetings, write feature stories on church life and liaison with the media.

Vistaunet and other leaders are now encouraging local church administrations to hire communication professionals.

"And for those who can't, we're developing resources to help them increase their communication awareness and expertise," he said in an interview following this month's annual convention of the Society of Adventist Communicators (SAC), of which he also serves as president.

The convention, held in Newport Beach, California from October 15 to 17 brought together 140 participants, including church communication employees and college students, for workshops and networking opportunities. The society originally began 20 years ago in the church's Southern Union in the United States. In 2000, the group's annual convention expanded to include communicators from all of North America and now includes international participants.

Leaders are urging church communication employees to become certified through their church region's Communication Certification Program. Launched in 2007, the program will soon have its first person fulfill requirements, a church spokesperson said.

Vistaunet also said he hopes to bring together other groups of communicators, including Adventist radio professionals and participants of the Global Internet Evangelism Network.

The church's communication roots were set in 1912 when the Adventist world church headquarters hired Walter Burgan, a reporter with the Baltimore Sun newspaper, to establish the denomination's Bureau of Press Relations, the precursor of today's Communication department.

Today, many are urging the church to re-examine its commitment to hiring qualified spokespeople to work for the Adventist world church, an organization with some $20 billion of assets in more than 200 countries.

"I think a big challenge is that the church may not understand that management of corporate communication in the 21st century is not a luxury but a necessity," said Abel Marquez, dean of the School of Arts and Communication at the church's Montemorelos University in Mexico.

Marquez, who also serves as associate Communication director for the church's Inter-America region, said the church in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean will soon launch the certification program. Already, he said, the church in his region has held multiple communication seminars and other continuing education programs to educate local pastors about what effective corporate communication can accomplish.

College students at this month's SAC convention supported the church's communication goals, some pointing to areas where it could improve.

"I think the church now realizes it's time to update technology and communication and methods to better reach the world around us," said Rebecca Barcelo, a junior at La Sierra University in Riverside, California. She said she appreciated the fact that each of the nine unions in North America have their own magazine to connect members. She one day hopes to write for one.

Kortnye Hurst, a senior at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, said she thinks the church's world headquarters tries to let members know what's happening, but communication can stall at the local administration level. She said, however, that it's getting easier for members to learn about church initiatives and activities.

"I think communication in the church is moving toward more horizontal communication than hierarchical, which is good," she said.

Hurst said the SAC convention offered potential for professional growth and networking. "The amount of growth I experience depends on me tapping into that," she said.

The next convention of the Society of Adventist Communicators is scheduled for October 14 to 16, 2010 in Rochester, New York.