Advice For Communicating Change in the Local Church | Caitlin Van Wagoner

Bart Blair Leave a Comment

Caitlin, the Senior Communications Director at Watermark Church, share’s what she’s done to grow and lead this team over the last five years

Podcast Transcription


Bart Blair: [00:00:01] Hey, welcome to episode four of the second season of the Church Growth Interviews podcast. I’m Bart Blair, a church growth consultant coach, digital strategist, that didn’t come out very well, but that’s what I do. I help churches, and Jason, our CEO at Missional Marketing, he also helps churches.

Jason Hamrock: [00:00:20] I love helping churches, it is so much fun to be just talking with churches all day long, every day, and it never gets old because I actually get energized by it. Being able to share and lean on, and sometimes be the shoulder that they cry on because they’re going through hard seasons or whatever it may be, but it’s a blast to talk with churches.

Jason Hamrock: [00:00:41] And today we get to talk to a great, great leader in a very influential church. Caitlin Van Wagoner. Caitlin Van Wagoner is the Senior Communication Director, this church and her staff is so big, she’s the Senior Communication Director, they have another communication director underneath her. Caitlin is an amazing leader, she’s been in this position for like five years at Watermark Church. Watermark is a huge church and Chuck will…Bart will spend a second talking about that. Chuck is on our team, sorry about that, Chuck. Chuck and I don’t look alike, sound alike, or think alike, but…

Jason Hamrock: [00:01:19] I don’t know where that came from, he’s awesome.

Jason Hamrock: [00:01:23] So, Caitlin, she talks about what she’s done to grow and lead this team over the last five years. And so if you’re in the communication director role, or you’re aspiring to be, or you’re a leader that’s looking to hire a communication director, this is a great conversation for you to tune into. She also talks about this season of change at Watermark, and they’re in a season of change right now, and she’s having to navigate through that, and so she shares some insight into that. Tell our audience a little bit about Watermark if they don’t know, Bart.

Bart Blair: [00:01:51] Yeah, you know, Watermark is not too far from where I live, I actually drive down the highway and pass their ministry center quite often. They’re actually a multi-campus church, but one of the things that’s been happening over the last few years is they have actually been releasing some of their campuses. I think ultimately they’re going to release all of their campuses to be independent churches, and she shares a little bit about that in the podcast. One of the things that makes Watermark unique is that they really focus more energy on attracting people into their building and onto their campus between Sundays than they do on Sundays, she talks a little bit about that as well. If you are familiar with re|engage Marriage Ministry, or re:generation, those are two ministries that hundreds of churches across the country use. My home church, Preston Trail Community Church in Frisco, Texas, we do re|engage and re:generation at our church, and they are great ways for churches to connect with people in the community, to really help couples and individuals deal with really tough stuff that they’re managing in their lives.

Jason Hamrock: [00:02:53] They birthed it, they birthed it.

Bart Blair: [00:02:57] Yeah, they were all birthed at Watermark, and Watermark provides coaching and guidance for churches that want to use those programs. They also have a really very well-known young adults ministry called The Porch that meets mid-week, and it’s something I think a lot of other churches look to The Porch and what they’ve done to reach young people, Millennials, Gen Z, people who, you know, a lot of people have written off as a lost cause and Watermark has doubled down on their ability to reach those people in their community, and so it’s really admirable.

Bart Blair: [00:03:30] You know the thing, Jason, that I really took away from our conversation, I was actually sharing with my wife, Elizabeth, shortly after you and I had the conversation, was that we talked to a lot of communications directors, whether that’s with our work that we’re doing with churches or podcasts. And this is certainly not to be disparaging to anyone else that we work with, or anybody else that we talk to, but Caitlin has a pastor’s heart. And I don’t know if you got that, but she doesn’t treat leading the communications team like just a service to the church, but she treats it like a real ministry. And that really comes out in the way that she talks about the way that she leads her staff, the way that her ministry staff supports other ministries in the church, and it was really unique, and I was really impressed by that, and just really appreciate her heart for doing ministry.

Bart Blair: [00:04:23] So you, our listeners, I think you’re really going to appreciate this conversation that we had with Caitlin. If you’re not yet subscribed to our podcast on whatever method you listen to this, whether you watch the videos on YouTube, or you listen on some platform for podcasting, make sure that you subscribe. And if you haven’t left us a rating or review, we’d love to have that. If you think we’re worthy of a five-star, give us a five-star. If you think we’re worthy of a one-star, give us a one-star. We love your feedback, I hope it’s better than a one-star, but we love your feedback. We’d love to know if you have ideas or suggestions about guests that we can have on the podcast, or topics that you would like for us to cover, we’d love to do that. One of the things we are going to be doing here in season two more frequently is, instead of always just having a guest that we interview, Jason and I are going to do some deeper dives into some church communications issues, things that we see churches doing well, things that we see churches doing regularly that could be improved. And so we’re going to share some insights, in fact, we’re going to have one of those episodes coming up, probably within the next couple of weeks after this one releases. So I’m not going to let the cat out of the bag on that one, you need to subscribe so that you don’t miss that episode.

Bart Blair: [00:05:37] So without any further ado, here is our interview with Watermark’s Caitlin Van Wagoner.


Bart Blair: [00:00:02] We are not going to do any intro right now other than just to welcome you to the show, and then I’m going to fire off the first question, which is for you to just share your story, how you got into ministry and what led you to watermark. And then some information about watermark as a whole equal that

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:00:18] Absolutely are not good. And so this is just so I know this is when you’re posting to YouTube, are you going to edit it or is this a continuous take?

Bart Blair: [00:00:26] It’s typically a continuous take unless we have wonky stuff that happens, which is great.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:00:32] Oh no, it’s like some podcasts I’ve been on before. If I stumble over words I like, we’ll do the whole thing and we’ll go back and do it again.

Bart Blair: [00:00:40] But ah, we can do that. We could do it.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:00:42] We’re pretending that I’m so great with that. I just want to serve you all the best. And I’ve had other people be like, I’ve been on podcast before where they said, I need you to say that 10 percent better and go back and do it. Oh, okay, great.

Jason Hamrock: [00:00:51] We all know we’re a little more casual than that.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:00:54] All right. If I stumble over things or go too fast, something like that, we’ll figure it out. But I just want to make sure I’m serving you. Yep.

Bart Blair: [00:01:01] Ok, cool. And so I will. I’m going to kind of lead things off as the first question or two. And then Jason will probably lead the bulk of the rest of the conversation. But I will. I will thumbs up if we’ve gotten to a place where we need to wrap up that topic and move on to another topic. I will raise my hand if I have something that I want to add to that part of the conversation, and I’ll try not to butt in. Try to minimize over talk as much as possible and then I’ll lower my hand. See, that’s cool.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:01:34] Would you mind if we prayed before we got started?

Bart Blair: [00:01:36] Do not mind at all. I love that. You want to pray. Do you want me to pray?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:01:39] I’ll pray. That’s great. Go ahead. Yeah, sure. God, thank you so much just for workers who are here to make your name more famous. And we all are in the business of being a megaphone for the gospel. I pray that you would go before me and Bart and Jason, and if there is anything we say that dishonors you, that it, that it would, that would be clearly to our minds, Lord, and that that would fall away and that we would seek to glorify you and your name, your son’s name. Amen.

Bart Blair: [00:02:01] Amen. Amen. You all right. Right? All right. I’m already recording, so I’m going to count us down. Caitlin van Wagner. That’s how you pronounce your name, right?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:02:11] Absolutely. It’s Dutch. Very good. Most people think van is German, but Bonnie Van is Dutch, so you know your stuff?

Bart Blair: [00:02:19] I do. Yeah. All right. Another podcast for another day

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:02:23] To another podcast for another day.

Bart Blair: [00:02:25] Yeah, OK. All right, here we go. Three. Two.

Bart Blair: [00:02:30] Caitlin Van Wagoner from Watermark Church, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:02:35] Oh my gosh, absolutely my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

Bart Blair: [00:02:39] Caitlin, we’re really, really excited to have this conversation with you today. We’ve got a lot of different things that we want to talk about. But before we get into sort of the nuts and bolts of church communications and all things Watermark, why don’t you share a little bit about Watermark Church and then your role there, how you got there? I believe you’ve been on staff there for about five or six years, and we just want to know your story.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:03:02] Absolutely, absolutely, so happy to, so Watermark Community Church, we are a church in Dallas, Texas, and so we are a kind of an interesting church in that we have a little bit of an inverted ministry model, and so our church is probably busier Monday through Friday than it is on Sundays because we have about 50 ministries that happen mid-week throughout the church. So it is wild around, here all the time, which is so fun, I have the best job in the world. And then also some of our ministries are nationally, and run at several hundred churches across the country. So there’s just a lot going on all the time, but it’s really fun.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:03:35] I think I have the absolute best job in the world. I’m the Senior Director of Communications here, which is one of the single greatest privileges of my life. But I essentially oversee our communications arm, which there’s kind of two arms to it, I would say our strategy arm, and then our creatives. So our strategy is essentially helping our ministries, coach up our ministries, on how to communicate and where. And then our creatives are all of our typical creatives photography, graphic design, filmmaking, social media, and those such things. So I get to work with it, and I’ve been here for about five years.

Jason Hamrock: [00:04:06] So because of all these ministries you have, how do you juggle doing, you know, handling and working with them versus what happens on the weekend?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:04:15] It is always a tension to manage, I would say. And so we are, I’m always looking to my elders, we’re an elder led church, that’s another aspect of us that is important to know, and you would think that sometimes leadership really matters. And so understanding and serving our elders is one of the chief goals of our communications department, actually, and so I get a lot of my priorities from them. But our goal is to essentially serve our weekend services, but then also prioritize our midweek ministries as best we can. And some of those have their own individual brands, and some of them are more aligned with our master kind of our overall Watermark piece, and so it is a balance. So we try to arm our midweek ministries with a really simple brand kit, so we live and die by our brand guide. And so to give them things that they can kind of plug and play, so they can put together simple branded communications, and then we come alongside them to help create custom work if they’re doing a sermon series, or what have you, to come alongside of that piece. But it is definitely a lot to manage and juggle, but it’s, again, it’s so fun.

Jason Hamrock: [00:05:18] Yeah, and so you have a ton of, a lot of people that come to Watermark. What’s it been like with coming out of out of COVID? Are you getting more and more people back in the seats?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:05:29] Yes, it is just so fun. I mean, I think it definitely has changed people’s viewing habits, right? And so some people are still more comfortable with online church, but we are seeing a lot of new people, which is just so fun. So our membership classes are are booming, we’ve launched about a hundred and seventy community groups in the last year, which is wild. I mean, so fun, and the heart of Watermark is really community, all of our members are in community groups, and so that is just really fun to see people. I think people are hungry, they’re coming out of a place and a time where they were isolated, and they’re seeing the need for community and deep relationships. And so I think the church is in a great place to go, hey, come home and let’s get you plugged in and connected in deep community with other believers. And so we’re seeing people that are hungry for that, or people who have, in COVID, kind of uncovered some maybe hurts or hang ups that they have that they want to work through, too. So that’s been really neat to see them working that through and some of our other ministries that are more care oriented, have kind of flexed in different ways, but it definitely has been a challenge. Every church has had to expand their digital footprint, and learn social first, and video first, and all the things, but it’s an incredible opportunity to care for people who are just in a different spot than they were 18 months ago.

Jason Hamrock: [00:06:50] Yeah, Bart?

Bart Blair: [00:06:52] Can I double click a little bit on a couple of different things that you were talking about there. First of all, you shared that you have about as much ministry, if not more going on between the Sundays as you do on Sunday, and so what I love for you to do is just extrapolate a little bit on that for our audience so that they understand what kind of ministries you are running, and whether those are outward facing or inward facing type of of of ministries? I’d also like to hear, and I know this isn’t necessarily your area of focus and expertise, but since Jason talked about what things were like coming out of COVID, I’d like to hear how you have all these midweek ministries on your campus pre-COVID, you obviously had to transition not just your weekend services to an online experience, but a lot of these midweek ministries. How did that go? Just share some some highlights on that. And then what parts of those have actually, if any, have remained online since you’ve come back to in-person services? So there were a few different questions there. The types of ministries that you have. Yeah, the types of ministries that you have that are running this week, how you transitioned those to online experiences, and then since coming back in person onto campus, what types of things are still being done online and how effective you’re seeing that being?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:08:14] Yes, that’s awesome. All right, I think I got them, so we’ll see. But if I get off track, I feel like, y’all get me back on track. So from a midweek perspective, essentially, we’ve got some larger ministries, and most of them are care-oriented, or life stage oriented. So for example, on Monday nights, we’ve got re:generation Recovery, which is a 12-Step recovery program that’s Christ-centered, and that’s one of those that’s one of our larger ministries that’s also run across the country. The Porch is our young adult ministry, and that happens on Tuesday nights, and so we’ve got thirty-five hundred young adults here on Tuesday nights, which is just so fun and that’s also streamed nationally to several churches across the country. And then our other kind of largest is a ministry called re|engage, which is a marriage enrichment program ministry that’s essentially about discipleship in marriage, and helping marriages go, whether they want to go from an eight to a ten, or a zero to a 10. So marriage enrichment, and that’s also run across the country. And so those are kind of our big ones, and then we also have several that are more life stage, everything from ministries for women who are walking through infertility, to our pre-marriage ministry, our counseling ministry, called merge, to everything for women with unexpected pregnancies.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:09:25] And so there’s a lot that happens, and in addition to more equipping things like women’s Bible study, men’s Bible study, and other things that are happening, that are more about enrichment and equipping of our membership. So there’s just a lot going on, a lot of them are in the vein of specialized kind of care ministries. A lot of them have been born out of, I think, almost entirely out of lay leaders who are passionate about a given area, and so they start a ministry, and so some of them are really specialized. So one of them, is one of my favorites, is Careers In Motion. It’s folks that have recently lost their jobs and are in a season of transition. How do you care for people in that unique life stage? And so a lot of them are kind of specialized, more care ministries that our lay leaders, our members, have been passionate about, and so they’ve launched a ministry, which is really fun.

[00:10:13] So they’re very disparate in terms of size, everywhere from thirty-five hundred here, to maybe one only has ten or fifteen. But we try to look at all of those as amazing opportunities, and not necessarily look at size in terms of value, but just in terms of the care that they’re providing. So lots happening, all the time.

Jason Hamrock: [00:10:32] Wow. Ok, I want to go back, so you’ve been here for five years, what was the communication department like when you started? And today, you have a really robust, large team, you’ve got a lot of people that you’re leading, how was that growth, and what kind of advice would you give to a communication director that’s kind of starting out, that’s new at a smaller church, but you know what are the things that you had to do? What are the things you had to learn? And talk a little bit about that?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:11:01] So much, I had to learn a lot. So I come from a corporate environment, so I was a branding strategist at an ad agency before. And then I came to Watermark and our communications department was actually kind of split into almost three departments, and they were all very siloed and nobody talked to each other. And so, not because we didn’t love each other, but just Watermark grew so fast, and it’s filled with entrepreneurs. And so it was a bunch of different arms, and no one was really hooked in together, and so our creative teams, and our production teams, weren’t really hooked into our graphic design team, that wasn’t really hooked into our strategy aspect. And so I came in, when I came in, I led kind of a smaller communications team of five or six people that did mostly kind of internal communications, but that wasn’t hooked into a lot of other communications-related departments. And so over the last, really the last year, we’ve actually consolidated those three departments, that’s now all communications, and it’s one single process flow that runs from strategy all the way to execution. And so we have folks we’ve completely reimagined and reinvigorated the way that projects get done and the way we serve ministries, and so because we’ve essentially broken down a ton of silos, everybody’s gotten new job descriptions, my team is amazing and they’ve just been troopers to go through all of that change.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:12:24] But lots of silos because we just grew so fast, and so entrepreneurial, and then not a really clear process, and so I come from a really high process place and from a corporate perspective, and so we didn’t have a ton of process here. Which just made things, I think, just less efficient. Everybody was working super hard, but nobody had taken the time to go through and think through the whole process flow. So we’re actually, my team is, in the big middle of we went from, we are now a team of I think twenty-five of us that are all learning how to work together in a new way, which is wild and so fun, but really focusing on process, on serving our ministries really well through clarity, clarity blesses people, a process blesses people. And so, and then also just hoping to…We were super, because of the way we were oriented, we were really heavily focused on the weekend and the goal is to spread out a little bit of the communication support across the mid-week stuff, so we’re in the middle of reinventing our process.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:13:20] But here’s what I would say if you’re a new communications director, it took me, it took us, not me alone, oh my gosh, I had so many people helping, it took us four years to get to the place where we were able to make this shift. And so we just had to do these incremental improvements to go, all right, we would improve something and then we’d go, oh, that’s kind of an arm sticking out that doesn’t really fit. And incremental, to build trust with leadership, to build trust with the rest of the staff, to just kind of slog through it. And then finally, we got to the place about a year ago where our leadership came to a couple of us and said, hey, we’re actually game if you want to completely reinvent this, and so would you try that? And so there’s a few of us that got together, and they went for it, and all of a sudden it was like, we’re changing everything, you know? And so I would say, if you’re a new communications director, be faithful with what you’ve got, take the most wise next step, and it’ll all build on each other. And I think just improve what’s in front of you, low-hanging fruit, and you’re not going to be able to do it all. It took us four years to get to the place where we are now, and we had a ton of help and amazing people. But it just takes time to figure out, to identify the right problems, to build trust, trust is currency in ministry, and you just got to do that, and then learn how to work together. I made a thousand mistakes in those, and so I’m really glad I had that three to four year buffer where I could make so many mistakes and understand even what problems to solve. Because coming in day one, I would never have known, I would have tried to solve the wrong problems. So I don’t know if that answers your question.

Jason Hamrock: [00:14:50] Yeah, it does. I mean, most church communication directors get a little bit frustrated, right, because maybe they’re siloed and they just can’t figure out how to bring everybody in. And, you know, like the worship and the weekend is always usually the top priority for most churches, so they’ve got their own thing going on, you have ministries lining up at your door wanting time. It’s just it becomes kind of a headache for communication directors, we find ourselves counseling and coaching a lot of com directors, and it’s OK.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:15:21] Yeah, it’s relationship building. And that’s the hard work of going, hey, build relationships with your ministry partners, understand what they are after, how you can come alongside them, build trust. I mean, I’ll say it again, like trust is just currency. And I think I see that a lot too when I talk to other communications directors is it does feel siloed, so I’m going there’s so much that can happen with just like taking your women’s ministry director out to lunch and sitting down and going, what are you focused on? Like, how can we help? We work together, and so building…And that’s also the fun of you getting to work at a church. it’s like you get to work with amazing people who are all believers, and so building into that trust is currency. So that you can, you’ve got to make deposits into the trust banks before you can make some withdrawals. And so I would say to, I would focus on that, and don’t get discouraged, solve the next big problem in front of you, and then move on and you’ll build trust and then move on.

Jason Hamrock: [00:16:16] Yeah. So yeah, that’s amazing advice. So as a leader, how have you…What’s one of the best things you’ve done to lead your own team?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:16:27] Oh gosh, OK, I’ll give you an anti-answer, which is, I think, leading out of brokenness and deficiency, which is probably not the answer you expected me to give you. I would love to say I came in with a five-point plan and I got everybody on board, you know, but truly, I came in and I tried that for a while and it didn’t really work. And honestly, it kind of wore me out to have to be the one that was always being the one to solve the problems. And so I had this really humbling moment about six to eight months ago, where I was like, I’m trying to lead on my own and not playing team ball. And so I went to my team a couple of months ago and we were in the middle of this massive transition in terms of structurally, but then also Watermark in general, which I’m sure we’ll get to, is going through a big transition ourselves. And I went and said, guys, I just, I need help. Will you help me solve these problems? And so we started to play team ball, and that is a gamechanger, because some of the best ideas honestly have come from my team and not from me. The best feedback I’ve gotten has come from my team and not me. And so I think leading through, I’m willing to make decisions and I’m willing to make calls, and sometimes as a leader, you have to. Yeah. But leading through, I don’t know. Leading through, will you help? Deploying people, empowering them, and not trying to lead in a silo and not trying to think that you’ve got it all together, inviting other people into the solution, then they’ll be bought in and support the solution.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:17:57] So I think, I had a really humbling moment about six to eight months ago where I was like, oh my gosh, I have a pride issue in my leadership. And had to go to my leadership team and ask for forgiveness, and the other leaders on my comms team and go, will you, I’ve tried to lead in the silo, will you help me lead this? And it was like a game-changer. So I would go, I don’t know if that’s what answer you’re looking for. I’d love to tell you [inaudible].

Jason Hamrock: [00:18:18] No, it’s great advice, and I would say the same thing. You know, as a leader of course we have to make those calls sometimes, but, you know, stepping aside and letting the other people on the team be leaders is the greatest gift you can give yourself, I’m telling you. And usually, better outcomes happen, and better direction, and things get changed for the better. And that would be my advice to communication directors, like you’ve got people underneath you that are probably pretty talented, but if you’re blind to that talent, then you’re not doing yourself any favors, you know, step out and step away

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:18:54] And that’s the way the beautiful thing about working at a church is your professional life and your spiritual life are all kind of tied together. So for me, it was really fun because it was like a spiritual revelation that I had. I was like, Oh my gosh, I have pride in my work that I got to take to my team and it was scary. I remember, I was like in a team meeting with 20 faces looking at me, and I’m just like, I’ll be completely honest with you, I’m like crying in my team meeting and I’m not a crier, I’m not emotional. And so, but it was they have told me, they were like, that was the moment we felt like a team, and that was that moment we were like, we’re all in this together. And I was like, really, I’ll cry more. But it was hard to lead out of brokenness and deficiency, but again, I think I’d just go, you see so many models of that and commands around humility, and against pride in Scripture, and I’ll go, oh, turns out it was right.

Jason Hamrock: [00:19:40] What you just said right there, I just sensed that’s the Spirit working through you, and you submitting to His authority and let Him do that.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:19:49] Absolutely.

Jason Hamrock: [00:19:50] Way to go, that’s awesome.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:19:51] That’s why when I say working at Watermark is like the single greatest privilege of my life, it’s because I’m a different person because God’s use this place professionally to refine me spiritually. Which is like the cool thing, if you let it, the coolest thing about working in a church, the coolest thing about working at your church.

Jason Hamrock: [00:20:06] So, yeah, exactly. Yeah. Bart?

Bart Blair: [00:20:07] Yeah, that. You know what, Caitlin, what you said there is pretty amazing. And we had a few minutes as we were getting to know each other before we pressed the record button, and one of the things that I sensed about you right out of the gate was that you understand and have a healthy perspective on the shepherding and the pastoral aspect of being a ministry leader. And Jason and I have the privilege of meeting with and having relationships with literally hundreds of church leaders, and specifically communications professionals, and the truth is, not everyone seems to get that, and so I appreciate that about you. And that’s where I want to lead us sort of into our next topic of conversation, next area of discussion. And that is, we discussed offline a little bit, and you mentioned it just a moment ago, that Watermark has been going through some significant transition. There’s been senior leadership transition, an elder transition, the church is transitioning campuses into their own independent churches. And any time there is change in a church, whether the church is a church of forty people or forty thousand people, that change creates disruption, that change creates anxiety, it creates opportunities to shepherd people and love people through that change and that transition. And so what I’d love for you to do is, to the degree to which you’re able to sort of peel back some layers here and point to some specific things is, how you have gone about as a leader of the communications department, choosing how to communicate, what to communicate, who to communicate to, what platforms to use. And there’s a lot of different dynamics, and a lot of different moving parts here, but what have been the things that have been most effective for you? And how would you coach others who were going through maybe similar situations that you’re going through?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:22:06] That’s so great, so there’s so much there. And so I would say also, by the way of context, my previous role I did, as you know, as I mentioned before, brand strategy, I worked for Fortune 10 brands, huge brands, highly corporate. And so I tried to bring that corporate mentality to the church, and communications in the church is is a different beast, it’s a different opportunity, it’s an opportunity for care, it’s a means by which you disciple your people. That doesn’t mean we don’t strive for excellence, or use best practices, or do all the same things, but there’s a different layer to it. So that’s by way of context of going, I learned that the hard way. So if you’re bringing in that… Not everything works in the corporate world, that it works, if you’re one of those communications directors that have made the jump, not everything is going to work. So you just want to make sure, and I’ve learned the hard way, I’ve had a lot of people [inaudible].

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:22:54] So by way of context, just to give just your listeners a little bit of context because I don’t know that everybody would know, I would doubt that most people would know. But here at Watermark, within the last year, we had our senior leaders step down as well as another elder, and so we are just in a series of massive transition and change and determining what’s next. And we are elder-led, and so that’s a really big deal to understand that piece. And then also, as you said, we’re transitioning. We have been for about three or four years, but all of our campuses into independent local churches that are led by their own elders in their local context. Because we think that’s the best way, we’ve found that that’s the best way for our churches to be led, is to have elders in their own local context.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:23:35] So all of that’s happening, so I think we’ve learned, I’ve learned a lot over the last few months about what it looks like to care for people, your members specifically, in times of transition. So I have kind of three principles for what I’ve kind of teased out, so if you’ll allow me. One is, I think, in a time of transition, and that could be, I mean, if you’re a church of ten or a church of ten thousand, it could be a senior leadership change, or it could be just any other transition, so I’m hoping these can be extrapolated.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:24:06] But number one is, I would say, is know your north star. And so for us at Watermark, that’s honoring Christ, that’s serving my elders, and caring for my members, all other priorities. That’s my communications priorities, all of the other priorities, ones that are even more external, are just not something I can focus on. So in those moments, especially when you likely have limited time, time is important, clarity is important, know your North Star. And so for me, specifically, the communications team I serve, like in those moments of transition, I was like, I’m on the elder…Like I’m here to serve my elders. And so that looks like going into meetings with them, and helping them, giving them feedback, anticipating their communications needs, coming alongside of them and going, here’s what I would do. And so really serving and building a deep relationship with my elder team, and deep respect for them, I would follow those men anywhere and so it wasn’t hard. But so really, knowing my North Star is kind of the first principle that I would talk through.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:25:03] The other is, so practically, what does that look like to communicate in a transition? So I would recommend, what we use, is kind of an inside-out approach. And so it is an art and not a science to determine who to tell what, when, in what order. Because the order in which you tell people, also communicates care and appreciation, so we started inside out, so with all of those transitions, we started with our staff. Because our staff is going to be, our staff are also all members, they’re also all in community groups, they’re also all leading ministries, and they’re going to get a lot of questions. And so we want to make sure that they are cared for because, again, transitions are emotional. And so this is not just a logical thing we’re working through, it’s like, no, people are wrestling with this. And so we want to make sure they’re cared for first, and that they’re armed with the right information that can answer questions. If a member of the press approaches them, how do they answer that question?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:25:54] As a side tip, I would say the most important person, one of the most important people in your organization to care for in a transition, is whoever answers your phones. And so literally, I will walk downstairs to my girl Jenna, who is our receptionist, who’s amazing. And in a season where I think that she might…I’ll go, how are you doing? Because she’s the one that’s going to have to answer the phone calls, and she needs to feel confident and cared for. So that’s just a little pro tip, don’t forget about whoever answers your phones, they are a really important part of your communications team, whether you approach it or not.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:26:26] And so from there, so we start with staff, and then inside out, we move to our key lay leaders. So here at Watermark, we call those shepherds. Every one of our members is in a community group, and those community groups are led by essentially what we call shepherd0,s community shepherds, that are over these community groups. And so they are key lay leaders, highly trusted, we gathered them together for a face-to-face meeting to talk through what was happening, to make sure that they knew because they were, again, going to have to answer questions. And then from there, we move to members at large. So I would say moving inward, outward. So from our staff, to key leaders, to members, in that order was important for us, and so that’s the second principle was inside out.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:27:07] And the third one is, I would say, again just seeing communication as a tool for caring for people. So knowing that it’s not, you can’t just communicate all the facts, like there has got to be a pastoral tone. You have to anticipate people’s questions, and just really see it as an opportunity to care for people. And it’s not, it’s messy, it’s going to be messy. There’s often so much gray here, so we always want it to be as clear as we possibly could, clarity blesses people, while still being pastoral and making sure that we are pastoring people in the midst of that. And so that looks, practically, like I don’t ever write anything in isolation, everything I wrote around transition always went up to my elders, to go, not just for clarity, but also for pastoring. And I would run it by, we would run it by our different writers, we would run it by things to go, hey, are we pastoring? We didn’t do it perfectly, goodness knows we did not do it perfectly, but that’s the other aspect we wanted to. So I don’t know if that kind of helps, but those are kind of my three key principles.

Jason Hamrock: [00:28:02] Yeah, North Star, inside out, and the third one?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:28:07] Is seeing communications as a tool for caring for people,

Jason Hamrock: [00:28:10] Caring for people. Ok, how have you been, what was your strategy in working with media? And it doesn’t, you know, because you work with media probably all the time because, you know, you guys are a huge church, right? So not everybody’s going to have the same kind of role that you have, however, even if you’re in a smaller church, you’re still going to interact with the media, you should interact with the media. What’s been your strategy to do that?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:28:35] I think we have a general media approach, and we also had one for this specific situation. So again, I knew my North Star for the situation, caring for honoring Christ, serving my elders, and caring for my members. So what was not our North star was the media for this one, this was family business. And so that doesn’t mean we’re trying to hide anything, everything was available on our website and so nothing’s hidden, but I prioritize our members. So we actually, we didn’t interact with media on this one because our goal was to care for our members, and so we wanted to communicate with them. And so for this one, this was not one where we interacted with media. Now we handle that differently for different things, we have media requests all the time and we will for certain things, depending on the situation. But for this one, again, inside out. We used internal channels specifically, so face-to-face meetings on Sunday morning, but again, all it’s public and easy. And then email, one-to-one email, was what we prioritized. But we specifically, in order to, honestly, that communicates care and honor, I think, to our members to go, we are communicating this with you specifically, you’re the ones who have raised your hand and said, I wanted to be shepherded at this local body, you’re the ones who are in it with us. And so that is part of who we chose, was to prioritize, hey, you can’t listen to all the voices, we don’t have unlimited time and energy, so we are going to prioritize and make a decision to interact primarily with our members on this. So prioritize all those, and that had to do with what communication channels we chose as well.

Bart Blair: [00:30:08] Well, let me ask you a question on that because, so you did not prioritize communicating to the media, however, the media was definitely picking up and running stories. So I’m sure you noticed that, and I’m sure that you had some responsibility to sort of, you know, I mean, whatever the media is producing your church family is processing there digesting it, whether it’s social media, print media, online articles, blog posts. You know, do you have a react and response process, something that you would implement if someone reports something or promotes something that’s truly false? How would you go about that?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:30:52] I think you have to, it’s case by case basis. It’s who is asking the questiom? What’s the size of their publication? What’s the reputation of the publication as well? And so we would make those requests differently. I think, so we process it in context, that it’s not any media because we also get requests from a lot of different types of media or people. And so I think it would be one thing if a certain paper of record, who is a large publication, versus others who are potentially not as widely known, or potentially not as reputable. So we also make the decisions based on what the quality of the publication, if that makes sense. And so I don’t feel a need to, we don’t feel a need to respond to every single thing. We want to equip our members to think biblically about things, and to have clarity, that’s who we’re communicating with, that’s our North star. And so, honestly, there is an element of, hey, we don’t feel the need to answer everything said about us because we know what our North Star is, so we’re really laser-focused on that. So I don’t know if that’s an OK answer.

Bart Blair: [00:32:03] Yeah, that is a good answer. Another one of our guests that by the time this podcast episode airs, one of our, probably one of the previous ones is Justin Dean, who was the communications director at Mars Hill in Seattle. I’m just going to point to an episode of Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast that Justin did several years ago when he talked about dealing with the press and the media as it relates to stuff, there’s just stuff that goes on in churches sometimes, and people are curious. And then there are people out there that are just trying to sell clicks, right? I mean, ultimately they’re posting, and they’re creating, and they’re communicating things for the sake of getting clicks. And that’s not always healthy, and it’s not always helpful, so having a preemptive plan or strategy for when those things happen is pretty important. And you know, we work with churches sometimes on reputation management after things have happened, stuff has gotten into the media. Unfortunately, the SEO, the search engine optimization, of some of these publications trumps most of what we as the church are publishing and promoting. So when people are googling, the stuff we don’t want them reading is the stuff that’s making its way to the top of Google’s search rankings. So it can be very tricky.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:33:21] It can be, and I mean, honestly, I’m not trying to Jesus juke at all, but also the scripture that comes to mind is, “You’ve got to entrust to the one that judges rightly.”, including with your church’s reputation. That does not mean you do not think about SEO, we think about that all the time. You don’t think about, hey, if reputable media source comes to you with legitimate questions, and you have vetted that reporter or things like that, that is an opportunity for conversation, but that doesn’t mean that you respond or react. We prefer to respond and not react, and so that doesn’t mean that just because anybody writes anything about you, you have to necessarily react to that. I would be thoughtful, be prayerful, and really do your homework on who you’re talking to and what the opportunity is, and so that’s just kind of the way we think about it. So I don’t know if that’s even a best practice from a PR perspective, if we hired a publicist, they might say, I’m crazy, but that’s the way we approach it.

Bart Blair: [00:34:18] Now you have dropped some truth, you have dropped some good stuff, that was that was respond and not react. Love that, there are a lot of little truth bombs from Caitlin today.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:34:27] Oh hey, I love that, we’re working on it.

Jason Hamrock: [00:34:30] So let’s set aside the transition. Let’s set aside the fact that I think over the last year or so, you’ve really just found your your groove with your team. What’s next? Are you constantly thinking about how you continue to change and get better as a team? I mean, does that go through your head as you’re leading, or are you just trying to like, oh, I’m in the storm, so to speak, so I’m just waiting to see where God takes us? Or are you looking to the future?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:34:59] Well, right now, I think we are working that this is a leadership axiom that is not mine, but work the team and not the problem, the team first and the problem second. And so we are working the team right now, and I do not know who said that, somebody else who is smarter than me. So right now I’m working the team, and so we’re just making sure we’ve got the right people, in the right seats, doing the right thing, and running the right process. And then I think we’ve got to build, we’re trying to build the engine before we figure out exactly how far we want to fly it. We know where we’re going, like, I know exactly kind of what a bar looks like, which is, hey, I want to build a bigger megaphone for the Gospel for my ministry, that’s my goal. And so, but we got to build, we’re having to dismantle bad processes or old processes and reassemble. And so that is where my team, going into the summer, it was they had three priorities from me, which is process, we’re going to work on process. We’re going to work on hires, getting the right people in the right seats because we went on a hiring freeze on my team until we figured out the right process, because adding more people to a bad process just makes a bigger mess. And so we said, we stopped about a year ago, we were like no more, even though we had people transition off, we like really scaled-down and said, we’ve got to fix the process first, and now we’re almost done with the hiring. And then the third one was just rest, coming out of a season of a really tough ministry season for my team. I mean, to be in any communications roll over the pandemic is exhausting, and then layer on top of it all the transition Watermark had, so rest was another third one. So that was my team right now. So I’m working, we’re working the last two, which is process and hires, we’re almost there. I think that we’ll be there in about a month, and so we are about to unveil it to the rest of our staff in a couple of weeks.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:36:43] But then we’ll start to work through, hey, what do the measurable goals look like for the next year or so in terms of where we’re going? But we’re also kind of, I mean, we’re resetting in terms of we’re adding some people to our elder team. And so our elder team is growing, which is really fun, but we’re kind of going to have to, again, we’re elder-led, so as soon as they figure out what their priorities are after we resettled, then we can also build. I’ve told my elder team I can build whatever plane you want me to build, you’ve just got to kind of tell me where you want me to fly it. So we’ll figure it out, so it’s been fun.

Jason Hamrock: [00:37:15] This might be an obvious question or answer, but give me the top two or three ways that Watermark’s grow the best. Has it been your own people inviting others, or have you guys been on, you know, do you do a lot of advertising? Tell me what the growth has been like?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:37:34] Our growth is primarily word of mouth, and it is we see our ministries as side doors to the church, and so those are our most significant side doors to the church. So to think about The Porch, which is our young adult ministry, re|engage marriage ministry, re:generation, so those are side doors where we can meet people where they’re at, care for them. If they’re in recovery or whatever, care for them, and then usher them into a next step to be part of the church, to be part of our community, which is where we feel like life change happens to the best in the context of community. And so that is truly the way that we think about it, is actually which is why we’re kind of a funny, inverted church model. We absolutely want to invite people on Sundays, we don’t do paid advertising, a lot of paid advertising for our Sundays. I’m sure we’ve done that in the past for like a Christmas, or an Easter, or something to get people on board. But primarily we put our energy into our midweek ministries because that’s a way to care for people who are…And then go, hey, a lot of people who have been hurt by the church who would not…People come, for example, on Tuesday nights, young adults come, who are all, so think three thousand eighteen to twenty-five-year-olds, or twenty-two to twenty-five-year-olds are here on Tuesday night. A lot of them have church hurt, they think the church is…They’ve grown up in dead churches, and so they would never, they would not probably come on a Sunday, but they’ll come to me a couple of other thousand young adults. And then you start to go, hey, you disciple them where they’re at, and then you start to go, hey, what’s your next step to serve, to get into community, and to really to start to be part of the life of the church. So that’s really our, that’s why we have kind of a funny inverted model is that we are Monday through…But then also we just go, oh, stories are the best currency in terms of inviting, so just telling a lot of stories and going, hey, there’s hope in Christ, we want to help, so come on,

Jason Hamrock: [00:39:30] You’re speaking it, I love it, I love it. Because, you know, yes, of course, we would invite people to Sunday, duh, you know, we want them in a seat. But I think we, a lot of churches make the mistake of that was what we used to do years and years ago, but these days, people aren’t ready to take that leap to come to sit in a church because they grew up going to their parent’s church and it was boring, irrelevant, and predictable. And so they’re like, why would I want to do that? So your strategy, I think, is amazing. You go to them and their felt needs space and connect with them at that level through the ministries, a side door, that’s a great picture of it.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:40:07] People see through, like people just like, they see through, I think, the advertising. Like advertising in the flashy sense, I’m like, that’s not what they want. They want community, they want authentic relationships, that’s what people are needing right now, especially post-COVID. So I go, oh my gosh, like the best way to get people in your church is to invest in your members, to invest in your members and to make sure they’re being discipled, and that they see the value of evangelism, and going outward. But then, like inside-out approach of going, you just want to disciple people really well. It’s like, turns out, it turns out, you know, Jesus only had 12, and look what happened. And so I go, just if you have anywhere to invest, invest in your leaders, invest in your members, disciple them, make sure they understand the value of serving, of evangelism.

Jason Hamrock: [00:40:52] And yeah, well, there’s a gal on our team, Maddie, she’s really smart. She’s a former communication director at Northview, and she’s on our team, and she painted this picture for me. She goes, you know what I tried to coach ministries on is, hey, we’re not trying to help promote your ministry to reach the masses. No, no, no, we want to turn that funnel upside down. We want to help you reach the few, and those few reach the masses, and that’s how you grow. That’s healthy growth, that’s the best way, that’s sticky growth, that’s the way you should be investing into your ministries. And I just love that picture of, yeah, that’s the church, that’s how it started. That’s how it started, Jesus connected with a few, and from there it grew, and I love that approach.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:41:35] Yeah.

Bart Blair: [00:41:36] All right, my friends, we’ve been talking a long time and it is time for us to wrap it up. Caitlin, you have been so gracious with us to give us this hour of your time today. And I just want to say thanks. We’ll get Jason here to Dallas sometime soon and we’ll all go grab some tacos or something and get to see each other face to face.

Bart Blair: [00:41:59] As we wrap up here, Caitlin, if our listeners or viewers would like to have a conversation with you, connect with you online, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:42:08] You can find me on the Watermark website, so go to and look for Caitlin Van Wagoner. You can find me, and you can send me an e-mail.

Bart Blair: [00:42:17] Awesome. Hey, again, Caitlin, thank you so much, we really appreciate the work that you’re doing, what Watermark is doing, and, yeah, thanks again for spending time with us today.

Caitlin Van Wagoner: [00:42:26] Of course, I appreciate you all. Thanks for having me on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *