Digital Parish: The importance of branding for ministry

Branding is a form of marketing in which we represent who we are. It’s how people get to know us. It is an invitation to relationship.

In this session, Ryan Dunn provides several ideas for how we can cultivate our personal brands in digital spaces for the advancement of ministry.

The Episode

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Cultivating your ministerial brand

Ryan Dunn:

  • This is Pastoring in the Digital Parish, your resource and connection for leading ministry in digital spaces.

  • My name is Ryan Dunn

  • Smile and nod if you’ve ever prayed this prayer: “Lord may I be put aside. May I decrease so that you and your word may increase…God, may the words of my lips come from you…”

  • Sound familiar?

  • Within the church (and especially in the UMC), we exist in a culture that does not value the personal brand

  • It’s not about us, right?

  • In the UMC, we have the itinerant system that really kind of keeps most pastors from building ministries around their own personalities. Simply because we’re likely to be moved some place else in a few years.

  • It’s about the congregation or community. It’s not about the leader.

  • I think this is good perspective… we are not investing further our own notoriety.

  • Our calling in ministry is to draw attention to something or someone else.

  • However, our culture at large really, really values transparency.

    • Case in point: cruise through Twitter and see what kinds of tweets are garnering the most interactions.

    • More than likely, they aren’t tweets that are super-intellectual or even super-truthful.

    • They’re revelatory.

      • They generally say just as much about the person tweeting as they do about anything else.

      • Here are a few on-fire tweets from my recent Twitter feed–NOTE: NONE of these are my own tweets… just others that I read:

      • “Oh so you have a PhD in theology? Well then I would like a small oat milk latte with a shot of espresso…” That’s good for 1500 likes.

        • You can figure a few things out about that tweeter, right?

      • “Having a terrible anxiety attack. Please tell me it’s gong to be OK.”-->2800 likes

      • YOu can probably fill in a few of your own… especially since I was running out of tweets I felt comfortable reading.

    • I’m not recommending you air all dirty laundry on the social sites.

      • That practice is fraught with trouble.

      • But right now, we do want to consider how easy it is for other people to get to know us.

      • Are we revealing enough of ourselves that people who might be wanting to know more about our faith communities are able to get a sense of who we are as leaders in digital space?

      • This practice of revealing ourselves can be termed as branding.

  • And Those who lead in digital spaces are actively involved in branding.

  • Now, hear me out for a second. I know in the faith world we’re uncomfortable with marketing terms like “brand”. Marketing terms smell of money and capitalism and the things our faith communities often have uneasy relationships with. So just indulge me for a moment as I reorient our understanding of what marketing and branding is.

  • Mike Kim, who was a previous adjunct professor on this podcast… listen to his session… he notes that marketing isn’t just about money or making a sale, he says “marketing is opening a relationship.” So while marketing is not something we’re very comfortable with in the faith world, we certainly are interested in opening relationships. In fact, many of us would define faith as a relationship, wouldn’t we?

  • This is why we need to consider branding in ministry.

  • Branding is a form of marketing in which we represent who we are. We all have brands–both personal and institutional. When someone cruises through your Facebook or LinkedIn profile, they are formulating your brand. In the same way, when someone cruises through our church’s website or Instagram posts, they are also mentally formulating a brand. What I’ve found in talking with various ministry leaders is that those who garner the most attention in digital space are very intentional about sharing their brands.

  • So let me run a little scenario by you…

  • I have a couple favorite t-shirts. One is just a plain black t-shirt, slightly worn at the sleeves, maybe a bit faded. It’s character, but maybe not much class. It’s comfortable, but not particularly notable. Maybe people think it’s cool, maybe it reminds them of a t-shirt they have sitting in a drawer. But nobody ever asks me about my plain black t-shirt. It has never provided the opening of a relationship.

  • My other favorite t-shirt is a concert t-shirt. It sports the logo of a band called The Descendents. While The Descendents have been around for a long time, they are not a household name. They are a niche band–they’re not for everyone. That being said, 4 out of 5 times I sport this t-shirt in public, someone speaks to me about the band. The shirt is an immediate supplier of rapport for those who know. The people who recognize the shirt and logo are quickly able to deduce that I am someone they’d be comfortable speaking with.

  • (I once wore the shirt in a Rethink Church video. Though only a few letters of the band’s name were visible, I got comments asking if that was a Descendents shirt I was wearing. That speaks to both the ability of a visible brand to spark the opening of a relationship and to the power of consistent branding–because people were able to see just a bit of the band’s font and name and deduce what I was wearing.)

  • We want our digital branding to work the same way. When branding is done well, potential constituents don’t have to work very hard to figure out who we are, what our stories are, and what our ministries value. It seems the digital ministries growing and engaging well are those that communicate their values repeatedly.

  • The issue for many of us is that we brand like a plain black t-shirt. We seek to be comfortable, but not particularly notable. Our motivation for this is often rooted in good intentions: we don’t want to turn anyone off. But while we do that, we also make it unintentionally hard for people to figure out who we are and what we value. And in digital space people aren’t willing to invest a lot of energy in figuring out values before moving on to the next site or profile.

  • As leaders in digital space, we have to push open our boundaries on accessibility a bit… at least in regards to offering people a sense of who we are.

  • People need people–even online. When we comb through social media feeds for minutes on end, we’re impulsively searching for a personal connection to someone else. 

  • Leaders, we can be that someone else. But only if we get out from behind the masks of our institutional brands and show our faces and reveal our hearts.

  • This implies that when we’re producing content on behalf of an institution–like a church or ministry–then we not be shy about revealing that this content was made by an actual human being with a name, face, preferences, hobbies, etc… We don’t want to hijack our content to make it all about us. But we do want to add a personal touch–because our people are hoping to build a connection with us. Show yourself in your content, whether that be by mentioning some personal interests, or planting some interesting hobby items in the backdrop of a video, or by placing yourself in a story.

  • Get your face out there…

  • When we’re making content on our own behalf, we want to move past the face to heart.

  • There’s a new epidemic out there… and it is one of loneliness.

  • In 1985, American adults reported having about 3 confidants. Less than 20 years later, that number had dropped to 2 confidants. Today it’s lower. Similarly, in 1985 36% of American adults said they had no close friends outside of their family. 20 years later that number jumped to 53%. What might it be today?

  • In the book Bad Religion, Ross Douthat points out that there’s a trend now to outsource on confidant-type relationships. Where we once leaned on friends for emotional support and advice, we are now more likely to pay a counselor or therapist to fulfill the same function. We still express a need for confidants and advisors, but we’re less able to find them.

  • As we think about the future role of ministers, there is a real need evident in these thoughts and statistics: ministers have calling to step into the roles of trusted advisors and confidants. There are at least two ways we can begin fostering trust in those who might be looking to reach out and begin the process of relationship building.

  • First, we need to reveal a few things about ourselves.

  • Our first step in inviting confidential relationship is to share some authentic aspects of our own lives. Many of us (myself definitely included) post things about ourselves based upon activity. So when we DO or PARTICIPATE in something exciting, we feel that warrants a social media post. This might look like the picture we post of our family’s trip to the local Halloween lights display or the cool find we scored at last month’s flea market.

  • These are fine posts as they reveal the kinds of activities we enjoy. But in order to inspire some trust in others, we’ll need to consider posting about our feelings as well as our activities. Posting about the things that make us happy or troubled will go a long way in revealing who we are and communicate that we are individuals who are comfortable with feelings.

  • Rev. Adam Baker of The Gathering Now in St. Louis is someone I see doing this well. Rev. Adam consistently makes it a point to share the things he is grateful for, the things bringing him joy, the moments which seem to suck the life out of him. The result is that, though I’ve sat in synchronous conversation with Adam on just a handful of occasions, I feel as though I know Adam well. He’s someone I can approach.

  • Here’s an example:

    • Says Adam: 

    • “After full days like this, I sit on my back porch as my family plays and laughs inside, small dogs barking at our kids to remind them of their importance. I’ve napped, and whether it’s the smudged brain of or after-sleep or just my blood sugar in need of a meal, I’m in a place internally of thoughtfulness and quiet.

    • I just read Psalm 84 and felt its longing, the psalmist sitting somewhere, watching the sun slip beneath the land’s shape as they yearn for that golden place where the presence of God touches the ground. “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh cry out for the living God.” 

    • I’m rich in the experience of this morning and all of it’s answered prayers…” and then he goes on to share some of the things he’s been praying over…

    • Travis Voeltz is my social media friend who does some nice work here, too. 

      • I’ve gotten a huge kick out of Travis sharing clips from his past in professional wrestling, I can only guess his congregants do too.

      • Travis ends most of his social media posts with the words “God is great.”

      • The effect is that we readers get a sense of the appreciation and presence that Travis feels in recognizing the little blessings in his life.

      • It’s such a small thing.. But really ministerial.

    • So there we go… first, we have to be a little self-revelatory.

  • Second, we must invite people to confide in us.

  • No one is going to confide in us until we invite them. I’m still working out how we can invite confidential conversations through digital space. But a couple ideas include holding online “office hours” where we are accessible for chat. Or hosting virtual prayer sessions, and then using those as opportunities to follow up on conversations begun in that space.

  • My friend Rev. Anne Bosarge of The Online Chapel does this well. Every few weeks I get a message from Rev. Bosarge letting me know that she’s checking in and asking how she can pray for me. It’s a comforting message to receive and I’m sure she garners many responses.

  • Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to simply be aware of the need. People are isolated–increasingly so. And we, as ministers in digital space, have a unique position to meet this need. I look forward to seeing how ministers increasingly move into this space and would love to hear of ways your inviting people into confidential relationship through digital space.

  • So here’s a little personal branding.

  • I like to game-ify things. It’s kind of like setting little goals for myself.

  • In this case, it might look like awarding myself a point each time I engage in some personal branding online, with the goal of earning 20 points this month.

  • That’s the kind of tool I utilize to keep my mindful of things I’m working on.

  • But you do you… that’s kind of the point of these exercises in branding.

  • That’s a wrap on this session.

  • If this podcast is meaningful for you, the best thing you can do is listen to another episode. The session from season 2 with Mike Kim is great. It’s called “Building relationships through branding”. Go check it out.

  • Another related session is season 1’s “Becoming a microfamous minister” with Matt Johnson.

  • I’m Ryan Dunn. I’d like to thank,  the online destination for leaders throughout The United Methodist Church. They make this podcast possible. And of course, they host our website:, where you can find more online resources for ministry.

  • If you want to connect: check out our Pastoring in the Digital Parish group on Facebook. You can also send me questions and ideas for future sessions at [email protected]

  • I’ll speak with you again in a new episode next week. In the meantime, peace to you!



On this episode

Ryan Dunn, co-host and producer of the Compass Podcast

Our proctor/host is the Rev. Ryan Dunn, a Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications. Ryan manages the digital brand presence of Rethink Church, co-hosts and produces the Compass Podcast, manages his personal brand, and obsesses with finding ways to offer new expression of grace.