By PAUL A. BARRA
COLUMBIA — The first formal offering by the Institute for Parish Leadership Development was the Diocesan Communications Workshop held Jan. 21. Parishes in the diocese either needed a good communication plan or people had heard about the dynamism of the presenter, Father Miles O’Brien Riley; whatever the cause, the workshop was a sell-out. The diocesan Office of Communications and Information, who co-sponsored the day-long event, had to turn away dozens of applicants once the 120-seat room at the Ramada Plaza Hotel was filled.
Both the director of the Institute and the bishop of Charleston were gratified for the response and recalled that the Synod of Charleston recommendations called for just such a workshop. Father Joseph Wahl, CO, referred to the communication workshop as “an historic event” and Bishop Thompson said that he was “thrilled” with the response to implementation of the sixth synodal recommendation.
Father Miles, as the author, playwright and director prefers to be known, paced the day like a good novel. He had the participants bursting with laughter one moment and mute with attentiveness the next. He involved everyone, never letting the day drag while he taught levels of communicating, effective communications, some practices to avoid and some to use; the communications director for the Archdiocese of San Francisco also walked the workshop participants through a plan for improving communications. He salted his presentation with pertinent examples. Manage a crisis, he said, with “the truth with kindness.” Focus on the message you want to convey (“Ours is Christ,” he said) and target a specific audience (“Remember that everyone equals no one.”). He regaled his target audience on Jan. 21 with Madison Avenue jargon and idiomatic Californian: when you want to know the nucleus of a communications problem, you ask, “What’s in the box?”
Elena Ziegler of St. Ann’s Parish in Rock Hill thought that Father Riley’s style and content were a good mix.
“He was energizing, and he gave us practical organizational skills,” Ziegler said.
Patricia Millus of St. James in Conway agreed: “This man is able to give us a structure we can work with which is flexible enough for different parishes. He presented it in a dynamic way.”
The speaker was so dynamic that one attendee said that he and a couple of other Catholic school administators present talked about inviting him to speak at a principals meeting.
Fr. Miles sang, joked, affected accents, spoke in Italian, told hilarious anecdotes from his travels around the world and gave concrete examples of how the techniques he espoused worked in true-life situations. Many of his tales were about work he did in his 28-year career in Catholic communications. Others were world famous episodes. He said that Richard Nixon would have served out his term if he had immediately told the truth with kindness. Christians have a special connection with communications, according to Fr. Miles.
“What today is about is finding God in our lives, our hearts, in our ministry. Communications is not something we do, it’s who we are as people of faith,” he said.
The participants in the Diocesan Communications Workshop came, according to Mary Jeffcoat, diocesan director of communications, because they realize the importance of communication skills in their ministries. They learned those skills in an enjoyable environment.