When the Homeless Man Stole Cookies From a Church

When the Homeless Man Stole Cookies From a Church
Katie Strandlund

A homeless man enters a Florida church after hours through an unlocked door. A startled custodial worker finds him eating cookies in the kitchen and calls the police. Imagine the uproar when the church presses charges against the man for stealing cookies valued at $2.25.

Newspapers don’t always tell the whole story and many take any chance they can to point a finger at someone. So how do you respond when local press or social media turns you into a Cookie Monster and accuses you of being “unchristian”?

Face the Reality That Facts Will Be Left Out

When less than positive PR situations arise, not only will some facts be blown out of proportion, but others will be left out. The various news reports on this story leave out a crucial piece of information—local law enforcement encouraged the church to press charges. The man who was caught with his hand in the cookie jar had a history of trouble in the area, and police felt that his entering the legal system might be the best way for him to find long-term help.

Those facts completely change the story, but when situations like this arise you have no control over what the media will say. So find a place to share your side of the story, but accept the reality that fighting the battle of missing facts is a losing one.

If Mistakes Were Made, Own Up

In some cases, facts might be left out, but in others the facts are convicting. Even as God-fearing Christians who gather in God-fearing churches, we make mistakes. And when your mistakes are put on the public stage for all to see, the best thing you can do is own up to them.

Shame tempts us to hide facts that convict us—to sugarcoat them or try to bury them with excuses. We think if we can create a positive spin we won’t look so bad. The truth is that honesty and transparency will go further than any fact spinning. People respect an organization that can say, “Yes, we made a mistake. We apologize for that, and here’s what we’re going to do to remedy the consequences that mistake had on others.”

Play Offense. Not Defense.

When we find ourselves in a negative PR battle, the temptation is to go on the defensive and fight for the truth of the matter. We want to climb on the rooftops and scream out the facts until we’re blue in the face. We forget that going on the defensive makes us look guiltier in others’ eyes.

Choosing to go on the offensive does more to improve your reputation. Chances are your church is already doing some incredible work. When the public latches onto one negative mishap, find new ways to share the good stories. Playing offense may seem like a slower process, but those hope-filled stories gain traction little by little. The beauty of this approach is that feel-good stories resonate louder and longer than those with a negative focus.

Be Proactive

The best way is to prevent bad PR before it happens. How are you investing in your “PR” fund so that when a withdrawal is made by a negative run-in you’re not left bankrupt? When I worked at a church, we were located downtown. Despite the small size of our city, there was a large homeless population. Our location provided easy access and the free popcorn (we worshipped in an old movie theatre) and coffee before service sealed the deal. It didn’t take long for homeless individuals to wander in before service and help themselves to free food and temporary relief from the Wisconsin winters.

The temptation is to see these people as “free-loaders” who just want food and warmth. But as time went on, we took a risk and considered the fact that the homeless may be spiritually hungry as well. We decided to start offering a community dinner prior to our evening worship service. We invited not only our church family, but our homeless friends as well.

Word about “free food” spread quickly, but greater than the stomachs being fed was the spiritual growth that started to happen. As we opened our doors and welcomed the homeless population into our church, they stayed for worship services. Many became active members of our congregation, serving in various capacities throughout the week.

When stories like that of hope and impact are being experienced at your church, share them. Celebrate them on social media and with press releases. Not only do we live in a world hungry for such news, but this practice builds up your PR ‘fund.’ The next time a negative story arises, the community may think twice because they’ve heard so many positive stories about the work God is doing through your church.
Bad PR isn’t something any of us want to deal with, but because we live our faith out-loud, we have a target on our back. People watch us with an eagle eye, waiting for us to trip—and we all trip at some point. If your trip-up happens on a public stage, recover gracefully by focusing on sharing the stories of hope and impact rather than trying to deny the bad.

The above article, “When the Homeless Man Stole Cookies From a Church” was written by Katie Strandlund. The article was excerpted from www.churchmarket.org.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”