Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Problem with Ushers and Greeters

I am still on the topic of welcoming people, and in this blog I plan to share about the problems with ushers and greeters. But first, let me tell you strait forward what I like to see at churches.

First, I like to see good signage. I will write about the church’s main sign in a later post, but for right now I mean two types of signs. I like to see the prime and closest parking spaces marked for “Guests” or “Visitors.” If you want to lessen resistance to this idea, tell your members that if they are running late, they can park in any of these spots because visitors to your church won’t come late, except, of course, if they are long time Episcopalians. These signs also remind members that you are expecting guests. I also like to see buildings marked clearly; for example, Christian Education Building, Parish Hall and, believe it or not, worship or sanctuary. On the interior, it is great to have signs directing guests to such important services as a nursery or restrooms.

Second, I especially like to see an “Information Table” at the entrance to the church building. On this place bulletins, current church newsletters, and attractive brochures on highlighted areas of ministry. Don’t forget a simple brochure on the Episcopal Church, and one on “How to become a member of this Church.” You see the importance of such a kiosk at the local mall. I usually suggest that you recruit a woman between 30 and 40 years of age who is a strong extrovert who is to stand a few feet away from this table. Believe me, she will know what to do.

We use a “connection card” at the Cathedral and we ask EVERYONE to fill it out EVERY service. I got this idea from the book “Fusion” by Nelson Searcy. This is a great tool in newcomer ministry. We went from almost never getting visitor names and addresses to almost always getting them plus email addresses. I respond to visitors with email, not just a welcoming letter. In another blog, I’ll mention some things in following up. We also practice “The Three Pew Ministry” at the Cathedral, but that too is for a later blog.

So, what is wrong with ushers? Where else in America do you find men in dark (black) suites? The answer is, of course, at funeral homes. Do have ushers and recruit families (yes, even children) who look like the people you are trying to attract. Train them to do more than hand out bulletins. Teach them the best places to seat guests – center and in the isle seats. It took me, by the way, three years to over come the long tradition of having older male ushers in suites at the Cathedral. I say this to remind you that, even when you know this stuff, change comes hard.

And Greeters? Studies show that churches with Greeters who wear “Greeter” badges are less friendly than those that don’t. This is because once you announce to your members that you have a “Greeters Ministry,” they abandon owning the responsibility for Christian hospitality to visitors. (Visit the previous blog, or the next one on how to empower better hospitality ministry among your members.) We do have Greeters at the Cathedral, but they do not wear distinguishing badges. Their job is to pick up on the people who were missed in our Three Pew Ministry. They stand near the back door at the end of the service close enough to me that I can pass on new people to them.

Before I arrived at the Cathedral, the leadership expanded the traditional “Coffee Hour” after the main service into a “reception.” At this, we provide good food and a much more engaging fellowship. They also added a full breakfast after our 8am service. If I can get a visitor to the reception, I have a much better chance of leading them to become a new member. Get them to the breakfast and it is a done deal!

Before I close this blog, I will mention that famously Bill Hybel’s congregation have members greet people IN THE PARKING LOT!” Remember that people decide within 5 minutes of arriving in your parking lot if they will return again. I know of no Episcopal Congregation that does this. However, St. John’s in Silsbee, Texas used to place their greeters at the main intersection of the parking lot and the main sidewalk up to the Church.

By these standards, how is your congregation in welcoming (the hospitality ministry) new people who visit your church?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Welcoming New People

Of the three tasks at the Front Door of every church, Inviting, Welcoming, and Assimilating, the middle is the one, Welcoming, can be most immediately addressed and improved. How is your church at welcoming and greeting visitors and guests?

If you are like most Episcopal/Anglican Churches, you will respond that your congregation is a loving, caring and warm congregation. As a consultant, I would ask congregational leaders what the strengths of their community were. Being “a warm, friendly place” was either the first or second response by almost every church. (Liturgy was the other item chosen most frequently.) Yet, this was said even in congregations that were in strong decline. In addition, the number one reason most visitors give for not returning to a church is that “the people were not very friendly.” How can we see ourselves as warm and friendly, and paradoxically seem so unfriendly to visitors?

There are a number of reasons for this. Most importantly is the difference in perception from a present members and a visitors to the “warmth” of a church. Naturally, church members do tend to be warm to one another. This is shown by the typical passing of the peace in most Episcopal congregations. If the attendance at the service is less than 150 folks, there seems to be an almost compulsory rule that each member must say hello to everyone else in the room. We usually don’t realize that it is natural to hug those we know well and shake hands with more formally with those we don’t. Visitors spot this inconsistency in a flash. One woman said to me of her church, “The visitors stand out like a sore thumb. They sit near the back and when we start passing the peace and they just stay there in their pews.” To which, by the way, I respond with my usual “really?” which is a kinder version of “duh!”

Then we proceed to the coffee hour where folks are quick to greet their friends and stand in groups of three to 6 folks chatting in what Episcopalians call, God forgive us, fellowship. I have often watched visitors standing at a coffee hour ignored by everyone else’s friendliness. Sometimes a person does manage to connect in all this and when they do, they join the church because the people were so friendly. The lost feedback is from those who don’t come back and who are never asked why.

How does a congregation become more warm and friendly to the visitor?
This is the point of this blog and will be the point of my next two blogs. My major point here is that a church becomes more warm and friendly to visitors INTENTIONALLY. Friendliness, or the more Christian concept of hospitality, doesn’t just happen naturally. The good news is that a congregation can be taught how to be warmer, friendlier, and show more hospitality to the stranger in our midst. Over the past three years, we have worked very hard at the Cathedral to become a more welcoming place. How did we do this? I would list the following:
We visited the mall, and learned from the experience.
We stopped having Greeters (Often one of the most counter-productive things a church can do!)
We transformed the “coffee hour!”
We asked where you most often find “Men in Black” in American society.
And we added The Three Pew Ministry to our hospitality.
More on these in my next blogs, for now remember that there is a difference between being warm and friendly and warmly greeting visitors, and that hospitality demands intentionality. It seldom just happens.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Where to Begin

If you are looking at the health and vitality of your congregation, start at THE FRONT DOOR. For me, the front door means the way that people connect and enter your congregation. When I make a presentation based on my 5 Keys book and I have limited time, I focus on the front door because this area is relevant to every congregation.

There are essentially three tasks at the front door of your church. They are:
Inviting People
Welcoming them when they arrive
Assimilating them into the congregation

Most congregations want to start with one of the first two above. I recommend that you start with the third; assimilation.. There are two critical reasons for this.

First, most Episcopal congregations get only around 35% of their members present on an average Sunday. This is higher for smaller churches and drops for larger churches. Since the 35% attending are mostly the same each week, this means that about 2/3rds of the congregation remains largely inactive. The third that attend regularly are predictably made up of leaders, members of organizations or ministries, their relatives, and just plain loyal worshippers. You start by looking at assimilation because you have a number of “members” who are not active. (BTW, you can immediately increase your attendance if you recruit these into active ministry.)

Second, before you invite folks, you will want to have a clear path for them to follow into membership. It helps to have leaders and/or staff review the path to membership and to plan it out in a logical way into your congregation. Remember, the more secular our culture, the less visitors know about membership of a church. In addition, the Episcopal Church isn’t very clear about membership these days. How does one become a “member” of a church anyway?

Actually, I would recommend that your church look at two paths involving assimilation. Path one is how a person becomes a member of the church. Churches that can answer this question in one or two sentences have a real advantage. Path two is the path to Discipleship. This is our planned way to lead a non or nominal Christian into a vibrant and living relationship with Christ as one of his disciples. Churches that can answer this question in a systematic and planned way are often very dynamic congregations.

Does your church have a clear path to active membership? Do you have a path to discipleship?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


For over 20 years, I have worked with leaders and congregations. During this time, I have learned a great deal about healthy and vibrant congregations. My intent here is to present simple and short blogs on congregational development dynamics and best practices. These are short to help the busy leader. A blog allows others to comment and ask questions. Feel free to post or join in the conversation.

Readers may find my two books of help. "The Myth of the 200 Barrier" is intended for those leading a transitional size congregation, but it also contains an introduction to congregational sizes and how these work. I consider it a book on leadership, particularly on how to grow as a leader. "5 Keys for Church Leaders" is a systems approach that explores the five critical subsystems of a congregation. Enjoy and may God bless you in your work in creating a vibrant congregation for the 21st Century.