Monday, September 21, 2009

The Ministry of Hospitality

What’s the big deal?

You’ve seen them. They are often a little late, a little harried and don’t know where to go. It may be the first time they’ve been on a church campus in years, but for some reason they decided that this morning they would give church another chance. They are frantically trying to discover where the restrooms are and which door to enter. Within five minutes from the car door slamming they will decide whether they will return again to worship with us. These are the “golden minutes of guest relations.” Before the first prayer is prayed, before the first song is played, before the Scripture is read, and the message given, most people decide whether they will return. This is why the Hospitality ministry of ushers and greeters is so vital to the life of St. Paul UMC.

Each week St. Paul receives a visit from at least one new guest family. Growing, thriving churches retain approximately two out of every ten first-time guests, while churches that are at a plateau or declining retain only one out of every ten first-time guests. Therefore, it is important to realize that every family who chooses to attend St. Paul for the first time is important. As the old adage goes, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Your mission is to make our worship experience as worthwhile as possible by connecting with people and giving them ample opportunity to ask questions, gain information, and feel comfortable.

Guest Relations

Language is important. That is why we at St. Paul call those who share worship for the first time “guests” and not “visitors.” A visitor is one who comes with no intention on staying. A guest is defined as “a person welcomed into one’s house; a person to whom hospitality is extended; a person held in honor who is due special courtesies.” Essentially, language reflects attitude. If people are treated like intruders that inconvenience our patterns and disrupt our status quo they will not return. We have all had experiences where the service in a restaurant or store was so bad, where the people were so rude, that we vowed never to return. The same is true of churches. Most people have attended a worship service where they felt alone in a crowd. Where everyone was friendly to each other, but the first-time guest was left standing alone and unwelcome. Your primary task is to be open and welcoming to everyone who enters our doors. We want to insure that everyone who walks the doors of St. Paul Church knows that they are loved by God and embraced by His followers.

Greeting Guests

A greeter is “one who meets or extends welcome in a specified manner; one who gives a formal salutation at a meeting.” Perhaps a better name for greeters and ushers then would be “host.” A host is “one who takes particular care and concern that guests are well accommodated.” Research indicates that the primary question most guests ask about a church is not related to theology, doctrine, or even the quality of its pastor (gasp!). The first question is: “Is this a friendly place?” The second question, relating closely to the first is: “Do these people really want me here?” As hosts, your job is to be available to answer both of these questions in the affirmative with your actions, not just your words.
The opportunity for first impressions begins before our guests get out of their cars. Be on the lookout for people struggling with baby carriers and diaper bags. Watch for seniors how may be unsteady on their feet, or those who look lost or confused. On rainy days, and Rocky Mount has a few rainy days, grab an oversized golf umbrella and walk people in. This is a wonderful time to make connections! Once they make it under the canopy, make sure you ask if they need a guest packet (which includes things such as a campus map with classrooms, restrooms, and nursery clearly marked) or any other assistance. If needed, escort the guest or attendee all the way to the sanctuary.
Once they have successfully negotiated the parking lot, stopped by the ministry table to pick up a copy of the newsletter and a guest packet, and found a seat, make sure welcoming contact does not stop. During the welcoming time in worship, make sure to introduce them to the people seated around them. Our goal is for every guest to receive five touches before they leave worship:

1. Canopy/Parking area greeting
2. Worship space greeting when receiving a worship folder and being seated
3. Greeting by at least one other family seated around them as they are seated
4. Greeting by another family during the “passing of the peace”
5. Greeted as they exit by the pastor

The key to this contact plan is number five. The second ten-minute period during which people are won or lost is on their way out the door. If they are allowed to leave without anyone offering hospitality, they leave with a bad impression overall. Just like when a choir sings a song, if the first few bars and the last few bars are off key, the rest of the song suffers. If the first few minutes and the last few minutes are unpleasant, then the lasting impression of unfriendliness sticks. The key is to be just as friendly when you are “off duty” as well as when you are “on duty.” Look for people who are off by themselves, and welcome them.

What Newcomers are Looking For: A Place to Belong

Newcomers are looking for five things:

1. The friendliness and warmth of the church. Environment is everything. A United Methodist poll found that people visiting a church were looking to “feel at home.”
2. The character of the worship service. People want to experience God. They desire to leave uplifted and equipped to handle life.
3. A place for children. Most churches underestimate the importance of quality childcare and children’s church. More people attend a church where their children will be happy than where they are happy. Churches that provide opportunities for children will be effective in attracting people.
4. Community engagement. Newcomers are looking to find a place that is making a difference in their local community and around the world.
5. The church facilities. While facilities don’t cause a church to grow, they can prevent growth. Newcomers are looking for modern and well-kept facilities that are easy to navigate and welcoming.

Please realize that you have a very important job in at St. Paul. Hospitality is often assumed to be natural; it is not. It requires effort to be intentionally welcoming to dozens of strange faces each week. Then to reach out and offer them welcome and assistance requires even more of you. Every aspect of your job affects the attitude our guests will carry away about St. Paul. Walt Disney World spends billions of dollars annually training its “cast members” to go above and beyond the call of duty to make their guests feel important. The fastest growing department store chain in the United States, Nordstrom, also invests heavily in employees who give 100%. While St. Paul can’t give you a six-figure salary for your efforts, we can assure you that your retirement plan will be out of this world! Thank you for your willingness to help and to serve.

Dr. Marty Cauley

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