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Making A Best First Impression for Your Visitors

Who are the first people a visitor is going to meet at your church? If you're lucky, it will be someone selected and trained to be a part of your well-organized Guest Services Team.

Who are the first people a visitor is going to meet at your church? 

If you're lucky, it will be someone selected and trained to be a part of your well-organized Guest Services Team. 

There's more to guest services than merely extending hospitality.  At West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, for example, the goal of the guest services program is "to create a great experience for first-time guests, as well as anyone else that comes to the church," according to Director of Guest Services Matt Bortmess.

The guest services program here is comprised of seven teams totaling about 400 volunteers, with each team playing a specific role in providing services to guests of the church, where Sunday attendance averages about 3,000.

During Service Time

A valet parking team is in place in the church parking lot for those that need assistance.  Meanwhile, greeters are positioned at outside entrances.  Volunteers staff an information desk in the church lobby, with a team of ushers assigned to help people get to their seats within the sanctuary.  And there is also a communion and offering team to help make sure these portions of the worship service flow smoothly.

Behind the Scenes

And there's more that takes place on a sort of "behind the scenes" basis. The guest services array also includes a medical emergency response team, comprised of medical professionals within the congregation that have agreed to be on call; and a "midweek prep team," comprised of volunteers that do the tasks necessary to make Sunday a success, such as getting communion trays ready for services.

Bortmess says that the biggest challenge he has had to address in putting together and running the West Side guest services program is getting people to understand the importance of a quality guest experience for a newcomer.

"I think a lot of people have forgotten how it feels to be a visitor walking into a new church for the first time, not knowing anything about the routine of the church," Bortmess explains.

This is especially true for individuals that have been a part of the church for a long time, he notes, "and for them, the church is just a normal part of their lives."

"What we try to do is get people to understand how valuable a smiling face and a willingness to help are to a newcomer who walks in with really no idea of where they are going."

Those newcomers need to be provided with the best guest experience the church has to offer, adds Bortmess, "Because we don't have any guarantee that they are going to come back next week especially if they have any kind of negative experience."

From the Guest's Point of View

Getting a church guest services program off the ground and flying right requires attention to detail, as well as the ability to see things from the guest perspective.

In putting together the "greeters" component of your program, "You should do a walk-through' session where you come in from the parking lot, look at how many entrances there are into your church, and make sure you have your people stationed in the right places to help guests know where they need to go," Bortmess explains.

And whether starting up or fine-tuning, make sure you focus on what the guest perceives.

"You need to put yourselves in the shoes of a guest," said Bortmess.  Getting someone from outside the church to test your guest services on a Sunday as a sort of "secret shopper" is a great idea, he notes, adding "Whoever you can get to walk through your space, at the same time not knowing exactly what they should be doing or where they need to go, can be very beneficial."

Critical elements

Guest service programs are, of course, largely staffed by volunteers—-which makes important program elements, such as recruitment, training and (especially) scheduling a challenge.

"The key is having clearly written policies and procedures that spell out everything, from how to dress to how to deal with an emergency situation," says Lamar Slay, president of Partners in Church Consulting, a Southlake, Texas-based capital campaign, strategic planning and marketing consultant for churches.

"It's hard to recruit and train people if you can't tell them exactly what you want them to do," Slay notes, adding "most lay people will do what you ask them as long as they know you are there to support them."

Setting up a schedule for your guest services' volunteers can be a particularly difficult and time consuming task, notes Slay.

One thing to keep in mind is how often you want your volunteers to be on duty.  Slay feels that twice a month is a good number.

"Having volunteers work twice a month helps avoid overworking anyone," he said. 

Once a month doesn't work well, Slay notes, because if a volunteer misses one shift, they may wind up being out for seven or eight weeks, which can result in them falling "out of the loop" when it comes to things they may need to know in carrying out their guest services roles.

To accommodate twice-a-month volunteer service, Church Consulting has developed what Slay calls the "A-B" system.  Once recruited, all volunteers (guest services and others) are placed on either an "A" team, which works on the first and third weekends of each month; or a "B" team, which works the second and fourth Sundays.  Twice a year, each team winds up working two weekends in a row to take care of five-weekend months.

Another component of this A-B system ensures spouses are placed on the same team so they can come to church in one vehicle and have two Sundays a month to worship together. Also, it requires volunteers to find their own replacements if they need to be out on a Sunday they are scheduled to work. Plus Slay's A-B system asks all volunteers to provide the names of two other individuals that could potentially be recruited as new volunteers.

Everybody's Different

The focus of guest services programs will vary with the unique culture of each church.

For example, Milestone Church in Keller, Texas, is in the process of building a new building.  Until its facility is completed, Milestone is located in a strip shopping center with only 54 parking spaces for some 3,000 persons that, on average, attend Sunday services.

"Parking is our biggest challenge until we get our new building," says Cindy Slay, First Impressions coordinator at Milestone. In addition to those working as greeters, ushers and hospitality, she notes, the 165 total volunteers needed for weekend services includes up to six individuals devoted to parking.

Recruitment-wise, potential volunteers can enter the church's "Dream Team" program where they are provided with personal assessments and presented with a variety of opportunities and ministries to serve the Milestone and the community.

In addition to getting volunteers through the Dream Team, "I also spend a lot of time on the phone,"  Slay says, a channel through which she has recruited some 15 volunteers monthly for the past two and a half years.  "You have to be tenacious," she adds.

Milestone utilizes the A-B system of scheduling, according to Slay.  She also uses Fellowship One, a web-based church management software system, to assist in volunteer management.

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