Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Hire Personality, not Experience

In the past year we experienced a lot of turnover for a small staff. Mostly people leaving for better positions (all were part-time and found lucrative full-time jobs), while there were also a couple of terminations.

The people we lost were excellent team members. But we had brought them on one at a time, spaced far apart. The prospect of replacing so many in such a short time was daunting. It seemed that as soon as we replaced one person we were looking for another. But it all worked out. The new hires have been tremendous. In choosing so many so quickly, it reinforced some simple but important hiring lessons.

The first lesson is that "relevant experience" is unimportant. None of our new hires have ever worked for a church before. I prefer it that way. It means that they don't bring bad church habits with them.

Our most significant hire was in the position of Director of Family Ministries. I deliberately refused to consider anyone with experience as a Presbyterian Christian Educator. The Presbyterian Church has lost 75% of its membership in the past 50 years. Clearly we failed miserably at transmitting the faith to the next generations. I did not want to hire anyone who was steeped in a culture that clearly failed our children and grandchildren.

We came across an applicant who had been a faithful volunteer in her church. Alas, she is not Presbyterian. Or even Reformed. What about theology, you ask? Well, she is devoted to Jesus. And that is what we are teaching grade-school kids. I doubt that many 6th graders are concerned about Calvinism versus Arminianism. She has great energy, is very organized and detail-oriented, and loves kids. Her other work told me what I needed to know about her personality: she is a personal trainer. She coaches people. That's what we needed: a coach.

Which leads to another lesson: experience is important when it reveals personality and character. Look at what they have done in both work and hobbies for what it says about personality and character.  Are they talented pianists? Nobody becomes good at a musical instrument without focus and perseverance. Do they have a track record of success? Success is a habit. Do they have weird knowledge about a wide range of subjects? That is a person with the gift of curiosity.

Too many employment descriptions focus on the job, and not the personality of the ideal employee. If you're thinking about hiring someone, ask yourself: imagine the ideal employee, and then list the personality traits you imagine she would have. Then hire for those traits, not the skills. When you read a resume and interview a person, think about what they have done in terms of what it tells you about who they are.

Put simply: none of us need an experienced mountain climber on our staffs per se, but if someone who climbed Mt. Everest applies for a job with your organization, hire them. You need someone who has climbed Mt. Everest.

You can teach skills, but you can't teach work ethic. You can't teach a person to be a team player (not easily, at least). You can't teach someone to be teachable.

Experience only gets you where someone has been before. If all you want is maintenance, then hire experience. If you want progress, hire the right person, and let them figure out the rest.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Small church, big church, no church

I was recently at my favorite conference, Catalyst West, and Andy Stanley made a provocative statement about the importance of Family Ministries, saying that bringing kids together was the only reason churches still need bricks-and-mortar.  He pointed out that we can listen to any sermon we want online, dial up our favorite worship music, and have it when we want, where we want.

It made me consider that the church is on the same trajectory as retail stores.  We used to have small, neighborhood stores.  Then economies of scale led to domination by big-box stores.  And the next logical step after the big-box store was Amazon.  Churches are on the same pathway: small community churches being replaced by megachurches, which are rapidly transitioning to being online communities.

This made me think about the future of the churches in the PCUSA.  We are behind the curve, but not immune to it.  The stark reality is that in our present model of church the 100-member congregation is simply not sustainable with the existing model of one church, one pastor, one building.  This doesn't mean that I don't think there is a future for the smaller faith community; it means that we haven't yet invented the sustainable model for it.

I also don't think that lay pastors are the solution, because that's not changing the model - that's just changing the required qualifications for the pastor.  The expected duties of a lay pastor are no different.

Larger churches are not immune from this issue - it's just that the harshness of its effects are felt differently.  The same problem of the ratio of pastors to parishioners is there.  In a larger church, it means that one pastor is now doing the work or two, or two pastors are in a model where three or four pastors ought to be on staff.  In the end, that will also be unsustainable.

The solution will lie in creating a model where a single pastor can handle far more parishioners than before.  But this also means that in an era of declining attendance, the number of pastoral positions will shrink even faster than church attendance.  This is understandably frightening for professional clergy.

At the moment, I think that every restructuring debate at every level of the denomination is stuck behind this transition to a future way of doing church. Existing churches want the denomination to help them sustain their present model.  This is an impossible task.  And until local churches transition to a new, sustainable model, it is impossible for denominational structures to align with the task of supporting them.  Until we know what that model is, we can't design a support structure for it.

The small church/big church divide is a false issue.  They're both facing the same problem - and they're both avoiding it.  The flood waters are rising.  The larger churches may be on higher ground than smaller churches - but they aren't above the high tide line.  The water's coming.

The PCUSA has largely missed the shift to the "big box" store era of megachurches.  And we don't appear to be well-positioned to transition to the "Amazon" era of online church.  But we need to be thinking "post-Amazon".  Because you know what?  Amazon is facing its own problems.  People once satisfied by 5-day delivery then went to Prime with its two-day delivery.  And now Amazon is experimenting with same-day delivery.  There's a very real chance that Amazon will collapse under the weight of demands for ever-faster delivery.

What comes after the "Amazon" era?  That's the question we need to be asking.  Because the flood waters are rising.  For all of us.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Coming Home: Reflections on a Church Building

On March 22, 2016, our sanctuary was destroyed in a three-alarm fire.  The rest of the building was infiltrated by smoke or flooded by the tons of water poured in by firefighters to keep the fire from spreading. Over 35,000 s.f of space needed new carpets, ceiling tiles, sheet rock, paint, drapes, blinds, etc.  Our previous sanctuary was thought by many to be beautiful and historic, and housed the largest pipe organ in the county.

The fire happened on the Tuesday of Holy Week.  Our Easter services were moved to the Bergen Performing Arts Center, the only available facility that could hold the 500+ we expected for Easter worship.  For the next 18 weeks we were hosted primarily by the Dwight-Englewood School, a private school with which we have historic ties, and Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue.  (A little piece of history, when Temple Sinai was founded , their first High Holy Days services were held in our building.)

Now we've moved back "home" - to Elmore Hall (named after a former pastor).  It used to be our gymnasium, but we completely renovated it into a worship space for 200.  I love it.  A new sound system, A/V capability, even an electronic organ.

But here are two simple things I've learned:

1.  The depth of a person's connection to the people and the Christ-centered mission of the church was largely negatively correlated with the emotional devastation they expressed about the loss of the building.

This may be counter-intuitive to you, but I'm proud of this.  The leadership quickly pulled together and said, "what next?"  Our "every-week" crowd just kept coming, wherever we were.  At the same time, I received messages from people talking about how they cried when they heard about the fire, how much the building meant to them - and in some cases, I had never even met these people in my 11-year tenure at this church!  Note the phrasing they would use: how much the building meant to them.  I learned that indeed there are people who are connected to the church, and there are people who are connected to the building.

Our leaders, our long-time members, our most dedicated volunteers - they just kept plugging away at being the church.  That doesn't mean they weren't sad about the building, but they understood that the church is people serving Christ together.  I was recently invited to speak at Temple Sinai at their Tisha B'av service (a memorial day on the Jewish calendar that marks the destruction of the Temple).  When I made the point about this negative correlation of involvement to sadness, the rabbi asked if any of my members who were present agreed.  One woman - a senior citizen who has been a member since the 1950s - said, "You know, after the fire, I had wondered if I should have been sadder, because I was disappointed, but I wasn't that sad."  For her and for others like her, the church owned a building, but it wasn't the building.

2.  This doesn't mean that a building isn't important to ministry

There is a significance, however, to having a permanent place.  On our second Sunday back, we had an adult baptism of a person who had worshiped with us for some time, but decided after the fire that it was time to make a public profession of faith and be baptized.  Our third Sunday back we had an infant baptism.  In these past two weeks, two more families decided it was time to have their babies baptized and asked to schedule them.  It doesn't matter to them whether we are in a Gothic sanctuary or a cinderblock gymnasium.  What matters is that we are home.  And home is where the people are, where Christ is worshiped and glorified, but it's also a place.

So it seems that the clear lesson is simple: a church is people united in Christ, and the work of the church is facilitated by a church building - as long as we remember that it is a building, and not the building.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Invisible Members

Most churches think about their worshipers as falling into two main categories: active members and visitors.  The "active member" is someone they count on to attend at least 45 times per year, pledge, serve on a committee.  The "visitor" is the person who has attended one, two, or maybe three times - after which churches pretty much expect that they will decide to stick around or not.

But the new reality is that the average family - especially one with children - attends church 20-30 times per year.  To them, that's plenty frequent.  It's a lot more than most of their friends.  It represents those Sundays when they didn't have a kid's sports game or family vacation taking precedence.  These members are often invisible to a church's planning; they continue to be regarded as an anomaly - even dismissed as not fully committed - which is why you are likely to lose them.

As a church attracts the modern family, it begins to change the actual norms of a congregation, which many church leaders have been very slow to adapt to.  Here is what it looked like for us statistically, as we examined our 2015 numbers:

  • Membership was up 3%.
  • Stewardship was up 10%!
  • Worship attendance fell 2%
So this is what I believe is a critical question for church leaders to wrestle with:

How do we structure our churches around a norm of persons attending 20-30 Sundays per year?

We are taking three main steps:

1.  Fewer programs, planned further in advance, communicated redundantly

If people can't attend every Sunday, how often will you get them for a church event?  Not often.  So we are more strategic about which events we want them to attend, and actively paring the number of events back.  And to make sure they can attend, we plan earlier (get on their calendar as soon as possible!) and communicate redundantly by every means possible, including multiple pulpit announcements on successive weeks, multiple email blasts, and even direct mail (paper still has a use).

2.  More opportunities to stay connected other than on Sunday

The younger churchgoers want to leverage the time they have into making even a small difference in the world.  So we are planning more "quick hit" mission opportunities.  Lots of collections of things - even if they are busy four Sundays in a row, they can stay connected by dropping off a bag of clothing, a used cell phone, a package of food.  Give them chances to be a part of doing some good in the community that fits into their schedules. 

3.  Stress online giving

We signed up with an online giving provider (eChurchGiving, aka PushPay) that gave us both a mobile giving solution and the ability to create a fantastic smartphone app.  We did a soft launch of the online giving over the summer of 2015, with a big push at the end of the year.  The main strategic push is for people to setup automatic recurring gifts.  Most people budget their expenses monthly.  Encouraging people to set up an automatic, monthly, electronic gift to the church ensures a steady flow of income even during those stretches when they cannot be physically present.  Seven months after launch, our members have already set up automatic recurring gifts that amount to 11% of our projected offerings for 2016.

We are still working through the adaptation adjustments to this new reality.  The biggest danger is that it is really easy to over-rely on the few persons whom you can still count on to be there every single week.  Chasing down the less-frequent attendee is more work.  Adapting your schedule to theirs is inconvenient.  But the alternative is burning out your diminishing number of every-week attendees - and worse, leaving the less-frequent attendee feeling disconnected from the life of the congregation.

So we don't have all the answers, but we believe we're asking the right questions.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Our Rules for Budgeting

As we end summer (!) and move toward fall, one of things that will be in front of many of us is establishing our church budgets for 2016.  One of the things I think we do very well is not allowing our Session meetings to bog down in budgetary questions, leaving all of the operational decisions to the various committees.  Here are our understandings that guide our understanding of budgets:

1.  The budget is a planning document, not a regulatory document. 

We understand that budgets are for planning, but nothing in life is guaranteed.  Just as we can't force people to give more if revenue is under budget, we understand that spending sometimes needs to happen.  We would never tell the Building people that they can't repair a broken toilet because they are over the budget for repairs, nor would we want them to wait until a Session meeting to get permission to fix it.  Fix it first, because we have to.  Our first instruction is: GET THE JOB DONE. The purpose of a budget is to plan what it will cost to get the job done, but doing our jobs well is the first priority.

2.  We never change the budget once it is approved.

Because it is a planning document, we don't change it.  If we need to spend more, we spend more and go over the budget.  Every committee is authorized to exceed its budget if it needs to.  In practice, 4 out of 5 will stay well within their budgets in a given year.  At the end of the year, we look at everything to see if our allocations made sense and the deviations were exceptions, or whether we need to change the allocations.  If you change your budget to accommodate an aberration, you lose sight of the fact that it is just an aberration.

3.  We never have a "use it or lose it" mentality.

If you spent less in a given category in a year, you won't find your budget being cut to compensate.  That just encourages committees to "spend out" their budget.  As I said, 80% of the time our committees stay under their budgets.  They do so confident that this won't come back to bite them.

4.  Committees are accountable for the total of their budget, not individual line items.

We look at budgets by department.  We plan at a more micro level (to justify the budget).  But if one year the Christian Education group spends more on youth and less on adult education, fine.  Never, however, allocate the spending of the "youth" overage to the underspent adult education item.  Let the youth line item be over and the adult education be under.  We need the "actuals" to be a true reflection of where the money is going.  Committees are free to move money within their budgets as needed.

5.  Spending decisions by committees are never countermanded by the Session.

The only spending decisions that must seek Session approval are major capital items, generally in excess of $10,000.  Otherwise, go for it.  The Session makes policy decisions; committees make operational decisions.

6.  Be thrifty but not cheap.

Try not to sacrifice quality for price, especially in ways that are noticeable to visitors.  We try to use Fair Trade coffee, recycled and compostable paper goods, etc. even if they are more expensive.  Don't put a price on principles.  Make lasting repairs, not quick fixes.  Buy to the expected life of the product.  Don't buy something that is made cheaply and expect it to last ten years.  When you do the math over a ten- or twenty-year timeline, you'll find that quality items are the less expensive path, because you're often paying 25% more for something that will last twice as long.  If you don't make the right long-term decision, what does that say about your faith in the future of your church?  We do look for sales on quality goods, though!

7.  Every committee meeting is attended by a staff person.

Nothing is more discouraging than to have a committee get excited about an idea only to have the Session shoot it down, or discover that it conflicts with something someone else is doing.  We have a program staff person at every committee meeting.  We are the "brand" enforcers, the schedule coordinators, etc.  It's easier for staff to work out potential collisions than the Session.  With staff present and continually aware of the "big picture", we can steer committees away from conflicts with other areas before they get invested in their ideas.  Staff will also have a better feel for the overall budget.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Why Nobody Reads Church Blogs About Millennials Anymore

For a while there were blogs posts seemingly everywhere about why millennials were leaving the church.  They didn't like this.  They didn't like that.  The blogs would be shared on social media - to no particular effect, as it didn't seem that many congregations were actually using these posts to change the way they did things.

But now I'm glad to report that nobody is paying attention to those types of blog posts anymore.  They are sick of them, and ignoring them.  This is good for the church. 

Hey wait - isn't this post just the rant of one person, with no actual data, no quantifiable research that supports the assertion that no one is reading those blogs anymore?


There was no actual data presented.  How many millennials were leaving?  They were generally just an opinion masquerading as analysis.  There was not even a pretense of systematic efforts at data collection and analysis.  There was no evidence that the millennials were going to churches that offer what the blogs claimed they want.  (They want liturgy?  Is there a shortage of liturgical worship opportunities?  Are liturgical churches bursting at the seams making room for the influx of millennials?)

Decisions need to be based on data, not stylistic preferences.  Too many people are desperate for data to suggest that they won't have to do what they don't want to do.  That's why satirical "studies" purporting to show the life-giving effects of bacon are entertaining.  We want to believe that bacon is healthy, and we want to believe that our churches will recover even if we do virtually nothing.

Look at the churches that are getting the results you wished you were getting and ask yourself some hard questions: are they working harder than you are?  Are they more willing to change than you are?  Are they making smarter decisions than you are?  The answer is probably yes, yes, and yes.

The next question is: can you change that?  The answer to that is also yes.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Why Your Email Open Rate Is About to Bump

If you are using an email service such as Constant Contact or MailChimp, they offer fantastic statistical reports on how many people are opening your messages, what device they are using, etc.  I want to alert you that a recent software change may cause an unexpected "bump" in your statistics.

Gmail just a made a change to automatically open images in messages.  The way email services track "opens" is by burying a tiny, one-pixel image in the email.  When the message is opened, if images are downloaded, the act of fetching the embedded image records that message as being opened.

iPhones automatically download images.  Gmail did not; as a default setting, you had to ask Gmail to fetch the images in a message.  So a message sent to an Android phone would require an extra action by the user to register as an open, as compared to iPhones.  As a result, iPhones were over-represented in statistics of which devices were used by people reading your emails.  Google obviously has an incentive to combat that perception, so they changed Gmail software so that it works like iPhones in this regard.

It will now be just as easy for an Android user to show as having opened your email.  The net result is that you should begin to see a bump in your open rates, and this bump will come from Android users whose phones and tablets will now automatically download images.  Be ready to account for it as you look at your email stats in the coming weeks.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Using SMS to Acquire Visitor Data

Recently we've been trying to figure out how to do a better job of acquiring visitor data.  The old "Friendship pads" are difficult to replenish and collect (we have a very large sanctuary) and it takes a long time to pass the pad down a pew and have everyone sign in - and most people don't bother.

At Christmas we have a number of special events where we have large numbers of visitors who will probably escape our existing visitor data collection efforts.  So we are implementing a SMS (text message) collection system in time for Christmas.

It works like this: using a vendor ( that we selected on the basis of price, we are using keywords on a shared short code.  An SMS short code is a 5- or 6-digit number that receives text messages.  The keywords we purchased are "FPCE" (for First Presbyterian Church of Englewood) and "FPCFAMILY" (for our Family Ministries).

A visitor texts "FPCE" to the designated short code and the exchange looks like this (a screen capture from my phone):

Sending the text produces an auto-response that welcomes the person and includes a link to a form on our Web site asking the person to enter their name, email, street address, etc.

The Web form looks like this on the left.

Using a commercial vendor ensures that we will comply with FTC/FCC requirements for controlling SMS spam.

Using SMS rather than relying solely on paper-based data collection will also allow us to collect data more easily at events that don't take place in our sanctuary.

A one-year subscription to TXT180 cost us $105 for up to 500 outbound text messages per month and includes one keyword.  We also paid $27/year for the second keyword.

We don't know how effective this will be, but for $132 it seemed like a good bet.
This fits with our continuing strategy of being "smartphone/tablet-friendly" in church.  We're putting up sermon notes as a YouVersion (Bible app) live event.  We provide Wi-Fi access in our worship spaces.  Devices are increasingly such an integrated part of our lives, we need to help people integrate them into their worship life.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Your Church on Facebook: It’s Not About You (It’s About Your Friends)

We’ve all felt the pressure.  We don’t want to be left behind.  We want to show we’re involved with social media.  So we put up a Facebook page for the church, we invite everyone we know to ‘like’ the page – and then what?

The vast majority of churches (and small businesses) haven’t come close to harnessing the power of Facebook because they don’t understand the fundamental principle of Facebook: it’s not about you, it’s about your friends.  Knowing how to harness the power of Facebook may transform it from being just one more thing you feel obligated to do into being one of the most cost-effective evangelism tools at your disposal.

So here are four steps to an effective Facebook presence:

1.         Understand How Facebook Works

Beyond being a forum for pictures of kittens, the reason Facebook is free for users is that companies want to push messages to your friends.  Why are your friends important?  Your friends have at least something in common with you – or they wouldn’t be your friends.  You work in the same industry, or live in the same town, or went to the same school.  Whenever you have an interest in something, there is a greater than random chance that one of your friends will share that interest.

Here is how a social media-savvy business uses Facebook:  A restaurant gets you to ‘like’ their page in exchange for a discount coupon on your next meal.  Perhaps you get entered into a sweepstakes by liking a page.  That company can now pay Facebook to push their posts onto your friends’ newsfeeds. 

You’ve seen these posts and perhaps not even recognized them.  It is a post in your newsfeed that has a heading such as “Jane Doe likes Target.”  This means that your Facebook friend Jane Doe liked Target’s page, and Target then paid Facebook to push their post onto your feed.  If your friend Jane shops at Target, there’s a good chance you might want to shop there also.

2.         Reach Your Followers’ Friends

Let’s say you have started your church’s Facebook page and gotten many of your members to like it.  Great!  But if all you do is post things on Facebook for your members to read, this is no different (and probably less effective) than sending them an email.  Being on Facebook has done nothing for you to this point.

When you post something as the page administrator, in the lower right corner is a little pull-down tab that says “Boost post.”  It presents you with some dollar figures and other choices.  You can generally “boost” your post (push it through to the friends of people who have liked your page) for a cost somewhere around $5 per 1,000 people.  And each time it shows up in someone’s newsfeed, it is preceded by the notice that one of their friends has liked your church.  So it doesn’t just show up “cold” – it shows up “endorsed” by someone they know.

Therefore you need a small budget for these “boosts”.  $10 can reach about 2,000 of your followers’ friends.  A budget of merely $100/year could boost one post every month of the program year.  This is extraordinarily cost-effective. 

Facebook only shows your post to people who are online.  So you are only paying for people who actually see the post.  While your post is being boosted, Facebook will show you how many people have seen the post and how much of your budget remains.  After a few tries you’ll get a feel for how long it takes a thousand people to see your post.

3.         Boost the Right Posts

Now you’re ready to start using the power of friends.  But which posts are the best ones to boost?  Posts advertising a specific event are often less effective because many church events are social events and a newcomer is reluctant to attend.  The best events to publicize are those that are less social in nature, such as a concert or a lecture. 

The most effective posts are effective in the long run.  Boost posts that build up a favorable impression of your church over time.  Publicize what you would like the world to know about your ministry, such as a description – with a great picture – of your church engaged in service in the community.

People generally don’t decide to go to church because they saw an ad.  An ad rarely triggers a person’s desire to go to church.  More common is that the day comes when someone feels a need to take a step on a spiritual path, and then visits the church that comes to mind.  If you have been successfully cultivating a positive image, yours will be the church they check out.

4.         Get the Right Friends

One mistake churches make is to create their page and then you, the pastor (usually), asks everyone you know to ‘like’ it.  The reason this is actually counter-productive is that your old seminary friends probably do not have Facebook friends who would be interested in your church.  You probably don’t want to boost your church’s posts to the members of your colleagues’ churches – and you especially don’t want to be paying to do that.  Only ask people who have a real connection to your church to be the ones to like your page, because their friends will be far more likely to be the people you want to reach.

So don’t just collect ‘likes.’  Collect them with a purpose, and put them to use to reach out to others with the Gospel.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Different vs. Better

I was in a discussion recently where it became clear to me that the denomination of which I am still a member, the Presbyterian Church USA, and probably other traditional, mainline denominations, has forgotten the simple distinction between "different" and "better."

The context for my saying this is that my congregation offers both a very traditional worship service and a contemporary worship service.  The congregation is growing.  Both services are growing.  And a part of the growth is due to us offering things that are "different", while a part of the growth is due to us becoming "better."

In recent years, the tenor of what has emanated from the denomination has singularly focused on "different."  They bellow that we need to do things differently - that the "old ways" won't do any more.  And while this is true to a large extent, a lot of their definition of "different" is symbolized by what strikes our old-timers as radically different forms of church - whether that means meeting in coffee houses or having rock music.

But what that ignores is that a lot of the change that is needed is just improvement.  A lot of the "old ways" that need to be upgraded are simply things that need to become better in execution, not always different in kind.  A lot of our older churches need things like paint and carpet and to get that pile of junk out of the corner.  The warbling choir (sorry Aunt Clarissa or whoever) needs voices that can sing the music (whatever music you choose) and above all, a warm smile at the door that makes a visitor feel welcome, not like an alien intruder.  In other words, it doesn't matter what style of worship you offer if you do it poorly.

Yes, our churches need different also.  But the goal of different is to reach a new audience.  Whether it is our contemporary worship or our social media outreach - the things we are doing differently are helping us reach people who otherwise wouldn't come to our church.

I love watching Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares on TV.  Ramsey is a celebrity chef who goes into failing restaurants and screams obscenities at them until they change.  But the first thing that he always changes is this: the food.  They invariably serve lousy food using canned or frozen ingredients.  He ends that.  Good food.  Simple food.  Fresh ingredients.  This is the foundation of his turnaround every time.  We can learn from that.  Different is about deciding whether to offer French cuisine or Asian; it's about choosing a target audience.  Better is about whether your food will taste good.

So we are also growing because some of the things we've always done are simply being done better than before (and our goal is to keep getting better). There is still an audience for churches that are somewhat as they have always been - except that many of our churches aren't executing well enough.  Traditional music and preaching doesn't have to be boring.  Liturgy doesn't have to be read s..l..o..w..l..y. 

So before you get too fixated on starting something different, invest some energy into making sure that what you already do is being done as well as it can be done.  The problem may not be what's on the menu, the problem may be what's going on the plate.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Okay, I admit I was skeptical about the need to use a "professional" email product.  After all, our church database was quite capable of sending email blasts to the congregation and we used them regularly.  But Kellie (the Rev. Kellie Anderson-Picallo, now on staff and bringing great ideas) insisted that I take a look, so I tried it out.  I wasn't sure that it would make all that much difference if our emails went from plain text to something that looks like this:

Yet after the first time I used it, I was impressed by two simple things: 1) the fact that it tells me the open rate (and I can also see who opened it, and who clicked on links within the email) and 2) I could see when the emails were opened.

What do you think the open rate is on your email?  The industry average for churches is about 27-28%.  Our first mailing did better: about 35%, though I suspect this varies greatly with how "tight" your list is.

We sent the email during business hours, and the largest group of opens happened right after we sent the email.  But I also noticed that there was a "bump" in emails being opened at 7 pm.  This makes sense; supper is over, you can finally start settling in for personal business.  And we know that emails that descend below the top of the inbox rarely get opened.  So I thought: what if we send the email at 7 pm?  MailChimp allows you to schedule sends.  So we scheduled the next one for 7 pm and our open rate jumped to 44% - which is approximately where ours have been ever since.

Is it valuable to you to have an extra 10-15% of your congregation open your emails?  Switch to a professional service.  Send in the early evening.  The scheduled send feature means you can set it up during business hours for arrival even when the office is closed.

Why did we use MailChimp over Constant Contact?  At our size (list under 500 names, fewer than 12,000 emails per month), MailChimp is absolutely free.  Their template-based email designs are easy to use.  Amazing, isn't it?  An idea, initiative, simple data analysis = more congregants reading email from the church.  It's that simple.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Diary of a Simple Ministry

Last year, a woman who attends our church is in a meeting of church school teachers.  In casual conversation, she mentions that her husband - who does not attend church - loves basketball and had once mused about renting our gym once in a while for a casual basketball game.

We took what she said very seriously.  And we told her, "please tell your husband that no, he may not rent the gym.  He may, however, use it at no charge if we can announce it as a church-sponsored pickup game."  He jumped on it.  We settled on Thursday nights, as long as we don't have something else scheduled for the gym.  We announced it.

The first night, there were three people.  The organizer and two of his friends.  It was several weeks before there were enough people for a game.  But word spread.  It's Thursday night.  I just took a walk down there, and they had so many people that they are playing two simultaneous 5-on-5 half-court games, so 20 people can be on the court at once.

Is it helpful to the church?  Well, only six of the twenty-three people playing tonight are members.  The rest are friends of theirs.  Will they come to church?  Who knows - but now they know we're here, and they're probably telling friends about the good time they have at our facility.  And having a regular basketball game on the church calendar has to be positive for our image

What are the lessons here?  One: listen carefully for expressed needs and respond to them.  That instigating comment was not a formal request; it was a casual mention that could have been dropped.  Two: think about how any unused space might be used to host an activity that just needs space to get going.  Three: stick with it for longer than a week or two.  Four: don't think in terms of an income opportunity, think in terms of an outreach opportunity.  The ideal way to use your space is using it to start the process of turning strangers into worshipers.  (And you can remind your bean counter that this also produces revenue!)  In this case, it's turning strangers into friends.  We'll trust the Spirit to take it from there.

Do you have room - especially gyms, which are in short supply - that's just waiting to be connected to people who need the space?  Keep your ears open for the connection.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Take Your Church Up A Notch For Under $2,500!

Short and sweet: too often churches think they don't have the resources to professionalize aspects of their ministry.  Here are a few things you can do to improve your church for less than $2,500 total.

First, improve your Web site.  We were able to vastly improve our Web site in no time by using Clover (  Their preset designs are clean, image-driven, and appeal to younger eyes.  You edit your site from any browser - no special software needed.  They support Google Analytics, a free tool from Google that lets you get incredibly detailed reports (I can tell you that in the last 30 days my church's site at received 490 unique visitors who saw an average of 4.53 pages and stayed for 3 minutes and 51 seconds).  Even better, your site automatically maps to a version designed for mobile browsers (20% of our hits are now coming from iOS or Android devices).  The startup cost?  Only $1,000, plus $240/year.  So far we've spent $1,240.  (Here's a hint: ask a couple of your shutterbug members to start taking pictures.  Lots of pictures.  Of everything around and in your church - during worship, at social events, crowd shots, solo shots, artsy pictures of objects like chandeliers and stained glass - you'll need a lot of interesting pictures to create an interesting site.)

Second, add a pager system to your nursery.  Parents, especially visitors, are attracted to a secure nursery.  A pager system gives parents the comfort of knowing they can be reached if needed.  We opted for the SmartCall system from HME Wireless ( because it allows sending any one of eight preset text messages.  This way you can communicate with parents for a variety of reasons ("please come" or "diaper need") - the message that sold me was "Baby OK", so if a child is upset when the parents leave, you can inform them that their child has settled down.  The cost of a 12-pager system was just under $1,000.  To make the system work, order nursery labels from  These labels serve as an identifier and a "claim check" for the child.  A pack of sequentially numbered stickers/stubs is $30.  So that adds another $1,030 to what we spent before, bringing us to $2,270.

Third, add parking attendants on busy days.  Unless you have more parking than you ever need, you need to have a crew out there letting people know when the lot is full (so they can drop their passengers) and then directing them toward on-street parking.  This is especially important on Christmas Eve and Easter.  We use volunteer attendants of course, but they are equipped with safety vests (from, $7, Boston Industrial Safety Vest with Reflective Strips - Lime Green) and flashlights with signal cones (also from, $6, Dorcy 41-1482 2D Deluxe Krypton Flashlight with Safety Cone).  We have three sets for a total of $39.  Now we've spent $2,309.

Fourth, use press releases and invite local reporters to your events.  This one costs you nothing.  I participated in a podcast with Chris Walker of a couple of years ago on press releases (link here) - and the beauty is that these are free.  But another simple piece of follow-up is to invite local reporters to your events.  Here is a link to a great article that was just published in a local paper about our Thanksgiving celebration.  Why did the reporter and photographer come?  We asked.  It cost nothing so we're still at $2,309.

Fifth, set up tables and chairs at your coffee hour.  I've said it before and I can't stress it enough.  Provide seating at your coffee hour; don't make it a mostly-standing event.  When people sit, they talk.  When they talk, they connect.  When they connect, they return.  And use large tables, preferably the 60" rounds that seat 8.  Why?  Because people are hesitant to join strangers at a small table, but a large table implicitly invites people to take any empty seat.  So how am I going to spend that last $191 to get us to $2,500?  On a supply of tablecloths.  They can be disposable vinyl tablecloths; buy a stash at a dollar store, replace them frequently.  But a bare table is uninviting.

There you have it.  $2,500 and you have a professional-looking Web site, a more secure nursery that is attractive to young families, provide a better welcome on busy days, free publicity through press coverage, and a better environment for your guests to connect.  There's no reason not to do these things.  Now.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Show Your Leaders The Next Level

I guess it's been a while since I had anything to say, but last week I led a trip where we took about 20 leaders and staff from my church, accompanied by several pastors and leaders from other churches, to the Catalyst One Day conference held at the main campus of LCBC Church in Manheim, PA.  The featured speakers were Andy Stanley and Craig Groeschel, leading us on the topic of "Creating a Healthy Church Culture."

In a few days I'll report on the debriefing of my church officers, but my main goal was not the content knowledge imparted by the conference; my main goal for the day was to expose my leaders to the setting of a highly successful church.  Let's face it: few, if any, Presbyterian (PCUSA) churches are top-notch.  My church is doing well by PCUSA standards; we're growing in attendance, giving, and church school.  We've gone from being the 7th-largest church in our presbytery (about 50 churches) to second.  I think we're the best church within a 20-minute drive.  And the problem is that my leaders believe this as well.

This is a problem because we're not competing against other churches.  In Andy Stanley's latest book, Deep and Wide, Andy tells the story of the creation of North Point Community Church.  He simply says this: "When we launched North Point, every other church in Atlanta was competing for the churched people market.  We decided to get into the unchurched people market."

That's the core of the issue: we have to understand that we are competing for the attention of the unchurched.  Yes, we have to strive for quality, but we also have to choose how we ascertain our level of quality.  If we only measure ourselves against churches, then being the best church just means that we can attract members of other churches.  As a church, our competition isn't other churches (hey, we're on the same team) - our competition is leisurely brunches, kids' soccer, a trip to the gym, a picnic in the park.  If you can't imagine why an unchurched person would choose your worship over those activities, then you won't be able to attract them.

But these wildly successful churches have figured it out.  They have worship bands that are rock concert-quality; coffee as good as Starbucks; parking as plentiful as the mall; preachers who could hold your attention if they were reading from the phone book.  Their nurseries make you feel that your child is as secure as a gold bar in Fort Knox.

I needed my leaders to experience the next level, because our target is the unchurched.  I needed my leaders to see that we have to raise our game.  Being a good church among churches is simply not good enough.  It's harder to compete against the best that the world has to offer.  But we have to do it.  We have to succeed at it.  Because attracting the unchurched is what grows the kingdom.

I think the conference accomplished the goal.  Several of my key leaders are expressing that they understand that we need to step it up.  Once we have the will, discerning the way will be easier.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Welcoming Guests: Everyone's Job

Last week I talked about the importance of making coffee hour more inviting by making it less intimate.  This makes it a more accessible space where visitors don't feel they are intruding.  Remember, worship is not a place where people can readily connect with other people.  Coffee hour is generally the first place a visitor has the opportunity to form relationships.

Now I want to address the question of helping people get to coffee hour.  Think of the path from the worship space to the coffee space as a driveway with a "speed bump." Getting people over the "speed bump" is a lot easier if your members are giving guests a helping hand.  Remember, coffee hour is not the be-all and end-all of fellowship, but it is the place where most people start.

We have to turn our people into inviters. I spent my first two years helping our members develop the habit of inviting visitors to coffee hour. How?  Simple.  I made this a part of every committee meeting.  There is no committee for whom this is not their job. At each meeting I spent a few minutes talking up this larger responsibility. I encouraged the "regulars" to change where they usually sit, so that they might meet more new people (newcomers usually sit near exits). I encouraged them to introduce themselves and personally invite visitors to join them for coffee. The point was making sure that every person in any sort of leadership position feels it is her/his job to welcome our guests.  This was not a one-time pitch; it was a sustained message delivered every month for many months.

In our worship space, as with many churches, some paths lead toward coffee hour while some lead toward the parking lot.  I jokingly refer to the latter as "escape routes", and I encourage my leaders to pay particular attention to guests leaving by those doors.  I told my leaders that it's their job to play "goalie" at those doors and keep the guests from getting past them!

Of course this isn't obnoxious.  It's just a simple matter of introducing themselves and inviting them to stay for coffee.  A lot of times the response is "not this week, but perhaps next time."  And that's okay.  It means the person didn't escape unnoticed.  A guest doesn't want to be hounded, but he/she generally would like to be noticed in a subtle way.

Some of my folks worried about possibly offending longtime members if they mistake them for visitors.  My suggestion is that you always put the onus on yourself, not the guest.  Do not ask: "Are you visiting?"  That puts pressure on them.  It is easier to put the implied blame on yourself by saying something like: "I don't believe we've met.  My name is Rich.  Will you join me for a cup of coffee?"  If the person is new, they  will probably then say so: "My name is Jane.  It's my first time here."  But either way, it's an inoffensive way of introducing yourself.

We need to make sure that everyone, especially all of our leaders, sees it as their job to be welcomers.  And you know what?  It changed more than our welcome process; it changed the atmosphere of our church, because an attitude of welcome is contagious. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Is Intimacy the Enemy of Creating Community?

We all strive to have great worship: meaningful, God-honoring, worship with wonderful music and excellent preaching. Yet we also see congregations where this doesn't seem to be enough - congregations where solid worship doesn't translate to increased attendance and participation.

We also know that community formation is a large part of the answer. People don't just come to a church for worship; they come out of longing for both communion with God and with other people. But the problem is not that these churches are stone-cold, unfriendly places. They want to be warm and welcoming, and their church feels like family. Yet I am learning that the "warm, family atmosphere" may actually be detrimental. You see, too much intimacy too quickly can actually be a deterrent.

The first place visitors get to interact with your members is coffee hour.  But many visitors either don't attend or feel uncomfortable when they do.  How do you make your coffee hour more inviting?  There is a simple rule that many smaller congregations forget: when a space feels familiar and intimate to members, it can feel off-putting to visitors, giving them the feeling that they are intruding on a "family" gathering. Ironically, making your coffee hour space less intimate may make it more inviting.

Here are some simple tips:

 1. Use a larger room. A room that "just fits" sends a message that more aren't welcome. Use a room that is comfortably larger than the number of people who attend (without dwarfing them).

 2. Use larger tables. First, make sure you have tables and chairs. Once a person sits down, you're guaranteed a longer discussion and greater connection. But visitors may not sit at a small table with someone they don't know. A large table (seating 8 or more) always says "please join us."

3. Welcome kids without restriction. Nothing attracts families more than welcoming their kids. Yet I see churches where the kids are expected not to mingle in the same area as the adults. Or I see churches with separate (and lesser) snacks for children. Visiting parents want to stay in the same room as their children and they want their kids treated well. (In fact, just as we have "visitor bags" for adults, we have special "visitor bags" for children.)

I've heard the curmudgeonly complaint that kids running in coffee hour might knock over an adult. Well, in 30 years of active church involvement as an adult, I've had coffee knocked out of my hands twice - both by adults.

Making your coffee hour less intimate may actually increase the chances of getting a visitor to go there. And it is there, not in worship, that visitors can actually begin to form the relationships that will keep them coming back. Our coffee hour is now amazing. People come - and stay. And once they come to coffee, I'm pretty sure we'll see them again.

More next week on turning your members into inviters ... in the meantime, I invite your comments and/or questions. What do you do to make it easier for guests to get to your coffee hour?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Start with Wow

I am really enjoying a new book just released by Michael Hyatt, Chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers called "Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World."  While the book hasn't made me think "hey, I would never have thought of that," his presentation is clear, simple, and motivating.  It makes me want to redouble my efforts to position both me and my congregation for maximum effectiveness in the online world.

But his very first piece of advice is rooted very firmly in the physical world: "Start with Wow."  He makes a simple point: in order to make an impact we need to 'wow' people.  He then breaks it down very simply.  When someone has an experience of us, that experience can either meet expectations, exceed expectations, or fail to meet expectations.  His point is simple: both failing to meet expectations and meeting expectations are "not wow."  Only exceeding expectations is "wow."

He then gives a mundane example: the lobby experience of someone visiting his company, Thomas Nelson Publishers (Mr. Hyatt is the Chairman of the Board and formerly the CEO).  How can a lobby experience be a wow?  The visitor's name tag could be pre-printed and waiting.  The visitor is called a "guest."  The receptionist offers a choice of water, soda, or freshly-brewed Starbucks coffee.

It made me think: how can we provide "wow" experiences at the church?  How can the greeters create a "wow" experience for a person entering the church?  What would make our coffee hour a "wow" experience for those who stay?  What would give the children "wow" experiences in the Sunday school?

His methodology is so simple: envision it and make a list.  What would it look like to meet a visitor's expectations?  What would it look like to fail to meet expectations?  What would it look like to exceed expectations?  Take that third list and make it happen.

Is it brilliant?  I don't think so.  But it has certainly motivated me.  My next officer meeting will address this simple topic: doing our best to ensure that people who visit our church come away with positive experiences that exceed their expectations.  I'm motivated to start with wow.  And that's just the first section of the book.  I can't wait to get to the rest.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Last night I got into a mini-row after I received a flyer announcing the new Presbyterian Hymnal and I posted my opinion on Facebook that this is a rather antiquated and fruitless endeavor.  But what was more interesting is that my post mentioned the absence of an electronic edition (the flyer didn't mention it) and I received a rather defensive reply from a staffer telling me that indeed such an edition exists.  However, merely having an electronic version of a printed book is not what I mean by "electronic edition", and therein lies the lesson.

Adapting something for a new medium means more than just a straight conversion.  It means approaching the idea from the perspective of the new medium.  An electronic edition of a printed book that basically makes pages readable on your computer is not an advance.  It may be a convenience (just as I love my Kindle), but true eBooks (a few of which are only now beginning to appear) will have features such as dynamic illustrations, not scanned images.

A new hymnal could have been adapted for the technological age by taking advantage of on-demand printing.  You can cost-effectively print books on-demand in quantities of 50 or so.  What church would not order at least 50 copies of a hymnal?  This means that they could have secured the rights to 2000+ hymns, and allowed congregations to choose a manageable subset of them.  Automated cross-referencing would create the indexes, and each congregation could have a wonderfully tailored songbook.  Basic sets of hymns in various genres - traditional, gospel, praise songs, etc. - could have been suggested as starting points for congregations.

Custom print sets is something we already do.  We still use pre-printed offering envelopes.  Every year we send a list of the envelope numbers we use to the company that prints them.  They read the Excel spreadsheet and print those numbers.  An Excel sheet with a list of hymn numbers could easily be the basis for customized hymnals.  But the electronic edition could then have them all - with the capability of printing one-offs for those hymns not in a congregation's printed book.  This would be adapting to the new technological world.

Instead, the denomination remains mired in old thinking, and brought it forward into a new medium.  I've seen this movie before.  My first career - as a software consultant - started before Windows was even invented.  I lived through the era when customers wanted to see their favorite DOS programs ported to Windows.  Some people did just that - made the DOS program run under Windows.  They all died.  Others made true Windows versions of their software.  Those sold.

Where have we made similar mistakes?  What have we merely ported to new media instead of making a true adaptation?  An example that comes to mind is the church newsletter.  Many churches have resorted to emailing their newsletters via PDF in order to save money.  We don't.  Our newsletter PDF is available online, but we still mail hardcopy to everyone.  Why?  Because the newsletter is a low-priority read, and we feel that the odds of someone going back to read a low-priority email are zero.  For most people, an email that isn't answered right away gets lost.  A newsletter lying on a kitchen table has at least a chance of being read.

But beyond that the question is: why monthly?  A monthly newsletter makes sense for printing and mailing.  But for emailing?  Why send the newsletter monthly by email?  Why not chunk it up and send relevant parts of it weekly?  We reinforce our paper newsletter with weekly email blasts to our members reminding them of upcoming events.  Change the frequency and the format to the medium!  Don't slavishly preserve the format and frequency of print into a medium that doesn't demand it.

Worship presents similar challenges.  Too many churches have tried to offer "contemporary" worship that is merely a traditional service with different music.  Contemporary worship has a different ethos - it isn't just less formal, it's less linear in construct.  If you project everything and you aren't bound to a printed page - don't act as if you are. 

The new hymnal (which combines the worst of two worlds: new hymns and old praise songs) and many attempts at contemporary worship are two ways in which Presbyterians and other mainline denominations end up looking like DOS programs in a Windows world.

Don't make the same mistake.  For every new technology or environment, ask yourself a simple question: what would it look like if we designed it from scratch for this modality?  Then go and create that.  That's what it means to do a new thing.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Connected Pastor

I just wanted to mention here that I've started a new blog dedicated to the discussion of technological issues facing pastors and churches.  It can be found here: and I've just put up my opening post.  I hope to cover explicitly technical topics going forward - some of which I've touched on here.  Hope you'll check it out and spread the word.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Execution Is Everything

I've been on a cleaning/organizing kick recently. Going through old church files, I came across a document from 1979 entitled "Church Officers' Retreat: Evangelism." It recounted the tremendous dropoff in worship attendance my church experienced from 1963 to 1979 (from an average of 418 to 160, a drop of over 60%). The report then outlined a series of actions they needed to take to stem the tide.

Most of the ideas were pretty obvious. "We must create a friendly, accepting church." "A way must be found to note visitors." "We need to investigate our relationship with blacks and Hispanics." "Minister to singles." "Explore possible service projects in the community."

Not enough of these things happened. Over the next 15-20 years the decline continued, though it slowed and eventually bottomed-out a few years before I arrived. Today we're still growing, and our average worship attendance is now the highest since about 1974. Why? When I looked at the this 1979 report, it seems that we've actually implemented almost everything on the list. We've achieved a significant level of racial-ethnic diversity. We have a singles group. We are definitely friendly and accepting. We have implemented a variety of community mission projects.

The 1979 report even identified some geographic opportunities, such as noting that there is no other Presbyterian presence to our east/southeast. And sure enough, a huge chunk of our growth is families attending who live southeast of us.

The interesting thing is that we didn't even have an officers' retreat to determine that we should do these things. We just started to do them. We consciously focused on how welcoming we were. We paid special attention to underrepresented populations of all kinds, from ethnic groups to singles. We noticed the lack of churches to our east/southeast and focused our marketing efforts in that direction. And it is working.

Lesson: diagnosis is easy, execution is everything.

I'm amazed at the amount of energy we expend (both in our local churches and in our denomination) creating "study groups" to study our situations, diagnose the problems, and propose solutions. It is an absolute waste of time.

You don't need a retreat to determine what's wrong. You simply need to start fixing what's wrong. You already know what needs to be done. Go and do it.