Friday, March 20, 2009

Question for the Community: First Time Visitors

I am an Elder at a church in Laurel, Maryland.  Our city and outskirts are expecting a boom of new residents thanks to the BRAC project that is closing some military installations and bulking up others.  The boom is about 22,000 people over the next three or four years(!) so our church wants to be prepared to not only handle potential visitors, but welcome them into our midst. 

To that end, our Session met with one of the City's planning employees who has been working on this project and others for Laurel for 20+ years.  He brought us a lot of insight and left us with some good talking points to discuss, and so we did.

There was a lot of converstaion about how we follow up with first-time visitors.  We do really well at identifying them after the service and giving each person/family a welcome bag with information about the church, a church coffee mug, and some tea and instant coffee.  Sounds trivial, but I got one a few years ago and it's my favorite mug at home.

Two of our older members remembered back to the 60's and remembered that the pastor would literally get in the car after church and go and visit with the new visitors in their home.  That would be completely foreign to me, but they were in agreement with each other that it is the best, if not only, way to retain visitors.  The rest of the room, more or less, thought that it would not be feasible in our area in this day and age, but were not sure how best to follow up in other ways.

So, my Questions for the Community are:
Does your pastor (or you, if you're a pastor) make visits to visitors homes?
What do you do that you feel works?
What do you do that you feel does not work?
What have you always wanted to try but were too hesitant to?

(I've included what we do in the comments section.)


RobMonroe said...

Our visitor retention is probably around 50% over the two years that I have paid attention. Here is what we do:

1 - Ask visitors to wear a name tag (they never do)
2 - Ask visitors to fill out the Friendship Pad (often do)
3 - Follow up email goes out on Monday.
4 - Follow up card goes out Tuesday.
5 - At some point there is often a call, if a phone number was left.

Stushie said...

One of the most successful ways of having visitors regularly return is getting the pastor to remember the names of first time visitors.

Each Sunday after church, I take time to recall the visitors who worshiped in the congregation that morning. I also stand at the door after the service and shake hands with them. I politely ask their names and thank them for being there. Throughout the following week, I visualize the handshake and recall their names.

Next time they come to church, I make a point of calling them by their first names. It is always delightfully surprising to them and makes the visitors feel very welcome. More often as not, this eventually leads to membership in the church.

I believe it is the duty of every pastor to know the names of members, their children, and visitors. We can store up to 500 names easily in our brains if we choose to practice it. I take this just as seriously as Christ did when He talked about the Shepherd knowing the names of every sheep.

DennisS said...

I agree with Stushie on the pastor remembering names - it's very important.

Also important is sharing something in common with at least a couple people in the congregation. As an Elder I used to greet people before or after the service. If I found out that someone was a golfer, I would introduce them to someone else who was a golfer.

A few years after I started doing this it was estimated (by others) that I was the first person that the majority of the congregation first remember meeting at the church.

If I saw someone new hang around after church I would excuse myself and go talk with them - find out what brought them in, etc. Attendance was approaching 200, but I had been with the congregation from the time there were 60. And since my wife and I were very active we pretty much knew everyone.

In my current context we have quite a few return, but the total number isn't outstanding since we are in a small, rural context which is continuing to lose population. About a quarter have joined the congregation in the past 3.5 years, and quite a few associate with the congregation but don't join. There are a few friendly folks who make sure to meet anyone new who attends. And the Deacons take a batch of fresh cookies to them within 24 hours.

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Sarahlynn said...

When we started attending our current church home, there were about 2000 members on the books and the senior pastor had been there under 2 years. Nonetheless, he shook our hands the second time we visited, remarked on our return, and noted that he didn't recognize us (mentioning that he was new in case we were inactive members who might be offended). He also asked our names, and remembered them. That was many years ago, and we still recall that pastor - who has long since moved on in his career - fondly.

As for what I do now, my family and I serve as "Ambassadors," wearing name tags and trying to welcome newcomers, visitors, and everyone else we encounter. We also fill in all our information in the "Ritual of Friendship" pad even though of course the church already has it, to set an example for others down the row.

Our church has a (poorly located, in my opinion) welcome center. We also do follow up calls, mailings, and mugs. I still think we should give two mugs, though, so that visiting couples have a matched set!

Stephanie said...

I am a pastor and don't make physical visits to every visitor. I have to say I never thought of that or even considered it. It's rolling around in my brain now. On Monday morning I do get the Friendship Register, though, and write hand-written notes to all first time visitors. If I didn't get to meet them after worship (sometimes my handshaking time gets monopolized by members or chatty visitors) I ask them to be sure to introduce themselves after worship the next time they come so I can put a name to a face. I haven't had anyone NOT do that on their second visit. Usually I'm able to beat them to it, though.

After someone has visited a few times I write another note and/or call. As others have mentioned I think it helps IMMENSELY to try to connect them to someone else in the congregation with a common interest. Visitor "retention" is only partly about the pastor's contact, and also partly about feeling comfortable with a congregation. I don't want to be the only person who knows visitors or new members. I am only one person, and I am bound to drop the ball if I am the only one doing this. Also if that person should, down the line, decide to join our church, it almost creates a church within a church to have new members only know me, the newish (14 month) pastor.

Sarahlynn said...

"Visitor "retention" is only partly about the pastor's contact, and also partly about feeling comfortable with a congregation."

So true! I love our "Ambassadors" program because it does just that - and is led by and composed of laity.