December 7, 2010

Prepare the Way...For Visitors

Click here for a Spanish translation of this article.

Last weekend, over dinner, a friend bemoaned how hard it was to find a good place to go for a Christmas Eve service with her parents. Neither an Episcopalian nor a regular churchgoer, she is one of the many people who are asking friends and going online to find a place to worship. In response, I asked her what she was looking for. “A beautiful service and wonderful music, of course, but also a place that shares my values.” Which sounded like an Episcopal Church to me...

I’ve since sent my friend the names of a few parishes I thought she and her parents would enjoy. I did so the very next day, through an email listing the names and website addresses of each. Unfortunately, it was only after I’d hit “send” that I thought to look more closely at each of the homepages. Keeping my friend in mind, I tried to find the Christmas service times, photos of last year’s service and a deeper sense of the community’s values.

Suffice to say, I ended up writing a follow up email. In most cases, it wasn’t easy to find the Christmas service times and in several cases I ended up calling the parish administrators to find them out. I sent this information on and wondered how many other folks, potential visitors to our parishes, had found those web pages, struggled to find the information they were seeking, and moved on.

Over the past few weeks ECF Vital Practices has received some wonderful advice and checklists from Peter Strimer and Cathy Carpenter, both of which included a few pointers on communications. I’ve adapted theirs and have added a few of my own:

  • Review your web page, voice mail, banners and signage through the eyes of someone visiting your parish for the first time.
  • Take a page from NPR’s digital media developers and go to a coffee shop, laptop in tow, and buy coffee for a stranger who is willing to poke around your website. Does their impression of your parish match up to your own sense of what the parish is?
  • Select your parish’s top stories from the past year and feature these on the homepage. These provide wonderful insight for potential visitors into the nature and values of the community they will be visiting on Christmas.
  • List your Christmas service times and include photos from last year’s service. If you don’t have any, make sure to ask someone to photograph this year’s event and save these photos for next year’s outreach.
  • Include the service times for the major feast days that take place from Christmas through Epiphany. These are great opportunities for folks to return.
  • Commit to a longer term review of your parish’s hospitality, perhaps by following some of Kathy Copas’ insights in this article.
In Advent, we give thanks for the coming of Christ into our midst. But we should also give thanks for the unnamed soul who awoke to loud knocking and responded that there was, indeed, room in the inn. Are we responding in the same way to those knocking on our front door? What additional suggestions might you have for welcoming first time visitors?