May 2011
Caring for Each Other

The Importance of Being…Barnabas

I am speaking here of that often overlooked hero in the New Testament book of Acts.

Barnabas enters the scene at the end of Acts 4 as a new pledging member from Cyprus, a long way from Jerusalem. He apparently displays such impressive people skills that those in charge soon nickname him “son of encouragement;” a description that Barnabas takes to heart. The next time we encounter him in Acts, he is vouching for Paul before the dubious apostles. The third time he appears is even more noteworthy: the apostles send Barnabas to check out the new community of believers emerging in Antioch. He gladly complies…but immediately drafts Paul as his apprentice. There in Antioch, unfettered from the expectations in the Jerusalem church and the baggage of previous apostolic success, Barnabas and Paul initiate new and exciting practices and, as Acts puts it, “it was in Antioch that they were first called Christians.”

We need to be Barnabas today!

Successful businesses often say that their greatest assets are their customers, while churches often forget to take such a view when it comes to the newcomers and visitors in their midst. Similarly, healthy businesses appreciate that past successes do not guarantee future success, and in fact can get in the way if they cling to what has always been done. Churches, on the other hand, often appear to be shackled to some notion of a previous golden age, real or imagined.

If we as church leaders are to be earnest about anything in our mission today, it should be the recruitment and retention of new members—no, of new future leaders—knowing that to do so will indeed mean change in some way or another for us all. In other words, we need to learn to be Barnabas, or at least find the Barnabases in our congregations.

It begins with awareness on our part as leaders: awareness of how our church looks and feels through the eyes of a visitor, a potential new member.

As vestry members, we can assign ourselves an exercise or “field trip,” imagining ourselves as a visitor to our congregation. We start where a seeker might start…with our website and print ads. Are they appealing, inviting? Do they tell seekers how much we want them to come check us out, and offer clear information about how to do so? Or are they full of inside-speak and material that is indecipherable to anyone outside the existing system? Call and listen to our after-hours phone message. Is it warm and enthusiastic, or flat and uninterested? Again, these are just the entry points.

Each member of the vestry should come to the next meeting prepared to discuss this initial homework. We might also invite a “mystery church shopper” or two who can report not only on these entry points, but also on what he or she found upon actually coming to a weekend service. What do the parking lot and outside grounds say to a visitor? Are there “first-time visitor” spaces? Is there adequate signage to help someone find their way to the sanctuary, the nursery, the restrooms, and the parish hall? Is there a team of “ambassadors”—not simply greeters—who are outside and ready to welcome the seeker, and prepared to do whatever possible to make that first visit a memorable one? In the service, are visitors welcomed, not called to stand up and be embarrassed, but perhaps just raising a hand and being truly welcomed? And at the start of the service, not halfway through, so that members nearby can be ready to assist as needed?

The “mystery shopper” can help us understand the first-timer’s experience, but that is just the beginning. It is important for the church office to take the welcome cards that visitors fill out and create a checklist for the coming months after that visit, not to measure what the newcomer does, but what we do for them. A personal call from the clergy, a formal letter of welcome from the vestry—these are important things. But so is sending visitors’ names to the vestry members on Monday, so that they can include them in their weekly prayers. It is important to offer information sessions for those who want to learn more, and to consider having a new member commissioning twice a year during the service.

Most importantly, we want to track how we do in incorporating newcomers into the life and leadership of the parish, so that they truly become new members of our extended family and future leaders themselves. It is important for wardens and vestry to model Barnabas behavior by having us invite recent newcomers into the life of the Church. Ask them bring a plate of cookies to a function, and then thank them for doing so. Ask a member of the congregation to invite the newcomer to lunch to learn more about their gifts and their passions. As you build the relationship, help the newcomer discern how they can make a difference in Christ’s name in both the church and the community.

In our congregation, we make sure that every committee, every guild, every ad hoc event team, is encouraged to include not simply long-termers but also new members in their work. And as the leadership team, we study our progress with new members during every vestry meeting, just as we do with our financial reports. We are stewards not simply of our finances and buildings, but also of our members, new and old alike.

Churches whose leaders take such principles seriously will grow…in spiritual depth and numerically as well. It is not magic, but rather intentionality, that is at work. When we as leaders collectively become earnest about being Barnabas, then we begin to see growth and, yes, change as well. We begin to move from the familiar environs of our Jerusalem into the uncharted, but wonderful possibilities of Antioch.

The Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson, PhD is Canon to the Presiding Bishop, a Fellow of the Episcopal Church Foundation, and author of many books and articles, including Transforming Stewardship and A Dangerous Dozen: 12 Christians Who Threatened the Status Quo But Taught Us to Live Like Jesus.

This article is part of the May 2011 Vestry Papers issue on Caring for Each Other