By Eddie Pipkin

Whenever I travel, wherever I go, I’m always on the lookout for ministry inspiration.  I am most inspired by the ministry principles that are demonstrated in what we would think of as “non-ministry settings” – regular places that aren’t defined as “ministry,” per se, but reflect the basic fundamentals that define what successful ministry implementation looks like.  That’s why I was blown away a couple of weeks ago by my encounter with Norma.  I was in L.A. for a lark for a few days with a friend, and we stopped in at a famous breakfast diner.  Norma was the middle-aged server who came to our table and proceeded to demonstrate every single characteristic of what HOSPITALITY should look like for the local church.  No kidding – she should be leading hospitality team training sessions and doing demonstrations.

She introduced herself with quiet enthusiasm and immediately communicated how happy she was to have us as guests.  She was attentive and enthusiastic without being overbearing.  Her apparent sheer joy at being there with us blew me away.  I decided it must be her first week on the job, if not her first day, so I asked, “If you don’t mind my asking, how long have you been working here?”

She replied (with an actual smile), “15 years.”

Fifteen years!  Wow, I thought.  Somebody who had been doing that same challenging job day-after-day for 15 years and still was full of enthusiasm and joy.  That’s the way ministry hospitality should be!  That’s the way ministry hospitality should feel on the receiving end for the people who enter our spaces.

I watched her closely the rest of our (excellent) diner breakfast, and here are the characteristics that made being with Norma stand out:

  • She was genuinely enthusiastic without coming on too strong. Enthusiasm can feel forced – if you’ve ever been to one of those places where everyone is clearly forced to shout out a feigned “Welcome to ______.”  Norma’s delight to be with us seemed genuine.  This kind of sustained enthusiasm comes from understanding your hospitality mission and the good work you are empowered to do by making others feel comfortable and welcome and then doing all you can to meet their needs.
  • She made us feel like we were the center of attention. In reality, she was waiting several tables and juggling a lot of breakfast logistics, but she managed to make us feel special by listening attentively, sharing some brief conversation, answering all our questions, and serving us efficiently.  When she was with us, her focus was totally on us.
  • She made it a point to thank us for being there. This is unusual in a restaurant, or really in any retail setting, and, frankly, it can be surprisingly unusual in church circles.  She actually said the words, “I want to thank you for being here today and giving me an opportunity to serve you.”  Wow, if hospitality teams shared that kind of dialogue (and that kind of attitude) amazing things could happen.  Everybody expects to hear it at some perfunctory point from the stage, but to hear it (more than once even) from regular folk, that starts to feel real.
  • She knew the menu. All 10 pages of it, inside and out!  We had questions.  She had answers.  This is something many local church hospitality teams could be much stronger at.  Too often, the fill-in hander-outer-of-bulletins flames out at the simplest of inquiries.
  • She did a strong but gentle upsell. “Wouldn’t you like to add some blueberry topping to that side of buttermilk pancakes,” she asked, making it sound like missing out on those blueberries was going to be a decision I would regret the rest of my days if I got it wrong.  Hospitality folks can not only answer questions, they can point out relevant opportunities, even for first-time visitors.
  • She didn’t neglect us. She kept those coffee cups full and stopped by periodically to see if we needed anything else.  She was attentive without hovering.  Lots of times for churches, hospitality is a one-and-done handshake without follow-up.
  • She let us do things in our own time. She didn’t rush us.  We never felt pressured to wolf down our food or drain our cups, even though this popular spot was packed.  It’s important for us to give guests some space and let them do things at their own pace.  That’s why it’s critical to give them an easy way to find and engage hospitality folks when they are ready.

Norma was my new hero – and I’ll admit she got a great tip, even though I don’t believe that was her primary motivation.  In similar fashion, we should practice strong hospitality in our local churches, not because it is a means to an end to recruit new folks into the family, but because it is a biblical end unto itself.  Nothing is more consistently biblical than empathetic hospitality – it’s a kind of love practiced on complete strangers.  Hospitality as an emphasis throughout our faith community bears fruit not because we are tricking visitors with clever marketing and professional customer service, but because they have a true sense of the loving and welcoming community that we are to all people.

To drill down and recap from Norma’s hypothetical hospitality guide:

  • Enthusiasm.
  • Embracement.
  • Empathy.
  • Expertise.
  • Empowerment.

Express joy to the visitor.  Embrace them fully (metaphorically, perhaps not literally), creating a sense of how welcome they are.  Listen carefully to any information, needs, or requests they share, with an empathetic ear for connecting them to the thing they have come seeking (and hopefully to someone in your community who shares their experience).  Demonstrate expertise by knowing where things are, how things operate, and when things are happening, knowing how to get visitors to the right answers and the right people as needed.  Empower your guests to feel like they can be a part of the community immediately without a lot of hoops to jump through.

Reinforcing this vision and these skills comes down to leadership of your hospitality team, as well as regular communication and training.  While many natural “greeters” effortlessly display some combination of these skills, many don’t.  Consistent hospitality requires refreshing the vision and working together to grow deeper skills and groom new team members.

With a small team of “Normas,” we can really make a hospitality difference, and a side of buttermilk pancakes with that blueberry topping couldn’t hurt!

How many of these characteristics do you see in your own hospitality teams?  Which ones could your teams most benefit from?  Which are the easiest and hardest to get teams to understand and practice.  Share your own experiences in the comments section below!