by Eddie Pipkin

I was at the awesome new St. Pete Pier last week.  It is a testament to innovative public space planning.  It’s been enthusiastically embraced by the locals and lauded in national travel publications as a cool place to visit – and it is.  It combines fun, whimsy, nature, food, art, architecture, community, and exercise.  It has lots of great design features.  Here in the accompanying picture is a design element that delighted me: a free sunscreen dispenser!  Bravo!  That inclusion communicates, “Welcome. Have fun. Stay healthy.”  And I loved it . . . until I didn’t.

“How cool is this?” I proclaimed to my traveling partner. “Isn’t this a great idea?”  Dazzled by the whole concept of the place and soaking in the details of all the ways the pier was cool and inviting and novel, I reached out to squirt a little sunscreen onto my outstretched hand.  Except no sunscreen was forthcoming.  The contraption didn’t work.  The super-cool public sunscreen dispenser dispensed for me only a sudden wave of frustration.  Whether it was a dysfunctional mechanism that had been great in concept but problematic in execution and which, therefore, had never performed the way it was supposed to perform; or whether the sunscreen was just all used up by lunchtime on that day; either way, I was disappointed.  And it was a very interesting kind of disappointment (which we have all experienced from time to time) because I had been happy as a clam, impressed, and charmed right up until that moment that the facility sabotaged itself.

Now I was – at least momentarily – grumpily distracted.  That feeling was, thankfully, temporary.  The sights and sounds all around were enough to quickly get me back to a charmed and happy mindset, but the broken promise of serendipitous sunscreen (which, to be honest, I didn’t even need, it being a decidedly cloudy day) had broken the spell of enchantment that had been my initial experience.

Make sure the things you publicize to the public work the way they have been advertised to work!

Be sure that things function the way they are supposed to function.  And the snazzier and more innovative the cool new thing appears to be, the more consequential becomes the effectual functioning of the thing.  Don’t promise stuff you can’t deliver.  Absolutely don’t shrug your shoulders at anything you know is not working the way it’s supposed to be working.

As I was writing this very blog, I took a break to run an errand to the tag office in order to pick up some tag decals and vehicle registration forms I had renewed online.  There I was in that classic setting of “official government office,” a vast blasé waiting room and a general order of disheveled chaos.  There was one of those ‘take a number’ systems at work, but I noticed one help window with a sign that said “Tag Express,” and walking up to it, I saw a posted notice that said, “Wait here, and when I finish with my current customer, I will be over to assist you,” followed by reminders of the documents I would need to retrieve the documents I had come for.  I stood there in front of the window, reading email on my phone and enjoying the Muzak.  After 10 minutes, a lady moved sort of halfway in my direction from her designated customer service station and called out, “Are you here for Tag Express?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.  “I am.”

“I’m not over there,” she said, very politely, downright friendly.

“I know.  The sign says wait here.”  I pointed at the sign.  She walked closer, shrugging her shoulders.  “Did I do it wrong?” I asked.

“No,” she said.  “The sign’s wrong.”  She came to where I was, retrieved my ID and handed me my stuff.  The whole transaction took about 30 seconds.  I thanked her, but all the way back to the car I was thinking “Why would you keep a wrong sign on the window?”  And what were the odds I would have that experience in the middle of writing a blog about having that kind of experience?

Of course, the brutal truth is that we all have that kind of experience all the time.  (Right now, even as you read this, you are thinking of a relevant example that happened to you in the past few days, aren’t you?)

Local churches do this to people all the time.  It might be a broken link on the website or on social media.  It might be a form that people are directed to fill out to which no one ever responds.  It might be an email address to which we’re supposed to write to get an answer, to which . . . no one ever responds!  It might be a resource promised from the pulpit which never materializes.  It might be a pamphlet that’s out of date.  It might be a sign that points in an erroneous direction or which is otherwise incorrect. Etc. Etc. Etc.  (If you’re reading this blog as a staff or volunteer discussion exercise – which is an excellent idea for all of my blogs; I hope you try it out sometime – this is the point at which you should come to a full stop and make a list together of similar examples from the past and, even more importantly, the present.

The problem with this kind of shenanigan in the local church setting (stuff that doesn’t work) is that we so often have such a narrow timeframe to establish trust and credibility with people who are sampling our ministry.  They are trying us on for size, determining if we are any different from all those other church-y disappointments they’ve experienced.  There are a lot of ministries to choose from out there.  When you go to the local tax collector’s office to complete paperwork, you’re kind of stuck with one option.  You can complain all you want, but it is what it is.  With a church that can’t deliver what it promises, people vote with their feet.

There are three simple rules to address this pervasive problem:

  • Maintain a culture in which things working properly (attention to detail) is an institutional value.
  • Encourage feedback and provide easy ways for people to provide it.
  • Designate a (passionate) point person whose one job is to be on the lookout for broken things and frustrating scenarios.

Team members should encourage one another to pay attention to details.  This doesn’t mean becoming the ‘detail police,’ but it does mean making observations when you notice something isn’t working and offering encouragement and even help for getting things back on track.  Indifference to broken promises, broken mechanisms, and broken programs is a formula for failure.  Keep a positive attitude, however, when pointing out flaws: resolving them is just part of a healthy leadership process; negativity is not useful.

Bring the people who serve and are served by your ministry into the mix.  They see your ministry from an angle that you, as a leader, will never be able to see.  Solicit their feedback (genuinely, not just giving an insincere request for input).  Respond to that feedback whenever and however you can, proposing ways that items might be changed and explaining when things can’t be changed.  People feel valued when their feedback is valued, even more so when their feedback leads to changes.

Make it a priority to have a “Czar of All Details” (or come up with your own cool moniker for the details person, tongue-in-cheek and appropriate for your context).  This person is someone who loves observing details, understanding processes, and exploring in the deep weeds of your ministry landscape.  They are uniquely gifted both to spot mistakes and misadventures in communications and procedures and to also understand the impacts those errors can have on people trying to engage with your ministry.  Give them a clear (and positively oriented) means to communicate their ongoing observations.  Don’t pick a petty person for this role.  A coach-oriented mindset of ‘we can do this’ is a far better fit.

Easter week was a great time to observe the ways different ministries were executing the details as I visited a number of different worship services and special events.  In some settings, there was no palpable link between the old-school printed sheet I was handed with ministry information and how to actually interact with anyone at the local church.  On the other hand, in one instance, I was enchanted by the use of QR codes at which I could point my phone camera, click, and enter an interactive portal of exciting opportunities offered by that local church.  That experience got me excited about what I was looking at and eager to explore more fully.  When the technology works, it’s seamless and immediate and inspiring, but there are so many moving parts behind the scenes.  The creative communication folks have to be on the ball, too.  There are both amazing creative projects that are derailed by failed tech and whiz-bang tech that serves only to flawlessly transport us to disappointing creative outcomes.  We need both parts of the equation!

How do you and your crew do at keeping things in working order (stuff and technology and programs and such)?  Is the info you communicate accurate?  Do you deliver what you promise?  And when you do deliver, is what you deliver recognizable as the same thing that you described when making the promise?  Do you encourage your team members to pay attention to the details, think like a consumer about your ministry, solicit feedback, and act on feedback?  Do you have a designated point person in charge of keeping the spell of ministry delight unbroken?  Don’t break the spell!  Share your thoughts in the comment section (and watch how it works as advertised – I hope!).