By Eddie Pipkin

Image by Cheryl Holt from Pixabay

I went with my wife on a cruise a few weeks ago.  It was one of those small ships, no more than 240 people on board for our sailing, which meant that the crew was also small.  A core group of crew members rotated through a variety of different positions every day.  So the server you had at breakfast might show up again with your afternoon refreshments on the upper deck and even your dinner entrée later in the evening.  After a couple of days, you recognized people, and they recognized you.  They did more than recognize you.  They had a way of making you feel . . . special.  That’s a talent, a gift: it’s a practiced approach to connecting with people that can be an excellent way to kickstart new relationships.

Within a couple of days on this vacation, servers and recreation attendants were familiar with my name and preferences – I even knew the members of the band that played popular music covers at night.  Of course, there was some economic incentive for people who were doing their customer service jobs to be this friendly (although not the same as at a regular restaurant, since tip totals onboard a cruise ship tend to be more of  fixed, one-time charge).  But I’ve been on big ship cruises before, and while servers are most always nice, accommodating, friendly, and solicitous, their attitudes can seem more pro forma, an obligation born of professional courtesy.  Something about my recent experience felt more natural and authentic.  These people were doing more than fulfilling their basic professional obligations.  Their culture clearly was about making one-on-one connections.  This attitude shined through in every interaction.

Clearly we were not planning to leave our cruise with a new set of pen pals or lifelong bosom buddies, but there was something extra special about the temporary connections we made while we were on board.  We felt like we mattered as individuals, that someone in a position to know our needs and preferences and help us achieve our vacation goals really cared about what happened to us while we were in their care.  In fact, they took pride in giving us personalized attention and helping us navigate the many choices available to us.  They asked questions.  They listened to the answers.  They provided what we needed (and wanted) whenever they were able, and they helped us think through suitable alternatives when requests were impossible or impractical.  Help was always available, and that help was offered cheerfully and without judgment.

That’s not a bad model for ministry as staff and key volunteers as they interact with ministry participants and those who will be directly served by specific ministries.

In our local churches, for instance, it is not always clear where to go to get help if we are unsure how to navigate the ministry terrain.  Even if there is a clearly proclaimed pathway to ask questions and get help, that help is not always provided in a timely or ‘cheerful’ manner.  We sometimes make people feel like their quest for answers or guidance is an inconvenience.  There are many reasons that local church leadership unintentionally develops patterns of inattentiveness, but chief among them is the invasive attitude underlying our programs and initiatives that the people who come through our doors exist ultimately to serve our purposes and vision rather than to be lovingly served by us.  We should be servants first, and the idea of servanthood should underlie each and every interaction we have with those whom we are called to serve.

I think of one evening on the aforementioned cruise when my wife and I showed up at the main dining room for dinner, and the chief hospitality officer for the ship was manning the host station.  The restaurant was very popular that night and clearly very full.

“Would you mind sharing a table this evening,” he asked.  We squirmed uncomfortably, hoping to have a romantic dinner for two, but being good citizens by training and observing that table space was at a premium.

“Well,” I said, “We’d really rather have a table for two, but if you need us to sit with someone else, we can do that.”

“No, no, by all means,” the host immediately said, “Give me a couple of minutes, and we can make that happen.”

“It’s okay,” I said.  “We don’t want to make you go to any trouble.”

“It’s no trouble at all.  We want to make your evening perfect,” he said and disappeared around the corner, only to reappear (in under two minutes) and guide us to a lovely table that had been converted from a four-top to a two-top.  “Just for you,” he said.  “Enjoy!”

I have a hard time bringing to mind parallel stories from ministry settings.  We tend to answer questions with directions to a flyer or website that lists ‘ministry opportunities.’

Since we are hard-wired to always be recruiting people to serve, we would be more likely, metaphorically speaking, to answer someone’s special dining request with a tutorial on how they, too, can become a waiter!  When we can suppress that impulse to abc – always be recruiting – there  is a joy in simple and attentive service that infuses our work and naturally attracts others to want to be a part of that culture.

I mentioned the ship’s band earlier, and I was struck by how after every set this band played in the ship’s lounge, the band members would put down their instruments and circulate among the crowd, engaging people in conversation, talking about the songs they had played and any requests that folks might have for the next set.  They would do this every time, only taking their well-deserved break afterwards.

How many times have you seen a church praise band engage in similar interaction?  I remember a large and extremely talented praise team with numerous musicians and singers who would spend the worship ‘greeting time’ chatting among themselves up on the stage while the congregation shared their blessings and hellos.  Think about the impact those worship leaders may have had by actively greeting and engaging those they would be momentarily leading in song.  Granted, there might be some logistical challenges, maybe even awkwardness, in their moving from their choreographed stage positions to mingle with the hoi polloi and then back again, but think of the payoff of embracing the ungainliness of making that happen.

Similarly, staff and ministry volunteers might resist a push to be overtly attentive and demonstrably friendly to those they interact with in ministry because too much of a good thing might come across as artificial or forced.  But energetic hospitality habits are a discipline of sincerely doing the right thing and responding accordingly:

  • Introducing yourself and explaining how you can be of help or how you can direct people to help if they need something outside your area of expertise.
  • Asking and learning people’s names.
  • Asking questions.
  • Listening to the answers (and responding accordingly – not just creating a pause long enough for you to jump in with your own agenda).
  • Helping people navigate unfamiliar territory.
  • Helping people feel comfortable in your spaces.
  • Helping people customize their experience (and doing so with joy rather than making them feel uncomfortable by stating their needs and desires).

Interacting with people in these ways makes them feel special.  It makes them feel seen.  It makes them feel valued.  These reactions are all clearly Gospel goals.  And although practicing these hospitality habits may feel awkward and unnatural at first, over time, employed consistently, they begin to feel increasingly natural and purposeful.  We learn to take joy in them because we see the joy they bring others and the ultimate value they bring to our greater mission of building lively community.

As I was writing this blog, I was tickled to find in my newsfeed an article from the PsyPost titled, “People exposed to phubbing by their romantic partner are less satisfied with their romantic relationships.”  If you haven’t come across the term, you’ve certainly experienced its application; ‘phubbing’ is the practice of snubbing someone by focusing on your smartphone when you’re supposed to be interacting with them.  Here’s the opening paragraph from the article:

An online survey in Turkey found that people who are more exposed to partner phubbing (being ignored by their partner who was focused on their phone) are less satisfied with their romantic relationship and see its quality as lower.

I would say that sentence gets the ‘duh’ award of the week.

People can tell when we are not really focused on them, especially in face-to-face interactions.  This is also true in ministry settings, perhaps more so since people in ministry settings have a preconceived notion that we are going to care about them (it’s part of the brand after all, isn’t it?).  The silly article about phubbing goes on to make the broader point that relationships are the most important aspect of a life filled with joy and purpose.

Therefore, relationships within our ministries are the foundation to all else.  That, too, is straight from the Gospel.

What are the ways that you attempt to build strong, attentive personal connections between staff, volunteers, and people participating in your ministries?  Do you employ regular training to help people develop these skills?  Do people feel special when they interact with your ministries, like someone is genuinely listening to and responding to their needs?  What are the challenges for building this kind of responsive, attentive culture?  What are the benefits of doing it well?