By Eddie Pipkin

Phil Maynard, our esteemed leader here at Excellence in Ministry Coaching, was recently conducting a workshop at Virginia Beach and had the good fortune to be hosted at The Cavalier, a luxury level, five-star status property, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  This famous landmark has hosted seven U.S. Presidents and a cast of luminaries, including Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali, Elizabeth Taylor, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and now, of course, Phil.  It is luxurious, spectacular in every respect, and dripping with ambience and amenities, from fine dining to a Himalayan salt room and Molton Brown bath toiletries in every room – I had to look that last one up (since they’re not available at Target).  Phil asked his host, an expert in high-end hospitality, exactly what it is that elevates a resort to five star excellence.  What one element puts it over the top?  The answer surprised him: “When every employee addresses every guest by name.”

It’s just that simple.  People – even people who can afford to stay at the swankiest of addresses, like The Cavalier – love to feel known . . . valued . . . appreciated as an individual.  This is good news!  It’s good news in the Gospel sense, illustrated time and again by the intimacy which Jesus routinely establishes intimacy with the people to whom he ministers, by listening, displaying empathy to their needs, and offering words of comfort and encouragement.  It’s good news in the here and now, because it levels the playing field for an essential ingredient that can define our reputation as a church in our community  Although many larger congregations have added five star amenities in their quest to meet cultural expectations (coffee bars, gyms, internet cafes, and the like), medium-sized churches have struggled to keep up with this trend.  And small churches – which lest we ever forget, make up the majority of churches in America – throw their hands up in frustration when told if they can’t offer up a frothy latte with worship, they’re never going to attract young people.

Everybody, however, can learn someone’s name and make them feel valued as an individual.  This is a core hospitality competency that doesn’t depend on size or scale – in fact, you can make a case that smaller congregations have a distinct advantage when it comes to this priority.

Here’s a reflection on the impact of name recognition from The Serviette website (which quotes in this passage from Mary Mohler):

Not long ago I read a short piece by Mary Mohler on hospitality and she spoke of remembering people’s names as a simple but important element of hospitality. I had never thought of it that way. She says,

“Can you associate with the common problem of being introduced to someone and immediately forgetting that person’s name? Many people do not listen well when meeting someone new….and then feel reluctant to admit that [they] were not paying attention. The wrong assumption is commonly made that those who remember people’s names are just ‘great with names,’ as if they have a genetic marker for that. The truth is that those who are adept at remembering names invest time and effort in learning them. Consider it an act of encouragement and yes, an expression of hospitality to call someone by name. Do you know anyone who is not pleased to be called by her name?”

Mohler tells a story of how someone told her once that her simple act of remembering his name had brightened his mood and encouraged him in the midst of a gloomy time in his studies. Knowing that motivated her to keep learning names. You will also find, as you work at remembering stranger’s names, people will feel God’s love through this little act of love on your part. Something as simple (or not-so-simple) as learning an international acquaintance’s name can build a foundation for a meaningful relationship, and express God’s heart of hospitality.

I really like that idea of thinking about addressing people by name as an element of hospitality: an expression of a “little act of love.”  And I appreciate the accountability of not letting ourselves off the hook by using the old, tired phrase, “I’m just not good at remembering names.”  Imagine the hilarity of lazily applying that kind of standard to other basic aspects of hospitality or worship leadership.

  • “I’m sorry I just read from a web site instead of preaching something original this morning. I’m just not that good at sermons.”
  • “I’m sorry it’s so hot in here this morning. I’m just not that good at adjusting the thermostat.”
  • “I’m sorry we couldn’t find the melody line on that song we tried to sing. We’re just not that good at music.”

We should quit making lazy excuses and be more diligent about learning people’s names.  Syler Thomas breaks it down (from a youth leader perspective) at the YouthWorker website:

“But I’m terrible with names,” you might say. There are people who genuinely have a difficult time with names, but that also can be an easy excuse, albeit an unacceptable excuse, for youth ministers.  Learning names takes time, but it’s worth the effort.

You won’t always remember every name, every time. You might make a fool out of yourself trying to remember, but students will understand as long as you are trying. The minute you give up, the minute you start calling a student “chief,” “big guy” or “friend,” they’ll know. They can see through the façade.

Again, I love the way Thomas acknowledges there is disciplined work involved.  I also love the way he insists that we should not give up just because sometimes we are successful and sometimes we are not.  Most importantly, I love the way he captures the way people feel de-valued – young people or any age person – when we clearly do not know what their name is and are just trying to fake it.

Remembering names and addressing individuals by them is a worthy goal for ministry leaders, staff members, and hospitality team members.  We should work together to develop specific strategies to help us achieve this goal.  And we should encourage all congregation members to take up the challenge. Here is the ultimate payoff:

It is impossible to learn and use someone’s name without a conversation taking place.  Conversations are good!  Conversations lead to relationships.  Conversations unpack a world of connections and possibilities.  Relationships are why we are here!

Of course, in addressing the nuts and bolts of how to go about remembering names, different techniques are going to resonate with different people.  It is a golden age of accessibility to ideas, and there is a profusion of web-based resources at your fingertips.

  • Here’s an extensive catalogue of name-remembering tips from (which is a website focused on people dealing with brain injuries, i.e. people who by definition are struggling to be good at this skill).
  • Here’s a more down-and-dirty guide to 10 tips for remembering names from the business-oriented folks at Forbes magazine.
  • Here’s a page full of videos offering ways to get better at remembering names (from psychologists, to self-help gurus, to comedians) on YouTube.

The key is to be intentional in developing a strategy and helping your team (and your congregation) identify this as a priority.

Again, it’s not just a score keeping exercise in pulling off a neat trick (I’ve actually been to some mega church settings in which the pointed use of my name – read from my mandated giant nametag – was so perfunctory and highlighted that it felt fake: “Hey look, I’m using your name!!!!”

Ah, name tags!  Worthy on their own of an entire blog entry.  It’s near impossible to get people to wear them.  Lots of people don’t like them, are intimidated by the whole name tag vibe.  It’s rare that a church successfully maintains a name tag culture.  And it’s a worthy philosophical question as to whether they actually promote increased conversation.

Don’t be afraid to say to someone, “Remind me again what your name is.”  If we could help people get over the fear of saying these words, the impact could be transformational.  Think of the several theological principles involved in overcoming our fear in saying these words.  And look, yet again, at how they promote that all-important goal of conversation.

All of the “suggestions for remembering names” websites share some general ideas:

  • Repetition: Repeat the name; use it as often as possible (without seeming like you’re a skipping record).
  • Remember something distinctive: Find out something that stands about the person and associate their name with that interesting fact (or visual cue).
  • Make notes: If you can, write something down (not only for reference, but writing things down is known to enhance our future memory).  Don’t be afraid to use technology!  At my last ministry gig, I started taking selfies with new people I met and immediately made associated notes in the app with their names.  Later I would use these like old-school flash cards to memorize the names.
  • Introduce a person to another person: A two-fer in name usage!

Notice how all of these strategies hinge on the power of conversations.  Real conversations with people have lasting impact — I cannot stress that enough.  If you can train your hospitality team and congregation members to embrace this philosophy, you will be known by a five star reputation in your community.

Indulge me in one final story about how I was personally blown away by this skill set in someone else.  There is a small theater company down the road from me, and I love to go see their shows.  It’s small enough that the producer/director and his wife, the scenic designer, stand out front and greet patrons as they arrive, and some months earlier I had run into them at Ikea and introduced myself and told them how much I appreciated their work.  Well, much later I came to a show, and this wonderful lady greeted me by name.  I was blown away.  I felt like theater-going royalty.  Now, there were only about 20 people at this show, and they had a list of patrons attending that evening, so it’s quite likely she looked at the list, and I was a name that stood out — a “quick trick” she used — but who cares!  I felt special in the moment, and it made me love their little group even more.

What’s your strategy for remembering people’s names?  How about your hospitality team and leadership?  Do they make using people’s names a priority?  Is knowing and using people’s names a part of the culture of your congregation?  Share your success stories and challenges below in the comment section (and please leave your name).  Let’s get a conversation going.