by Eddie Pipkin

Photo by Pipkin

I was taking my wife to the airport for an early morning flight, and since it was Saturday, even though it wasn’t yet daylight, we decided to honor our weekend diner tradition.  We needed basic breakfast food fast and on our designated route.  So, Waffle House to the rescue!  If you don’t know by now, I’m a big Waffle House fan.  And as I scarfed my pecan waffle, my wife took her credit card and placed it on top of the check.  I said, “You know you pay at the register.”  She said, “Well, maybe they’ll come pick it up.”  I said, “Nope.  Register.  It’s right there on the wall, clearly stated on that poster with the ‘House Rules.'”

Every Waffle House has this set of “House Rules” posted in plain sight (the poster that is featured in the photo accompanying this week’s blog).  What makes the posting of the rules great is that there are really two sets of principles set in side-by-side text:

  • Expectations of how customers will conduct themselves.
  • Expectations of how customers can expect to be treated by staff.

Local churches could learn a lot from this model.

One of the principal reasons that people struggle to connect with local congregations is that they are unclear or misinformed about what they should expect from the institution and, critically, what the institution will be expecting from them.

There is a healthy debate about what local churches should expect from people who walk through their doors (including, these days, those who walk through their digital doors, interacting with their virtual ministries).  Expectations can be communicated, overtly or subtly, as requirements of participation in a faith community.  Or they can be communicated as aspirational in nature: “We’re hoping you will get to This Level of participation as you mature in your faith journey, but you are welcome to be a part of our family regardless of Whatever Level you find yourself.”  Churches are always trying to find the balance between welcoming all and laying the groundwork for the principle of growth.  Transformation and growth, of course, are expectations, and if we expect people to transform and grow as evidence of their spiritual health and progress, we should explicitly say so.

There are those who argue that explicit statements of expectations can be a major turn-off to those who are exploring our spaces.  Mandates, requirements, dictums, and ultimatums produce a natural resistance.  It’s more optimistic and inviting to talk about aspirations, goals, hopes, and possibilities.  Still, too squishy a projection of what discipleship looks like undercuts the hard work that is rewarded when we pursue true spiritual and relational growth.

As for the Waffle House, one of the reasons the rules are posted is because the Waffle House carries a significant amount of reputational baggage in the popular imagination.  If you don’t believe me, check out this skit from Saturday Night Live, one of my all-time favorites.  It leverages the less savory preconceptions about the infamous diner chain (which, frankly, are some of the reasons that some of us love it).  The WH and its reputation for always being open no matter what looms so large in the national psyche that it’s even a bellwether for the degree of appropriate panic when disaster strikes, e.g., the Waffle House Index.  One of the great things about the restaurant chain (and another characteristic that local churches can emulate) is its authentically egalitarian vibe.  All people truly are welcome, and all people truly are treated the same way.  Since people from all walks of life are invited in, it just makes sense to set some publicly posted ground rules:

  • No fighting.
  • No threats.
  • No offensive, abusive, or obscene behavior.
  • No loitering.
  • No drugs, alcohol, or interfering with service.
  • No harassment of customers or employees.

Also on the poster are some “teamwork makes the dream work” principles of communal cooperation:

  • Booths should be for two or more people.
  • You might be asked to slide down a seat at the counter to make room for other customers.
  • Be willing to split up if you’re part of a large group.
  • Everybody pays at the register.

And it’s not just behaviors you agree to as a customer that are listed; there are also some clear promises from the staff:

  • We will not tolerate any discrimination against anybody for any reason.
  • We will call the cops without hesitation the second that safety becomes an issue.
  • We will prepare your food to order, the way you like it, and you can watch us do it. (Waffle House was practicing the ‘open kitchen’ concept before it was cool.)
  • We will be here for you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. (We have friends who celebrate their annual tradition of Christmas Eve at the Waffle House.)

The moment in church life when congregations are most likely to offer up the first side of that equation (what is expected of YOU) is when people take their membership vows.  If you’re a United Methodist, good ol’ Paragraph 217 of the Book of Discipline spells out the commitment to which we are agreeing, to support the local ministry with our . . .

  • Prayers
  • Presence
  • Gifts
  • Service
  • Witness

Much less frequent is a further explanation of just what the expectations may or may not be within the context of each of those individual categories.  It’s mostly assumed?  Or implied?  You know, you’re just supposed to know.

Less frequent in membership ceremoniesis a corresponding moment in which the church’s side of the commitment is spelled out.  Indeed, the congregation makes its vow to “uphold you” in your spiritual walk, but other than a generic promise of prayer lobbed gently in your direction, there are not usually a lot of specifics.

Some churches, on the other hand, have moved from a standard model of ‘membership vows’ to a more detailed process involving ‘membership covenants.’  These covenants spell out the expectations of members (with membership being understood as a more highly committed phase of participation in a local congregation in which all are welcome to participate, but some have formalized and thus deepened the relationship, sort of like the difference between dating and marriage).  A covenant relationship is, of course, different from a contract, and it’s a biblical model in which each side professes “this is what I will promise to do for you.”  Behavioral covenants balance the two sides, clearly stating expectations from both.

We here at Excellence in Ministry Coaching, by the way, have done extensive work in developing models for behavioral covenants, and we have templates and training worships tied to this healthy practice.  Check them out elsewhere on our website.

Whatever path a church chooses, emphasizing membership, de-emphasizing formal membership, focusing on small group ministries, serving actively in the community on a regular basis, or whatever the goals of the congregation are, these should be stated clearly and often.  Expectations do not turn people off unless done in a ham-fisted and judgmental manner.  People welcome expectations because they give them a framework for moving forward in a positive direction, and expectations, by implication, speak to our hope for their possibilities for growth and success.

Churches can even work against the negative cultural preconceptions of their reputations as needy and grasping entities by stating a list of countervailing principles for those who willingly walk through their doors and choose to engage:

  • We will not give you a 14-point list of things you have to believe in order to carry your Christian card. Instead, we will help you customize your journey through the rich heritage of spiritual thought and practice, building upon basic Gospel principles to explore the nuances of God’s grace that speak most fervently to your life and circumstances.
  • We will not badger you constantly for money. We’ll help you understand the profound freedom and joy of Christian stewardship and generosity.  We’ll be fully transparent with you about the needs of our ministry and how you can invest in it, but we’ll help you figure out how God is calling you to best share your resources in a way that makes sense for you and your family.
  • We will not harass you about perfect attendance. We’ll introduce you to all the ways you can engage with our weekly and seasonal ministries and growth opportunities, both in person and digitally, and we’ll encourage you to customize a plan that keeps you on an accountable path of spiritual growth that works with your unique lifestyle and schedule.
  • We will not tell you you are a bad person if you decline to serve in a specific way. We’ll encourage you to build new relationships by connecting with others through service in a way that best takes advantage of your unique gifts and passions.  We’ll suggest lots of opportunities to engage the community in creative ways that allow you to serve sacrificially, but meaningfully, and we’ll give you the tools to say yes to those opportunities with confidence.

You could accompany that with some additional institutional promises:

  • We will always be here for you when you need us.
  • We will always be true to the authentic spirit of the Gospel and our stated vision for this local community of believers.
  • There will always be a real person you can talk to you when you have questions or need something.
  • We will provide a rich mix of spiritual growth opportunities and ways to serve and well-trained leaders to facilitate them.
  • We will provide worship that is richly rewarding, stimulating, inspiring, and honors God in its excellence.
  • We will be honorable and effective stewards of the resources you share to further our ministries and God’s work.

That’s a manifesto of expectations that seeks to keep things clear and provide a jumping off point for a beautiful long-term relationship. I haven’t seen much in the real world that emulates the expansiveness of those suggestions, but there are some local churches that have moved substantially in that direction, and within such congregations there is a burst of energy and purpose.

Anytime expectations aren’t clear, confusion and hurt feelings can crop up.  Even as I was finishing up this blog, a headline flashed across my feed that called out the chaos that can result when there is no clarity as to whether all-you-can-eat truly means all-you-can-eat.  Drama!

How does your local church do at setting expectations in useful and imaginative ways?  If you are a leader, do you feel like you’re doing a good job of communication as explicit as that of the Waffle House Rules?  If you are a participant in local ministry, do you feel like you have a good sense of what is expected of you (and why) and what you may reasonably expect of the ministry in which you participate?  Share your own experience in the comments section below!