By Eddie Pipkin

Earlier this week, I had to make an unexpected trip to the doctor’s office.  They had been kind enough to squeeze me in for a same-day appointment, but it ended up being the very last slot of the day, and as soon as the front office person had checked me in, she and most of the rest of the staff slipped out the door, headed for home.  The lone, remaining nurse took my vitals and ushered me to an exam room, asked me a few questions, cautioned me that the doctor was running behind.  After an hour, I was still there.  I began to wonder if they’d forgotten me, if they were with their families eating dinner and I was like Kevin from Home Alone, or maybe the rapture had come and I was . . . you know, left behind.  I had read every page of a very interesting edition of Southern Living (not my usual thing, but I was kind of eager to test out the “7 Amazing Recipes for Dessert Squares”), when finally the doc came in, full of apologies.  It got me to thinking about how we, as ministry practitioners, leave people waiting.

Of course, we don’t usually keep people delayed with magazines in waiting rooms . . . although sometimes we do.  But there are many varieties and styles of putting people off, and it’s worth thinking about, because nobody enjoys it.  Being made to wait – in this context – is not about delayed gratification: it’s about those times when we’ve told people “this will happen at a specific time,” and then it doesn’t.  We’ve announced a schedule (“let’s meet for coffee at 10:00 a.m.”), then we show up at 10:30.  Do we have a reputation for honoring our commitments, large and small, or are we the butt of everyone’s jokes because we never seem to quite get it together?  Here’s the problem with our lack of follow-through in these and related scenarios:

  • It communicates our lack of organization. It’s just not very professional.
  • It communicates our lack of respect for people and their time. If they show up and we don’t, there is an imbalance in respect.
  • It communicates a basic lack of integrity that seeps into the way others evaluate our commitment to truthfulness, reliability, and faithfulness.

Again, we’re talking about habits and reputation here.  Obviously, we are going to keep people waiting from time to time.  Emergencies happen.  But that’s what they ought to be: unexpected delays; emergencies; the inevitable things that are beyond our control.  For too many of us in ministry leadership, as we juggle multiple projects and dozens of ongoing conversations, we get an inflated sense of importance: we get comfortable with the world revolving around our schedule (and frankly, clergy folk too often fall into this pattern).  Making a prioritized commitment to not keep people waiting has contingent benefits:

  • We spend more time considering appropriate priorities. One of the reasons we end up with a daylong chain of delays is that we’re trying to cram too much into that day in the first place.
  • A sanely scheduled approach naturally builds in more “pause” time in which we can take a deep breath, recalibrate, say a little prayer. To be on time, as the famous aphorism goes, requires being early, so we naturally have a few minutes to regroup before the next thing.  This is mentally healthy.

Here are some basics to consider:

  • Be on time for appointments. That is primarily the territory we have covered thus far in this blog.  We all have meetings continuously, so a foundational approach to one of the most basic things we do builds a great skill.
  • Start meetings on time. We are also always in meetings, and when we are in charge of the meetings, we should demonstrate leadership with a crisp start and well-run agenda.
  • Start events on time. Worship at many places – and other special ministry events – starts on a delay.  This has the effect of training people to show up late.  They know you’re not going to start on time anyway, so why should they partner with you in an illusory on-time start?

And, by the way, if you’ve mastered the art of starting things on time, the corollary is to end them on time as well.  In terms of appointments, it’s hard to start the next thing on your schedule on time if you are lollygagging with the current thing.  In terms of meetings, a meandering, ill-defined end time means the meeting itself is less efficient as it’s happening.  Having a definitive stop-time means better focus, and it clears people to make better use of the rest of their day.  In terms of events like worship, people know what to expect and appreciate that you demonstrate respect for their time.

This is the obvious stuff.  At a deeper level, many churches struggle with promising things to their congregation members and visitors, then fumbling the delivery.  This pattern creates damage.

Many ministries struggle to respond efficiently in these areas:

  • Written requests for more information or help.
  • Sign-ups from people who’d like to know more (about how to volunteer, learn about their spiritual gifts, etc.).
  • Phone calls.

In some cases, individuals struggle to develop healthy work habits.  In some cases, there is individual disorganization, so things fall between the cracks.

Let’s take the second case first.  For every way that someone (whether long-time congregant or first-time visitor) reaches out and communicates, a designated individual within your ministry should be responsible for responding.  If it’s a message on the answering machine, a card dropped in the offering plate, a note in the suggestion box, an email sent to the church office, a text – whatever the means by which the communication arrives – there should be a designated person for responding to it.

Then the institution should have clear, collaboratively established policies as to the time frame and method for responding to those communications.  For instance, your team agrees that any phone message will be responded to within 48 hours by a return phone call.  There are lots of opinions about the best practices for such responses: the key is that your team has settled on a system of goals that works best for your team and your context.  Without the establishment of such policies, there is no clear standard of accountability.  With such standards and goals, we can hold one another accountable to making them happen.  And we should.  One of the most common sources of disengagement by ministry participants is that no one follows up with them in a meaningful way.

A side note here, that one of the most dangerous territories for ministries in terms of setting themselves up for failure in the category of non-follow-through is the use of surveys and mass sign-ups.  For instance, it’s popular during annual stewardship drives to get people fired up about a spiritual gifts inventory or interest in joining a discipleship group, etc.  But when dozens of people submit their names, the ministry leaders are overwhelmed about how to respond, and no plan was put in place to organize a meaningful response.  No response happens, except maybe “we’ll get back in touch with you,” and the next time you ask people to participate in a similar project, the potential participants shrug their shoulders.

Likewise, we as leaders have a bad habit of standing on stage and making promises about future developments about which there is no follow through.  We’ll say something like, “At the end of this sermon series on service, we’ll be giving you lots of new options for ways you can serve.”  We say this because it’s a laudable goal, and our intentions are good, and we haven’t had enough time to flesh out all these cool new options before we begin the new sermon series, but we’re going to make it happen in the next couple of weeks, and then a hundred other things get in the way and it doesn’t happen.  But for the person who heard that message and got excited, there is disappointment.  Disappointment repeated over and over – if your ministry has a habit of promising and not delivering – breeds cynicism and eventual disengagement.  Don’t make promises and leave people hanging  Don’t keep them waiting and waiting.