Tag Archives: Thom Rainer

Personable follow-up with guests is crucial to churches

The manner in which churches respond to guest visits can determine whether or not those guests make a return visit. This column frequently focuses on how guests are treated at area churches during visits In reality, most church guests decide whether or not they’ll come back based on their perceptions within the first five to eight minutes. But if they stay for the service, afterchurch follow-up can be a critical factor.

In a recent podcast, church consultant Thom Rainer shared what guests have told his organization about how churches should not have followed up with them. I’ve seen some of these in my years of church visits. In this column, I’m using Rainer’s categories to group this follow-up mistakes, but describing my own experiences.

Do not show up unexpected at my house

This has all of the hallmarks of a “cold call,” the dreaded sales technique where a salesman shows up on your doorstep or business wanting to make a sale. I was in sales for a good portion of my career and discovered this was terrible technique.

Once, a local Baptist preacher, his wife and the church secretary showed up on my doorstep unannounced, wanting to be invited in. I was away on a business trip and my then-wife had no desire to discuss anything with them. Despite a previous connection to this church, it was the last straw to me, and certainly for her.

Do not neglect follow-up completely

I’ve visited many of Anchorage’s churches, sometimes filling out guest cards, and often not. Out of hundreds of visits, I’ve had only a couple of churches actually follow up with me in any way at all.  Rainer found out many respondents to this survey had the same experience, and did not return as a result. Several years ago I visited a large fundamentalist church here, and filled out a guest card. I never heard from them. (I later made the acquaintance of a then-member and discovered she wrote their visit thank you cards, but said she did not recall seeing mine.) Incredible! That’s similar to placing a call for home service, and then never hearing back. It’s no different with church. Guest follow-up is critical.

Do not wait a long time to follow-up

Rainer tells of a person who waited for four months before receiving a follow-up. By that time she’d forgotten about the visit, and subsequently never returned. The urgency of follow-up, whether its churches or business calls, is measured in days, not weeks or months. At the minimum, a warm and friendly note from the pastor can go a long way toward establishing a solid connection.

Do not act like a visit is merely obligatory

The church guest should never be left with an impression that a personal visit is obligatory because you just have to do it with every guest. Years ago, I visited a local evangelical church and was contacted by a member who wanted to come over to bring me a plate of cookies, something they did for all new guests. I was incredibly busy traveling statewide in my job, and literally did not have time to meet with him. After repeated calls, the member became exasperated with me and made a rude comment.

Years ago, my then-wife and I visited a church for the first time. We were asked out to lunch and, surprised, said yes. While waiting in the foyer after the service, the husband of the inviting couple let slip they were the “official couple” to ask guests to lunch. We quickly made an excuse and found a delightful meal at our hotel instead.

Do not do hard sells

Many times churches doing guest follow-up visits perform “hard sells” to try to get the guest to affiliate with the church. Some churches are not happy unless they are able to get guests to commit to return and become part of the member structure. If you are pressured, tell your visitors the way you feel and kindly ask them to leave. This type of behavior should not be condoned by any church.

Do not send a form letter or an email

Form letters and emails are disingenuous; they don’t have the ring of authenticity. There are better ways to convey the willingness of the church to be a resource in the life of the guest. That’s why we toss the majority of our junk mail out. If you do use a form response, make sure you’re prepared with a personable follow-up. Once, after visiting a local church, I received a warm form letter from the pastor. I wrote and called him back, but neither yielded results, because his secretary blocked people from reaching him.

Do not ask for money

As unbelievable as this sounds, some churches actually solicit money from guests. It’s totally unacceptable, especially when they are sitting in your congregation. Instead, they should clearly be told, in the bulletin and at the pulpit, they’re not expected to give because they are your guests. Sunday, I visited a Pentecostal church but heard no exception before the buckets, literally, were passed down the rows. It’s even more flagrant when churches ask guests to contribute money in a follow-up visit or  mailing, yet it happens.

Aside from follow-ups, churches can acknowledge their guests by welcoming them from the pulpit, yet many churches neglect to do so. A welcome token, such as a freshly baked loaf of bread, or invitation to lunch with the pastor are also great. Mike Merriner, pastor of Clear Water invites guests to his house for lunch once a month.

The key in all of this is thoughtful Christianity in practice.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.


Alaska’s clergy turnover problem

I recently revisited a local mainline church I’ve attended off and on for the past eight years. A new team of clergy — including people I’d never met — was leading. During the service, I began remembering different faces I’d known and heard in years past at this church; three permanent senior pastors, and two interim pastors who each served a year during the transition. Five pastors in eight years is not a great track record. Admittedly, the first of the five pastors to leave had been there for a few years prior to transitioning into a new role in local governance, but tragically this church averaged 1.6 years per pastor for the years of my attendance.

Church researchers say five is the magic number of years for a pastor to start becoming effective, and five to 14 years is the period of their greatest effectiveness. Lifeway researcher Thom Rainer, addressing pastoral tenure, writes, “Pastors generally don’t stay long at churches. The average tenure is between three and four years. But, as our research has shown consistently, longer tenure is needed for church health. Longer tenure does not guarantee church health, but a series of short-term pastorates is typically unhealthy.” (http://tinyurl.com/ntero4w) I believe this is a serious issue demanding attention from many of the churches I visit.

It’s also typical for many churches to use interim pastors for 12-18 months while a pastoral search is underway. Not all interims are good for churches stressed with the loss of their pastor for one or more reasons. Sometimes congregations discover their current pastor isn’t meeting their needs, ultimately asking them to move on. Their interim may or may not meet their needs before a new pastor is secured. Often interims have a difficult task of keeping things steady but not committing to programs and projects, which may impede a new pastor. As a case in point, I developed a consulting report at no expense for an interim pastor addressing a number of key deficiencies. They did not begin to address these issues until the new pastor arrived, even though a number of them were hurting the church, and still do. I fear most good church consulting is buried before it can do much real good.

I reached out to several church administrators to get a handle on the difficulties of short-term pastorates. It’s not an easy issue to solve. Sometimes the issues are beyond their control. For example, one evangelical church organization head said the average tenure in his statewide group is four years, saying it’s a problem with his denomination, but especially in Alaska.

Another church administrator, Rev. Carlo Rapanut, superintendent of the Alaska United Methodist Conference, notes three dynamics at play in Alaska.“United Methodist clergy are appointed for a year at a time. Even long-term UMC pastorates are yearly reappointments; The United Methodist Church also believes in pastoral longevity and subscribes to the outcome of the research that pastoral effectiveness is between years 5-14. Relating this to my first point, if pastors are effective in their settings and there is not a ‘greater need’ for them elsewhere, they are ‘retained’ in their appointment. However, this decision is revisited on a yearly basis; All our clergy appointed to churches here are from elsewhere in the Lower 48 and hold their clergy membership in annual conferences outside of Alaska. The Alaska Conference, being a missionary conference, does not have clergy membership. In layman’s terms, one might say that the clergy here are ‘on loan’ for missionary service from their home conferences. When their home conference Bishop deems it necessary for them to go back home and take a church in their home conference, then they move. When they feel like their time in Alaska has come to an end, then they ask for a move. When there is a change in family needs and dynamics (kids going to college, grandkids being born, elderly parents needing care, etc.), then people ask to move. Very few have moved within Alaska to another church.”

I appreciate Rev. Carlo’s frankness. Sometimes there are issues seemingly beyond the  control of local pastors and church organizations. A pastor friend at another evangelical church in Anchorage had difficulty retaining an assistant pastor from Outside, due to pushback on the part of his wife, who was not charmed by Alaska. Admittedly, Alaska has its strengths, but also weaknesses.

Reaching out to Dr. Mike Proctor, executive director of the Alaska Baptist Convention, I asked how retention fared among its constituency. He confirmed my understanding that Southern Baptist congregations call/hire their pastors independent of the convention or denomination. Proctor explains, “In the denominational structure of Southern Baptists, each entity (local congregation, association, state convention and national convention) is autonomous and able to make their own decisions. While we are independent, we are also interdependent and work cooperatively in areas of mutual concern.”

Commenting on Baptist pastoral longevity, he said, “Of the approximately 120 congregations affiliated with the Alaska Baptist Convention, 17 of our pastors have served 15 years or longer, and 18 have served less than three years with the others in between. I am convinced that our pastors tend to stay longer because of the decision-making being on the local level and not denominationally driven.”

Some denominations select pastors for their churches, while others allow churches to select their own. In either case, short-term pastors are not good for churches, even as interims. Unfortunately, ministry has assumed a career, or professional, status, for many pastors — a far cry from the early church. Many divinity schools across the U.S. turn out pastoral candidates by the tens of thousands, where demand is weak, creating pastoral churn. Churches must choose pastors wisely to avoid the short-term church-weakening muddle.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Alonzo Patterson marks 45 years preaching at Shiloh Missionary Baptist

It’s extremely unusual to read a headline like that these days.

Baptist church consultant Thom Rainer writes in “Breakout Churches” that the average tenure of pastors is 3.6 years. Church statistician George Barna offered a similar figure: “The average tenure of a pastor in Protestant churches has declined to just 4 years — even though studies consistently show that pastors experience their most productive and influential ministry in years 5 through 14 of their pastorate.”

Last Sunday afternoon, Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church celebrated the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Patterson’s 45th anniversary as the congregation’s pastor. (According to Shiloh, Patterson has been a pastor for 66 years). I counted over 10 additional visiting pastors present to offer their thanks and tributes to Pastor Patterson for his long-standing service to Christianity and our community, giving heartfelt tributes to his leadership. In a two and a half hour celebration I was treated to music, tributes, prayers, and hospitality I never receive, much less see, in Anchorage churches. If you’ve never visited Shiloh, I urge that you visit them to see how they exemplify the traits of churches and members I’ve sought in over seven years of blogging and column-writing for ADN. I lost track of the hospitable actions by Shiloh’s members during my time there.

Sunday’s celebration was interspersed with much music. Shiloh’s Voices of Praise was peopled by a colorfully dressed chorus primarily of women, assisted by a few male voices dressed in black. Led by Robert Heartwell, they were accompanied by a six-piece sanctuary praise band. I particularly liked the message of the stunning and heartfelt “Break Every Chain”: “There is power in the name of Jesus, to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.” Also “God is My Everything”: “God is — God is my everything, He’s my joy — He’s my joy in sorrow, He’s my hope — He’s my hope for tomorrow, He’s my rock — He’s my rock in a weary land, a shelter — a shelter in the time of storm.”

During a beautiful Al Green song, “I Feel Like Going On,” a male voice started singing the lead and fairly quickly people noticed that Pastor Patterson, sitting on the front row with his wife, was singing the lead using a handheld microphone. “I feel like going on, yes, I do; I said, I, I feel like going on, ohh; Ohh, I, I feel like shouting for joy; I don’t know about you; Ohh, I, I feel like shouting for joy, yes I do.” The effect was electric, galvanizing those assembled. Clearly it was a theme song for Patterson’s continuing ministry. The children’s choir sang a riveting, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” a staple of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ethel Waters, and Mahalia Jackson. It was beautiful. Finally, a beautiful rendition of the Donnie McClurkin, Yolanda Adams tune “The Prayer,” was sung by the Rev. Michael Bunton and his wife Nathalie.

Julie Fate Sullivan, and Constituent Relations staffer Sharon Jackson read a letter from Sen. Dan Sullivan to Pastor Patterson. In it, referring to the South Carolina shootings, the senator wrote, “On June 26th, I had the solemn honor of traveling to Charleston, South Carolina to attend the funeral service for the Honorable Reverend and state Senator Clementa Pinckney, which also honored the eight other victims of the heinous acts of violence at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). I want to thank you, along with Pastor Leon May and leaders of the Anchorage Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, for setting your time aside to write such a beautiful note sharing your wisdom and prayers with the people of Charleston and the parishioners of Mother Emanuel Church. Prior to the service, I delivered your letter to my friend and U.S. Senate colleague, Tim Scott of South Carolina. He was very moved by all of the expressions of sympathy and wanted me to thank you for him.” (You can read the full text of letter at churchvisits.com)

The Rev. D. Edward Chaney, pastor of Second Baptist Church-Las Vegas, was the featured speaker. After he was introduced, he entered the pulpit to an updated version of the Doris Akers song, “Lead Me, Guide Me.” He sang the lead with a powerful voice. It was a great beginning to a exceptional sermon on Matthew 16:13: “Who do you say I am?” In it he examined who we think Jesus is, and how He affects our lives. I wish I could share a recording of his sermon, but it’s not available. Pastor Patterson clearly loves to preach, and seems to enjoy hearing great preaching too, as he was animated during Chaney’s sermon. Sitting up, he leaned forward to catch every word, raising his hands and pointing in agreement. Chaney’s preaching reminded me of the Revs. Clay Evans and James Cleveland, whose preaching was half talking, half singing. Chaney ended his sermon to the strains of “Send Me,” a Lecrae tune.

Before all adjourned to the fellowship hall for food and drink, Pastor Patterson took time to recognize, by name, the people of Shiloh, a beautiful gesture. He also recognized Dick Sanchez of the Arctic Roadrunner who early on offered Pastor Patterson assistance, monetary and otherwise, to address community problems. Asked to stand, Dick struggled for words to describe what Shiloh and Patterson meant to him. Patterson asked his wife of almost 60 years, Shirley, to say a few words, asking her to keep it brief. She said “thank you” to applause.

Many speakers expressed hopes Patterson would continue on for years. I applaud Patterson and Shiloh for doing so much in our community. This celebration was wonderful, and I was fortunate to participate. (Selected celebration pictures at churchvisits.com)

Shiloh, a member of the American Baptist Churches, and National Baptist Churches has created important outreaches in Shiloh Community Housing, and Shiloh Community Development. Shiloh telecasts Sunday morning services — a traditional one at 8 a.m. and a contemporary one at 11 a.m. — live.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.