Local church hospitality ministries are vital. Welcoming visitors and members as they arrive for worship services at your church is an easy way to extend a hand of care and kindness as soon as people arrive at your front door. But is the front door the best place to start saying, ‘Hello?’
United Methodist churches across the connection are deploying outdoor ministry teams to greet people as soon as they enter the parking lot.
“Even when churches have plenty of parking spaces, there is such a value in extending welcome beyond the church doors…having a friendly smile and someone to answer questions sets the tone for visitors,” said Sean Coleman, lay leader and parking ministry lead at Eastside United Methodist Church near Atlanta, Georgia.
Keeping it light
“Our job is to help people feel comfortable, to show them that we are glad they are visiting,” said Kerry Dove, hospitality team leader at The Village United Methodist Church in Nolensville, Tennessee. When the church’s team of parking lot greeters formed, Dove led them in a smile and eye contact training to get them ready for their work — he even included the county sheriff who was on-site to direct traffic.
To guide the flow of arriving cars, the team uses some memorable hand-held props, from Hula-Hoops and giant foam fingers to hand puppets and bunny ears for Easter services. “[We] always wave specifically at the kids, it makes the entire family feel welcomed,” Dove mentioned.
St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, has several parking lots surrounding the church building. For their congregation, the parking team is an answer to logistical challenges. Volunteers utilize walkie-talkies to communicate with each other about available parking. The team also helps to identify first time visitors in need of direction and aids people who need assistance getting out of their vehicles and into the building.
“You only have one chance to make a first impression, and being greeted in the parking lot is a great one,” said Marsha Long, St. Luke’s director of hospitality ministry. “We did not want people to feel pounced on. We are more or less a friendly face and someone to say, ‘We’re glad you are here.’”
A core group of volunteers is key. Some teams ask people to serve monthly, others weekly, and the team can be as small as two people or as large as twenty people, depending on the church’s needs. St. Luke’s launched their team recruitment with a clever video. “We were looking for new ways to extend welcome,” said Long.
A set of guidelines for volunteers might also help, such as the ‘Parking Lot Bible’ developed by Eastside United Methodist Church.
As the team is established, many times a community also forms. Volunteers usually meet for prayer before heading outside to greet arriving worship attendees.
Dove said, “Members of the team have said that this ministry gives them a purpose, that this is their mission. They feel that they are contributing — and they are.”
Volunteers should be in-place and ready to greet people 30 minutes prior to the worship service. Teams should also consider heading back out into the parking lot as the worship service ends to wave and thank people for attending.
Tools of the trade
The most valuable tools in hospitality ministries are a smile and an outgoing spirit. Vests or shirts designating the volunteers are important for safety and so that visitors know who can answer questions. Signage also plays a part, allowing everyone who drives onto the church grounds to easily see where to go and how to get there. Signs can direct first time guests to specific parking spaces, or can request that visitors turn on their vehicle’s hazard lights so that the parking team can usher them to a front row space before walking with them to the door of the church.
Directional signage solved most of the parking challenges at Eastside United Methodist Church, and often the team only needs two volunteers to manage logistics on Sundays - but an outdoor presence will always be in place because of the welcome that it extends.
Coleman said, “Introduce yourself. If you don’t know if someone is a visitor, it’s okay to ask if they have been before. Use this as an opportunity to meet someone new.”
*Laura Buchanan is a PR Specialist for United Methodist Communications.