Is your hospitality level high enough to keep families? Check out these 4 ministry-changing hospitality insights from unlikely sources.
Dan and his four kids started coming to our church one spring—a major coup for our small church. Delighted, we threw out the welcome mat. We were already making plans with Dan and his kids—how to reorganize our small kids church to better integrate the ages of his children, wondering whether he might be a future volunteer for VBS, how we could support him as a single dad, and when to invite his family into the social life of our church. Our treasurer, wanting to be helpful, took him a box of offering envelopes. The pastor pulled Dan aside and mentioned membership classes for when he was ready.
And then, around the eight-week mark, the family disappeared.
We waited. Families rarely attend every week, right?
But a few weeks passed with no sign of the family. Their personalized mailbox began gathering dust, a lonely, overflowing cavity packed with newsletters and gift inventories. Our pastor called and left a message. No response. Someone else—a grandmotherly type—called. Nothing. Finally, someone bumped into Dan in the grocery store and let him know we’d missed his family. He offered a nonspecific response, said they were all doing fine, and went on his way.
And that was that. This family never returned. They ghosted us—disappeared without explanation—or so it felt.
This was troubling to those of us excited to see a new family who seemed so likeable and appeared to fit perfectly with our church. Had we done something wrong? Was our church just not a good fit? Were we too pushy? Desperate? Not friendly enough? Was it the church doctrine? Our lack of Saturday services? Or—what? (Learn more about Dan’s feedback in the “Asking the Hard Questions” section.)
Here are four hidden hospitality secrets from four unlikely sources that I wish we would’ve known.
1. Hidden Hospitality From Your Favorite Restaurant
No matter how hard we try, it’s very difficult to fake warmth. Think about that time you sent your food back and you could tell it irritated your server, but she smiled anyway because that’s her job. There’s a coolness beneath the smile, right? Yet when someone truly enjoys what he’s doing, it’s obvious. His smile lights up his whole face and his goal is your happiness—not minimizing his own inconvenience.
“The best way I can describe the people we want is like this: There are some people who throw great dinner parties because they really want to take care of their guests, and there are other people who are lousy at it because everything is a chore, everything is a problem,” says Top Chef judge and restaurateur Tom Colicchio in “The Heart of Hospitality,” by Micah Solomon. “We’re looking for that natural host, the person who is always looking to make people happy and who doesn’t find it to be a chore.”
Hidden hospitality happens when your team members truly enjoy what they’re doing, and they can’t help but spread their joy. And when you have this genuine warmth, you won’t overwhelm people like Dan by being too eager—too fast.
2. Hidden Hospitality From a 5-Star Hotel
For their son’s birthday, Denise and Ron opted to stay in a fancy local hotel where their kids could swim. Everything was great—until another kid vomited in the pool, closing it for the rest of their stay. Then at 4 a.m., the fire alarm malfunctioned, forcing everyone to evacuate into the frigid parking lot in pajamas for an hour until the fire department gave the all clear. Needless to say, Denise and Ron were frustrated. They complained.
The attendant at the front desk apologized and said, “This is not the experience we want you to have at our hotel. Let me make it up to you by purchasing your breakfast. Then I’ll upgrade your room to our finest two-bedroom suite for the night. Finally, though I can’t fix the issue with the swimming pool, we’d love to pay for movie tickets as our birthday gift to your son. We want you to come back because we value you.”
When things go wrong—even little things—and our team doesn’t have the ability to fix them, we send the unspoken message that the ministry as a whole isn’t interested in helping. Unempowered volunteers simply can’t deliver top-notch hospitality. Dan’s problem (that we didn’t see) was that his family was strapped for money. How did we respond? Regrettably, by handing him a box of offering envelopes. Instead, we could have empowered our teachers to ask whether there was any way our church could practically support his family—after all, we’re a source of food, clothing, meals, child care, and more for many others in our community. Why not for Dan’s family?
“Great hotels and restaurants empower their frontline employees to proactively fix customer problems without waiting on management approval,” notes Micah Solomon, a contributor to Forbes magazine. “This employee empowerment—the permission to be creative, and even spend money, on behalf of customers—is a masterstroke in hospitality.” When teams understand that helping people is a key to their role and they’re encouraged to do so, they may seek creative solutions to resolve an issue—and the hidden hospitality quotient of your ministry goes up.
3. Hidden Hospitality From Pike Place Fish Market
Ultimately we did get feedback from Dan, and he confessed to feeling he and his kids were stepping into chaos at our church. With a heavy sigh, he’d said, “No one understood…that I really, really just want to find a church where I can come in with my kids and try to heal and get a handle on my life again in God’s presence.” We had so much planning, excitement, and mayhem going on behind the scenes as we attempted to bring his family into the fold that we missed the bigger, more obvious picture. Our chaos became his chaos, which complicated his life rather than offered him a safe space for healing.
You may have heard of Seattle’s famous Pike Place Fish Market, where workers literally throw fish to other staff and any customers willing to play catch. What happens is a symbiotic relationship between the market’s customers and its staff. But how is it possible that people in business attire love catching slippery fish this much? There’s a hidden secret—and it’s not what you think.
“Fishmongers have been throwing fish for decades in this small shop,” writes Kirk Johnson in the New York Times. “Here’s the drill: You stand sideways to the fish’s flight path, then think of a football, or perhaps a baby—one hand held low, the other high, ready to support the head as the fish comes down. Then you hope for the best.” A staff member offers this profound tidbit: “The secret of flight is that while the crowd roars at a good catch, especially the casual-looking but risky one-hander, the real skill is in the throwing, which hardly anyone notices at all.”
Our ministries are the throwers, and families are the catchers. The hidden hospitality here is that we must ensure we’re so skilled at the inner workings, behind-the-scenes aspects of our ministry that our “friendly chaos” doesn’t spill onto families; instead, they get to experience the joy of a great catch. We can’t overlook real ministry for the mechanics of ministry. It’s up to us to ensure the work happens in the throw, not the catch.
4. Hidden Hospitality From the Friendly Skies
Flying isn’t what it used to be. Most can agree that the process now involves more lines, higher (sometimes questionable) costs, fewer perks, and less overall happiness. But does it have to be this way?
Yes, says one veteran flight attendant.
“Look, flying is no longer the wonderful, elite experience it was back in the day,” says Meghan Meeker* (*name changed), an international and domestic flight attendant who’s spent 20 years in the industry. “Most people will complain they feel like sardines crammed into a stinky metal canister, which is relatively true. While I really have little control over the overall experience, and I may feel stressed by their stress and discomfort, it’s my job to take care of business, keep people safe, and control what I can. My job is to keep things running smoothly—from the safety of passengers to transactions occurring, to meal service, to professional representation of the airline. If you look closely, you might see my pit stains, but you have to look really closely.”
Families who step inside your ministry are taking on a level of risk, sort of like boarding a plane. They’re wondering if their children will be safe with you—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It’s up to your ministry to take on the role of a first-class flight attendant: safeguarding, organizing, protecting, and monitoring. When families feel physically, emotionally, and spiritually safe, they can focus on the experience, not their worries or a sense of insecurity. You may not have control over a family’s overall experience at your church, but you can control your immediate ministry environment—and that’s the bedrock of hospitality.
Asking the Hard Questions
When Dan and his family stopped showing up at our church after eight weeks of faithful attendance, we had questions—but no answers.
They weren’t coming back, no doubt about it, but perhaps they’d give us real feedback as to why…if we asked.
That phone call was awkward, but after making it clear we really were just looking for feedback, Dan opened up.
“We didn’t return because, well…we didn’t belong. The people are friendly enough and the building is nice. The kids’ programs are fine, but my kids didn’t want to leave my side to attend them.”
After we picked our jaws up off the floor (I mean, everything we’d done was about helping them belong, right?), we dug a little deeper—and it got worse.
“I’m a single dad,” Dan said. “I have a lot of kids. I picked up the message that I’m expected to give weekly, which is tough since…I’m a single dad and I have a lot of kids. I had people asking me when I could volunteer, how I spelled my name for the mailbox. My kids got invitations to people’s homes I didn’t know. I felt like a spotlight was on me every week just because we showed up.”
“No one understood that my divorce is only recently final, that my ex-wife is an addict and has had no contact with the kids in over a year, or that we just moved to town to try to get a new start with a new job and new schools. Or that I really, really just want to find a church where I can come in with my kids and try to heal and get a handle on my life again in God’s presence.”
So, there we had it.
We’d just learned a hard lesson about true hospitality. Sometimes helping people feel like they belong isn’t in the obvious things like smiling faces and a clean facility and social invitations. Sometimes true hospitality is more hidden than what’s on the surface; it goes beyond a welcome mat or a handshake.
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