Somebody's gotta launch Lego Church. Might as well be us.

Somebody’s gotta launch Lego Church. Might as well be us.

I spent the last few days in a guest services geek’s dreamland: I was fortunate enough to sit around a table with seventeen of the sharpest church hospitality minds in the country. We came from churches of different backgrounds (from maybe-sorta-traditional to hey-wow-you’re-not-traditional-at-all), churches of different sizes (from really big to good-glory-are-you-a-church-or-the-population-of-Montana), and churches with varying philosophies and approaches to how we do just about everything.

But one thing united us all, and that’s our vision that churches nationwide must step up to reach those who are far from Jesus. In addition to being missional communities who send people out, we have to be attractional communities that welcome people in. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.

By the time the first sixty minutes of our conversation had elapsed, my brain was full. I picked off enough ideas and “aha!” moments to last me for months (and I’ll share many of those with you in the days to come). Even this morning – a half a day removed from the event – my mind is racing as I try to process some of the things I learned and some of the topics we discussed.

But here’s my first big takeaway: planning is not the same as dreaming. 

I plan a lot of things: from weekend volunteer teams to training opportunities to large scale events, planning runs in my blood. I love it. I love wrestling a spreadsheet under my control, ticking every little item off my to do list, and seeing it all come together at the end of the day. And the insidious nature of planning the work and working the plan is this: you feel like you’ve accomplished something.

But planning isn’t the same as dreaming. Executing a plan doesn’t mean you’ve created an experience. I can plan an event down to precise detail but never see the experience change from one time to the next. So if I never take time to dream, my plans will never really evolve into something better.

When it comes to guest services, I’m prone to take the easiest, cheapest, simplest, pragmatic-ist way out. I want it to be replicable across eight campuses. I want it to be simple for our staff and volunteer teams to understand. I dumb down the plans in the name of simplicity. But creativity is not the enemy of simplicity.

Here’s what I learned this week: sometimes you need to just dream. Forget the practical nature of what you do. Forget the budgetary constraints. Forget your lack of volunteers. Yesterday eighteen of us spent a couple of hours simply dreaming: “What if we could implement this?” “What if we had a blank check?” “What if we had an unlimited staff or a bottomless pool of volunteers or 27 hours in a day?”

When we get to the end of the “What if?” road, we know there will still be some limitations there. We’ll never have unlimited cash or the millions of volunteers we hope for. But the great thing about dreaming is that it knocks the ceiling off of some of our preconceived notions. When we get out of the world of spreadsheets and checklists and start staring into the blue sky of creativity, we see new things evolve. New initiatives arise. New values emerge. And sometimes those new insights may indeed mean just adding a couple of volunteers here or a couple hundred bucks there. But that small tweak is the thing that raises the bar and helps us truly create an experience that captures the imaginations of our guests and points them to the truths of the gospel.

So how about it, guest services friends? Ministry friends? Leader friends? Are you planning or are you dreaming?


To find out more about what we’ve been up to the last few days, check out a couple of posts by our fearless leader Bob Adams here and here.


At Chick-fil-A, HATCH comes first – even before the chicken or the egg(via @robertvadams) My friend Bob Adams gives us a behind the scenes tour of Chick-fil-A’s new innovation center. How are you thinking ahead in the guest service experience?


If you’re going to innovate in ministry, you will have to find ways to identify the fledgling innovators in your church and then find ways to support some of their seemingly crazy ideas.

Five things we expect (and rarely get) from conference sessions(via @360connext) Good stuff here. If you are a part of organizing, leading, or speaking at conferences, these are great things to keep in mind.

Ensure content isn’t completely redundant. If speakers keep saying “well I guess Joe already covered this,” that’s not the presenter’s fault. Planners and organizers should know who is presenting what and how it can benefit the audience.

Things I’ve said to my children(via @NathanRipperger) Yep. Guilty.


(click the photo for the entire list)


From the archives:

There will be days…weeks…months where I have to give an inordinate amount of time to the church or to ministry.  But there will also be times that are relatively calm.  Both are necessary, and both should be expected.  There are times that I have to suck it up and just get the job done, and there are times when I need to say “no” to some great opportunities, simply because my family is more important than doing the opening prayer at the Women’s Ministry Annual Bake Off and Missions Auction.

Read the entire post.

You say, “This is a lazy man’s way of writing a blog post.” I say, “This is the way of a flippin’ GENIUS.”

How to set yourself up for a productive day(via @MichaelHyatt) Ah, if only I could get into this routine. Except for that “exercise clothes” thing. Let’s not get crazy.

In my experience, the best way to ensure a productive day is to set myself up for one the night before. This gives me a chance to make sure I do the most important things first.

Even if my day gets hijacked—and sometimes it does—I’ve achieved my most important tasks. I structure everything around this.

Here are five strategies I use to set myself up for the most productive day possible:

Summer lovin’(via @DurhamMag) I’m gonna do a few of these this summer. I love me some Dirty D.

There are plenty of free movie and concert series to keep the little ones entertained:Brightleaf Square concerts; Duke Performances’ Music in the Gardens at Duke Gardens; Third Friday concerts; Center Stage at American Tobacco CampusRock the Park movie and concert series at various Durham parks; and the new Downtown Durham Inc.Find Your Cool concert series at CCB Plaza.

A young student describes what it takes to be a good teacher(via TwentyTwoWords) I’ll hand it to the kid: he’s got relational smarts.


Hey campers: I’m working on a new blog series that’ll debut soon, and I need your help.

If you’re a small church, big church, or in-between church, chances are your guest services team needs tweaking. Shoot, maybe it needs to be built from the ground up. (And in worst-case scenarios, maybe it needs to be mercifully killed and then resurrected to look a lot different!)

If you could ask one question (“Who do you use for exterior signage?”) or broach a broad topic (“Where do you start when recruiting volunteers?”), what would it be? No question is too large or too small, so fire away. Let’s get to the nitty gritty of what’s helpful to you.

Leave a comment below or email me directly at the “Make Contact” tab above. Either way, we’ll tackle as many as we can over the next few weeks.

(And by the way, if you’re newish to the blog but work in the area of connections ministry, please let me know you’re here.)

We’re wrapping up a three-day series called Dancing with the Elephant, where logistical nerds cackle with glee about how to pull off a large scale event in the guest services realm. Never fear, non-logistical nerds: we’ll have a better day for you tomorrow (spoiler: SIGN FLIPPING). You can catch up on the earlier posts here and here.

All of your pre-planning and preparation will ultimately go to waste if you don’t spend some time after the event thinking through and talking about what went well and what didn’t. Here are a few things that will help that process:

After Action Reports: for years now, I’ve kept an AAR for most of the events that I’ve been a part of. It’s a digital file or a physical folder where I keep notes about best practices, actual timelines, random to-do lists, and other things that we didn’t have a contingency for going into the event. And it’s a file that I refer back to when we’re doing the same event or something similar. Some of the items in the AAR make their way in there before the event even begins. It’s those emergencies that pop up in the last two days before the event that remind me what I need to plan for the next time. But most of the AAR happens in a 15 minute self-debrief once the event is over: what worked? What bombed? What could I have delegated? What “wow” could we add next time?

FI Team / Volunteer Feedback: on the last night of Christmas at DPAC, I sent all of our team leaders a quick email, thanking them for serving and asking them to give me their version of the AAR. Because these men and women were on the front lines in the parking garages, on the sidewalks, and on the seating teams, they had a much better idea of what translated well from paper to practice. The best debriefing I get always comes from these emails. Those team leaders tell me exactly what can be tweaked to make the next event better (and inadvertently rope themselves into serving again). [Sample]

Group Debrief: next week, our entire DPAC planning team will sit down to talk through the event. Representatives from Worship, First Impressions, Production, Summit Kids, and Communication will all gather to hash out our individual AARs. We’ll talk about big picture things: were five services necessary? Was the timing right? Did we like the venue? And most importantly: how do we get started for next year?

Show Your Gratitude: part of every event’s follow up needs to include a huge thank you to volunteers. I scheduled time on the last night of DPAC to email a thank you, prior to heading home on Christmas Eve, prior to getting caught up in my post-Christmas coma. That thank you is a non-negotiable: your volunteers were the catalyst to cause the event to happen; you need to be the conduit of gratitude to thank them for serving. [Sample]

Next Steps: in a completely separate email 1-2 weeks after the event, I usually send an invitation for new volunteers to become a regular part of the First Impressions Team. Every large scale event draws new people: they want to serve in some way, and signing up for a two hour stint seems like a reasonable request. But what many of these volunteers discover is that they actually love what they were asked to do. As a matter of fact, before I could even send the “Next Steps” email this time, I heard from a couple of volunteers asking how they could do more. Don’t miss the opportunity to turn connected people into committed people. [Sample]

So there you have it: define your win, develop your systems, and debrief the event. What about you? What strategy, system, or question would you add to this equation? I’d love to hear from you. Comment below…


Other posts in this series:

In yesterday’s post, I talked about the importance of defining the win when it comes to pulling off a large scale event. Knowing the event’s nature, the budget you have to work with, and the mechanics of the event itself will do plenty in helping you prepare. But for those of us in the guest services world, there will perhaps be no greater component to event planning than getting the right volunteers in the right places.

That’s why step two of the Dancing with the Elephant series is to develop your systems. Specifically, your systems for determining, inviting, assigning, and training volunteers. Again, using Christmas at DPAC as our model, here are the systems and steps we followed to make sure we had the right vols in the right spot:

1. Figure out which teams are needed, and how many on each team. In a new venue, this is a key question, and we had to do a couple of walk throughs and a few days of plotting to figure out the answer. Facility layout determines volunteer need, and a facility the size of DPAC was certainly no exception. Using floor plans, seating sections, numbers of doors, physical location of parking garages, and even the street layout of downtown Durham, we determined that each service needed 153 First Impressions volunteers broken down into 12 sub-teams.

2. Hand pick your team leaders and key volunteers. My right hand man through all of Christmas at DPAC was Josh Lawrence, a First Impressions intern who oversees our Brier Creek South Venue as well as assisting with special events. Josh was the official FI Team Director at DPAC, though I was also there to offer helpful annoying suggestions.

We then asked full time pastoral staff to serve as team leaders for four out of the five services, since that was the staff expectation for DPAC anyway. While it’s true that meant we overlooked our seasoned, every-week FI volunteer leaders, I knew that many of these folks would be out of town and/or couldn’t commit to that expectation so soon before Christmas. (One benefit to this was that we only had to train one set of team leaders, rather than five sets of team leaders. And the longer that leader served, the better they got at anticipating every need.) So we went to particular staff and asked them to be head over particular teams, and then we spent time making sure they knew what we expected of them (more on that later).

But then we asked our seasoned volunteers to serve on their normal teams as much as they could. Having their expertise meant that the DPAC services carried the same DNA as a regular service at one of our campuses.

3. Push service opportunities and plug the spreadsheet. We started inviting people to serve at the same time we began promoting DPAC (about four to six weeks out). Volunteer sign up happened on the Christmas at DPAC website, which pushed volunteers to a Wufoo form where they could choose the service they wanted to work as well as pick between the Summit Kids or First Impressions teams. This form closed 48 hours prior to the first event to give us ample opportunity to place all the last-minute sign ups.

And then we began populating the DPAC Volunteer Spreadsheet, which was a panoramic view of where we needed volunteers. Our rule of thumb was that we wouldn’t staff any team for any one service more than 50% full until all of them reached that halfway point. Further, volunteers couldn’t choose the specific sub-team where they served. Allowing that creates tons of confusion and alterations for “special circumstances.” We’ve found that it’s easier to address those individual needs after the initial assignment, rather than giving too many options at the outset.

One more thing: we kept the spreadsheet on Google Drive, which gave all of our volunteers real-time access to the frequent edits. Only Josh and I had editorial rights, but anybody could view the changes as soon as we made them, using the original link they’d been sent.

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. By the time Christmas at DPAC was over, not one single person said they’d suffered from a lack of communication. :) Volunteers received an automated message as soon as they signed up, letting them know we had their information and would be in contact at least one week prior to the event (that gave us a window to make changes and refine teams up to the last minute). Once the initial assignments had been made on the spreadsheet, we sent another email with a link to both the spreadsheet and a four page document of detailed instructions on everything from guest services philosophy to dress code.

In addition, we sent a couple of brief reminders and updates just prior to both days of DPAC, letting volunteers know of some pertinent last-minute changes.

For team leaders, they got all of the information above, plus a 28 page leader guide (I’m not even kidding) to get us all on the same page. That guide included specific instructions for each team, facility maps, and volunteer placement grids for seating, entry doors, and sidewalk teams. We also asked all team leaders to meet the day prior to the event to do a two hour walk through and orientation at DPAC. In turn, they took that information and trained their teams when they showed up prior to their shift.

5. Prepare for every contingency. As with any event, we knew there would be moments where we’d have to roll with the punches. But we did everything possible to make sure we anticipated every punch before it landed. Here are a few key areas that helped all five services run smoothly:

  • Count on an 80% retention rate. Lots of people get jazzed up about signing up to serve at a big event, but we’ve found that only about 80% actually surface. Whether it’s sickness, forgetfulness, or last-minute schedule changes, we knew that we needed to plan for that drop off.
  • Not all services get all teams. The timing of a Christmas Eve service means that a lot of people want to attend on Christmas Eve, but few want to serve on Christmas Eve. From the very beginning we knew that we might have to scrap a few teams for the 2 PM and 5 PM services and reassign those volunteers to more key teams (you’ll see that reflected on the volunteer spreadsheet).
  • Make sure vols know where to go when they get there. Nothing is more stressful than having 153 volunteers seek out the FI Director to ask “Where was I supposed to go?” That’s why we had predetermined meeting spots for each team. But we also had a Volunteer Headquarters (VHQ) in the main lobby, where vols could go to check their coats and purses and ask any questions they had. Our ladies who staffed that VHQ knew every location of every team, and had real-time access to the volunteer spreadsheet so they could both find the vol’s spot and sign up anyone who walked up willing to serve.

Other posts in this series:

In my role at the Summit, one of my hats is to help run point for some of our larger-scale events. Things like Church at the Ballpark, The Gospel Summit, and Christmas at DPAC fall to a team of us who are responsible for executing everything from publicity to registration to guest services to worship to Advil that’s passed out like M&Ms on the day after the event.

Now I’ll lay all my cards on the table: I’m a big event guy. I love ’em. I love the intensity, the excitement, the planning, the process. But I’m also a perfectionist and a procrastinator, meaning that I hate pulling the trigger on a system before I know it’s going to be flawless. And that’s the death knell for event planning.

That’s why I’ve spent a lot of my nearly twenty years of ministry tweaking and refining systems to help pull off events of this nature. Working through what works and laying aside what doesn’t has been incredibly helpful to making each event run a little smoother, and each planning process go a little easier.

So for the next few days, I’d like to share with you some of the resources that have assisted in eating the elephant of large scale events. For this particular context I’ll be specifically dealing with the guest services piece of the puzzle, and using our recent Christmas at DPAC event as the practical model. (WARNING: if you’re not a logistics nerd like me, you’re not going to enjoy this. Spend the next three days watching this video of a basset hound puppy instead.)

Step one: define your win.

I mentioned that I’m one of the members of the large events team. I’m not the team. That means that I have peers and superiors that I start communicating with months before the event. And in those initial meetings, I do everything I can to figure out what the scope of my role will be. Am I solely responsible for guest services? Am I responding to a pre-defined environment, or am I designing the environment? Will there be other hats I’ll wear on the day of the event (emcee, etc)?

Knowing what I’m responsible for and what my team will be in charge of goes a long way in planning for all contingencies. There are three primary factors that guide my questions:

  1. What is the nature of the event? In August, I didn’t know if Christmas at DPAC would be primarily a congregational worship service, a band-led musical performance, or an hour long dance recital of performers dressed like Frosty and Rudolph. Getting feedback and intention from our worship team helped to inform what the “feel” of our guest services team should be.
  2. What is my budget for the event? Dollars drive design. I need to know if I’m working on a shoestring budget that will buy a few sandwich trays for our volunteer team, or a massive budget that will bring in a pastry chef to make personalized monogrammed homemade cinnamon rolls for every attendee. Example: our 2011 Christmas Eve service was held at our main campus, which meets in a warehouse. It was overly familiar to our people and very non-Christmasy. So we opted to rent some artificial snow machines to make it feel a little more festive as people came in. For 2012, the event was at the Durham Performing Arts Center, a very sleek, modern, fancy-schmancy facility downtown. Snow machines – though nice – would have been complete overkill. So we said no to snow and used that money elsewhere.
  3. What are the mechanics of the event? When we did Church at the Ballpark, it was one massive service for 7200 people. Christmas at DPAC, however, covered two days’ worth of five services with 1800-2000 people each. One event required one large guest services team. The other required multiple teams with multiple schedules. in addition, every venue requires different needs. The ballpark featured our largest to date baptism services, which meant we needed to have hundreds of baptism counselors available. But DPAC required multiple levels of seaters and door greeters for a multiple-level facility.

There are probably dozens of other smaller scale questions that I’ll also ask: Food or no, and am I responsible? Are we feeding volunteers who serve a several-hour stretch? How many attendees are we expecting? Where does our nose end and our venue hosts’ nose begin? How much time do we have for set up and tear down? If we’re renting a facility, what parts of the facility will be off limits? Is it theoretically possible that I could theoretically be late for the Christmas Eve service because I theoretically have to make a mad dash to a theoretical store and buy one more theoretical last minute Christmas present for my theoretical wife?

Defining the win at the very beginning goes a long way to making sure your piece of the puzzle fits into the overall event picture. I’d love to hear some of the other questions you ask when defining your win. Please take a moment and comment below.

Other posts in this series:

Over Christmas vacation I borrowed stole a copy of Ken Blanchard’s Raving Fans from my dad’s bookshelf. Someone gave him a copy at a conference a couple of years ago, and every time I visit him I see it sitting on his shelf, staring at me, taunting me, giggling at me because I don’t own it (perhaps I see those things because I’ve also eaten too much of my brother’s special recipe New Year’s Eve hog jowl, I don’t know).

But I digress. Somehow I knew that this pitiful little copy needed to be taken, read, marked in, and smuggled out of Tennessee and back to North Carolina.

I could spend several posts unpacking the nuggets found in Blanchard’s book (and I likely will), but there’s one particular thought I’m ruminating on today:

Deliver plus one.

That’s the abbreviated way of saying “deliver your vision, plus one percent.” And that’s the abbreviated way of saying that you need to know your vision, refuse to over-promise your vision, and then deliver your vision consistently and constantly.

Plus one percent.

Delivering what people expect is..well…expected. But delivering exactly what they expect plus a little more? Well, that’s remarkable.

Your one percent might look a bit different, depending on context. Maybe you deliver a memorable experience for a first time guest, but your one percent is that you also remember their name. Maybe you follow up with a note to thank them for visiting, but your one percent is including a $5 Starbucks gift card. Maybe you provide up-front parking for a first timer, but you also wash their windshield while they’re in the service.

A new year is a great time for new strategies to honor your guests. It’s a new chance to wow people, as my friend Mark Waltz says. So what will you deliver this year that acts as your extra, as your icing on the cake, as your one percent?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment below.


Related post: What’s Your 1%?

This one’s for the pencil-pushing, numbers-crunching, spreadsheet-making organizational nerds out there. Merry Christmas.

If you’re a leader who tends to run regularly recurring events, you need an event template. Weekly events are one thing: you get into the rhythm of planning a weekend service, and you can typically do it with your eyes closed (worship pastors do that all the time, it makes ‘em look holy).

But when it comes to a not-so-weekly event, you need a template in place to keep you from reinventing the wheel and wasting time. Our First Impressions Team for our monthly Equip Leadership Forum is one example of how we pull that off. Away we go…

Read the entire post here.