Donna Claycomb Sokol: What would happen if your church was reviewed on TripAdvisor?
Churches spend a lot of time on the big things, like a glorious anthem and prophetic preaching. But a UMC pastor says small details matter, too, like lights that burn brightly, signs that make sense and greeters who greet.
I love to travel. Though I don’t get to do it often, travel is serious -- and seriously fun -- business to me. Before each trip, I research my journey thoroughly. I read all the travel guides. And I study online reviews to help me decide where I want to sleep and eat in the places I visit.
Over the years, I’ve become a pretty prolific travel scout myself. Wherever I go, I post my comments, good and bad, on TripAdvisor, the popular travel website.
But this summer I put my travel -- and travel critic -- chops to the test like never before. Thanks to a clergy renewal grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., I was able to take a sabbatical, a “summer of deep engagement” that took me to Iona, London, Paris, New York, Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Wherever I went, I posted my reviews. And as usual, I often heard back from managers who thanked me -- either for my glowing comments or for letting them know about something that was not quite right.
I wrote about meals so good that you wanted them to never end. I posted pictures of dark substances growing in hotel bathrooms. I praised concierges who called me by name and made invaluable recommendations about what to see and do while in town. And I slammed a restaurant at which the waiters were still preparing the dining room -- and ignoring customers -- 15 minutes after it opened.
On my sabbatical trips, I didn’t visit just tourist sites but also churches -- more churches than I have visited since I was in seminary. It was an eye-opening experience, one that often left me wondering: What would happen if the tiny handful of church review websites were as popular as TripAdvisor?
More than once, I left houses of worship with plenty to say.
I discovered that in some churches, the trip from the parking lot to the sanctuary is an exercise in endurance, a left-to-your-own-devices, unmarked labyrinth to the door.
In one church, I stood at the sanctuary entrance for three minutes while the greeter talked with the couple in front of me about an upcoming church event. Eventually, I tried to ease around the conversation, at which point the greeter finally said “hello” and gave me a bulletin.
At another church, I sat in a pew so dark that I felt as if the walls were closing in. Halfway through the first hymn, I looked up and discovered that four lights on my side of the sanctuary were burned out. No matter what the Gospel of John said that morning, no light was going to shine through this darkness.
Once, when I asked a greeter how to get to the balcony, he responded with clear directions but no additional words of welcome. No “It must be your first time here. We’re so glad to see you.”
And I walked down a corridor at another church that made the sidewalks on D.C.’s K Street -- packed with lawyers and lobbyists focused on their iPhones -- seem warm and welcoming.
It all made me wonder: What would happen if I and other church visitors wrote about our experiences in a place where pastors and lay leaders could read them and respond? Would they want to know? What difference would such reviews make to people who are searching for an authentic faith community? Would they look elsewhere?
I know painfully well that I and my church have benefited from visitor feedback -- often from clergy colleagues who later told me about their experiences.
One pastor said he and his wife took their two-year-old son to our nursery only to find another parent there with his children waiting for the nursery staff, who were apparently running late.
After leaving their child with the man -- a complete stranger who at least claimed to be another parent -- the couple spent the entire service distracted and unable to focus, worried about their child. The church was embarrassed to hear about their experience, but it prompted us to make several major changes in our children’s ministry.
Once, another colleague tried to worship with us during her maternity leave but emailed me on Monday to apologize and explain that she had not been able to find a parking spot. The sign at the entrance to our building’s parking deck had said the garage was full. She had driven all the way downtown, only to have to turn around and go home in frustration.
What she didn’t know -- and what everybody in the church did -- was that the sign really meant “go ahead and pull inside.” On Sundays, the “full” sign means that the garage is closed for everything but church.
How she and other visitors were supposed to know that, neither I nor anyone else can explain. But her email was a gift, one that led us to post new, clearer signs at the garage entrance on Sundays.
More recently, while I was on my sabbatical, a visiting preacher told me several times how frustrated he was just trying to get into our building, with its one unlocked door and 13 locked ones.
As embarrassed as the church was to hear these reports, they are good news. They tell us that we have more work to do -- work that is revealed through the gift of strangers, outsiders who can see with fresh eyes what those on the inside cannot.
But do the details really matter? Does Jesus care about burned-out light bulbs? Can’t people just try every door until they find the right one?
After all, our church is friendly. It says so on our bulletin. And I know we take time to greet everyone. Isn’t that enough?
No, it’s not. As I learned at the first job I ever had, the mundane is important.
That summer, I worked as an office assistant for a nonprofit that provided sheep pedigrees for their owners, sort of an American Kennel Club for sheep.
The work was tedious, pulling and carefully refiling card after card from dozens of file cabinets in a smoke-filled room. The cards had to be in perfect order, and all the numbers had to match.
It was not joy-filled work. And on the days we complained the most, we also pulled more wrong cards.
But I learned a valuable lesson from a colleague who made me memorize Colossians 3:23: “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters” (NRSV).
Even in the middle of file cabinets and sheep pedigree cards, God can be glorified.
Churches spend a lot of time on the big things. The choir rehearses for hours, and the pastor spends the better part of a week crafting a sermon.
But there is more to being a church than a glorious anthem and prophetic preaching.
There are also the small details. Like lights that burn brightly. And signs that make sense. And greeters who greet.
What changes would we make if colleagues visited regularly and gave us feedback? What would we see if we walked around and through our churches as though for the first time?
When’s the last time you checked? Are all the lights working in your sanctuary?