“I’ll try not to lose you in the brick hallway,” I said to a new family, smiling as I walked them toward the church nursery to drop off their children for the first time. I said this to all the new families I showed around on their first day as part of my responsibilities as Director of Operations for Children’s Ministry. This noisy, crowded, hallway was just part of our church culture. I saw it as a hub of activity – this connector hallway between the old and new sides of the building was always bustling, one side full of families checking in their kids, and the other side full of friends catching up and making lunch plans. In the middle, there were scores of people scooting through on their way to the worship service or to Sunday school, like fish in a stream, trying to find the path of least resistance. It was endearing, right?
Wrong. On this day, I looked a little closer at the family I was showing around. I saw the overwhelmed glances exchanged between these parents as we walked through the hall, and I started to realize something. This environment that I had grown so accustomed to was not warm and welcoming to new people. It was crowded and chaotic. I was so used to the hustle and bustle of familiar faces that I had stopped seeing the reality of issues with the system. I realized that this location was a pivotal point for new members’ and visitors’ impressions of our church, as well as a hub of community for our families. I knew we could do better, for both groups, and I realized that something had to change. That day, as I took off my rose-colored glasses and looked at it with a pair of fresh eyes, I set out on a mission to make life better in the brick hallway.
I decided to make our children’s check-in system my first target for improvement. I realized that to create a better environment and experience, we needed a better system. What follows are some lessons learned through the process of reimagining check-in, traffic flows, and first impressions for families at my church.
Keep a Fresh Perspective
The gift of fresh perspective opened my eyes to things I didn’t notice as problems. There is a reason that businesses and churches alike use secret shoppers, financial audits, and security assessments – because everyone gets used to their own way of doing things. We don’t see what we don’t see. I had been attending my church for years. The people in the hallway were my friends, and I liked to see them. It didn’t feel overwhelming to me because I knew the system and the people.
Additionally, when I took on the role of overseeing children’s check-in, I focused on the needs of the transaction instead of the ministry opportunity. I worried about making sure volunteers were scheduled and printers were full of name tag labels, while I should have thought more about other people’s perspectives, and the impact of this process on people’s mindsets as they were preparing to worship. First impressions are critical in a church setting, as people decide quickly if they fit in, and if they will return.
As I began to reimagine an environment that would allow new people and regular-attenders alike to feel welcome and comfortable, I knew I needed to seek out a new perspective. I invited the whole Children’s Ministry team to go on a tour of our ministry and check-in spaces. With a fresh set of eyes, we gave our first impressions of the spaces where we didn’t usually spend our time. Each ministry area leader came away with new ideas on how to improve the space. This exercise helped to instill an attitude of continual improvement for the entire staff.
Location, Location, Location
The way you use your space reveals your values and impacts your ministry. You have to be intentional and strategic about how to use your space because the choices you make will, in large part, determine the environment and atmosphere of your church. For example, tucked in a quiet corner of our town square lobby area, away from the hub of children’s ministry activities, stood our children’s Welcome Center. The idea was to put it someplace quiet where you could strike up a conversation with a new family or entertain their kids for a few minutes while mom and dad filled out paperwork. From our perspective, this was friendly and hospitable. But we started asking hard questions. Did our guests feel frustrated by the time they finally found us in the corner? Did they feel like an afterthought? Did they feel like we were trying to hide them away as if they should be kept separate from our regulars? Was the potential of a quieter conversation worth the risk of these other things?
We decided to move our Welcome Center right next to our church reception desk. This location is closer to classrooms and very easy to find – you can’t miss it. You can even see it from the indoor play area that is open to the community during the week; this reduces barriers to coming back on Sunday. As a part of this change, we decided to perform all assisted check-in at the Welcome Center. This adjustment solved several issues for us. It reduced the number of people checking in in the brick hallway, easing congestion. It also brought our guests in contact with some of our members in a more natural way. As an added benefit, it reduced our demand for volunteers because we were staffing one location instead of two. This location change was a win-win, increasing both visibility and hospitality for our families, and allowing us to provide a better overall experience.
Find and Use the Tools that Fit
Another cause of congestion in the hallway was our self-check-in lines. The software we used allowed self-check-in only by a barcode scanner. This limitation created a few problems. If the family lost the barcode, or the child came with a neighbor/ended family member, etc., then self-check-in wasn’t an option. These people would then have to bump over to the assisted check-in line. We also had long-time attenders who didn’t have a barcode because they didn’t know to ask for one. We realized that the barcode method wasn’t meeting our specific needs, and the best hammer in the world won’t help you if you need a screwdriver. So, when our church started to look for new software, we looked specifically for one that had check-in tools that lined up with our needs. We ended up moving to software that allowed self-check-in to be done by typing in a phone number – no barcode required. This simple difference allowed the majority of our families to check themselves in and sped up the process considerably.
As a last push to open up the hallway, we made some physical changes to our space. Historically we placed the self-check-in stations on desks. This design took up valuable floor space and concentrated traffic in the middle of the hallway. By merely building the check-in stations into the wall and spacing them out, we gained back precious space for foot traffic while making check-in more accessible at the same time.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
I’m happy to say that walking through the brick hallway on a Sunday morning no longer feels like an obstacle course. Through the changes we made, we were able to improve check-in, hospitality, and traffic flows! It didn’t happen overnight – some of these changes were easier to make than others. Making big changes can be intimidating, time-consuming, and expensive. However, don’t let this keep you from taking steps towards your ultimate vision. Start with a smaller adjustment you can make now with the resources already at your disposal. Look for those low-effort, high-impact possibilities. Redirect a line queue, move a desk, or make a sign. If you know where you want to go, you can capitalize on opportunities to head in the right direction. These little changes add up over time to make a big difference.
In making these types of changes in your church, the goal should always be to enhance your guests’ and members’ experience, while providing an environment that minimizes distractions and allows people to focus on ministry and worship.
We Want to Hear from You!
Do you love the way your church does children’s check in? Have any tips that you’ve learned along the way? We’d love to hear about it! Send a picture of your children’s check-in set up to firstname.lastname@example.org and join the conversation on Facebook!
Written By: Melody Parlett, Managing Director, Enable Ministry Partners