Monday, December 9, 2013

Customer Service the church way

I must confess that I find it amusing that the MBA is apparently the "next degree of choice" for up and coming pastors of all stripes and persuasions. I say this as a "before-times" business person with an MBA who was regularly told in seminary and in the ordination process that nothing good would come out of Finance Land. Tee hee, the cycle has come around again and my background is now in vogue again!!  I simply had to wait the twenty year cycle.

My topic of interest today is "customer service." I do not know how churchy MBAs talk about this, but I think of it as hospitality at its core, one of the virtues of church, community and especially of the monastic way that I follow. We learn from St. Benedict that all visitors are to be received as Christ, and that the precept of hospitality is both of ancient origin (think of Abraham and Sarah and the important guest who arrived under the oaks of Mamre - Genesis 18)  and current best practice.

I first consciously "tested" this in the church back in the late 1990s, when I visited for the first time my beloved Mt. Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara. I spent a few days in retreat and upon leaving, discovered that I had a flat tire. What to do, except call upon the brothers for assistance?

I remember a rather grouchy guest master coming out to help me. But more than that, I also remember that my expectation, built up from being at the monastery itself, was that I would receive help there...if not actually changing the tire, at least assisting me. I remember an earlier encounter, in the late 1970s, when I lived in Paris for a semester, broke my foot, and immediately thought of the American Cathedral in Paris as a place that might help me. Church people help others, I had learned deeply and early.  While church people may well debate the extent of help we can actually offer (and this parish priest encounters unattainable requests on a daily basis), we can offer something, and that is what I want to address here.

When I began to work, in 1983, as a brand-new MBA in the financial services industry, the firm I worked for had a culture of excellent customer service. Looking back, I do not  know how I learned those customs. I don't remember if someone told me, or if there was some sort of manual, but I learned that we never let the phone ring more than twice, and we never sent people on to "another department"...we researched ourselves and called them back with direct contact information.

This worked well. It meant that the Senior Vice President picked up Stacey's phone if it rang more than twice, and it meant that Stacey picked up her manager's, or her subordinate's phone. There was a culture of service which was constant and dependable. When one of our construction projects failed, we had angry Marin homeowners calling our offices: we did wonder how they had found our direct lines, but we also knew what to do...answer the phone in two rings and get the person help.

This is a place that the church, and indeed other non-profit organizations, can let our business acumen and experience take a lead. People respond to people: we know this deeply ourselves. If we want our churches to be places for people, we must find ways to have people responding to people. In my parish, that means volunteers who come and open our parish office every week day, respond to visitors, phone calls, guests and seekers, and who do their best to welcome the stranger as Christ. And the best thing is, these are not Professional Administrators, these are devoted Christians who are offering a point of first contact. It is really that simple. And affords us opportunities to serve that we would be missing every single day without our devoted parishioners.

Recently, I had occasion to call a State of California agency. In an amazing good fortune, and through the person to person contact I have described above, I found myself being helped by the only Episcopalian working at that call center (she told me the other had retired last year.) I laughed as I took down her number, grateful to have made a small personal contact in an otherwise overwhelming system.

What would it be like if we considered ourselves the same way, capable and indeed bound to offer these small gestures of hospitality, which gestures can open the spiritual universe to those who are seeking God in a complex, overwhelming world?

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