Our efforts paid off

Organizer calls congregational preparation key to Texas’ ad campaign
February 28, 2005

The success of any advertising campaign to attract new people to our churches will always depend on careful preparation. Simply assuming our congregations know how to welcome guests can be risky.

In the Diocese of Texas, we took this seriously. We knew that those who walked through our doors in response to our invitation (two ad campaigns over the past five years) would expect a warm welcome. We wanted to be sure they found it.

We offered resources and extensive training for lay and clergy before we started placing our TV spots, billboards and newspaper ads a few years ago.

We started with a vision for growth, a vision of all congregations being part of “one church.” We wanted our members on board with our idea that the diocese is not 160 individual churches but one church of 160 congregations. To support this concept, we placed ads in 10 major markets at Christmas and Easter for three years. Those ads listed all the Episcopal churches in the area and their Christmas Eve or Easter Morning service times.

In small towns, the full-page ad listed only a few churches, but in larger ones, the ad named more than 60 churches. This brought people together within the diocese, and it raised awareness of the Episcopal Church in general. We stayed out of the religion section and took a page in the main news section of the papers.

We encouraged congregations to take a critical look at their physical plant and their signage and make alterations that would improve the setting for guests. Before the seven-week ad campaigns, we mailed congregations sheets detailing ways in which to make guests feel welcome.

Articles in the diocesan newspaper provided information on the campaigns. Diocesan staff supported the effort in their meetings with lay leaders and clergy. Our bishops focused their sermons on growth and becoming welcoming congregations.

We created brochures describing the core values of the Episcopal Church and provided them to every church. They were full of information, yet completely free of church jargon. (They became so popular that other dioceses and churches have since ordered more than 300,000 of them.)

During the campaigns, we offered an 800 number for inquiries. Phone calls were rolled over to volunteers’ homes. Each volunteer signed on for a 24-hour period, agreeing to stay home and answer the phone saying: “Hello, the Episcopal Church. How may I help you?” Their friendly voices and enthusiasm turned out to the most important aspect of the campaigns.

Personalized assistance

The volunteers came mainly from Stephen ministers and Daughters of the King. They trained by answering mock phone calls, role-playing conversations. Each received a notebook with information on all 160 of the dioceses’ congregations. The notebooks detailed each congregation’s programs, youth activities, style of liturgy, etc. The volunteers practiced telling people about their own faith as well.

Sally McCollum, a member of St. John the Divine, spoke to a retired electrician interested in volunteering and directed him to an urban ministry for homeless people. She suggested to a single father “clearly looking for a church home” that he and his children join a “Discovery Class.” The “Discovery” video series produced by the diocese teaches about the Episcopal Church and the Christian faith. McCollum talked to the young father about his specific interests and needs, and together they discussed each church in his area.

On many occasions, volunteers made direct referrals to clergy. Callers said they were pleasantly surprised to have a person answer the phone. Some wanted to talk; some were actively looking for a church; others wanted to know things about the Episcopal Church, i.e., how it differed from the Baptist Church.

Hits on the diocesan website doubled (to 1,234) during the campaign. The site included a special focus on visitors and provided answers to basic questions. Churches were listed by city, and all included a mapping icon for easy directions.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that efforts more than paid off. Jimmy and Joy Freeman decided to make the Episcopal Church their home after seeing the ads and visiting. They’ve since been confirmed, and their children, ages 13 and 6, baptized.

“We’re so happy, I wish we had done this years ago,” said Joy Freeman. They had driven by the church for several years, she said, but not until seeing the advertisements did they decide to visit.

In the Diocese of Texas, we realize that preparation to receive guests and visitors is essential. Whether conducting advertising campaigns or not, all our congregations must look with critical eyes at their physical facilities, their printed materials and at their attentiveness to unfamiliar faces. We want to remain aware that what we portray does honor our guests and tells them that we are glad they’ve come.

To learn more about the ad campaign, information brochures and Discovery Series in the diocese of Texas, contact her at cbarnwell@epicenter.org.