Can we make our congregations as welcoming as a coffee shop?

Have you ever entered a space and immediately understood what it was all about? Like you just got the vibe?

Maybe it was a specialty retailer that carries your favorite brands. Or it could have been a giant IKEA warehouse, where you walked through the sliding glass entrance and thought, “I’d better stick to my list!” Or maybe it was the Chick-fil-A drive-thru, where you pulled away blessed by your server’s “My pleasure!” benediction.

In each of our lives, there are places and spaces that feel like home. They get us, and we get them. And for me, one of those places is my local coffee shop, Bean Traders, in Durham, North Carolina.

When I’m at Bean Traders, I am in my “third place”; I feel safe and productive, and my mind wanders freely. More than once, I’ve asked myself, “What does this place teach us by the way we are treated? How do the behavior and actions of the staff embody the shop’s culture?” And even more than that, “What could Bean Traders teach congregations?”

It’s people, not coffee

Any store can sell a cup of coffee. The elements are simple. But in 2008, Howard Schultz, then the CEO of Starbucks, wrote, “We are not in the coffee business serving people. We are in the people business serving coffee.” Bean Traders gets this, at least as well as the local Starbucks does. And I can see that Bean Traders “gets it” because it’s reflected by everyone in the shop, not just the owner or a few employees.

Recently, waiting for a drink, I heard a crash behind me. It sounded like a grid of Connect 4 discs spilling onto the tile floor. Imagining the bitter end of an epic battle, I peeked around the corner expecting to see two competitive children. Instead, I saw plastic cups scattered everywhere. Christine, a Bean Traders employee, had dropped the cups while restocking the coffee bar. She rushed toward the counter before any more of the teetering cups in her arms could tumble to the floor.

I and three other customers immediately jumped up. Folks started collecting the cups and neatly stacking them. The whole thing happened so quickly — it felt like seconds.

As we returned the stacks to Christine, she thanked us and then said the most remarkable thing. It was something like, “I knew that when I got back, they would all be cleaned up.”

How did she know this? Has this happened before? Did staff orientation cover the role of patrons in cup cleanup situations? Was this a test? Did we pass?

I think it was much more than this.

I suspect that she knew she would get help because Bean Traders has cultivated a culture of hospitality, care and community for more than two decades. She knew she would get help because here, “This is our place, and it is just what we do.” We meet each other’s needs; we watch each other’s stuff, and we take care of each other. We do this because it’s built into the Bean Traders culture and ethos.

A chat with Dave

As I reflected on this event, I wanted to know more. I reached out to David Chapman, who co-owns Bean Traders with his wife, Christy. He’s the head barista; she’s the lead chef.

Over the years, Dave and I have had many conversations across the espresso machine, and we’ve crossed paths at middle school sporting events as our children competed for rival schools. Ultimately, though, what I knew about Bean Traders culture and history I learned as a loyal customer. So after the spilled-cups incident, I asked Dave a little bit about his view from behind the espresso machine.

We met for coffee one afternoon. (Drip for me; “VIC,” or vanilla iced coffee, for him). I wondered whether there was a secret strategy behind my beloved hangout. However, throughout the conversation, Dave’s answers were simple. They never evolved into high-minded strategy or devolved into business jargon. Dave spoke from the heart.

Dave and Christy met at a Charlotte, North Carolina, coffee shop and were inspired by its owner, Bruce Howell, who became a friend and mentor.

“We loved the busyness of the shop, wanted to do a shop of our own, and we’ve just figured it out along the way,” Dave said. “Christy and I have always treated the shop like our home. We are inviting folks into our kitchen.”

Eventually, we talked about the Great Cup Spill. Dave wasn’t surprised at all by the incident. But he also said he didn’t have much magic to share.

“I work the espresso bar every day from open until about noon. I also hire and train everyone. Christy does the back-end business management and all the baking. We keep the culture by being here, living it, modeling it and sharing it,” he said.

“Coffee is for everyone,” Dave said. “Whether it is simple or decadent. A ritual or a treat. Everyone can enjoy coffee, and they are welcome to make Bean Traders their third place.”

I left the conversation with Dave with the abiding belief that actually there is a secret strategy to the shop’s culture: it comes from how they live and lead every day. Dave and Christy faithfully and authentically show up and surround themselves with others who want to do the same. They set the tone.

Taking coffee to church

Bean Traders has built the kind of culture we all want to be a part of. The staff makes us feel at home and cared for, so in return, when the cups fall, we step in to help.

It reminds me of a quote from Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer: “The culture you have in your organization is the sum of all the wanted behaviors that you celebrate minus all the unwanted behaviors that you tolerate.”

But with that in mind, what do places like Bean Traders have to teach our local churches? What do the behaviors we celebrate and tolerate tell us about the culture that has been cultivated?

Churches appear to want to welcome folks in. Everywhere you look there are vinyl signs strung between metal poles. Flashy ads displaying worship times: “All are welcome, see you at 11.” Not a one puts up a sign saying, “Maybe this place isn’t for you.”

But do we send that message in other ways? Churches say we want to welcome everyone, but do we really? Do our congregational cultures truly lead to behaviors that are as welcoming as third places like Bean Traders?

Our signs, bulletin boards and worship guides inform, but are they truly clear and hospitable? Do they reflect embodied values? Or do they exist for church folks to feel that they have done something, even if it’s the least they could do? When folks are brave enough to walk through the doors of a church, are they treated as well in worship as they are at the coffee shop? Are our leaders showing up, like Christy and Dave, to model and guide our congregational culture?

In our shared church life, with every act, big or small, we set our culture. Far too often, what we see and experience in church reflects a culture for insiders that doesn’t account for (or welcome) outsiders.

If we want to change that, we need to think about every door we open, weed we pull, greeting we offer, sign we refresh, coffee cup we fill, sidewalk we sweep, preschool space we renovate, letter we send — and even every cost-of-living increase we ignore. Each of these acts, large or small, shapes our culture.

If our culture is the sum total of our behaviors — celebrated and tolerated — what is our culture telling us about how we act? Are we OK with the culture we are shaping in our congregational life? Where is there room for improvement?

Unfortunately, in far too many churches, it seems that shaping culture is viewed as someone else’s job. Is it in yours? If so, is it time to make some changes? The answer is up to you. When the cups hit the floor, will anyone rush in to help?

“Will I have a job in five years?”

“What will happen to this ministry in the long term?”

I hear leaders worrying about long-term viability, uncertain about how to plan for it.

Beyond wringing hands, some are experimenting by launching a new degree, starting a new worship service or selling a new curriculum. Others are begging donors for more financial support to cover expenses or provide scholarships to reduce fees. A few are exploring mergers with like-minded organizations to consolidate costs and expand ministry work.

Viability is tied to the services offered, the income generated and the related expenses carefully managed.

In a startup or turnaround phase, employees are asked to invest long work hours and offer their best creatively. When successful, such efforts generate more income and keep expenses low. This works for a season but is nearly impossible to maintain for the long haul. People wear down and eventually burn out.

At some point, we have to pay attention to the organizational capacities that undergird a ministry — things like the pay and benefits offered to employees; the hours of work expected; the methods of communication to constituents, donors and other stakeholders; the systems that store, manage and access data; and the skills needed by the board and the staff to operate year after year.

We know that such things are important. However, in an extended period of transition and related uncertainty, we often push off strategic decisions in order to accomplish the urgent. The donors, board members and other stakeholders can lose sight of the time and money required to keep the ministry functioning in healthy ways. The employees and volunteers grow so accustomed to working in overdrive that they may not even point out these longer-term needs.

Over and over again, I meet ministry leaders who have sacrificed the time and money necessary to provide for themselves and their families for the sake of launching and maintaining a ministry. They depend on pay and benefits provided by spouses and partners. They take risks with inadequate health care or borrowed housing.

They can make these choices, but should donors turn a blind eye to such sacrifices? Do those of us who have influence over resources question the decisions and their consequences for the people involved? Do we recognize the problems inherent in unsustainably low salaries and expenses?

Practically speaking, higher expenses require more revenue. Increasing revenue has consequences. For many ministries, the main sources of revenue, and the consequences of dependency on them, include the following:

  • Fees paid by those served. Fee-based ministry serves those who have money and are willing to spend it. Even modest fees can exclude some groups from the services offered.
  • Sponsor fees paid by those who have money in order to provide a service for those who don’t. Sponsors often determine whom the ministry serves. Sponsors also often have stipulations about how the work is done.
  • Contributions from supporters of the ministry. Those who contribute again and again want to know the impact the ministry is making and how their donations are spent. Developing the initial connection that leads to recurring gifts requires a deep commitment on both sides. Ongoing fundraising often becomes a substantial part of the ministry’s work.
  • Grants, usually one-time gifts for specific projects. Grants typically require reports to the grantors and are seldom renewed more than one time; the general expectation is that grants are a way to fund startup costs or launch experiments. With some notable exceptions, like government grants, ongoing grant funding is unlikely.

Occasionally, a ministry will have assets like property or endowments that can generate revenue. Such assets often take years to acquire as well as skills to manage.

The wisdom from 20th-century nonprofit work was that if 20% of an organization’s income comes from a single external source — a person or organization — then the organization is dependent on staying in alignment with that source’s expectations. Perhaps the percentage is different for your organization, but if the loss of a single source of income would require you to make significant strategic changes, then your organization is dependent. The governance structure might indicate independence, but the financial statement does not. For the sake of clear expectations, the board, staff and volunteers need to know the influence of any single funder on the ministry.

Another factor related to viability (and connected to revenue) is often labeled scale. What quantity of services can we provide that are both affordable and of good quality? This might be the number of congregations a consultant can serve or the number of people in a learning experience. Congregations have to discern the number of staff that can be adequately paid and what those staff members can accomplish. The questions about scale are specific to each organization, but the concern is across the board.

Our recent experiences with quarantines have changed the scale questions in so many different industries. For example, who knows now how much office space a business needs? Each business answers that question differently. Airlines are now cutting and adding flights continually to adjust to changing passenger needs while doing their best to fill up every flight. Congregations can no longer rely on counting the average in-person worship attendance as an indicator of staffing and services.

While capacities, revenue and expenses, and the scale of services are the most obvious questions to explore, the only way to get clear about long-term viability is to get clear about your organization’s mission and vision, along with your part in that mission.

In our work, we often use five questions based on the ideas of business theorist Roger Martin and former Proctor & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley to develop a strategy. These questions function as a cascade, the answer to each in turn providing structure for the one that follows.

  • Why? What is the deepest aspiration?
  • Where and with whom are we serving/transforming?
  • How will we serve? What activities are needed?
  • What capacities do we need to do “it”?
  • What management systems are required to ensure that the capacities are in place?

If your organization gets stuck on any of the questions, back up and review the responses to the earlier questions. What has changed? How should that change affect answers to the other questions?

Too often, ministries stop after answering the third question. But when we focus on the long term, we also have to address questions four and five, which take us back to capacities. If boards and donors don’t encourage and support ministries in addressing these questions, then the employees have to answer them out of their own resources. That leads to exhaustion. Insisting that these questions be addressed is a great gift that donors and other stakeholders can provide.

Questions about capacities, revenue and scale are difficult, but those who care about our ministries must do our part to raise them with a view to the organization’s mission and vision. Long-term viability is important to all of us.

As chaplain in a volunteer fire department, I accompanied survivors wandering through the wreckage of fires, picking up pieces of the past and pondering next steps. I think of those moments as we move beyond lockdowns and start charting the future.

Many are assessing the damage to health, careers, families, neighbors and institutions. Some continue to feel the initial shock of loss. Some are moving through the debris looking for treasures to salvage and recalling what came before. Others recognize that they never had a place in what was lost and hope that whatever comes next will be different.

Those with energy are ready to make decisions about the future. They are considering the condition of structures and processes that are still standing. Some are deciding to raze everything and start from scratch. Others are looking at the insurance money and any other resources they have to determine what seems possible and practical.

In the case of a home that burned, at some point the family asks, “What sort of life do we aspire to live in this place?” They consider both their present circumstances and their hopes for the future.

Some are determined to replicate what has been lost. Almost all want to make improvements. A few want something very different — a new place with new neighbors. But most feel pressured to decide what is next before they feel ready.

What have we learned in these last two years about our lives, our neighbors and our world? What is our vision for the future? What do we rebuild, and why that thing? How have we been changed by seeing injustices that we had previously ignored or accepted as facts of life? What will we do differently? Can we take the time to decide?

More than a decade ago, I facilitated a visioning and planning process for an affluent white congregation that had a reputation for generosity in missions and a vision for justice. In the process, the congregation looked closely at its immediate community and realized that they had focused their attention on the major thoroughfare and the connected neighborhoods that their building faced. They had completely blocked out the neighbors behind their building, who had socioeconomic situations and racial and ethnic identities very different from those of the neighbors on the thoroughfare.

In discussions, the congregation decided to open itself to the neighbors in the back. The fence and bushes that shut out those neighbors were removed. This had an immediate impact, because it cleared a pathway for the neighbors to reach a bus stop in front of the church property. The congregation looked to cultivate relationships with both the neighbors and those the neighbors trusted.

The visioning process was complete and the fence down when the church sanctuary burned. The education and recreation facilities were spared, but the sanctuary was gone. In the next years, the congregation decided to build a new sanctuary that looked similar to the previous one but was oriented in a different direction. The new front doors would face the side yard and parking lot. Church members would no longer enter and leave worship looking at the thoroughfare.

They would see all their neighbors and be reminded at each service of their place in between.

What have the viral and racial pandemics exposed that you need to acknowledge in the rebuilding of your congregation or organization? What neighbors have you now seen? With whom are you joining forces? What public policy have you challenged that needs further revision?

This is a moment when we can examine fundamental assumptions. For congregations, this can be as basic as considering how we measure effectiveness.

For generations, congregations have gauged their vitality by average worship attendance. In the 20th century, this was an elegant measure that told insiders and outsiders much about the dynamics of a congregation, from the number of staff to hire to the size of facilities needed. Those who attended were the most likely to give money, serve on committees and attend Bible study.

COVID-19 made average attendance worthless as both a measure of vitality and a sign of faithfulness. If we need to measure effectiveness now, we need something else.

Recently, Reginald Blount invited me to consider how to measure the impact of Christian discipleship on the world. How could we measure social impact from Christian witness? How might that measure help us figure out what to rebuild and where?

Surveys by the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research indicate — and even the casual observer knows — that many congregations made redesigning worship their highest priority during the COVID-19 lockdowns. For example, congregations figured out how to do outdoor and virtual services. The second priority for many congregations was what sociologists call social outreach — meeting human needs for food, clothing, shelter and more.

In the 20th century, congregations saw worship as the gateway to deeper involvement in their activities. The implication was that the number of times people came to the church building was the mark of their engagement as Christians.

But what might happen if we saw worship as the occasion of focusing on God, from which flowed an invitation to engage our neighbors? Instead of rebuilding programs to attend, congregations might address the working conditions in the community. Instead of planning a building for the members to gather, congregations might re-envision the property as a staging area for life-giving resources or quality working conditions.

If we need examples of this life, we can look to the stories of many Black congregations. I recently visited the Bethel AME Church of Morristown, New Jersey. Their building is a place of worship and home to a feeding ministry that extends throughout the county.

This relatively small church is the catalyst for collaboration among multiple organizations and individuals. The number of people participating in the feeding ministry on a weekly basis far exceeds the number attending the congregation’s worship. By engaging in ministry, the people see with new eyes.

In rebuilding, perhaps we should start with why we are rebuilding and who is at the center of our rebuilding. If God’s love for the world is our why, then our neighbors can be our who. If so, what we rebuild might have renewed purpose and profound impact on the world.

They would see all their neighbors and be reminded at each service of their place in between.