I am not a religious man. Never have been, never will be. But, when I stepped through the doors of the Central Christian Church in Beloit, Wisconsin, to join my in-laws for a pre-Christmas service, I got inspired nonetheless.
Imagine a room with well over a thousand seats, coffee cup holders included, facing a giant stage surrounded by three massive video screens. A control booth in the center with mixing panels, mounted cameras and monitors, operated by a crew of four technicians. I associate this kind of environment with seeing a musical or stand-up comedy, not the House of God.
We take our seats while the room is slowly getting more crowded. A countdown clock on the screen indicates that the service will start in about five minutes. I feel excited to experience my first American church service.
Suddenly, a hand reaches out to me. An older, yet energetic man has appeared in front of me. Although I don’t know this person, my first reflex is to reach out as well and shake the stranger’s hand. He wears a shirt, draped over his slightly baggy jeans – very casual, like most church-goers in the room. The thing that stands out the most, though, is his facial expression. I would not characterize it as a full smile. It looks more like genuine friendly curiosity. His handshake and eye contact last a couple of seconds longer than I am used to, followed by a “Merry Christmas! Welcome!” Then, he reveals his identity to me: “I am the pastor.”
David Clark, lead pastor of the Central Christian Church in Beloit, Wisconsin, went on to shake dozens more hands, even minutes after the lights had dimmed and the service had started with music on stage. He took his time to welcome most of his guests in a sincere, intense way – “I am so glad that you are here” or “How are you doing?” and such. Some would receive a hug or a touch on the shoulder. The pastor seemed to know who appreciated that.
Later, David climbed the stage and gave a Christmas-themed sermon. Citing the Bible, connecting it to tensions in everyday life, what happens when you trust or doubt God’s goodness. Hallelujah, and so on. Let’s just say I was not the target audience for this part of the service. My mind was still with the pastor’s simple, yet powerful act of roaming the audience before he started preaching.
If this all sounds familiar to you, obvious even, because you go to church and have a similarly charismatic pastor, have you ever wondered why this kind of leadership is so uncommon in other corners of society?
Sunday church shows the inherent need of people to be heard, to belong and, sometimes, to be shown the way. But what if you are not religious? Where can you go then, besides church or your loved ones, to experience a similar sense of community?
In my view, many organizations in society could take a leaf out of Pastor David’s book and show more leadership in their communities.
As a business owner you should relate to your customers like Pastor David relates to his congregation. Go the extra mile. Create a place for people to gather and bring them together. Then, don’t rush to the ‘stage’ to broadcast your one-way message. Take your time to approach people as individuals as well, preferably amid the group.
If you run a store or service location, like a hair salon or an auto repair shop, you already have the perfect place for your customers to gather and for you to approach them.
Many businesses, though, aren’t built around brick and mortar stores where people meet face-to-face. For example, most people prefer arranging their health insurance or internet access by calling customer service or by logging into their online account. In these circumstances, it takes more effort and imagination to create a community experience.
Once you have found a way to mingle with your customers, like Pastor David does in his community, take your time to assess which approach serves each individual best. Be welcoming to people you have never met before and show a genuine interest in who they are. Be grateful to those who keep coming back and make them feel noticed. Emphasize how each person’s presence contributes to the community as a whole.
Most importantly, don’t fake it. Don’t follow a script or read from some customer hospitality cheat sheet. Why say “Hi, how are you today?” when the intonation of your voice and the expression on your face clearly indicate that you don’t care. Also, most people can easily tell the difference between a real and a forced smile.
Personality is key. Taking on the role of community leader and connecting (to) people should come naturally to you. It should excite you and boost your energy level. When, instead, you find yourself feeling drained often, you are probably operating outside your comfort zone. If that is the case, I suggest to quit forcing yourself and let someone else step in.
Strong and continued community leadership comes with the promise of a growing following. If you can make your customers feel like they belong to something greater than just a I-buy-you-supply relationship, your community will eventually repay you in loyalty.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you see the added value of adopting the casual, yet intense community leadership style of Pastor David in your daily business routine – one way or the other?