The phrase “Home is where the heart is” was put to the test for my family and I. We made a big move from California to Georgia, following God’s call in our life. Upon arriving in Georgia we found a place to live in an apartment complex as we waited for our old house to sell. I will be the first to admit that it was a very difficult four months! We lived on the third floor of a large apartment complex with a 2-year old and a very pregnant wife…which meant everything we normally did became three-times as hard. Trying to get a house full of stuff into an apartment; carrying groceries up three stories; keeping a toddler entertained on the third floor without a backyard; the list goes on and on as you could imagine. Even though it was where we ate, slept and lived I had a difficult time calling it “home”, mainly because it wasn’t where I wanted to live. It wasn’t what I had grown accustom to. It wasn’t my ideal location to live and raise my family. But God has a way of teaching us great lessons in miserable situations…
God called my family and I to Georgia to plant and launch a church in Northern Georgia. I moved from a church and ministry with large, beautiful facilities with a large staff to a church I would be leading and pastoring that had no building, no facility and no staff…how would this ever feel like home? How could a portable church ever feel like a family? How could a portable church become a home for the lost (or as we say, “a place for people to belong, become and bless)?
God used those four months in that apartment complex to remind me that home really is where the heart is. God has given each of us (the church) a universal mission and a mission specific to us (as individuals). Regardless of the specifics of that mission, it is up to us to be good stewards of that mission and lead others in that mission. Portable church is not a hiccup or hindrance in moving God’s mission forward. Portable church is not just a placeholder or a stepping stone to a permanent facility. Portable church is another opportunity to lead and love others well! Church is not where the building is…church is where the heart is!
With all that being said, allow me to state the obvious…portable church does have unique challenges! In my context, we set up and tear down a movie theatre every Sunday morning for two worship services that includes four additional environments for kids and students plus two lobby areas and a cafe. And that’s just what happens inside. On the outside, parking team sets up cones, guest services puts out all the signage and so on…if you are in a portable setting you know the drill.
But even with these unique challenges God has figured out a way to get me to stop wishing for a building and remember that home is where the heart is! So, Pastor…my question would be “where is your heart?”. Is your heart set on a building…or is your heart set on the mission of God?
If your heart is set on the mission of God then let’s make the most of what we have, let’s dive into some best practices when portable!
1. BE A BENEFIT MORE THAN A PROBLEM
If you are portable, that probably means you are renting a space or using someone else’s space. Which means, you are an inconvenience. That doesn’t mean you’re a problem, it’s a fact! The fact is you occupying that space requires extra work on their end. Even if you pay for that space, someone has more on their plate because of you. And the person who is STUCK (and I do emphasize “stuck”) dealing with you is probably not seeing much more in their pocket as the person sitting a few levels up at the office.
With that in mind, it is a crucial practice to be seen as an asset, as valuable, as a benefit more than a problem and inconvenience. This doesn’t mean there are no problems but it means the benefits of you being there outweigh the problems and headaches. So how do you become beneficial for the people on the ground dealing with you?
Flexibility – Just because you pay for the space doesn’t give you the right to never budge. We set up and tear down every Sunday in a theatre. One Sunday, they had multiple 12:00pm showings which meant they had no choice but to put a showing in one of our children’s ministry auditoriums. Yes, we pay for our space and from a contract standpoint would have every right to not budge. But the relationship we have with the manager and employees is a priority. So we flexed! After our 9:30am service we moved to another auditorium and made it work for our 11am service. Yes it was more work on our part…but relationships are a give-and-take and take work! Don’t be seen just as a taker.
WOW Them – I can buy enough donuts for my set up team volunteers and the theatre staff for under $50. Can I afford it every week…no. Can I afford it sometimes…YES! I have also handed out thank you cards to every person at church and asked them to write a thank you note to the theatre staff. It was a wow moment when I handed the manager a stack of 200 Thank You notes! We have dropped off Starbucks to the employees on a Friday night. When you WOW them…they will actually miss you if/when you leave. That is one of our goals…to actually be missed!
Help Out – I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will. Leave your areas nicer than when you found them. Help them out even if that means doing their job for them. Clean the bathrooms, sweep the floors, pick up trash. We probably throw away more trash from movie guests than church guests…that’s ok with us and we don’t complain about it! As Chick-Fil-A would say, “it’s our pleasure”!
NO Surprises – Don’t surprise them. If you have a special event or extra things going on, let your contact know ahead of time. The phrase “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” does not apply in this context. For all you former youth pastors…(which I am also a recovering youth pastor), remove this phrase from your vocabulary! It was cost you the relationship.
Ask Questions – After each service ask questions to the right person:
“Did anything not go well?”
“Did we get in the way with your business or employees?”
“Was something not put back or cleaned up?”
“Do you need us to do anything differently next week?”
“How could we make things easier on you?”
Don’t wait for them to come complaining. Give them an opportunity to let you know right then and there before it festers and potentially becomes exaggerated.
Go Above Their Heads – Regularly go to the boss’ boss and brag on them! There is a young man who is one of the shift managers at the theatre we rent. He is usually the one to open for us and is there until we leave. I find ways to tell his manager how great he is, how professional he is with us and how well he does his job. Then I take it up a notch, I go to the regional manager and brag on the theatre manager and her entire staff! Become their biggest fan and biggest advocate without asking for anything in return.
2. VALUE VOLUNTEERS MORE THAN…well, just about everything else
Whether you are in a portable environment or not, a healthy church does not function without volunteers! This becomes exponentially true in a portable setting. I have chosen to value my volunteers above just about everything else that goes on with our church on a Sunday morning. It’s not about keeping your volunteers “happy”. It’s making sure your volunteers are healthy and valued. If the task becomes more important than the person, the person won’t stick around very long.
Be Available: This means I am VERY available to them. So no, I don’t have a green room to hide in before and after services. Be on the ground, walking around with your volunteers showing them how you appreciate and value them. You will be amazed at how much value you will add to your by being around and available, by rubbing shoulders with them while they do what you have asked them to do.
Go Out Of Your Way: Leaders know the need to value volunteers. Allow me to push you to another level. Add value to your volunteers by going out of your way for them. I’m sure we would all agree that our volunteers consistently go out of their way for us and the church, let’s return the favor. I would suggest going out of your way for them OUTSIDE of a Sunday morning. Ways we practice this:
– Regular volunteer parties just to say thank you and to celebrate.
– Have an environment for volunteers AND their families to hang out, eat food and play. We do regular “game nights” for our volunteer coordinators and their families.
– Make and deliver “thank you bags” for volunteers and their family. Usually consist of a bag of popcorn and a redbox gift card (cost is about $4 each)
– Write Thank You Notes…WRITE THANK YOU NOTES!!!!!! Was I clear enough on that one??
– Show up to a volunteer’s work place just to say thank you.
3. EMBRACE WHERE YOU ARE
As leaders, we all have grand visions for where we believe God is wanting to take our church. However, those visions are not accomplished overnight. Stewardship is a theme throughout the Bible, and not just financial stewardship. Stewardship is being faithful with what you have been given, whatever you have been given. If you don’t have a building of your own…then be faithful with what you have NOW instead of wishing and waiting for it to land in your lap.
Commit to stop viewing your portable situation as just a season to endure through. Stop saying, “If we can just make it through this season, then once we get a building we can really do God’s work”. I have to constantly remind myself of this. Being portable, I see what hinders us and what potential we have if we weren’t portable. Would a building help us…of course! But I cannot allow that to drive me. Buildings can be given and taken away.
“The grass is always greener on the other side”, but maybe that’s because we aren’t watering and caring for the grass on our side. Be faithful with what you have and move the mission God has given you forward with what He has given you. If you can’t be faithful without a building…how could we ever be faithful with a building?
Mission over Building – God has given our church a mission…not a building. And if we ever do get a building of our own, the building is nothing but a tool to move the mission forward. We do not talk about if or when we get a building. We do not even have a goal of having a building in the next x-years. As a leader, I desire to lead people to Jesus and into the mission he has given us…NOT to build or buy a building. I would plead with you, don’t allow resources and tools you don’t have to become the hindge-point of your church, your mission or even in your conversation.
Choose your Battles – Every portable space has it’s own unique challenges. With unlimited resources I’m sure we all have a dream list of what we would do in our portable space (other than buy a building). But the reality is, for every idea you have it requires additional: time, hands and storage. In other words, you can’t do everything you want (even if you have the money for it). For example, lighting is always an issue for us…Go figure, theaters are made to be dark! So we have chosen to NOT do other things so we can focus on improving the lighting. And as our systems improve and volunteer recruitment grows, we will continue to add and improve what we can. Look to make improvements but don’t be so quick to execute every great idea you have. Choose your battles and start with the ones you need to win now. And anytime you want to add or implement a new idea ask the question: “Who will this impact?”
Less is More – One of the greatest challenges with a portable environment is always Set Up & Tear Down. They are the first to arrive and the last to leave. It’s the hard work of unloading and loading the same equipment to the same spot at the same time every Sunday, week after week…53 weeks a year (including an additional Christmas Eve service). With that in mind, we have decided that we cannot truly turn a theatre environment into an ideal church environment every week. We do not have the bells & whistles of a permanent facility not because we couldn’t do it…but we know that less is more. We prioritize clarity and functionality over “cool”. Our lobby set up is not the coolest you would ever see…but it provides a good first impression for people and does what it is meant to do (even without a bunch of cool flat screen tvs…ok, we do have one tv we use). Be ok with less! Somehow Jesus saved a bunch of people without LED lights and Flat Screen Tvs!
Nothing can be more draining as portable church. However, nothing can be more fulfilling as portable church! I remember our first baptism Sunday after we launched. Seeing people go public with their faith through baptism inside a movie theatre…one of the top moments in ministry for me!! Create and keep a culture of positive! Constantly celebrate! Continue to remind people why we do what we do.
A culture of positivity can easily build momentum and moral. The opposite is true, a culture of disappointment, discouragement and exhaustion can quickly decimate an entire team. Be proactive!
We practice this in simple ways:
Smile a lot! Our set up and tear down teams smile a lot! Everyone is talking, catching up, joking around while doing some intense labor before and after church. Model this well and teach your top leaders to follow your lead. Smiling says, “I love what I do, this is great…” Lack of smiles say, “I’m tired…why are we doing this…something is wrong”
Use your platform to celebrate all that God is doing as much as possible. When you feel like you have done this enough, keep going! Work celebrations into your message, into your emails, into your conversations…anywhere and everywhere!
5. EQUIP: even more than you think you already do
Volunteers will get most frustrated when they are asked to do something and they don’t have what they need to do it. In a portable environment LISTEN to your volunteers and short of the ridiculous, give them whatever they want! That sounds a little much…ok, as long as it’s inline with the mission, isn’t sinful and stays within budget…GIVE THEM WHATEVER THEY WANT! As the leader we have to be good stewards but we also have to equip our volunteers.
If your volunteers are asking for something you cannot give them…work with them to find an alternative solution.
We use A LOT of carts for our set-up and tear-down. In our trailer, almost everything goes in or on a cart. But it wasn’t always that way. As we got going, our set-up team leader started making these expensive requests for lumber and wheels for carts. I quickly answered YES! It gave ownership to the volunteers and made what I was asking them to do…doable and easier!
Because we are all volunteer except for a part-time worship leader and myself, everyone leading major ministry areas are volunteer. So we can’t have staff meetings in the middle of the day like other churches. So I talked with my volunteer coordinators and asked when we could regularly meet together. We came up with day, time and frequency that worked across the board and we meet regularly together. This meeting always includes lunch or dinner and we do leadership development, we do planning, we assess and evaluate, we ask questions and we pray. All that takes place in under 2 hours to honor and value their time.
Side Note: If you have volunteers leading large ministry areas (children’s, students, production, set up, etc…) Give them a budget to work with! This will empower them to lead, provide more ownership on their part and create freedom with accountability.
6. FLY HIGH & WALK LOW
As the leader of a church, business or organization we have to be able to fly high. We must be able to see the 30,000ft. view and see the big picture. In a portable setting, that is very important. It’s easy to get caught up in all that must get done and miss the larger picture.
But just as important as flying high is we must be sure to walk low. This isn’t gospel, this is just my opinion. I continue to find value in playing some part on the set-up and tear-down teams. Yes, as the pastor and leader of the church I have other responsibilities that only I can do that do take priority. But I believe and have seen that if you bleed and sweat with someone, they will bleed and sweat for you! As you lead at a high level, don’t have your head in the clouds for so long that you never come down and walk and help those on the ground.
7. Say “THANK YOU”! Often, Loudly and in a variety of ways!
This is the last best practice, but perhaps the most important (and the easiest)…say thank you! I had a volunteer come up and tell me, “Brian, you know you don’t have to say thank you for everything I do”. When I heard that, I knew I was finally starting to get this culture moved forward! I want my volunteers and teams to notice how much I say thank you. I don’t want it to be a surprise that I say thank you. I also never want to get out of the habit of saying thank you. I would rather be accused of saying it too much than not enough.
Situational Thank You- But saying the same thing over and over can get old. So be creative and say the same thing in different ways and at different times. I have paused in my message to just say thank you to volunteers. When it rains, I begin my sermon by thanking our parking team and encouraging people to say thank you on their way out, maybe even go get them a Starbucks! When school starts we really highlight our student and kid ministry volunteers. When it starts getting colder out we highlight and thank our set up and tear down teams.
Work hard and party hard! I mentioned this earlier but we have regular volunteer parties where the agenda is only THANKING THEM. (Yes we do have planning and strategy meetings…but those are only valuable if volunteers show up and are engaged, which won’t happen if you never party).
Tie it to the mission – When you thank your volunteers, always tie it to the mission! In my context: It’s not “Thanks for doing what I asked” it IS “Thank you for giving people a place to belong!” Thank your volunteers for living out the mission of the church!
Thank You Notes – Look at your calendar right now and carve out 30 minutes a week for nothing but thank you notes. Not thank you emails or texts (still do those) but prioritize handwritten, put in an envelope and mailed thank you notes. The benefit outweighs any excuse you could possibly come up with! See if you can send at least 7 thank you notes a week. I promise, your volunteers will remember your 4 sentence thank you note more than your 40 minute sermon this week.
Additional Resources & Books
Here are some great reads that have helped and benefited me especially in a portable environment.
Emotional Intelligence by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves
The Go-Giver by Bob Burg and John David Mann
Winning with People by John C. Maxwell
How to win friends and & influence people by Dale Carnegie