I was in a hotel 500 miles from home when my Apple iPhone refused to recharge.
I felt strangely stranded, unable to manage my business, to communicate with family or to negotiate the scheduling intricacies of the trip.
I went to a nearby AT&T store, the carrier that handles iPhones.
"Can't help," said the clerk. "Try the Apple store."
I drove 20 minutes to an outlying mall, found the Apple store.
"Can't help," said one clerk. "I'm a trainer. Try the concierge."
Can't help, said the concierge. Make an appointment with the "Genius Bar." (Don't ask.)
I drove across the street to another AT&T store, steaming and prepared to abandon Apple technology. "Sure, glad to help," said the clerk. He pushed some buttons and fixed the problem. I immediately felt better about my iPhone and confident about the trip.
Lesson learned: every enterprise ultimately depends on customer service. Good technology can't run faster than poor customer service.
Clever marketing can't erase a bad shopping experience. Customer loyalty won't survive surly clerks, endless telephone trees, unanswered e-mails, and return and warranty procedures that favor the vendor.
Customers have too many other choices. They don't need to endure clueless systems and irritable staff. Just consider the reputation U.S. automakers got for slick sales staff, bait-and-switch "closers" and point-of-sale pressure to tack on unwanted extras.
In my consulting work with churches, time and again I see the cumulative impact of poor customer service:
Parishioners who form tight circles;
More attention paid to setting the table than to greeting guests;
Fussy liturgy designed for insiders;
Facilities with poor signage (or websites);
Congregants who fight with each other;
Music that pleases only the trained musician;
Clergy who don't call — the list is long.
When I ask former congregants why they worship elsewhere or stay home on Sunday, that's the list they recite, detail by detail. Some were hurt, some were offended. Some said, "Who needs this?"
It wasn't doctrine or change that drove them away. In a world of many choices, the quest for faith simply won't tolerate poor customer service. People stay where they are treated well - and leave where they aren't.
Pay attention to details, I tell church leaders. Look at how you respond to visitors, for example. Reconsider the maze you impose on anyone asking for care. Watch people's faces sag as they sit through worship. Don't let the prickly long-timer force you to stick with methods that clearly aren't working.
Be customer-driven, not provider-driven, I tell them. Visit a successful church and see lively gathering spaces, helpful signage, friendly greeters, cheerful atmosphere, worship designed to help people worship, leaders who are excited and not dodging bullets — that list is long, too.
This is more than advice for institutional leaders. I think it applies to us as individual believers, as well. It is good to tolerate difficult people and to place ourselves in challenging situations. But we don't have to tolerate institutions that thwart us and clearly are serving only themselves.
Enabling isn't the same as loyalty. No faith community will be motivated to serve effectively as long as its constituents excuse mediocrity.
In order to expect more, of course, we ourselves have to give more.
For we play both parts: "customer" and "provider." We cannot receive what we aren't willing to give.
The Rev. Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus," and the founder of the Church Wellness Project http://churchwellness.com. His website is http://morningwalkmedia.com.
Beyond unspeakable mysteries, Easter remains the promise of new life
Last Eastertide, five baby Carolina wrens took their first flights off the top of the cardboard tomb we made at church. Let me explain.
It started as a creative idea for our Easter Festival: we would make an empty tomb for the kids to walk in and out of, so they could see for themselves that Jesus is not there. We didn't have much to go on; none of us had ever made a tomb before. We did have one experienced artist and a lot of enthusiasm, as well as a small model tomb we used during our Lenten program. The big tomb, we thought, would be a replica of the little one.
Our materials were simple: cardboard, brown contract paper, spray paint and lots and lots of masking tape. We cut three big boxes - originally used to deliver three-drawer filing cabinets to house the church's archives - into a tomb-like shape, and corralled the youth groups into scrunching up brown paper and taping it all over, to give the tomb a more textured look.
Then we spray painted the paper with a speckled gray and brown rocky color, put a cardboard slab inside with a white linen cloth draped over it, made a few rocks to go around the outside, arranged some plastic ivy on top and rolled the "stone" away from the opening. By the grace of God our final product bore a remarkable resemblance to the real thing.
The tomb was a big hit at the Easter Festival, so much so that we decided to put it out front on Easter morning. People gathered around it all morning long; they stood silently around it, peeked into it, took pictures of it. They even took comfort in it: one man who had just been through a major loss said that seeing the empty tomb as he came down the path to the church was the best part of his Easter.
After Easter, however, came a question: where are we going to store this thing? Lacking any sufficient answer, we simply let the question go and placed the tomb up against an outer wall.
Weeks went by and I finally decided that next year another youth group might enjoy making a new tomb; in other words, I decided the time had come to bury the tomb. So, on the day before Ascension Thursday, our youth director brought in his saw and we were all set to begin.
But when I went to move the tomb, a strange thing happened: a bird rustled and flew right past my head. I looked closer, and - lo and behold - I spotted a nest, with five brown-speckled eggs looking right back at me.
The tomb had taken on a life of its own, and I realized the Spirit was telling me to let go of my plan for demolition and play my part by respecting the unfolding drama before me. We moved the tomb - nest, eggs and all - back against the wall and decided to stop interfering.
The next day, the Ascension reading took on a whole new meaning for me: there is no point in "looking toward heaven" (Acts 1:11) when God calls us to pay attention to life on earth. As luck or providence would have it, our first-ever "Blessing of the Animals" was scheduled for the last Sunday of Eastertide. Completely without intention, we had a ready-made backdrop. With the tomb behind us, we sang "All Things Bright and Beautiful," read the story of Creation and then blessed those eggs first (among the 42 other animals, from a duckling to a standard poodle), saying: "Blessed be God who loves each living thing; may God bless these baby birds."
Two days later, I stopped by the tomb, and panicked. The eggs were gone. Then I listened, and I heard one of the most sacred cadences in all of God's earthly wonders: the first chirps of a newly-hatched Carolina Wren.
There are, of course, rational explanations for all of this, and there are also more lovely creatures than Carolina Wrens. As an ornithologist friend put it, baby wrens "are a bit of a disappointment if one is expecting the resurrected Christ." True enough.
Even so, these little creatures have reminded me in stunning terms that all of our Christian Education projects and programs are held in a larger story of faith whose meaning is usually diminished by words and whose promise of new life can awe us at every turn.
The Rev. Susan Steinberg is director of children's ministries at United Church of Chapel Hill in North Carolina.
A monthly feature about spirituality
There seems to be one thing about which most people can agree: greed is rampant in American life. The idea that "enough is never enough" threatens our very existence.
The deadly sin of greed is defined as the inordinate love of money and material possessions, and the compulsive behavior that is driven by the need to have more and more of both. The truly greedy person is never content and is willing to sacrifice everything (and everyone) to acquire more. Also known as "avarice" and "covetousness," we see it in corporate bandits, sports idols, and legions of preachers hawking "prosperity theology."
Honesty also dictates that we confess to being guilty of this sin ourselves and that, to some degree, we are all hypocrites when it comes to condemning greed in others, while going easy on ourselves. But just when we need to bring the word back into the pulpit, we seem to have lost our nerve. We can talk about anything in church except money. It is the "last taboo."
Perhaps it would be helpful if we made a more careful distinction between greed and desire — because the truth is, we all "want" things, and this is not always a bad thing.
J. Philip Wogaman, a Christian ethicist, has offered a very helpful distinction between "intrinsic" and "instrumental" values. We want some things because they are of value in and of themselves, while we want others things because they instrumental in acquiring something else. Our society has the tendency to treat human relationships and other intrinsic values as if they were instrumental ones, measurable in purely economic terms. This is the spirit of the old aphorism: love people and use things, don’t use people and love things.
Moral philosophers do not consider the pursuit of wealth as sinful or the wealthy as inherently sinful. What matters is how that wealth was acquired, at what cost, for what purpose and to what end. More important is our failure to regard all blessings as having come from God. Biblically speaking, being rich is not a sin, but being stingy is.
We can, however, "want wisely," by always asking whether the things we desire have intrinsic or merely instrumental value. In Judaism, one is to use wealth "for the sake of heaven." For Christians, the word is stewardship. Either way, knowing what money is and what it is for is a mark of true faith. Seeing how high you can stack it is pathetic.
The Rev. Robin Meyers is senior minister of Mayflower UCC in Oklahoma City and is professor of rhetoric in the philosophy department at Oklahoma City University. His latest book, The Virtue in the Vice: Finding Seven Lively Virtues in the Seven Deadly Sins is available at HCIbooks.com.