I had an enlightening experience while visiting another church the other week. My family and I had arrived late (I’ll place my rant about accurate service times on church signage somewhere else) and tried to sneak in the back to find a seat. The usher who met us just as we entered apologetically stammered that there wasn’t much room and then vaguely gestured that the might be a space “somewhere over by the guy in the blue shirt”. Since there were a couple hundred people in the room, the “guy in the blue shirt” and the spaces that accompanied him were more elusive that I would have hoped. I eventually turned back to the usher and asked her to clarify. Unfortunately, she seemed to be under the orders of never point and never abandon your post. She was obviously embarrassed and frustrated at the situation and eventually found a spot a little closer and said that we could “ask that guy to make a little more room”. Fortunately for us, “that guy” not only made room for us, but also helpfully mentioned that the children had already been dismissed for Sunday School and that he would be happy to personally escort them to their classrooms.
My little story illustrates a number of key points about usher training:
1. An untrained usher is an unhappy usher
Believe it or not, but the volunteers in our churches actually want us to tell them what to do. One of the most common fears they express is doing something “wrong”. Our usher clearly felt terrible that we weren’t being treated well, and was very frustrated that she didn’t know what to do. She literally went red with embarrassment and odds are she won’t be volunteering again anytime soon. Our people want to do a good job and need us to equip them. If we don’t we will often lose them.
2. An usher should introduce themselves with a smile
Unlike an usher at a movie theatre, we in the church are actually hoping people will get to know us personally –usually the sooner the better. This process, in most cultures, involves the exchange of names. We are introducing people to a family more than a spectator event so some light personal contact is a good thing. A friendly smile followed by a “Hi, I’m John Albiston (pause to allow them to respond)” goes a long way in giving them a warm and favourable impression and gives them the opportunity to introduce themselves to you and make a real connection. Occasionally, when greeting a couple, only the husband will introduce himself. To help him look good and make a connection to the whole family you can gesture to their spouse and children and say “and these must be…”. As a special bonus, if you can teach your usher a few basic name remembrance tricks, should your visitors come again (or even be seen in the lobby afterwards) the ability to greet them by name always makes an outstanding impression.
3. An usher should make people feel welcome
After the name introductions, a friendly “welcome to Community Church, we’re glad you could join us” communicates a simple but very important message that we value them and we like them. As strange as this might sound, people actually like to hear that you’re glad they came and you hope they come back. Simple. Effective.
4. An usher should be informative
Obviously, if someone asks an usher a question about the church the usher should be knowledgeable enough to give an answer. But to be truly informative, and usher must anticipate the questions people may be too shy to ask.
Part of this is being able to recognize who the visitors are. The biggest giveaway will be their eyes. First time visitors will look lost and their eyes will be scanning your signage. When you see someone who is looking at your signs simply introduce yourself and ask them “Have I seen you here before?” Then, no matter how they respond say “I thought so”. This covers all your bases just in case you accidentally ask this question of a long-time member.
Once you’ve positively identified your visitor tell them where the restrooms are (don’t wait for them to ask), where they need to take their kids to register them for Sunday School, and where the Sanctuary is (if this is not obvious). Then hand them a bulletin and (if you have them) a visitor information packet.
5. An usher needs to be mobile
With any luck, you will have more than one usher at any given entrance. With this being the case, you can actually enable your ushers to actually ush. If someone has children who need to be taken to the right Sunday School room, don’t just tell them where to go, actually personally escort them there using the time to get to know them a little better. If you’re running short of ushers, feel free to commandeer a church leader or friendly church member and have them escort them to their destination.
If someone simply needs to be seated they can usually find a seat on their own, however this may not be easy if the service is crowded. In these cases the usher should personally take them to their seats and introduce them to the people they will be sitting next to.
6. The usher does the hard stuff
99.9% of the time this simply means telling the seated member who is sitting in an aisle seat to move in to make room for your visitor. Forcing a visitor to crawl over a seated member to find a seat is not only awkward, it conveys a strong message that they are not welcome. Never allow this to happen.
0.1% of the time an usher will be called to act in an emergency. While you might literally go decades without an in-service emergency, these are always a possibility. The singularly most important thing you can do is tell your ushers that they have the supreme authority to use their best judgement in an emergency. Crowds typically act poorly in a crisis because no one knows who is in charge – tell your ushers up front that they are.
If you wish you may put in place specific training in cases of medical emergency, fire, violent disruption, etc. That is completely up to you. But whatever you do, if you empower your ushers to act in a crisis they will.
Here is a little note I found from a fictitious visitor. It says a lot.
“I never complain. I never create a scene. When I go to church, I never offer an objection if the usher leads me down the long aisle to the front seat, while all the members of the church crowd the back seats and fix their curious gaze on my embarrassed march. No, I just take my seat. I never growl aloud when I have to push by and walk over the feet of selfish church members who hog the aisle seats and would not move out of their favorite places if it meant the salvation of a soul. Oh no, I just sit down meekly. I’m the ideal church stranger. I never reprimand young people who sit behind me chewing gum, whispering and giggling. Oh no, I’m too polite for that. At the close of the services as I walk toward the door, I never make a scene if nobody speaks to me or shakes my hand. No, they gather in little cliques and don’t bother me. I’m the nice visitor to the church. And I’ll tell you what else. I’m the stranger who will never come back.”