Customer Service in the Church?

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Update: See comment #10 below.


Customer service is a lost art. If not dead, customer service is dying in our culture. Complaints about poor service are often met with apathy, indifference, and blame. It seems the motto of many companies is if you can’t blame someone else, then blame the customer.

And that’s a shame because it’s really not that hard to treat people with dignity, respect, and compassion. Even those who aren’t by nature compassionate can be taught to feign concern. And it’s usually not that hard to actually fix problems.

I’m reminded of the loss of customer service because our church is finally getting around to doing background checks on all volunteers who work with children. The other day my wife and I received a letter from the chairman of the Children’s Ministry Team at our church explaining the need for background checks and asking us to sign an authorization to accomplish this. The authorization we were asked to sign included the following paragraph (emphasis is mine):

During the application process and at any time during the tenure of my employment with the Company, I hereby authorize ChoicePoint WorkPlace Solutions Inc., on behalf of The Company to procure a consumer report (known as an investigative consumer report in California) which I understand may include information regarding my credit worthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living. This report may be compiled with information from credit bureaus, courts record repositories, departments of motor vehicles, past or present employers and educational institutions, government occupational licensing or registration entities, business or personal references, and any other source required to verify information that I have voluntarily supplied.

Being somewhat of a privacy nut I have a hard time with this paragraph. Some of my difficulty is because of my profession: not only am I required to follow strict state and federal privacy laws – including HIPAA – but I hear the horror stories of some of my clients who have been victims of identity theft. Part of it may be that I’m the child of attorneys; “Be careful what you agree to and don’t sign anything you haven’t read”. I’m sure most of it is that I’m just plain obsessive about protecting my personal financial information.

credit_report.jpgFull privacy obsessiveness kicked in and I sent an email to the chairman of our Children’s Ministry Team suggesting a full consumer report was overkill. I have no problem with a criminal background and motor vehicle report – those are public records and already available to anyone willing to take the time and energy to do the work. But a credit score and history? Verifying I actually earned my diplomas? Contacting my current and previous employers to find out if I’m eligible for re-hire? All to work in the nursery once every other month. How will any of that help screen out child maltreatment perpetrators? The answer is it won’t.

I heard back from the church: that’s just a standard form ChoicePoint uses. When the church sends the information they only request the criminal history. So really, there’s nothing to worry about.

One standard form for every product they offer? Not very consumer friendly; in fact, I would rate that policy as low on the customer service scale.

My tale of customer service woe doesn’t end there.

I told the team’s chairman that I had some problems with ChoicePoint’s one-size-fits-all approach to authorizing background checks. For one thing, ChoicePoint has a poor track record of protecting consumer’s privacy. And even though the odds are really, really small that ChoicePoint will do anything unethical (who wants to pay another $25 million in fines to the SEC?) the fact remains that my signature on an authorization will give them the right to check on virtually any area of my life they choose to check. I can’t exactly come back later, point to a clear and unambiguous document with my signature on it and whine “but they said they wouldn’t do that…”.

So I gave some alternatives. The church could get me a release authorizing only a criminal background and not all that other stuff and I would gladly sign it. Or, we could find another company to use. (Here’s one recommended by the BGCO and based right here in Tulsa.) In fact, I offered to pay for using another company. Or, if the church feels they absolutely must have a full consumer report, then I’ll sit down with the pastor or his designee and discuss all of the above information in person.

I heard back from the Children’s Ministry chairman: the policy is in place and there will be no variance.

Let me see if I have this straight: I sign a one-size-fits-all blanket authorization for a company with a history of misusing individual’s information to check into virtually any area of my financial and professional life or I forget ever ministering to children in our church. Am I the only one who thinks this is a poor plan?

bureaucrat.jpgThe problem, as I see it, is that both ChoicePoint and my church have policies in place to make life easier on them and keep the bureaucracy running smoothly rather than on treating each case on an individual basis.

There is no excuse for ChoicePoint’s behavior. With approximately 5500 employees I would think they could find someone capable of adding some check boxes in the middle of the form allowing me to opt out of the credit checks, diploma verification, etc. It would probably take about a half an hour.

But I don’t understand my church acting like a large bureaucratic machine since we only have about 250 in attendance each Sunday. It’s the same dozen families or so serving in every area of the church. How hard is it really to treat my concerns, and those who have similar concerns (the chairman did tell me she has had numerous phone call from many people all expressing about the same thing) with a little respect?

The difference between ChoicePoint and my church is that one has customers, the other is a fellowship of believers. I can choose a different company to deal with; I’m not going to choose a different church. So I recognize “customer service” isn’t the best term to use.

Or is it? The idea behind good customer service is to treat people like they were friends and family and not just a replaceable consumer. Shouldn’t my church treat me the same way? The problem with a consumer oriented church (look at the programs we have for you; serving others is optional) isn’t that we have copied the best of what the world has to offer and replicated it in some of our churches. The problem is we have mimicked the worst of what the world has to offer. The worst businesses act like monopolies: you’ll have it OUR way or you can just shop somewhere else. That’s why marketing is so important: they are geared to constantly replace consumers rather than attend to the ones they have.

church-in-spring.jpgThe best businesses nurture a relationship with their customers, treating them well, and listening to their complaints and concerns. Some times the complaints are acted upon and problems are fixed. Other times the consumer is educated about how what they think they want won’t really be of value to them in the long run.

I’m about to give up on the church-as-family metaphor for a community of believers. Too many church goers have no idea what a healthy family should look like. The metaphor simply escapes them. But I’m thinking about this metaphor of a really good, customer-oriented business. Sometimes we can adapt the rigidity of our programs and processes to better meet people’s needs. Other times we need to challenge our members toward a more mature understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

The issue for me isn’t whether or not I’m being reasonable in refusing to sign a blank authorization; I’m willing to be convinced that I’m overly cautious (a much kinder term than “paranoid”). The issue is the take-it-or-leave-it attitude I was met with by people I know care about me and my family.

It’s not a big deal: on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the worst, this is a 2, maybe a 3. Out of the hundreds of decisions made on a regular basis, this is one that I have a hard time with. Not a bad ratio. It’s not a deal breaker, but it makes me wonder how an otherwise terrific church can get caught up in a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Maye they think I am being unreasonable: isn’t it better to educate those of us who complained rather than say “oh well”. Or maybe it’s a fear of creating more work for an already overworked support staff: but can’t someone on the ministry team do the leg work instead of assuming the support staff will get stuck with it.

I don’t know what the rationale is because communication was shut down. People – customers and church members – are looking to be treated with dignity and respect. I’m not looking to for accommodation on every issue; I would like to know that what’s important to me (protection against identity theft) isn’t simply blown off. Keeping people involved means handling complaints and questions quickly while letting people know they matter to the church.

So what might good “customer service” look like in a church? How should we handle complaints or disagreements within the church?

1) Keep the end goal in mind: to create disciples of Christ. I’m all for policies and procedures, but they are only tools for helping us stay on track. Policies are never more important than people. If you have policies (a constitution, by-laws, or ministry manuals) then follow them; if you’re doing something different then change the by-laws to match what you are already doing. Keeping the bureaucratic machine running smoothly above all else is never a worthy goal for a church.

2) Remember that all disciples engage in ministry. Everyone is (or should be) involved in ministry. Chairmen, team leaders, teachers – lay leaders of every stripe – need to have the ability to make decisions in their area of concern without running everything by the ministerial staff. Otherwise every decision gets kicked up stairs and the ministerial staff will begin to cringe every time the phone rings.

3) Problems are to be solved not passed by. If we are serious about church membership being meaningful then I’m going to have to relate to the complainer long after the present problem has faded away. I may as well take the time to listen and demonstrate compassion: I don’t want to brush someone off and have it come back to haunt me this time next year.

4) Don’t feel obligated to make a decision right now. Hear the concern, and give yourself time to pray, think, and seek consultation from other leaders in your ministry area.

Agree? Disagree? What would you add?