how can our church keep visitors from distracting our office staff?

A reader writes:

I am in the office of a church (I’m the lead pastor). We have an open reception area which is open and welcoming…apparently too much! People (mainly church members) will come in the office and “camp out” for 20-30 minutes at a time, talking to our administrative assistant and anyone else who walks by. Apparently since it’s a church, people see this type of time-taking as ok, but we still have work to do. It is very difficult to get work done when this happens, the AA is frustrated, and yet no one knows quite how to handle this.

Suggestions are so appreciated!

This type of situation is harder when it arises somewhere like a church, because church members understandably see the church office as part of their community, and it’s easy for people to forget that while, yes, the church is and should be warm and welcoming, it’s also a place of business where people are trying to get work done.

So the first thing to do is to get clarity on exactly how you want to straddle that line. For instance, is it fine for people to come in and talk for a few minutes, because that’s part of the community they see the church as offering, but it needs to be cut off sooner than is currently happening? Or do you want to discourage the interruptions altogether? (And if so, how will that play with the congregation, and is it realistic?) In other words, what’s reasonable for your particular context? I suspect the answer is somewhere in the middle, but getting clear on exactly where the line is will help you figure out how to proceed.

Once you’re clear on that, have an explicit conversation with your receptionist about it. Talk about what you think is reasonable to allow, and where the line is for needing to move people along. It’s going to be crucial that you’re both on the same page about this, because if you’re thinking “a couple of minutes of chit chat is okay, but it should end there,” and she’s thinking, “I should now tell any visitors to leave,” that will end badly.

From there, a few thoughts:

1. Make the area less inviting. Seriously. Can you make it smaller, remove any couches or other comfortable seating that people might be hanging out in, etc.? The current coziness might be part of why people are hanging out there — after all, if it looks inviting, they may consider themselves invited. In fact, you may need to get rid of the extra chairs entirely. (And you might find that physical changes to the space alone can accomplish a lot.)

2. Train the receptionist in how to politely move people along, and help her think of phrases she can use. For instance, you could arm her with phrases like these:
“Excuse me, I have to finish something up that’s due shortly.”
“It was great talking with you; I should get back to work.”
“It’s so nice to see you — I apologize that I can’t talk, because I’m on deadline.”

3. Can you say something to the congregation as a whole? The mechanics of how this will work best will depend on your particular congregation — it could be something said at a Sunday service, something in a church bulletin, or even a jokey but clear notice you put in your reception area.

Of course, tone will really matter here. You don’t want the tone to be “you’re an inconvenience to us, so please get out” but rather, “we want to be welcoming, but we’re got a lot of work to get done” maybe with a side of, “It’s not just you hanging out in our lobby — it’s lots of people, and it adds up.”

What other suggestions do people have?

{ 94 comments… read them below }

  1. mina*

    Wow, can I ever speak to this one. I’ve put in ten years in the office at a large Southern Baptist church, so I know about this. The first two suggestions are great, especially #1. Uncomfy people just aren’t going to hang around too long.

    #3, though, no. Church folks tend to be a touchy lot, and the smallest things can make them want to lead a revolt against the pastor with a pitchfork. They simply don’t take pastors seriously; these are executives, really, but they aren’t treated that way. People drop in without appts all the time, since they have a “few minutes to spare” and want to just chat up the guys about nothing. Or, my second favorite, just not showing up for appts/showing up three hours late.

  2. PEBCAK*

    Is there a reason people need to “kill time” with chit-chat? Are the kids regularly getting out of Sunday school later than expected, or is some other meeting starting late, etc.? If something like this is happening, see if you can address the root cause.

    1. JustMe*

      Church offices typically aren’t open on Sundays; I suspect this pastor is talking about regular Monday – Friday business hours. For some reason, people don’t think twice about stopping in during the week (retired, stay-at-home, work-from-home, lunch hour, etc.) and chatting up the staff, but would NEVER just pop over to YOUR place of business and do the same thing!

  3. Kelly O*

    Having experience in a couple of different Protestant denominations, I would also advise against #3. Trust me, people will get way too touchy about that (or they will just not read the bulletin/mailer. Okay that’s actually more likely.)

    I would think that a combination of revising the physical space and coaching the front desk person on how to handle things tactfully would go a long way.

    Additionally, it might be wise for a pastor to deal with some people. Because of how touchy this could get, perhaps the pastor saying “I know you really enjoy talking with Jane, but I need her to be able to focus on these projects that help keep our ministries moving.”

    You would be surprised how much just having the pastor address them directly would go with some folks. And there will be people who don’t take kindly to whatever you do, no matter how you handle it. (That’s probably why there are so many denominations and splits of denominations…)

    Although, OP you have my sympathies. Once I suggested streamlining a process at a church, a terribly minor thing, and you would have thought I’d suggested we burn it all down and start sacrificing goats in the prayer garden.

      1. Jean*

        Me too! Always fun when one’s fellow/sister congregation members start taking umbrage over a minor detail. (Seriously, I do my best to avoid such discussions. Very counterproductive to going through life in a peaceful frame of mind.)

      1. Anonymous*

        In my experience, pastors at Baptist churches are essentially elected. They are found through a search committee and then the congregation votes on the final candidate. I think this gives church members a sense of ownership in their church (which is good), but some people take it way too far. Any sense of their ‘ownership’ being taken away would piss off a lot of people. My mother worked in a church office for many years and believe me, church politics brings out THE WORST in people.

        1. Anon*

          Yep, Baptist pastors are basically hired like any other job. And in some sense the entire congregation is their supervisor, which can be good but can also be very, very bad.

          Nothing brings out the worst in a baptist than a good old fashioned business meeting. Especially if budget is being approved or renovations are discussed. People throw down over wall colors and carpet.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            It’s sounding similar in some respects to being on a condo board of directors, for a community with a lot of opinionated homeowners, but maybe with an extra element of spiritual righteousness thrown in. Very interesting!

            1. ThursdaysGeek*

              I think there’s also a bit (or a lot) of the purpose, the searching for Truth. It’s more foundational than the condo owners, because people don’t want to be wrong on something so important. And then people start thinking they’ve got it all down, they’ve arrived, and they’re right on the theology of the trinity and the color of the carpet. Most people aren’t so logical and lump the important and the unimportant together: it’s church so it must be important. Add in a bit of people not liking change and the ownership we take, throw in a lot of the independent American spirit, mix it with human nature, and I’ve got a plausible theory.

            2. KarenT*

              I think people are touchy about it because they consider the church ‘theirs.’ They spend their lives donating to it and participating in it. It is their community and I think a lot of people feel the pastor works for them, and in fact doesn’t have the authority to shut this kind of stuff down because the church really does belong to the community–the pastor likely doesn’t own it and is an employee that answers to a board.

            3. tcookson*

              Plus people really take everything very personally, and everyone is supposed to pretend that the church has nothing to do with business. So telling people not to bother the receptionist is emotionally akin to telling them that they’re not welcome at the family dinner table.

      2. Kelly O*

        In some of the congregations I’ve been part of, there are people who really think they need to be consulted on quite minute aspects of the church operations. (The following examples I have actually witnessed personally.)

        Usually they’re the ones who get angry if you want to move Class A to another room – even if Class A has grown substantially and New Room would be better suited for them, because Class B has been in that same room since “we” started back when Pastor Joe was here twenty years ago and how dare you suggest we move?

        They tend to be the people who sit in the same exact spot every week and get upset if a visitor comes in and unwittingly sits in “their” seat. Or they get angry if you change Wednesday night dinner to start at 6:00 instead of 5:30 so people traveling from work have more time, because it’s “getting too late” by 6:00 and your Senior Adults will not want to drive home at night.

        I saw one lady go ballistic several years ago because the new pastor did not put on a tie and jacket to preach. In Alabama. In August. When the AC was out. She was also very unhappy about the announcement that, due to the AC issues, everyone should feel free to dress as coolly and comfortably as possible. She showed up in a dress, heels, and hose, and yelled at a row of young adults (including me) for wearing sleeveless summer dresses.

        And they’re also the ones who start talking about taking their money elsewhere. In some churches, the attitude is that “okay, there’s the door” but depending on the situation, some are really uncomfortable with people leaving like that (especially when cash is tight anyway.) I’m not saying it’s right, it just happens.

        I actually fairly recently heard an argument begin with “well we have been here since this church was founded and I have weathered ALL these storms and pastors and people who just come and go…” never mind we live in a major metropolitan area where moving to and from is quite common. She gets an extra say because she’s been here twenty-five years.

        1. Jazzy Red*

          I belong to a community church, which is in a “retirement” community, but not actually chartered as such). When families WITH CHILDREN started moving into the area, you’d have thought the country had been invaded by “commies”.

          Now, I was raised Catholic but have been away from church for several years, and didn’t have any idea about how churches were run, but I decided to get involved in one of the ministries. This was quite an education.

          Our senior pastor left last year, and we had an interim pastor for several months. He started making changes right away, and half the congregation was up in arms. I wasn’t thrilled with some of the changes, but I knew we’d be getting a permanent pastor and that he/she would make more changes, so why get upset? Here’s one of the changes: we are land-locked with absolutely no room to expand and the parking lot was full to capacity on Sundays. They changed the angle of the parking places and people were outraged over it! I couldn’t believe that at first (lack of church experience, you know), but my friends started telling me stories about some of their former churches. Holy cow! Now we have our new senior pastor who is making changes here and there, and one of them is to the office staff. Of course, people are again going off the rails about this.

          No matter what the OP does, someone will be angry about it. I think AAM’s first 2 suggestions are great. Some people will be put off by this, and others will be fine with it.

        2. tcookson*

          And people who have a lot of money to throw around feel like their opinions of what should be done at church are extra-special because they can threaten to take their money elsewhere if they don’t get their way.

      3. UK HR Bod*

        I can’t speak to religious organisations, but my organisation is a membership-based non-profit, and we also get people being very touchy about small changes. I think it’s a sense of ownership and engagement with the organisation- people who are members, or visit our sites regularly, are really engaged with what we do, and often have a genuine, emotional connection. Although we are caused-based, which supports that emotional connection, I can only imagine that the emotional engagement is much stronger in a church context, so that ownership and sense of a stake in the place is much stronger. There are real positives to it, but it can also be really challenging when people don’t understand or simply disagree with what you are doing: our sites are in the community, which can magnify this, and again I can imagine it would be more so in a church because of the personal relationships and dynamics which I imagine would be more complex than among our diverse (and often dispersed) visitor groups.

      4. Gene*

        The only thing worse than small town politics is church politics; especially small church politics. Every church has the “Mrs. Holier-Than-Thou” who knows exactly how everything should be done even though she’s never done anything like that in her life; it’s even more fun when there are multiple clones of her and they don’t agree. I can remember a months-long war over whether the lines in the parking lot should be white or yellow; that was after the two-month discussion as to whether to change from straight to slated spaces.

        1. Jamie*

          They should have asked me. Yellow and always slanted – much easier to pull in without denting the cars on either side.

          See how simple things are? Just ask someone who’s had to teach 3 kids to drive. Slanted every time.

        2. Natalie*

          People can get ridiculous about that sort of petty thing in a non-church context. We once had a tenant who believed so strongly in angled parking that he continued to park his car at an angle (over 2 spaces) after we restriped the garage at his building. He tried to get his secretary and some other tenants to follow suit, although I’m not sure how effective that was.

          I suppose the difference there is that we had a legal contract with him (his lease) that required he follow the landlord’s rules of the parking lot and we were essentially able to use it as a cudgel to get him to back down. I can’t imagine a church would be comfortable doing something like towing a church attendant’s just to get them to stop.

      5. Jessa*

        A lot of places the congregation hires the pastor, which means they pretty much think they own them and can do what they want as they’re the top bosses and the pastor works for them.

        All your advice about managing upwards is important here. This is in some congregations the same thing as trying to explain to the owner’s spouse why they can’t monopolise the staff.

        1. Kelly O*

          I was just thinking of this again this morning (in the shower of all things) – I think people feel like since they tithe or donate or whatever then they have some right to control whatever they can in the way of operations.

          It’s like the well-meaning gentleman who gets upset because the children’s “busy bags” for the sanctuary don’t reuse old bulletins or pieces of paper that have printing on one side. The office can’t recycle every piece of paper like that, especially things with sensitive information about budgets, staff, or parishioners on it. It’s a very small thing, but it makes that person feel like they’re managing “their” money.

          1. Jamie*

            Tithing is giving 10% of income, if I’m correct. So yes, in a way I would imagine people see it like taxes.

            I pay taxes to the government but if I don’t like what they are doing with that money I get kind very annoyed. And like most tax payers I am annoyed at everything I see mismanaged, even if it’s way outside the scope of my lone contribution.

            Or shareholders. People tend to be very touchy when it comes to what they see as their money.

      6. The Pastor's Wife*

        People fail to understand that pastors are not hired/fired the same way most other jobs are. We are “called” to come, a process which varies depending on the denomination, and to get rid of us, you have to have a meeting and vote on it. In my husband’s previous congregations, the rule was a 2/3 majority to call or fire a pastor.

        It’s also pretty common for wealthy parishioners to play games with the purse strings and I wish I could tell those people not to let the door hit their butts on the way out but they ultimately provide my husband’s salary, our insurance, and our housing so we have to play nicely with them.

    1. Jill*

      I relate so thoroughly with this comment. And the last paragraph truly made me laugh. I have worked full time in a church office nearly 9 years. The touchiness of the people and the change-resistance are unbelievable. If I weren’t experiencing it daily, I wouldn’t believe what goes on. That’s really all I can say.

  4. Erin*

    Try recruiting some of your frequent fliers to volunteer with basic office tasks. If they’re going to spend so much time there anyway, they might as well pitch in!

    1. AMG*

      Yes–tasks that can be done in a small group! Assembling small brochures, organizing donations, etc. schedule group social events during peak visitor hours. Bible studies, support groups, the list can go on and on. Ask a member of the church in a leadership role (official or unofficial) to attend to anchor the group, especially at the beginning.

    2. Marmite*

      Yes! Volunteering was what I was going to suggest. Some of these people may be lonely/at a loose end during the day and would be quite happy to do something helpful. Others may decide they actually have other places they can hang out and chat and move on to those. Either way it’s a win.

      1. Jessa*

        This also, if it’s the SAME group of people doing the monopolising, find something for them to do. Give them a project, offer to set up a chocolate teapot high tea in the community room once a week or something for them to go to.

    3. daisy*

      That’s what I was thinking but along slightly different lines – Could a volunteer handle the reception part of the AA’s job while she works in a back room? Wouldn’t have to be full-time, but if she knew she could count on always having Thursday mornings and Friday afternoons to catch up….

  5. Rachel in Minneapolis*

    We had the same situation at the church I worked at for 8 years! In our office, there was a high counter (like a reception desk) near the admin’s desk. People would come in and lean on it and talk to her or one another for an hour. We ended up removing the counter, reorienting her desk, and moving all the comfy chairs to a waiting area outside the office. It worked for about 75% of people.

    For the persistent 25%, we talked with the admin about politely turning back to work and ending the conversation. Consistency has helped. Even as another staff pastor, I found myself handing out in the main office/admin’s space to take coffee breaks and chat. Since these changes, I chat in her workspace less and she moves us along more effectively.

  6. Elizabeth M*

    I worked as an Administrative Assistant for almost 3 years at a church and this was a definite issue. Ultimately, I was moved to a quieter space so I could get work done with fewer interruptions. The reception area still remained a gathering place.

    There often has to be some reception space for contractors, community members, and visitors to get their questions asked, doors opened, etc. But it’s the people who regularly attend the church who often hold long conversations.

    If you want to change the culture, everyone in the reception area has to be on the same page about what’s expected. If ending conversations early is expected, make it clear to your staff that that’s the norm. That way chatty staff members and ones who need to focus both recognize the importance of keeping a quieter office space.

  7. Chinook*

    I woudl also like to add that, if you ask the receptionist to politely move them along, make sure you have her back when someone then goes and complains to you that she is being rude and not making them feel at home in their own church. There will be push back from one or two people and she needs to know that you will not make her the bad guy.

    1. Jessa*

      OH yes exactly, you have to have her back. And if the trouble is from Congregant Big Bucks and Spouse or someone important to the ministry you may have to go out there and deal with it yourself.

  8. Jamie*

    This is a stupid question – but are you working in the office on Sundays? Assuming you work normal work week (8-5 or whatever) is there stuff going on during the week that they are there for, or are they stopping in just to chat? Because if it’s the latter that’s really bizarre to me.

    Total agreement with changing the space – if there was ever a place where you needed walls it would be something like this. Even if you can’t put up walls doing whatever to make it more a place of business and less welcoming will help.

    Or maybe there are some retired people who would like to volunteer there and part of their job could be chatting. Like greeters. When no one is there filing and stuff – but if they are unpaid volunteers whose job is in large part to chat then the paid workers could get their stuff done.

    I shouldn’t opine because this is so out of my element. Since my kids finished CCD the only time I stop by the rectory is when I need a mass card if someone in the family died. And I’m not much of a chatter.

    1. ExceptionToTheRule*

      At my church it isn’t a Sunday thing, it’s usually volunteers or lay leaders who have stopped in on actual business during office hours – say for a meeting or picking up/dropping off materials – and they stop to chat because they’re friendly and the staff is friendly.

      I would suggest skipping #3 and proceeding with options 1 & 2.

    2. some1*

      Sounds like you are Catholic; I was raised one, too, but have a lot of friends who are Protestant.

      I think it’s just a difference of culture. I don’t mean to say that the Catholic churches are less welcoming, but from my observation they are more formal when it comes to contacting clergy or parish admin staff. For one thing, the parish office is usually in the rectory, which doubles as the priest(s)’s house traditionally. Of course people are going to be less likely to be a walk-in visitor for a what is essentially a home business. When I was still a practicing Catholic, and I saw someone drop by the rectory, my first thought would be that they are “in trouble”, are there for counseling, or are in crisis.

      1. FD*

        I agree on the cultural thing. I was raised Catholic myself, and I can’t imagine this ever being an issue at any parish I’ve ever attended.

        (That’s not to say anything about Catholic churches being better or worse, just that there’s a cultural difference there, in terms of the expected levels of formality.)

        1. Ruffingit*

          My mother has been the secretary at the Catholic Church in my hometown for over 20 years and this happens a lot! It depends on the size of the parish quite often. My hometown is small, people know each other, and the level of formality is low. People drop in to the parish office constantly to have coffee, talk, etc. They seem to think of it as their own little weekday coffee clatch and they do expect that my mother will chat with them.

          As has been noted by other posters, many Church members are touchy and the slightest thing will set them off so it’s a matter of balancing needing to get the work done with being open to parishioners. Not an easy balance to strike at all. It’s driven my mother insane sometimes to have to deal with this issue. People often do not respect the Church office as the business place that it is. They literally see it as “their” Church office meaning they can drop in anytime they want to.

          So yeah – the Catholic Church’s formality doesn’t always save it from this issue. It is so dependent on many things. Regardless of the denomination though, this is an issue that needs to be addressed because although it’s a church, it’s also a business and those two things can co-exist. It’s just figuring out exactly how that is the difficulty.

          1. Jamie*

            it’s a church, it’s also a business and those two things can co-exist.

            True – and the problem is the church members are the customers so it’s a really delicate balance. If the whole community thing is part of what makes a particular church appealing to them you risk losing them (and their money) if you get too businesslike.

            If all of a sudden everyone started flocking to another church because it had the warm friendly vibe they like and where they are allowed to chat …well I bet tptb would rethink the no chat thing and you’d be back to it being impossible to work.

            Almost be worth it to pay someone to do nothing much but chat – if you can’t get any volunteers.

            1. Ruffingit*

              Absolutely agreed Jamie that it’s a very delicate balance. I don’t know what the answer is. My mother has learned to handle it fairly well over the years, but then she has a warm, welcoming personality and she’s been there long enough that people trust her so they are more willing to take her gentle request of”I need you to leave now so I can work.”

              Still, it’s not easy and it really depends on personalities a lot of the time. My mother has had trouble with some people in particular who simply don’t respond. That is where the priest/pastor needs to say something and in my mother’s case, he has done so.

              Delicate balance indeed. I feel sorry for anyone having to deal with this problem. It’s not easy.

      2. RG*

        Hmm – it could depend on the size of the parish, or what the property arrangements are, but our parish has always had parish offices separate from the rectory. There was one point where the church (one of two in the parish) and the parish offices and the rectory were part of one continuous building, but the offices were definitely separate from the private living space for the priests.

  9. Kelly O*

    Oh, an idea, based on Elizabeth M’s comment – one church I attended had a volunteer receptionist in addition to the administrative assistant(s) and other paid staff.

    The volunteer receptionist answered phones and greeted guests. That person would just call whomever the person was there to see – the contractors got access to the admin, the parents would be sent back to talk with the director of the daycare program, and so on and so forth.

    I actually volunteered there a bit before my work schedule stopped allowing me the time. They lined up people for half-days as a general rule, and there were almost always plenty of retired folks willing to give a few hours every week to do that. It was social for them too, and kept everyone else free to do their work.

    1. Emily*

      That’s what I was going to suggest—kind of like volunteers who man visitor info desks at monuments and landmark sites.

    1. Jessica (the celt)*

      I know you’re joking about this, but when I was an office manager at a church, I was told to pray about how to prioritize tasks when I told my boss that there was more work than could possibly be done within my work hours — especially given the phone calls and stop-ins, as mentioned here. I am a super business-like person, so I would chat for one minute before getting down to business and sending the person on his/her way…of course, then I wasn’t following the “ethos” (his words, not mine) of the place. His other suggestion (after I did pray about it for two weeks and, magically, there was still too much work for one person to do) was to then volunteer my time to do my job after my hours were up, preferably Sundays after church, since I was already there and all.

      You joke, but there are pastors out there who would say that this is the way to go. (I’ve met them…and worked for them.)

  10. Been There*

    I can totally relate to this. I was a parish administrator and parishioners came into my office, plopped down in a chair and shot the breeze for hours on end. It’s just part of our parish culture and not necessarily a bad thing unless there was stuff I really needed to get done. Of course, this was always prefaced by “I know you’re busy, but . . .” It also happened on Sunday mornings when the priest was preparing for the service and parishioners would want to chat. Pleas via Sunday morning announcements and the bulletin to refrain from these things may as well have been written in Chinese. Changing (removing) the guest furniture in my office helped, and I also had to be willing to chat for a couple of minutes and then be fairly assertive in saying something like, “I’d love to talk but I HAVE to get this newsletter finished!” The diehards, well, I put ’em to work – fold and assemble the bulletins, for example. But I sent them to the conference room away from my office!

    And a lot of parishioners figured that when the priests had office hours, it meant they were sitting around waiting for someone to come in and hang out. Hey, they’re extremely busy peiople – it’s not just a 2-hour Sunday morning gig!

  11. Liz*

    Agreed with others – first two suggestions are great. And to address some things said inthe comments, the pastor SHOULD be there with open doors as a resource to people. But the secretary and other office staff? No. That’s not their responsibility or their role. One thing to consider: are the doors open during the day? Maybe the church doors should be shut. My church is locked except during the Sunday service and official church events that take place in the sanctuary. This is not seen as a “keep people out” thing but as a safety thing, because we live in a city and dont’ want vandalism. Of course, lots of people have keys. But it’s not like you’d just drop by to hang out with the secretary – in our case we all know she’s busy.

    so I think that there are two things to do: 1, make the space clearly an office, and not a hangout place, with no comfy chairs. 2, make sure the staff are assertive, letting people know it was nice to see them but they have work to do.

    1. Vicki*

      At last, someone mentions doors.

      I note in the OP’s letter “We have an open reception area”. Can you make it less open? Perhaps you could install, not doors exactly, but windows (e.g. patio door/window combinations).

      I’ve seen these used to good effect on office cubicles and meeting rooms. Because they’re clear glass, they don’t look like you’re shutting people out. But because they’re solid, they also create a barrier. You could even put a glass “wall” (with one door-wide opening) between the comfy waiting area and the actual work area.

  12. OhMyYes*

    This happened in our office to the woman that sat nearest the entrance. While not technically a receptionist, she ALWAYS had visitors and coworkers at her desk. She used to get so frustrated because she just didn’t have it in her to ask people to move along. (In a nicer way, of course.) I used to tell her she needed to put a flag up to indicate that she was too busy to chat. You would really not believe how long some people could linger day in and day out! I’m pretty sure that most of the folks that stopped thought they were the only one who did it. Our office manager is useless, so she never stepped in to offer any assistance. The only thing that fixed it was that we moved to a new building and she is no longer the first stop on the tour.

  13. COT*

    I wonder, too, if you could shorten the hours that your office is open for visitors. This obviously depends greatly on the congregation’s needs and programs, but are there times that the doors could be locked so the staff can work uninterrupted? For instance, if your admin’s usual hours are 8-5, perhaps visitor hours could be 10-5 or something like that.

  14. a nony Episcopalian mouse*

    Ok, Episcopalians don’t exactly have a reputation for their devotion to their church community, but I’ll share my experience anyway. Growing up my mom and I volunteered at our church, so I went into the church a lot with her outside of normal service hours. At our church, the Rector’s office and other administrative offices were behind the sacresty and fairly far away from the more public parts of the church. It was definitely frowned upon (and possibly even explicitly not allowed) for regular church members to go back there unless they were conducting church business. Most of the volunteer (and the church staff when working with the volunteers) worked either in the fellowship hall or dining/event space which were.

    Obviously, this depends on the space available, but I think (a) making the office more of an office and (b) creating an alternative “hang-out” space might help. You also will need to back up the receptionist when s/he directs people to the “new church lounge!”

  15. Scott*

    Wow, the responses are overwhelming, and really helpful! I am the poster of the question, and I so appreciate everyone weighing in, and look forward to even more!


  16. Anon*

    We have this same problem at my medium sized Southern Baptist church. The added problem is our receptionist is a talker and has a very hard time turning people away. I’m the music minister, so she doesn’t report to me. I don’t think people realize that it’s taking up time from her job to talk to you. I think church members see her as a friend who happens to be at church too.

  17. 7*

    Make a friendly announcement from the pulpit during service(s) a few times. I wouldn’t say that member cant stop by but I would ask them for their help in letting the office staff remain focused.

  18. Marina*

    It might be a useful perspective shift to see talking with church members and visitors as one of the AA’s job duties, and to approach it from a perspective of balancing workload, rather than reducing or eliminating the task.

    1. Jessa*

      That only works if the talking doesn’t occur so often and with so many people that you can’t get the work of the church done. And I think that’s the issue here. Not that talking is bad per se but that it’s taking up SO much time that no work is getting done.

  19. Anonymous*

    I agree with a lot of what people have said here.

    Can the AA get an office? At my mother’s former job, the ‘ministry assistants’ had their own offices while another woman manned the main desk part-time. That woman was older and had been at the church forever, so she knew most of the chatters who came in. And frankly I think a big part of her job was just absorbing the chit-chat and preventing it from making its way into staff offices. My mother, who did the finances, also had volunteers that helped her count offering collections every Monday; both of her volunteers are older and retired. Could some of your repeat offenders be redirected to things like this? They still get time to chit-chat but they are helping with office work too.

    1. The gold digger*

      Speaking of counting the collection, does it always shock you when you read about someone stealing from the collection plate? I don’t mean while it’s being passed, I mean over a period of years from the total haul.

      In all the churches I have attended, there are multiple collection counters. In one church, they would ask three parishoners at random after each Mass to count. We all sat there together at a table and everyone tallied all the money by denomination. We each had our own sheet. The numbers had to balance among the three. We all signed our sheet.

      Unless there would be collusion among the three and/or the person who then took the money to the bank faked all the tally sheets, I just don’t know how someone could have stolen any of that money.

      Drives me crazy when places don’t have good internal controls.

      1. Natalie*

        I wonder if churches in particular have a hard time with controls because you’re implicitly saying that there’s a chance the churchgoing folk who are counting the money might not be trustworthy.

  20. Scott*

    To some of your comments: We are a church of over 1000 people, so the people are not just the same 3 or 4. We can see dozens of people through our offices in a week. Our offices are in a separate building from the Worship Center in a renovated house that was originally on the property. I am typing this from the former master bedroom! Although this may not be ideal, it isn’t changing any time soon.

    Thanks for all the feedback, and please continue to comment, they are really helpful and give great perspective!

    1. Anonymous*

      Scott, I like the suggestion above of instituting a Volunteer Receptionist position. Have them be the one that greets visitors and let the full-time Admin have a buffer between her and the visitors that want to hang out and chat. With that size congregation, you should be able to find enough volunteers ;o)

    1. Jamie*

      God wants the chatty people to talk to each other and leave the people who are working in peace to do their jobs.

      He told me.

  21. Elle*

    You know, churches need to be careful. This is basically the reason that I left my church.

    You join a church. After tithing, spending weeknights at church events, making food and baking for “lunches” i.e. free catering for church events, leafleting, coming early for worship practice, participating in food drives and giving extra offering for new building funds, you are begrudged 5 min waiting in the building that you helped pay for!

    Many large churches are just there to bleed the congregation dry – of time, energy, everything. If the church doesn’t serve it’s congregation’s needs, what exactly is it doing?

    1. Elle*

      And I wouldn’t attend or trust a church whose lead pastor saw the congregants as a burden or an inconvenience.

      – Speaks the child of a pastor

      1. Scott*

        Elle —

        I agree. It’s not a matter of seeing anyone as an inconvenience – or a burden. I don’t think you find that language in my original post, or after. So there is a matter of balance – people who attend our 3 worship opportunities each week expect messages to be relevant, expect name tags to be produced, expect worship folders that are current, etc. And all of those things also take time.

        Speaks the child of a pastor, and one myself! :-)

    2. Mina*

      Also, keep in mind that those tithes are also paying for salaries – which those people (like me) are trying to earn by providing good work.

      And – it’s not just one person hanging out for five minutes. It’s one person plus multiple other people. It all adds up very quickly.

      1. Caffeine Queen*

        It does add up very quickly! I’m a Catholic myself and most of the parishes I’ve attended have had at least 1000 parishioners. If you have one full time priest (and you’re lucky if you do, to be frank), maybe some part time admins, and your parish is stretched for cash, preventing you from hiring more, that’s a lot of work between four people. There are sacraments to schedule (baptisms, weddings, first communions, etc), programs to make for various Masses, maybe community service trips (and the liability they entail) to arrange for the high school kids, ordering enough books for the religious education classes, taking inventory of the hosts and wine, coordinating volunteers to decorate the church for Christmas and Easter and people to clean up after. Not to mention that the priest has to be accessible to the people so the admins are doing a lot. Volunteer greeters would be a good idea. However, I do have to say-it’s not about sucking people dry. It’s that they’re sucked dry already and can’t really afford distractions.

    3. Kelly O*

      Elle, I’m so sorry you feel that way, and have had bad experiences at church. I can relate, because I’ve felt much the same way. (I actually had a moment in a meeting last week when I just flat-out said that sometimes it feels like if you can’t give more financially then you’re not as “good” as the people who can.)

      Can I offer a little perspective that helped me deal with my bitterness? (And I still struggle sometimes with this, so believe me, I am not “there” yet.) I try to remind myself that the church is God’s house, and I am part of a larger family of God. We’re all brothers and sisters, no matter how we choose to worship.

      And, I don’t necessarily like all my blood relatives. If I can have ongoing issues with some people who are actually my biological family and still get along when I need to, then I can deal with the people in my church family who irk me. If there are more irkers than people I really and truly like, maybe the church I’m in is not for me. I grew up in a place where you basically went to the same church forever. It was a huge “scandal” when someone jumped ship for another church.

      What I’ve come to accept as an adult is that while one church may be great for me at a particular point in my life, sometimes it’s just time to move on. We’ve not stayed in the same place geographically long enough for it to be a huge issue (the last time I truly struggled was in our small East Texas town, where my options were very limited.) But I know that if for whatever reason my current church stops providing what I need spiritually, then it’s perfectly okay for me to find somewhere that does. It’s even okay to take a break for a while and figure out what it is I need, and what’s really causing the problem.

      I understand the need to talk about financial things in church, but I do agree that many churches, not even large ones necessarily, have a very difficult line to walk in talking about it without making it the most important thing.

  22. E*

    I like the idea of a volunteer greeter/receptionist who serves as a buffer.

    Another idea is that if there are particular staff members that church members are dropping in unannounced to see, that those staff establish “office hours” like college professors. If that’s a regular part of your weekly schedule, you’ll just know not to expect to get too much administrative work done during that time.

    1. Andrea*

      I love this idea. It could be a twice-weekly drop-in time for maybe an hour, which shouldn’t take too much time away from tasks. And if some kind of mindless job needed to be done at the same time—folding programs or stuffing envelopes or whatever—maybe people could even help (or at least those tasks could be done while people are chatting).

  23. Emily*

    You might be able to use the parishioners’ conversations shape your solution. Are visitors talking to each other while they’re in the office, or primarily to the staff? Maybe you could change the space you do have into one that’s conducive to gathering and chatting, just not directly to the admin. Are they just making small talk, or are they asking questions, or offering ideas or feedback? Maybe there’s a need for a daily or weekly “open house” or “coffee hour” (a staple of my Episcopalian upbringing!) I remember the “administrative” building at my childhood church—it was a very old house with a front parlor room. It was almost never used for official programming, but it was almost always occupied by someone or other, just visiting casually.

  24. Jenny*

    I do have a suggestion-though it may be costly. Our Parish, for whom I teach one night a week for, has for security purposes has employed a system that one can not enter without knocking/ringing a doorbell. This also helps with traffic flow as if someone is dropping off paperwork or just saying hello the door greeter can do a perfunctory hello, ascertain what is needed and handle the request as needed. We also have a area with a hard wooden bench for those people who need to see someone. The offices are either down a hallway or in the basement of the building. I believe this stops people from “just stopping by”. The secrectaries are the ones who greet and obviously they can’t stand by the door or gathering area, so they usually just go back to their space. It does stop people from just random drop ins because they are told that either a) the person they want to chat with it not there, b) busy or c) have an option of sitting alone on a bench until said person is available.

    We also have 3 buildings on the property besides the church- rectory/office, annex and school/resource center. If volunteers need meeting space for various reasons they are allowed to reserve space in various rooms-just not the rectory/office. I know it sounds harsh and also that most parishes don’t have that kind of set up but it is needed. Our poor Parish staff would not get anything accomplished if not! So great benefits from the security system.

    And don’t get me started on parents who show up before/after class in my classroom to shoot the breeze….and get gossip!

  25. Cruella DaBoss*

    We just recently built a “coffee corner” just off the main lobby, by our library. We stocked it with several couches, chairs, a few cafe tables, and of course a bank of Keurig machines and product racks. That seems to be where everyone congregates now, both before and after the services. Of course now, we are having a little problem getting folks to come into the service.

  26. MB*

    If your church doesn’t have time for people or fellowship, you’re in trouble. We are not professionals.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But the people who work there by definition are professionals with a job to do, no?

      And it sounds like the church has plenty of time for people and fellowship — but work still needs to get done, or there would be no church.

      1. MB*

        Church is one place that should not work like a business. It is meant to assist people. If we are talking about a Christian church, then no they are not professionals. The ethics in a Christian church is that counting the money is secondary to people. Jesus put people first and he is our example. Perhaps these talkers need to be given a job. If they are going to talk maybe they can vacuum the floors while they talk. However, treating a church like a business opens the door for people to be treated like customers. Then we fall under all the stereotypes that people have of churches (we are after their money, hyprocrites, not loving/welcoming). I can see if I went to someone’s business office and distracted them from work. If a person steps into a church, it should not be a distraction. We, the church, were not meant to start places of business, but to be hospitals for the broken-hearted. Any church related question has to do with ethics and be brought back to the Bible, rather than be about professionalism. If we are not talking about the Christian church, then this still needs to be brought back to your book of wisdom…whatever that may be. Religion should not be about getting the job done. It has too much to do with service to others.

        1. Jamie*

          But they are professionals if they are getting paid to provide a service. And no matter how altruistic, there are business matters that have to be accomplished. If someone doesn’t put the bulletin together, arrange schedules, pay the light bill, salaries, etc. that will quickly result in a financial collapse so the chatty people would have to find somewhere else to go anyway.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Exactly. Would the church really want to fund an additional position to just to talk to people, so that there’s time for the rest of the work to get done?

        2. KellyK*

          You have a point, but that staff has a very specific service to others, their job, that they’re getting paid for and that they need to accomplish. Those responsibilities don’t go away simply because other opportunities for service (people to talk with) crop up.

          If you showed up at church on a Sunday morning, and the pastor didn’t have a sermon ready, and there were no bulletins, and there was no childcare or Sunday school because nobody had scheduled teachers, and the bathrooms were out of order because the water bill hadn’t been paid, all because the staff spent their time talking with congregation members instead, would you be okay with that?

          Similarly, would you think it’s an appropriate use of the church’s resources to be paying that staff overtime every day so that they can do both? Keeping in mind that that’s money that isn’t going to feeding the hungry or mission trips or fixing that hole in the parking lot.

          I like your analogy about a hospital for the broken-hearted, but hospitals have a concept of triage. It doesn’t sound from the OP’s post like these are people who need a shoulder to cry on because their marriage is failing or they’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Of course, if someone comes in with a major issue, then you find someone to comfort them. But you can’t treat every chatty church member as a spiritual emergency, unless you want nothing else to get done, ever.

        3. Jessa*

          And talking means there are no altar breads because there was no time to order them. Talking means all the people at the food pantry go hungry because the contacts with the Dept of Agriculture that bring in cheese and peanut butter did not happen because they were too busy.

          The “business” of a church also requires business to be done. Churches don’t run on prayer. People actually have to DO things to minister. If the secretary doesn’t make the pastor’s doctor’s appointment he or she might not be at services that week. If the plumber doesn’t come in and repair that bathroom, people after services are going to have an issue after collation. If the books aren’t ordered for the school or the Sunday school how are people going to learn.

          Oh and all that counting money? Means when the Smiths only car is broken and they can’t get the kids to school or their disabled mother to the doctor, the church can offer them some money to repair it.

          If someone needs counselling or someone to talk to, call and make an appointment. They can get you in to see the pastor or they can arrange for a lay minister of some sort to go out and help you. Or just even maybe add a “here’s time to get together and talk in the collation room” day.

          But service to others IS WORK. And people are getting paid to or volunteering their time to DO IT.

          1. mina*

            Speak for yourself, MB. I AM a professional. Most of these people just want to hang out and kill time. Serious needs go through appts.

            And I GUARANTEE if something goes wrong, as in I made mistakes in the bulletin for Sundays, that it WILL be seen, noted and complained about. So please tell me again why I can’t have space and quiet to do my job, that is paid for out of tithes?

  27. mollsbot*

    I think chatting with the congregation is part of the receptionists duties.

    When I worked at a psychiatrists office talking to the patients was part of my job, along with making everyone that walked in feel welcome and comfortable.

    Also, are the ‘campers’ elderly? My elderly grandfather makes rounds every day spending a little time at the bank, the realtor’s office, the church, etc. This is his routine, and it helps with his loneliness (and has saved him from a scam, but that is a different story). 20 min of kindness and a chat can make a HUGE difference to people. It makes me… disappointed that the OP and AA don’t seem to see it that way.

    1. mollsbot*

      I guess what I’m trying to say is: Isn’t talking to the congregation part of the (for lack of a better term) customer service of the church?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Is it, in this particular context? I’m sure they talk to the congregation plenty — but they also need to get work done in order for the congregation to function, right? If church members were asked whether they wanted to fund an additional staff position for someone who would just talk to members who wandered by, I doubt they would say yes.

        1. mollsbot*

          You and Jamie both make good points. I do agree at some point you have to stop chatting and get your work done or the business side of the church will suffer.

          Your advice about having the receptionist say to the visitors ‘Sorry Bill, I’d love to chat more, but I really have to get this Teapot Chocolitized asap” is really on point. It is important to balance friendliness and getting the job done.

          I really hope that the church can find a happy median.

          p.s. feeling really great that I got an AAM response, even if you disagree! :D

    2. Jamie*

      My daughter works at a fast food place and her favorite customers are the elderly who come in early and love to chat.

      She knows the names of all their grandchildren and is genuinely excited to see new pics of their pets.

      I agree that it’s very possible that chatting should be part of the duties…but in that case they need to get volunteers in to do it or hire more staff because as it is now the current staff can’t chat and do their jobs and it isn’t fair to set them up for failure by expecting both.

  28. justme*

    I’m way late in this topic, but here’s my idea…Put these visitors to work! Have these visitors fold bulletins, stuff envelopes, or run the copy machine, or any of the other many tasks that require no real training. :-)

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