Last Friday and Saturday I attended the Willow Creek Global Summit at a nearby local church (The conference was really, really good). On Friday morning it wasn’t just raining, but a deluge and in usual ‘Fogg’ style we arrived with only a few minutes to spare. Or so we thought. As I put on my indicator to turn into the car park there were traffic cones across the entrance with two very nice chaps signalling for us to do a u-turn. They told me that the car park was full and that I needed to find parking somewhere on the (busy) street.

Now I was mildly annoyed at the fact that the car park was full, but then we had left it quite late to arrive. But on closer inspection the car park only had room for around 30 cars. Yes, 30 cars (The conference in Melbourne had around 300 people show up). As my lovely American friends like to say. Do the math.

Now I’m sure that the wonderful Willow Creek Australia (WCA) people will have this on their feedback forms from the conference. I want to be really clear, I’m not writing about this experience to have a go or embarrass WCA or the church who hosted the conference. I’m sharing this story because this is what a first time visitor to your own church could (and probably has) experienced (I’ve blogged about the fact you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression before).

Imagine a member of your congregation has been journeying with a friend for a long time and finally they’ve had the courage to invite that friend to church. For them it’s a HUGE relational call. They’ve checked ahead of time and the topic that is being covered on the weekend fits well with where their friend is at, it also happens to be the speaker who they just know will connect well with their friend because they are so relational.

Your member feels like all the stars are aligned and makes the call, and to their surprise their friend says yes. Your member thinks, okay I’ve done my part, boy, I really hope my church can deliver. They’ve put their trust in you and hope you can back up. They arrange to meet their friend at the church in the entrance.

Can you imagine your members horror when their friend doesn’t show up. And to make matters worse, when they finally get in contact with them (because their friend feels slightly embarrassed)  and they find out they didn’t come because they couldn’t find a park.

Wouldn’t that just suck? Your congregational member is annoyed with you because it wasn’t clear for a first timer where to park, their trust in you just went down a couple of notches. But more importantly, this could of been the one shot at this person coming to church. They may never, ever step foot in any church again.

(By the way, I’m also using a principle I learnt at the conference. Candor. For us to improve in churches we have to be candid and not fudge the facts.)

Here’s the some things I learnt that you can also apply to your own setting:

1) Set expectations– If you have limited parking let people know about it on your website and in any other appropriate communications channel. If you are posting or emailing out a confirmation of a event booking, or a templated email invitation to church spell out that there is limited on site parking. Also;

2) Demonstrate options – Tell the person that is attending an event at your church, or coming to your church for the first time that there are other options available because we all know that (and I’m sure its just me, not you) some people leave arriving at church until the last possible second of the last possible minute (I bring the ‘just in time’ philosophy to a whole new level).

3) Give directions – Show the visitor what other options are available and where they can park, preferably on a really simple map in your confirmation letter, email and on your church website.

4) Staff your carpark and tell your potential visitor that they will get help – A year or so ago I visited Riverview Church in Western Australia. They were in a very similar situation to the church that hosted the conference. Located in an industrial estate with limited parking. But their brilliant solution to this problem was to over compensate with extra volunteers on the ground literally directing you to a parking spot. It was brilliant. It was my first time at the church and I never felt like I would struggle to find a park (And yes, I was using the same ‘just in time’ philosophy). I also felt welcomed and appreciated with the smiles from the car park attendants. You can also add an extra paragraph in your communication piece to reassure your potential visitor not to worry and that helpful car park attendants will be there to direct them to a space.

We are fortunate at my church that we have a huge capacity for parking, well over what we could ever possibly need at our current levels. But if I was in a built up area with limited parking I’d doing this RIGHT NOW.

If you are in a built up area and have limited parking:

1) Check your website

2) Check your communication pieces

Check them and ask yourself ‘Is it clear what parking options are available?’

Some of you right now are thinking ‘so what?’ But believe me it’s my experience that often the most important communication wins or failures are in the detail.

What communication wins or failures have you seen?

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