It’s Time to Rethink the Welcome Center Experience


Welcome centers are at heart of the experience in most service-oriented businesses and churches. The idea is a good one: create a focal point that allows newcomers to find the information they need in order to have the best experience possible. But I think we have missed the point on implementation, specially churches. Somehow we have bought into the idea that a counter-service type of approach is the optimum way to welcome someone. It isn’t.

The problem with most welcome centers is the foundational assumption it creates by the virtue of its design: a counter fortress where staff or volunteers stand  behind waiting for those seeking help to engage them. Some are quite elaborate constructions in the middle to atriums and concourses with computers and flat screens.  To me that’s not a welcome station; it’s a help desk. It puts the entire ownership of the process on the new person. In my experience, volunteers who stand behind welcome desks find a way to entertain themselves by carrying on spirited conversations with each other while those in need of help have to “break in” to get their questions answered.

old church welcome center

cluttered counters and we-can't-help-you-because-we-are-locked-behind-this-desk attitude has to go

Years ago I visited a church with a beautiful state-of-the art welcome center. It was a 360 marvel of modern craftsmanship with steel, granite and glass and had 6 large flat screens around its outer parameter. But it seemed unattended until I walked up and heard voices coming from the middle of the structure. Inside I found two septuagenarians sipping coffee and carry on a conversation that by the sound of it, had started in 1979. I asked where to go and without getting up one of the men pointed to a sign on the opposite wall and said “follow the green line.” Behind me was the confusing diagram of a church that look like it had been put together by a committee of unhappy people and different color lines took you different places.

In contrast, recently I stayed at an Embassy Suites Hotel. Their check in area was not a long counter as most hotels, but a few small individual stations where workers can easily walk around and engage newcomers. I love this approach because it allows the people behind the desks an easy way to walk towards those who need help and engage them one on one without the physical barrier of the counter in between. The young man who checked me in the hotel saw me coming and walked towards me saying “welcome to our hotel. Let me check you in over here,” and led me to his free-standing station.

Welcome Center Ideal

These small desks allow for easy access and creates a much more personal experience

Like a truly welcomed and expected guest, I found that the gracious host had come to greet me at the door instead of my having to walk up to the counter, wait for someone to stop talking or looking at computer screen in order to get help. This check in was a much more personal and welcoming experience. When I asked directions to the second tower elevators, the young man walked from behind the desk and took me within the line of sight of the elevators.

I hope more churches and service organizations will rethink their guest welcome strategies. The counter service mindset is not as welcoming as you think.

What has been your experience with welcome centers?

  • Sally Epps

    I visited a church once where the people at the welcome center were too busy talking to each other in order to help me. I waited for a few seconds and when no one acknowledge me so I left.

  • Generally they do not work in my experience. Like you said, they require visitors to take the initiative. Which, for people that are a bit shy or nervous, can be difficult. Actually though, I think this is just the beginning of the problem. I was a worship pastor for 15 years. I’ve attended church my entire life. I’ve been a Christian for 35 years. (I’m 45 now) I learned the hard truth recently after resigning my post and trying to get involved in a new church home that most churches processes of assimilation are very “checklist” and may not actually meet the needs of the new attender. Just like the welcome center, they put the onus and burden on the newcomer. Either we walk to the desk, or make our way to the home of someone we don’t know to spend the evening with a group of people we have never met, or we contact the ministry lead where we’d like to serve – in other words, no one really works with us. We have to take those steps ourselves – and sometimes they are more like LEAPS not steps. (I think showing up at the home of someone I do not know to spend the evening with strangers is like asking someone to jump off a bridge. That is a hard “step” for people to take.)nnBecause I run a non-profit and travel extensively (and my husband does as well) joining a life group has been impossible for us. I can attend maybe once every two months, which might be okay if I already knew anyone there. But it’s not ideal when I don’t know anyone’s name. The problem I’ve run into is this. If the “checklist” to being involved is not a match for you, there are no alternatives. If step #2 is “involvement in a life group” and you cannot attend, there is nothing else for you to do. If the requirement for serving in ministry is that you do it every Sunday for an entire quarter (this is what is true of the church we’ve been visiting) and you cannot make this commitment, you can’t serve. nnSo here I am, a worship pastor without a home church really. Oh I attend. But I cannot seem to get involved. I keep hitting brick walls. My life and experiences don’t fit the checklist. I don’t know what else to do. I’ve volunteered to do many things, I’ve offered to help in many ways. nnI wrote about this here: it will help some church leaders. nn

    • Thanks for you feedback, Jan. It’s true how hard churches make for people to get in.

  • Liz

    I am a member and servant at a large church. My church has “greeters” that welcome guests at the door, but we also have a counter area specifically for information and resources, labeled “information center”. I serve in this area and our goal is to engage guests as the are passing by and be attentive to those who seem like they may need help. We also have someone stand outside of the counter area so they can easily walk guests to different areas of the church. I think it works well as long as it is used properly and not as a barrier between volunteers and guests. Oh, we also do not have chairs behind the counter so you are forced to stay on your feet and readily available to help.

    • Thanks for serving in that area, Liz. I’m glad you’re taking steps in looking out for first comers.

  • You’ve covered the church experience well here! And as you mentioned, this lesson is just as pertinent for businesses. I love how Verizon showrooms are set up with stations…and of course, the Apple store. Businesses and retailers especially who have staff hiding out behind counters do not create a welcoming environment for their clients and customers. nnEven doctors offices…hiding behind the glass doors and high counters create such a sense of impersonalization in a highly personalized process (or shall we say, what SHOULD be highly personalized). My son’s pediatrician is wonderful in this area…they have a low counter that they sit behind and then turn to a higher counter when they need to access the computer and other needs. But that low counter is inviting for both parents and especially the patients – the little ones.

    • Apple Stores have their guys right in the middle of the store. I like that.

  • I am glad that a long held hospitality “orthodoxy” is being challenged here. Interesting thing is that it took a long time to even get welcome centers into Lutheran congregations (many still don’t have them). What I appreciate about this reflection is that it examines some of the important aspects of hospitality, not that a welcome center is an end in itself.

    • You got it. It’s about hospitality and not another church program. Churches often copy another church’s idea without thinking through the reason or strategy behind it.

  • Great insight, Maurilio. We discovered that the “fortress” idea made it nearly impossible for the welcome staff to get in contact with people–they wouldn’t walk over, and the staff member was trapped in the cubicle. We switched to a cafe table in the foyer with signage that reads “Start Here.” Visitor engagement (and return visits) have increased dramatically.

  • After being in the same church for almost 30 years, I became that “visitor.” Most churches have their heart in the right place with their visitor centers, but what they need to do most is send people to other churches to experience the feeling that visitors have. It is a HUGE deal to walk into a new church for the first time. Personally, I would never go up to a person wearing a red or orange vest to ask a question. I would not go up to a counter where people are talking amongst themselves. I am looking for smiles and friendliness among the people of the church. Bottom line, every church member needs to be a “greeter.” Not just the committee of volunteers.

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