Sunday, February 1, 2009

Always ensure that the room is too small

A few weeks ago, I attended a funeral. There were more than 100 people stuffed into the chapel at the local rehabilitation hospital - several of us spilling out into the hall.

It was Ted who had taught me the first rule of organizing a political event: always ensure the room is too small.

The reasoning is simple. If 50 people turn up, it's an overflow crowd in a room designed for 40. On the other hand, a crowd of 100 is a half empty room if the venue would hold 200. An overflow crowd generates enthusiasm. A half empty room saps it.

If you couldn't control the capacity of the venue, Ted's second best strategy was to ensure that there weren't enough chairs. Standing room only is almost as good as an overflow crowd.

I was reminded of Ted's funeral when I read this New York Times article about St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in White Plains, NY. Removing about one third of the pews has been part of a larger strategy to make the parish more inviting and attractive. Using similar tactics, St. Paul's on the Green Episcopal Church in Norwalk, CT increased its membership eightfold over 15 years.

Enthusiasm and zeal are rooted in perception. Perception may or may not be rooted in reality, but it inevitably shapes reality. How many churches could reshape their own reality by something as simple as rearranging the furniture or altering the architecture?

We haven't removed pews (yet) at the parish where I hang my biretta - but there has been a profound change in perception in the last two years. At the annual meeting two years ago, the discussion was focussed on whether to close now or close later. Today, with average Sunday attendance up 11% and giving by members up by almost twice that, the focus was on future vitality, not future doom. It's not all about bums in pews or cash in envelopes, of course - but these indicators tend not to rise in parishes that are focussed on the inevitability of decline.

Ted's widow told me that the funeral director had been very concerned the hospital chapel would be too small. "I told them that Ted wouldn't have had it any other way."

She was right.

No comments: