It’s difficult to know what someone is experiencing when they walk into your church, says Tasha Carrothers. “They come and they may or may not stay, you don’t know why…even with newcomers, we don’t pull them aside three months in and say, ‘What was your experience like when you first came here? What was it that enticed you to stick around?’”
Carrothers is the missioner for parish development in the diocese of New Westminster. As facilitator of the diocese’s consultant’s group, she helps parishes understand how to better welcome newcomers to their churches. Now, with a new program she has launched in the diocese, a small group of incognito visitors will help to do just that.
The idea of “mystery worshippers” was popularized by British website Ship of Fools, which publishes reports about churches across denominations all over the globe. The model is simple, based on that of a restaurant reviewer or “secret shopper.” Mystery worshippers attend a church as visitors and report back on how they enjoyed the service, whether they felt welcomed, whether the church was easy to find—details that regular parishioners take for granted.
There are some things that can make a visitor feel awkward or uncomfortable that regular church attendees may not be aware of. Carrothers points out common problems—churches with large, decorative front doors, where everyone uses the side entrance; announcements so full of insider language that are incomprehensible for first-timers; close-knit communities that inadvertently make a visitor feel like an outsider.
Parishes that want to identify and address these issues can now request a mystery worshipper. Carrothers sends someone only if the service is requested, but doesn’t specify when the visitor will be coming—“so that by the time this person shows up, [people are] no longer on their best behaviour,” she laughs.
After submitting feedback, the mystery worshipper attends a parish council meeting for a question-and-answer session.
“If you just get a form evaluating you, it can be kind of depressing,” says Carrothers. In a personal meeting, “there’s a chance to nuance the whole experience and really affirm what went well, so that it’s a good experience for everyone.”
So far, two parishes have participated in the program.
Mystery worshipper Tracy Tobin says it was a “fantastic experience,” and one that she hopes to be able to do again. A longtime Anglican, Tobin is currently pursuing ordination as a deacon.
Tobin visited St. Laurence Anglican Church in Coquitlam, B.C. The rector, the Rev. Eric Mason, is “fairly new” to the parish, having been in the position for a year and a half. While he has experienced the congregation as friendly and welcoming, he wanted to see his church through the eyes of a visitor. “We don’t hear the voice of somebody who is a genuine stranger,” he says.
Tobin enjoyed the service and liturgy at St. Laurence and said her criticisms were “easy to fix.”
Both mystery worshippers sent out so far have reported that they were not invited to join coffee hour following the service, Carrothers says. After waiting for 15 minutes, Tobin says she struck up a conversation about the bulletin and was invited to coffee, but found herself with no one to talk to.
Mason says Tobin’s notes reinforced some of the conversations parishioners had already been having around hospitality. Of the changes she identified, he says, “we had ears to hear them because we were already asking the question.”
Tobin also found that visiting a new church helped her realize what could seem unwelcoming in her own parish. “I really instantly changed my approach,” she says. When she went back the following Sunday, she says, she became more aware of visitors and how to make them feel more comfortable. “It just opened up my brain to, ‘What are we missing? How can we address it? What can we do differently?’ It was an invaluable experience.”
Carrothers says the response so far has been positive, with both parishes that participated indicating they would like to do it again.
“It’s one person’s one-time experience, so it’s very subjective and anecdotal,” says Carrothers. “On the other hand, this is an experience that you can’t really learn about any other way.”
For Mason, the face-to-face meeting with parish council was the most important part of the process. “She could have just written up a report, but it was really helpful for us to actually have a real live conversation,” he says.
“Inevitably, it’s weird,” he adds, “because it’s like somebody coming into your home and telling you they don’t like the furniture.”
Tobin felt the same way; she says it was important to handle the question-and-answer session “with a lot of delicacy, because this is their home…I feel like anybody doing this needs to keep that in mind.”
The program is part of a wider conversation about parish development and membership growth in the diocese, Carrothers notes. The diocese offers coaching and consulting through its parish development consultant’s group and runs a School for Parish Development, which is open to both clergy and lay people.
When asked what was the most valuable take-away from the experience, Mason reflects, “We need the stranger to help us know ourselves better.”
Tobin encourages everyone to also become that stranger. “One Sunday, go visit another church that will have no idea who you are,” she advises. “It’ll change how you see your own space.”
This article first appeared on April 5, 2018.