You Called?

By Suzanne C. Hickerson

How easy is it for a newcomer to get information about your church through a phone call? A survey of telephone hospitality in Holston Conference

When a newcomer moves into a community, that person wants to be heard and made to feel welcome. I know, because I recently relocated from one Virginia town to another and am still searching for a new church home.

Finding a new church can involve accepting an invitation from a friend, responding to a newspaper advertisement, or searching the internet for more information. Sometimes a simple telephone call is all it takes to learn more about worship times, Sunday school and other activities.

But, as voice mail becomes more complex and frustrating to use - and because some churches have part-time pastors - how easy is it, really, to get basic information over the phone?

During the two-week period from March 25 to April 8, I conducted an informal telephone survey of 12 churches - including one in each district and an equal number of small, medium and large congregations. The survey was intentionally conducted during the Easter season, when guests are more likely to visit churches and when congregations should be most prepared to welcome them.

Telephone numbers were initially located for each church through the internet white pages ( Many calls were made in the evenings and on weekends, when people are home from work and school and perhaps thinking about attending church.

Overall, the responses were helpful and friendly. However, there were some instances when an incorrect phone number was listed or a church did not have an answering machine. It's important to remember that this survey is not scientific. These are my personal observations, and on any given day, the response could have been different.

However, at a time when the United Methodist Church is struggling to be more welcoming to newcomers, it's also important for congregations to ask themselves: Are we really just a phone call away?

Abingdon District
Pleasant View UMC
I called Pleasant View on a Saturday evening about 8:45 p.m. and was connected with voice mail. The message identified the church and asked the caller to leave his or her name and phone number. The tone was pleasant, but as with many voice mail messages, it was somewhat rushed. The message did not provide information about worship or Sunday school times, so I left a message requesting this information. I received a return call the following Wednesday. The woman returning my call was kind, leaving her name and number on my answering machine, as well as an offer to answer any additional questions.

Big Stone Gap District:
Jonesville UMC
With Easter morning services just hours away, I spoke with a friendly woman at Jonesville late Saturday evening, approximately 9 p.m. When I inquired about Sunday school and worship times, she not only provided the information, but also referred me to an advertisement in the local newspaper concerning Easter morning services.

Chattanooga District:
Brainerd UMC
Brainerd's voice mail asks callers to enter their party's extension or to leave a message. Since I did not know anyone's extension, I left a message on Saturday afternoon, April 2. As of April 14, I had not received a return call.

Cleveland District:
Mt. Olive UMC
I called Mt. Olive on four different occasions and was unable to reach a person or to leave a message. My calls were made on Saturday afternoon, Tuesday evening, Wednesday afternoon, and Thursday evening. I wanted to make sure I had the correct phone number, so I called directory assistance. The operator provided me with the same telephone number I had. I also checked the Holston Conference web site to see if an alternate number was available. I did find another number, but when I called it, I reached a recording stating the number had been "disconnected or was no longer in service."

Johnson City District:
Bluff City UMC
The voice mail message at Bluff City was brief - just asking callers to leave a message at the tone. I left a message on a Saturday afternoon and received a return call a few hours later. The person I spoke with was very helpful in providing information about the rotational Sunday school program for children as well as youth and adult classes. She asked a few questions about my interests and needs, which was very engaging. It made me feel important and welcome. She also explained that contemporary and traditional worship services are offered.

Kingsport District:
First Broad Street UMC
I called several times before reaching someone at First Broad Street. I called on a Saturday evening, Saturday afternoon of the following week, Tuesday evening, and was finally able to speak to someone when I called on a Wednesday afternoon. Because there was no opportunity to leave a message during non-office hours, it was a very discouraging process. When I did speak to someone at First Broad Street, she was very helpful in answering my questions. She also referred me to another person in the church who could provide additional information about activities.

Knoxville District:
Bookwalter UMC
I reached Bookwalter on Saturday evening, just after 9 p.m. on Easter weekend. The man I spoke with was helpful and pleasant in providing the times for worship and Sunday school.

Maryville District:
Vonore UMC
I reached the cheerful voice mail message for Vonore on a Saturday afternoon. The message provided me with both the times for worship and Sunday school. The message also included an additional telephone number to call for more information. The message ended with a cheerful, "Thanks for calling!"

Morristown District:
Centenary UMC
I called Centenary on a Saturday afternoon and was greeted by a very cheerful message. The voice identified the church and gave instructions for leaving my name and phone number. The message ended with a friendly statement: "Thank you for calling, and may the peace of the Lord be with you." I left a message on April 2, but as of April 14 had not received a return call.

Oak Ridge District:
Lake City UMC
I left a message on Lake City's voice mail on a Tuesday evening and received a prompt return call Wednesday morning. The woman was kind enough to leave me a message with times for Sunday school, Sunday worship, Wednesday night dinner, and choir practice. She made me feel a part of the church before I even set foot in the door. She ended her message to me with, "We would love to have you visit us. Hope you can join us. Thank you so much and God bless you all."

Tazewell District:
Garden UMC
Garden has a voice mail message that provides the Sunday school and Sunday morning worship times as well as information about Bible study and youth events. I left a message asking for more information about children and youth activities on Tuesday evening, April 5. On April 14, I received a message containing answers to my questions and a number to call for more information.

Wytheville District:
Dublin UMC
A pleasant voice greeted me on Tuesday evening, April 5, when I called Dublin. The woman I spoke with provided the times for worship services as well as Sunday school. She went a step further and made me feel welcome by saying, "We would love to have you. Hope we will see you Sunday."

Suzanne C. Hickerson is a freelance writer living in Salem, Va.


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Sweet talk
Telephone welcoming tips

  • Be sure there is an opportunity for callers to leave a message when no one is in the church office or parsonage.

  • Beware of voice-mail systems that force callers to go through a series of button-pushing before locating basic information. They may give up.

  • Provide worship and Sunday school times on the answering machine or voice mail. Identify the church by name and location. [If you have a web site, mention the address so that more information can be gathered there.]

  • Return phone calls promptly.

  • If possible, correct or update your church number in telephone books or online directories. Place the church's phone number on the church sign.

  • Take note of the pleasant tones and welcoming words that impressed our "secret caller" when she contacted Holston churches. Speak slowly and clearly. Smile while you are talking on the phone; it makes your voice brighter.

9915 Kingston Pike, Suite C | Knoxville, TN 37922
PO Box 32939 | Knoxville, TN 37930 | Phone (865) 690-4080 | Fax (865) 690-3162

210 Maple St. | Johnson City, TN 37604
PO Box 2506 | Johnson City, TN 37605 | Phone (423) 928-2156 | Fax (423) 928-880

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