Two years ago some 50,000 interest names from media programs and other sources lay dormant in what one minister only half jokingly called the "guilt boxes" of the Pennsylvania Conference. Most had not been contacted even once, and none had been nurtured toward church membership or had their immediate needs met.
Today almost all those neglected names are a thing of the past, and current names that come in are being contacted and nurtured quickly and effectively. Literally hundreds of these once-neglected people are growing in knowledge of Bible truth as they pursue Bible studies, read literature, or listen to tapes according to a nurturing plan designed by a local, trained lay interest coordinator.
What made the difference? A plan we call the Interest Coordinator Program. This program, developed in Pennsylvania, can work for you, too.
Seventh-day Adventists are good at collecting interest names. We get them from all manner of national and local sources. But once we get a name, we often don't know how to follow it up with a knowledgeable, quality contact.
I have recognized this scores of time as I have helped address envelopes to the names in various church interest files in preparation for public meetings. Some collections were meticulously kept in an orderly file, but obviously nothing much had been done in the way of contact. Others really could not be called a file, but there was some evidence of follow-up. More often than not the overworked pastor would hand the names to me just a he had inherited them, obviously relieved that/malty something was being done with them they would be invited to the meetings and thus followed up.
Later, while working at the Voice of Prophecy, I phoned hundreds of Bible students young, eager students ready for a heavier spiritual diet and needing individualized attention. It was impossible for me, from the remoteness of the Bible school, to know the resources available in the local church. Even when contact was made, too often the report came back that the student was not ready to accept this or that, or was not ready for baptism. Obviously, there had been no thoughtful meeting of a mind, but only a checklist attitude.
I am convinced from thousands of such contacts that when a name is received from a national media program, there is wide spread misunderstanding on the local level as to what requests local people are responsible for filling and what has been cared for by the source program. This alone accounts for literally thousands of requests for literature and Bible studies that are never cared for. In reality, those situations where people are being contacted and their needs met with appropriate, individual nurturing are unusual indeed. In this work, the few capable, willing people who are not burned out are hopelessly overloaded. The nurturing systems are dormant or bottlenecked.
Because of this, the Pennsylvania Conference committee asked me two years ago to structure a program to improve the number and quality of contacts in following up media and other interests. This article is a report of the interest coordinator plan we have developed and are still refining. The plan is designed to assist the pastor and the church in following up interest names by assessing the degree of interest, providing appropriate nurturing, and helping the interested individual grow into church membership.
Traditionally, all interest names have been sent to the pastor. The interest coordinator plan, instead, makes each church responsible for its own follow-up of names and offers (urges) training for local church personnel to become proficient in the arts and skills of ranking, evaluating, and planning nurture on an individual basis. In this growth process there comes a natural time to transfer the name to the pastor for the final preparation for membership.
The effective follow-up of interest names involves four areas making the contact, evaluation, planning nurture, and coordinating and clerical work. A strong training program was built to meet the needs of each area. It is important that the training for all four goes beyond teaching the basics in an information-lecture style. It should include role-playing and observation of actual contacts being made. Then a final step completes the training: The trainee takes his turn at making a contact, with the trainer as an observer. The trainee gets the first opportunity to critique himself, then the observer shares his candid critique and affirmation. Sometimes the trainer takes a turn at making a contact, with the same procedure. Training should not be considered adequate until a number of such contacts have been made.
Although these initial evaluation contacts can be made in the home, using the telephone has several advantages more efficient use of limited personnel and time; physical safety (in certain situations); economy and convenience in finding each interest at home; no unsympathetic fringe listeners (you talk personally and directly to the interest); and less physical distractions. Another advantage is the nonthreatening, low-key atmosphere of a phone call, compared with the more weighted home contact. Often the degree of interest shown does not yet warrant a home visit, but a phone call is most appropriate. The person certainly doesn't consider himself an interest. Perhaps he has made inquiry on only one point. Our zeal can be overwhelming and frightening when we arrive on the scene with a bulldozer and hard hat, as it were, and we should have brought only a shovel.
The emphasis, then, is on creating a low-key atmosphere, a horizontal relation ship that has no hint of spiritual superiority. There should be loving acceptance of the individual. In the training, specific techniques for creating this climate both in the home and on the telephone are given. An objective evaluation of the interest depends on this atmosphere.
Training individuals to make telephone evaluations is made possible by amplifying the conversation so both sides can be heard by all in the room. Of course, the same result can be accomplished in home visitation, with a trainer taking a trainee with him, but since it is awkward to have more than two persons (a trainer and trainee) on a visit, this is a much slower process. It is difficult to have enough home contacts to accomplish training.
In most cases, then, the evaluation contact should be made by phone if at all possible, but about 20 percent of the interests have no phone number available. If the degree of interest shown on the card does not seem to warrant a home visit, we have suggestions for handwritten post cards as a last resort. (Actually, we are getting a surprisingly good response to this last-resort method.)
There is a necessary step before the evaluation contact, however. We must understand and be familiar with the vast and varied nurturing resources available to us. We also need to know to what nurturing systems the interest has been exposed. The genius of the interest coordinator system is knowing from where the interest is coming, where he is now, and what nurturing systems will be needed. It is this utilizing of the wide array of available nurturing resources (as compared with the typical funneling of every willing prospect into personal Bible studies) that makes it possible to nurture a large volume of interests without bogging down the whole process. There must be a variety of options to appeal to different kinds of people.
So the first step is to explore all the resources available in your local situation. In our program, we guide the local interest coordinator in listing resources for physical, emotional, and spiritual, needs. For instance, our search for spiritual nurturing resources would no doubt start on the highest rung of the lay-involvement ladder: the one-to-one Bible study. How many Bible study teams are in the church? Who are they? Address? Name? Phone? How many studies per week can they handle with comfort? What times are available? What content and format of study do they use? Encounter? Slides? Do they leave lessons to be filled out and then return to check them? Do they follow the old-fashioned, around the table, open- Bible study? This information is cleared with the Bible study personnel, and then it is cataloged in an accessible and orderly fashion.
Other spiritual nurturing resources that should be thoroughly explored are public evangelistic meetings anywhere in the area; the pastor's Bible class; cottage meetings; tapes (list contents and format; these can be handled on a loan basis through the mail); books on basic doctrines (list titles and number available); magazines (single issues on key topics, and also subscriptions); correspondence courses.
Think creatively about each nurturing method. Learn content; research facts, information, and addresses. Gather as much as possible for a resource library.
The same thorough, creative catalog treatment is given to physical and emotional nurturing resources. This could involve a trip to the Adventist Book Center. We find out about scheduled cooking classes and stop-smoking clinics. We discuss what to do when someone does not want to wait for the Five-Day Plan to Stop Smoking. We talk specifics on how to order the Home Help Five-Day Plan from Narcotics Education. We list local church programs such as Vacation Bible School, summer camp, church school programs, media programs, times and stations. This is the coordination part of the interest coordinator's work seeing to it that all nurturing systems are being used effectively. There must be no bogging down, such as overbooking one-to-one Bible studies.
This concept saves the Bible study teams for those interests who are ripe for that level of nurturing. This guards against burnout for the Bible study teams, and equally important, does not prematurely push this experience on the interest. It cooperates with his growth pattern.
If the nurturing system is the genius of the interest coordinator program, the actual evaluation contact is the heart of the work. The object is to evaluate every name in its proper priority and timing. Some contacts will need to be reevaluated occasionally as they continue to grow.
Evaluation is a learned skill of careful listening techniques. We set a low-key contact atmosphere; we built a trust relationship, a rapport. Discerning the interest's knowledge of doctrines and standards is important, but more important is the attitude of the interest toward what he knows. An evaluation contact has as its objective an attitude reading on some new Bible truth that has recently been studied. To encourage the interest to talk freely, pretty much on his own agenda, and yet to collect the insights we need to accomplish our evaluation, take skillful sensitivity.
Some of the skills taught are techniques of questioning, paraphrasing, perception checking, disarming, attitude perception, effective prayer, and conviction awareness. Role-playing for these skills is important, but it cannot take the place of the actual contact. We have also used a training tape of actual contacts and subsequent critiques to supplement and back up the observation part of the training.
The interest coordinator program needs a simple and efficient clerical structure. As names come to the coordinator, he assigns priorities. Some should be contacted immediately; others should be allowed a buffer time for books and courses to be received, or perhaps even time for a second request to be made. Each name is coded and put in the holding file in whatever form it is received. Thus there is no needless copying of names onto uniform cards until after evaluation, and then only if the interest is put on plan A or B. Such names need constant growth monitoring, so are put on an interest card in the top-level interest file.
Names that have come in from other than spiritual sources (health and social service names) are color-coded and also held in the pre-evaluation holding file. They can be quickly spotted for special circularizing. Periodically these should also be evaluated, using a special, gentle bridging technique from the source of their interest to spiritual needs. This must always be done in a caring manner, never pushing unnatural growth. Our aim is to cooperate and make available spiritual growth opportunities when and if the proper time arrives.
Because often an old interest file that goes back for years needs to be updated, we spend one training session on how to validate that old file. We have step-by-step procedures to sift out the most likely potential interests, and several possible options to get them integrated into the interest coordinator system. All these methods of sorting and assigning priority to names are taught in a hands-on situation in the training program.
A most important factor of the whole program is accountability. We have dis covered that both laity and pastors want to be held accountable for something as important as an interest. On the local level, a simple support group is set up that involves three or four people besides the interest coordinator and staff. One of the group's functions is multidirectional accountability, as well as affirmation. The interest coordinator and staff are account able to the support group and the pastor. The pastor, in turn, is accountable to the interest coordinator and staff, and also to the support group, regarding the interests who have been turned over to him for final preparation for church membership. This accountability factor can be expanded to include the Bible study teams, also.
The support group meets monthly. It generally includes the interest coordinator and staff, pastor, elder, and lay activities leader. It is support for debriefing, affirmation, and prayer, and can serve in an administrative manner for the interest coordinator staff.
In our conference program in Pennsylvania there has been another level of accountability on the developed interests, interests that we know have had a substantial indoctrination, such as a correspondence course. When such a name is sent out to the church interest coordinator, a stamped report form addressed to the conference is clipped to it. It is to be mailed back after the evaluation contact is made and some nurturing plan instituted.
The "guilt boxes" are empty in Pennsylvania. The interest files of churches across the conference are becoming effective sources for new church members. People are finding joy and satisfaction in working together as a team to make sure that every name receives is given individual attention. The interest coordinator plan is working here in Pennsylvania! And it can work for you, too!
A training manual incorporating most of the
details outlined in this article has been field-tested
and updated through three editions. It is now
available in finished form and could form the
foundation of a training program in church-based
training centers or in individual churches in a
conference. The cost is $4.00 per copy. Order
from Nash Printing, P.O. Box 503, Lansdale,