Handling drop-in visitors

Are you frustrated by unannounced visitors? Are your study times interrupted by drop-ins? Do you have difficulty terminating casual calls? This article shows how to keep almost everyone happy, including yourself.

Anne Elver writes from Yukon, Oklahoma, where during the past year she has seen her husband graduated from seminary, moved to a new parish, and sent two daughters off to college and a son to Haiti to serve with the Peace Corps.

Hello, Pastor Glass. Has anyone talked to you about our children's musical?" Pam asked at the pastor's study door, rustling papers and music sheets as she talked. Pam was leaving the church building after directing the children's choir practice and noticed the pastor in his study; otherwise, she wouldn't have consulted him about the children's musical program until the church board meeting.

"Hi. Nobody has mentioned it. Is there some problem, Pam?" Pastor Glass responded, putting his pen down and leaning back in his chair. It was past his office hours, but his sermon needed more attention, and he hoped to complete this task before enjoying an evening at home with his family. Pam hesitated, then stepped into the study.

Pastor Glass stood, and directed Pam to a soft, overstuffed chair opposite his desk. She was his fourth visitor in three hours. His sermon, which he hoped to have nearly completed, was nowhere near finished. Most of his visitors, like Pam, discussed routine matters that he could have taken care of later or that could have been cared for by someone else. His visitors ended Pastor Glass's hopes of joining his family later; his wife and children would be disappointed. Pastor Glass felt aggravated because today's stream of visitors had become the rule rather than the exception.

The above situation isn't unusual. Most pastors are like Pastor Glass—they are caring persons. Because of this, many do not attempt to control drop-in study visitors lest they give the impression that they are unavailable to their congregation. In addition, many pastors lack adequate office help and must handle office visitors without the benefit of office assistants to screen callers. Spontaneous callers without immediate needs delay pressing tasks, ruin schedules, and force harried efforts to catch up if a pastor doesn't know how to control them without appearing rude or uncaring.

Time for pastors is precious, and a pastor who will develop the skills to screen study visitors so that he or she can maintain adequate prayer and devotional periods, along with quality study hours, is a good steward of the pastoral call. The minister who does this sets an example of commitment to the Lord because his own spiritual nourishment depends upon quality time spent in the study. The pastor's devotional and contemplative hours are a vital link to the Lord that enables the church's needs to be met with inspiring sermons that speak to souls under his or her care.

Are your personal study hours regularly violated with routine matters? Would you like to manage your reflective time better and still be sensitive to necessary interruptions? If so, read on. You can control your study time and remain available for unscheduled emergency callers too.

Study time

If you have problems with frequent study interruptions, could it be because you don't put a high enough priority on your study hours or because your congregation doesn't know when to come to your study to see you? The secret to meeting both these needs lies in having a published, carefully made schedule of your working hours with reflective time slots included. Most people will accept and use regularly scheduled times for taking care of routine business with you, and if you are willing to see them at other times by appointment, drop-ins at unwelcome times will be reduced to a trickle. Another advantage of scheduling adequate reflective time in your study is that it reduces the temptation to spend too much time on mundane office chores, letting your quality study hours fall away.

If you have a church secretary, let this person know which unscheduled callers to interrupt you for and which ones to give an appointment. Highlight the time slots for drop-in visitors in one color, and highlight the spots for appointments in a second color on your secretary's copy of your schedule. Use a third color to emphasize your study hours, during which you are not to be interrupted, except for emergencies. This lets your secretary screen callers with ease.

Should you and your secretary lack adjoining offices, or if you work after secretarial hours are finished, or lack secretarial help altogether, a note outside your study announcing your drop-in hours, appointment times, and crossed-out time slots for your reflective moments screens visitors effectively. Include a sentence directing those with emergencies to knock.

Don't be discouraged if your congregation takes time in getting used to having published, structured hours in which to see you. Some persons may call at the wrong time at first, out of habit. If structured hours produce negative reactions from some, assure them that you are still available, but you want to be able to serve your people better, and more disciplined office hours are necessary for you to do this. Announce your new office hours over a period of several weeks in your bulletins, newsletters, and other places where your congregation gets church-related information, besides having your hours posted on your study door.

Close the door

Could your study itself be the cause of frequent interruptions? Perhaps it invites eye contact with passersby in the building. People feel obligated to greet you once eye contact is established, and even a brief greeting robs more time than it takes by breaking your train of thought. Some people assume even more from eye contact. They take it as an invitation for a more lengthy greeting, and a few pleasant words have the potential of turning into unnecessary visits.

The easiest way to stop interruptions solicited by eye contact is a closed door during personal study hours. Some pastors fear giving signals of inaccessibility, but having established times for drop-ins and calls and being willing to stop for emergencies negate this objection. Even with a closed door, you are not unavailable if those with legitimate needs know when to call back.

Some study layouts or other problems may prevent closed doors. One pastor couldn't close the study door because the furnace wouldn't heat closed rooms properly. He solved the situation by turning his desk toward the wall, gaining instant privacy. A portable screen will do too. Should your study door have glass panels facing a hallway, cover it with an attractive shade or curtain and close it during your private hours in the study.

Look productive

Does your study give an impression of productivity? If not, your decor may invite drop-ins. Step into your study pretending you are a visitor. Do you have a visible clock? If not, add one. Clocks make visitors aware of time. Is a visible schedule in evidence in your office? Consider adding a prominently displayed, filled-in hourly schedule. This gives out productive signals, and helps drop-ins limit themselves.

Can you sit down easily in your study? Are study chairs so comfortable you hesitate to rise if you sit down? Perhaps your easy chairs should be replaced by portable folding ones. If you can't replace the chair, place something on the cushion, forcing you to clear it before offering a caller a seat. This gives you, not callers, the option of extending study visits. Visitors are flattered when you fuss to seat them, and aren't apt to linger when your study resembles an efficient business office.

Do your mannerisms invite visitors to linger? Do you assess an unscheduled visitor's needs from your office door rather than your desk chair? Cultivate this habit: Move to your door to greet spontaneous visitors; few will then linger. If their need is really pressing, you can invite them to stay longer.

Do you honestly answer "Are you busy?" A simple Yes seems too abrupt to some pastors, but you can be honest without appearing unreachable at the same time. One time I knocked on my husband's study, saying "Are you busy?" He smiled, and answered, "Yes, I'm busy. What can I do for you?" Harry's smile and honesty edified me—he was busy, but willing to stop. I borrowed the book I sought, and left promptly. His strategy works on others, too. Answer "Are you busy?" frankly while being sensitive to your caller. Your time will be respected and your caller flattered.

Lingering visitors

Suppose your need isn't in preventing unnecessary drop-in visits, but you need an effective method of dealing with those few visitors who tend to linger with you excessively. You can limit these, too. Once your visitor's need is met, become alert and sit up straight; glance toward whatever you were doing when he or she arrived. This says you need to resume your task. Most guests end visits at this point. If the nonverbal message is ignored, comment on whatever is waiting. If this message is wasted, stand, thank your visitor for coming, and extend your hand. Most visitors don't linger after this.

Do you have a problem visitor who eludes your efforts to schedule office calls and to limit them to a reasonable time? Most pastors have this problem at one time or another. Don't despair if you do. Simply arrange to meet this person elsewhere. One pastor said, "One man always lingered whenever he came to my office, so I turned his visits into a break. We'd walk to the local park to chat. This wasn't always convenient, but at a public place I could end our contact after a reasonable time more graciously than I could in my study."

This pastor's method works even if a local park isn't handy. Simply take your guest to another location, such as a classroom or lounge, pleading that you want a change of scenery. You can always justify seeing your guest elsewhere by claiming a messy study. You can prevent prolonged calls with those few callers who tend to linger excessively.

Pastors are caring people, and many tend to give drop-ins unlimited time, but this isn't wise. A pastor's ministry suffers if personal study and reflective time is lost. Steps taken to control drop-ins and prolonged callers in your study aren't just good sense; they're good stewardship of the pastoral call.

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Anne Elver writes from Yukon, Oklahoma, where during the past year she has seen her husband graduated from seminary, moved to a new parish, and sent two daughters off to college and a son to Haiti to serve with the Peace Corps.

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