Making a good first impression is not just vanity. One Houston’s First couple believes it could actually be a deal-breaker for some guests who have a less-than-favorable first experience at church.
Houston’s First member Charlie Murphy was a professional parker, first as a valet and later as general manager of a parking service that brought him and his wife Becky to Houston nearly 20 years ago, where they didn’t know a soul. God used his background and the couple’s experience being new people in a large church to create a ministry for guests that would make people of all ages feel right at home.
“We attended a church in Alabama with 500 people,” said Charlie. “At Houston’s First, there can be 500 in the parking lot alone.”
For the past 18 years, Becky Murphy has directed the Guest Experience (GX) Team (formerly the Welcome Team) at The Loop Campus, recruiting, managing and training volunteers inside and outside to help guests feel welcome. Team members also help them find their way at The Loop, a daunting 450,000 square feet. But the “welcome” experience truly begins in the parking lot, and that’s Charlie’s territory.
“We have one chance to make a good first impression,” said Charlie, “— about 3.5 minutes — before guests wonder if they should have stayed home.”
Charlie and the team of 12 “ministers of parking” in the first-time guest parking area take their responsibility seriously, believing their job is bigger than making sure guests have a place to park. Each parking attendant is sensitive to why guests are coming to church in the first place.
“We have one chance to make a good first impression — about 3.5 minutes — before guests wonder if they should have stayed home.” Charlie Murphy
“It’s a privilege to be the first people guests see,” said Gary Steen, a 12-year veteran in the guest parking area at the corner of Memorial Woods Drive and Katy Freeway. “We want to make it a good start to their day.” Gary and his wife Misty grew up in Brenham, and went to a 65-member church.
“We thought going to a megachurch would be different,” said Gary, “but we found ways to be close to others through the Parking Team and Life Bible Study — we’ve got a good, tight class, one that gets together often.”
Ebony Grady gives credit to Becky for helping her get plugged into a worship service and Life Bible Study. Originally from Michigan, Ebony initially became a member of a much smaller church in Houston for two years but couldn’t seem to meet people or find her place. On the advice of a friend, she visited Houston’s First. Becky was the first person she encountered, and after getting counsel on which service to attend, she helped Ebony choose an LBS. “Houston’s First is much bigger than where I had gone before, and it was a little overwhelming,” she said. “But Becky introduced me to a class and I love all the people in it. Now, I’m on the class Welcome Team and the activity leader. I’ve also recently begun volunteering for CornerBooks.”
Brandon Burke heads up the Parking Team at the Cypress Campus. “It’s little things, like holding an umbrella for someone when it’s raining, noticing if kids are in the car and directing them to the kids’ area or working on learning people’s names,” he said. “We start recognizing cars and people, and we want to greet them and receive them in a way that makes them feel good about being here.”
Wally James moved from San Antonio almost 15 years ago with his wife Nina and two children, Austin and Courtney. Their relationship with Houston’s First began with First Baptist Academy, where the kids attended school. Wally loves connecting with the people he sees in the parking lot and makes it a point to speak to people. He says one encounter in particular seemed God-ordained.
“A guy got out of his car and looked really sad,” said Wally. “I struck up a conversation and he told me he had just been diagnosed with cancer.” Wally was quick to encourage him first by listening, and then sharing with the man that he was a cancer survivor, too. “We talked for about 10 minutes in the lot,” said Wally. “He thanked me for sharing my story.”
Becky has seen the GX Team grow from 21 volunteers in 1998 to nearly 165 today. “We would need 200 for every spot to be filled,” she said. “Parking is one way the enemy keeps people from getting here, so it really is a mission field. We can’t all go to Africa or China, but we can park in nearby garages and ride the shuttle. The guys in the lot are just another way we help guests to come see what God has in store for them that day.”
Pastor Gregg has commissioned all Houston’s First family members to be on the “welcome team” as we each contribute to a culture of hospitality at our church. In addition, each campus has a dedicated team of men and women who serve on Sundays at key points along a guest’s journey — from parking lots to building doors, Welcome Centers to Worship Centers.