Fred Murray: Retention - The Key to Growth - Part 1

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

This Post Originally appeared as a chapter in the Idea Journal 2020. The purpose of this post is to lay the ground work for an upcoming post that will focus on how to retain members that have yet to return to church following COVID-19.


In the past ten years, I have seen great emphasis on the assimilating people into the local church. To me, this is the fulfillment of the great commission; we are doing exactly what we are supposed to do. Christ told us to go and reach people with the gospel, and our churches are doing that. It is not uncommon to see people getting saved every week at church. It is not unusual to see large numbers of people getting baptized every month. Membership classes are continually witnessing new graduates. However, when you look at the overall attendance of the church, the number is shrinking or at best maintaining.

Retention helps retain the momentum that new growth brings to a church community.

Let's say you are a typical church about 200 people; you have a great year where you see 40 people saved and added to the church. This growth would be a cause for celebration. However, if your town is anything like Las Vegas, you will lose 25 to 40 people per year. If this is the case, your net growth 0%. Of those 40 people 20 stop coming and the other 20 moves out of town. Well obviously, there is nothing you can do about the 20 people moving out of town, but what if you could reduce the 20 people that typically stopped coming to 10 people a year. That would leave you with 210 people attending your church and a positive growth rate of 5%.

This is what has happened at Southern Hills Baptist Church every single year. We will work very hard see dozens of people saved and baptized, but we also have to work very hard to make sure that we don't lose 150 people each year. Because we have valued assimilation and retention, our church has yet to have a year of under 7% net growth.

Believe me; there have been many times that I have wanted to walk into Pastor Josh Teis' office and told him I don't think this stuff works. Wouldn't it be better if we just prayed for people to come? He would look at me and say, Fred, please go pray for people to come and then contact them. Early on in my ministry, I was still skeptical that all this contact was even necessary, but after seeing a dozen churches in our area fail, and ours continue to thrive I have become convinced that these steps are essential for the church to grow.

Prep Work

Before any accurate retention can happen, it is important to keep accurate attendance records of your attenders. In the early stages of a church, this can be accomplished by having one or two key leaders take attendance on Excel spreadsheet. As your church grows the use of the connection card for all attenders can help with attendance. Combing the connection cards with those who gave and those who dropped off children to the children's ministry should give you a pretty accurate account of who came on Sunday. Then we use our church software to let us know who has been gone for one week, two weeks, three weeks, and on. Most of the retention steps take place in the second half of the week.

The Simple Missed You Note to 1 Week Absentees

For those who did not come on Sunday and have only missed one Sunday, you can send out a 4 x 6 postcard that says, "We Missed You." Our church sends out over a hundred of theses each week. We have volunteers come in the weeks before help fill out the postcards with the "We Missed You" note or some variation of that to changes things up a bit. The volunteer work allows us to simply run a report and print mailing labels to place on the postcards and get them out to the family on Thursday. When the cards go out is purely preferential but sending reminders later in the week helps us get them back for Sunday since the card will most likely hit their mailbox on Friday.

The Personal Phone Call to 2 Week Absentees

Taking the time to make a phone call in today's world means a lot to people. That is why the next step on the retention process is a personal phone call from a member of the church staff. Every week after the attendance is taken, one of the team members will pull a report for the church management software two find those who have miss two Sundays in a row. Let me stop right here and say if you don't have a good church management software you need to get one. I would recommend Church Community Builder or Elvanto's CHMS to keep you organized. Okay, back to the process. The list of two-week absentees is divided among the staff (one person can do this for a church under 200) and calls are made to the individuals.

It is crucial that the phone call be helpful and encouraging. Too often when the 2-week phone call is made, people are tempted to ask the attendee "Where have you Been." This is not the way to start the call. You want to first focus on having an actual conversation.

This personal interaction phone call if done the way shown above can help you find out what is going on in their life and pastor them better. This type of call also allows you to find out what that have been up to that has caused them to miss church and invite them to this Sunday's message and get at minimum a soft commitment from them. I have found that the weeks that the staff has had too much paperwork and not taken the time to make the two-week phone calls our attendance is lacking the following Sunday.

The Personal Note to 3 Week Absentees

As great as the first two steps of the retention process are, people will continue to miss for various reasons. The next step in the process is a typewritten note on the Pastor's personal letterhead. This quick note on a small 8.5 X 5.5 piece of paper is a useful tool, especially if the only info you have on the attendee is the home address.

Here is a sample note

Dear Mary

How different would your life be if you lived on a budget, were

debt-free, and were able to give more to the church and to others?

During Money Matters, we will explore how to create a financial

vision that will free you to manage your finances the way God

intended. We will learn how to set financial goals, create a

budget, invest in the future, and be generous with the resources

God has given us. Money Matters will help you move forward to

financial freedom.

If you have special prayer requests that my wife Heather and I

can be praying with you about, please email us at and

See You Sunday,

Pastor Josh

The note can also be modified to be even more personalized if the prayer request is placed in the person's profile on the church management system. You can add a p.s. to the bottom of the note addressing the need. Getting a piece of traditional mail in an electronic world is a great personal way to reach out.

The Small Group Leader Phone Call to 4 Week Absentees

The process for the four-week small group leader phone call is very similar to the 2-week phone call process. Be sure that your small group leader has access to the church management system used in step two. This access will give them the info they need to make the phone call. I am not just talking about the phone number, but prayer request and small group involvement are easily accessible pieces of information they will need.

Train your small group leaders how to have the type of personal phone call shown in the week two process. The added element that can be employed at this stage is the small group leader can utilize this opportunity to invite the individual to their small group. In recent coaching sessions with Thom Rainer and Chuck Lawless of the Church Answers group, it was emphasized on numerous occasions that small group involvement is key to in attenders staying in a church long term. Small group involvement also bleeds over to giving participation as well as ministry involvement, both elements that are vital to church success.

The Small Group Leader Text to 5 Week Absentees

The text message can be a beneficial change of pace at the stage of the retention process. As stated in the previous section, this stage is accomplished by small group leaders. The list is gathered the same way as the other steps in the retention process by means of the church management software. (If you have yet to get church management software. Put this book down now and go online and look up Church Community Builder or CHMS on google and fill out an interest form, then pick up this book again.) The text messaging element has become more active as each year passes. Here is an example of a text that one of our small group leaders would send out.

Hey, this is Michel McConnell, I am one of the Small Group Leaders at Southern Hills. Did you know that Evangelist Ben Schettler is Preaching a sermon this Sunday called "HOW CAN I PROVE GOD EXISTS?" Are you coming? Which service?

This text shows that a small group leader is reaching out to them, explains what is happening at church this coming Sunday, as well as asks a commitment question to them. We have found that when a question is asked at the end of a text, the response rate goes through the roof.

Pastoral Staff or Deacon Contact to 6 Week Absentees

This next step is not much different for the previous two stages in the sense that you want a contact to be made. The goals of asking for prayer request, inviting to a small group, and inviting to church this week are still necessary to accomplish. The main difference is the person making contact gets to pick the method of communication. Some will choose a text message or phone call. Others will take the step of writing a note or even inviting the individual out to coffee.

Senior Pastor Contact for 7 & 8 Week Absentees

We now are coming to the most critical stage of the retention process. At this point, we have narrowed the list down to group from 100 plus families on the 1-week absentee list to about ten families on the 7- & 8-week list. At this point, if the family does not come back by week 8, they are placed on our inactive list. Once the 7-8 Week list is created and sent to the Senior Pastor, the process starts with prayer. There have been dozens of times I have walked into Josh's office and seen him on his knees with this particular list in his hands as he prays for each family on it. I asked him what he prays for as he goes through the list. His reply was shocking to me. First of all, he prays for the family to be in church this Sunday. He follows that request up with a petition to God that if Southern Hills is not the church for them, that God would direct them to a doctrinally sound church ASAP. He concludes his prayer by asking God to convict them of any sin that is causing them to abstain from fellowshipping with God and causing them to avoid fellowshipping with his people. This time of prayer should remind us that no process is solely going to make our churches grow. Its God power through us that makes it happen.

However, you may be asking what is done after the pastoral prayer time. To be honest, every method that is has been mention up until this point is used. Just recently, Pastor Josh was on vacation, and I got a phone call asking me to do some retention work. He had just completed his 7- & 8-week list, and he wanted me to do some additional work. This time we wanted me to contact everyone on a select list that we have. It is the compilation of the 1-8-week absentees. This list had over 350 names on it. The goal was simple, send a personal text message the everyone on the list. The message was very similar to the example giving in step five. The project took over 5 hours to do. My fingers wanted to run away from my hands and just die, but I knew that this is a project he does about once a quarter to interact with all absentees, so I better get it done. The results were amazing. I received over 125 responses from the project, and church attendance was 10% higher than the same Sunday the year prior. I am a believer that God blesses work (and retention is work). Especially work that is dependent on Him

Fred Murray - Executive Pastor - Southern Hills Baptist Church - Las Vegas

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