“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” says Peter Drucker. It’s a commonly repeated bit of advice. How can you work on improving newcomer retention if you’re never evaluating retention?

Evaluating retention numbers

It’s January, so now’s a good time to look back on 2017. Pull out the guest book or your pile of newcomer cards, connection cards, or index cards—whatever you use to collect info from first-timers. Count them up. Go ahead and ignore the ones who filled in the address part with the name of some other meeting or somewhere otherwise non-local. They shouldn’t count against you.

What percentage are still attending? I’m not making a pronouncement on what that answer should be right now. But be honest: are you happy with that percentage? Do you see room for improvement? Maybe you’re doing a pretty good job.

Ok, but we know not everybody fills out the card or signs the guest book. So, reach your mind back. Do you recall a lot of first-timers who didn’t become second-timers? Or maybe you had second- and third-timers who just sort of wandered off after that. They gave you a fair shake by visiting more than once, but something didn’t click.

Was it the theology? Maybe. Was it something one of you said or did? Maybe.

Why do they leave?

Figuring out why they left could be tougher. For those who gave you contact info, you can just ask. For the others, you’re going to need a bit more empathy. As you monitor interactions with new people this year, keep an eye out for things like this:

  • On Sarah’s first visit, she stood and introduced herself, and people were eager to make her acquaintance. Next time, though, without the big reminder that she’s new, people fell into their usual cliques and committees. After a couple more tries, she just stopped going.
  • When Jamal arrived, there weren’t many people in the meeting room yet. He’d heard it was a pretty big meeting, so when he sat on an empty bench, he scooted to the middle, leaving room for others to fill in from the ends. They didn’t, though. Someone perched at the far end of the bench from him, but as the other benches filled, his remained conspicuously sparse. He could have laid down without touching anyone. At coffee hour, he grabbed a cup of joe and a muffin and sat down. Friends milled around and found seats to chat, but just like during meeting, none of them sat near him.
  • Maria had just moved to town. She didn’t have any friends yet, and she hoped getting involved in a local faith community would give her some roots. There’s a Quaker meeting just a few blocks from her apartment, so she decided to check it out. She showed up a few times, but she couldn’t find any information about small groups, Bible studies, or any other opportunity to build community. Finally, she asked. They told her Nominating Committee would contact her about beginning a three-year term of service on some committee, before she’s even really gotten to know anybody. She wasn’t ready for that commitment. Maybe the Mennonite Church a mile away?
  • Josh arrived a bit early. He didn’t want to be late to his first Quaker meeting! The few people already there were busy setting out chairs and preparing coffee, so they ignored him. He wandered to the pamphlet rack or pulled out his phone—anything to not just stare at a blank wall alone. As more people arrived, they gave him a wide berth. Meeting started. Meeting ended. He’d been there over an hour before anyone said so much as “good morning.”
  • Toshi decided to visit a different meeting this morning. It’s closer to her house than her usual one, and a pleasant walk. If she liked it, she might switch. She figured she knew the routine, so she wasn’t really nervous. As she hung up her coat, a woman she didn’t know bowed and greeted her in Mandarin Chinese with “ni hao.” Toshi’s eyes went wide. She resolved to stick to her current meeting. At least they didn’t assume she’s fresh off the boat and Chinese.
  • Matthew is not a fan of speaking in front of crowds. If the Spirit made him, well, then he might have to suck it up, but otherwise? When the clerk asked for newcomers to stand and introduce themselves, Matthew stayed rooted firmly in his seat. Nobody approached him after meeting. It was like he started with Sarah’s second week.
  • At the door, the greeter welcomed Jaime and invited them to create a name tag so everyone would greet them appropriately. Jaime wrote their name and “pronoun: THEY” on the name tag, hoping everyone would take the hint. Friends did not take the hint. “Oh honey, apologize to Miss Jaime for bumping into her” said a parent to a child. Jaimed sighed. This was all too common. Maybe they’d stick it out.

Remembering what happened right before someone stopped showing up can be helpful in evaluating retention. You can see ways your community needs to change to more fully reflect the Kingdom of God.

What’s going on there?

I hope you can see what’s going on in each of those examples. They’re inspired by stories collected from across the US. Some are based on more than one story. This doesn’t even touch on things like inaccessible buildings, just on how the community respects and includes people.

Ask around in your meeting. “Hey, what ever happened to that woman Sarah who showed up a few times in June?” You might not personally see everything, but as a group, you might be able to do a better job of evaluating retention. You can piece together the gaps in your welcome, and maybe you can figure out how to make people for more comfortable and part of the community.