In your mind, when does the sermon begin?

If you said “The parking lot,” I think you’re dead on. While we as pastors might prepare all week to communicate a message with passion and energy, if our audience is frustrated, annoyed, or just confused before the enter the building, we are working out of a deficit.

We should consider it a given that families will argue on the way to church. They most likely left late. A child will be wearing mismatched shoes. And a parent will yell at some point. In many ways, the odds are stacked against us before they are even with us. But we have the potential to create a better experience the minute they drive on our property if we will just plan ahead.

At Watermarke Church, our parking lot is one of our biggest challenges. We currently meet in a school, so parking around the building is scarce. To help make room for our cars, we lease and shuttle attendees in from two satellite parking lots. But while we could look at our parking situation as a negative, our team has decided to make it part of the Watermarke experience. I think you can do the same – regardless of your circumstance.

Here are ten specific ways you can turn your parking lot into a parking experience:

1. Have signage EVERYWHERE.

Just assume nobody knows where to go, because if your church is like mine, there are dozens of guests turning into your church every week. Ample signage communicates we expect guests and we care about your experience. It also alleviates some of the frustration guests may experience in at a new place.

2. Place parking volunteers EVERYWHERE.

And make sure they are wearing a uniform of sorts with proper bright yellow, parking vests. Make them look official. That communicates we take thing seriously at our church. There’s nothing more strange than a person dressed like you telling you where to park!

3. Train your parking volunteers.

They are the human part of the parking experience, and in many ways, they are pastors of the parking lot. Make sure they smile and wave. Not too much (we want to avoid creepy), but an appropriate amount. We have some volunteers who really get into it. They dance while they direct. That’s fine, again, so long as it’s appropriate.

The point is, train your volunteers to have fun. If your attendees see volunteers excited to be at church, everyone will feel more excited to be at church.

4. Systematize, systematize, systematize…

Having a clear system for traffic flow is paramount to creating a successful parking experience. You do NOT want volunteers creating new strategies every week. However, I would suggest you bring volunteers into the system design process, as you want them to weight in before asking them to buy in.

At Watermarke, we have parking systems for (1) traffic flow, (2) guest parking and guest identification (we radio ahead and have Guest Service volunteers meet them as they exit their car), (3) families with young children, (4) shuttles coming from our satellite parking locations, (5) pedestrian traffic, (6) volunteer stations, and more. Systematize every aspect of entry through exit.

5. Give priority to guests and families with young children.

Please don’t reserve a parking space for the pastor or the staff. Most churches near us with “pastor reserved parking” have empty parking lots. I’m not sure there is a correlation, but I’m not sure there isn’t, either.

At Watermarke, we only reserve parking for guests and families with young children. I want our guests to feel special the minute they drive on our property, and I want our families to have a short walk with their little ones.

6. Give priority entry to satellite lots.

Our shuttles get priority entering and exiting the parking lot. We want to thank people for parking a mile away to attend our church. To help make sure our shuttle lines stay relatively short, we prioritize getting shuttles on and off the property. We also make sure there are ample shuttles running throughout the morning. It’s expensive, but creating a great experience for our attendees is less expensive than losing new attendees.

7. Connect your Parking Team with your inside Guest Services Team.

Your church experience begins when they enter the parking lot and ends when they leave the parking lot. That said, it just makes sense to have your parking teams in alignment with your inside Guest Services volunteer teams.

Our Parking Team radios ahead to alert the inside teams when a guest arrives. Once they park, we have a volunteer greet them appropriately and ask if we can help direct them. They observe if there are children, their estimated age, etc. Most importantly, our volunteers walk them through the church rather than point them in a direction.

8. Leverage your parking lot to communicate your vision.

Have staff and volunteers park far away so your guests won’t have to. Every one of our staff members (including me!) parks in our farthest satellite lot. We ask our core volunteers to do the same. I love it, because every single week when we park in a land far, far away, it reinforces the vision – we want to create a great experience for our guests, and creating space for their car is part of that experience.

9. Have Police handle traffic.

Even if you don’t believe it necessary, having an officer stationed at each entry and exit point communicates you care about the safety of the people coming to church. Not to mention the flashing blue lights from their vehicles are hard to miss.

10. Your parking lot is an engagement opportunity.

If you create messages series, theme your parking lot to create to create anticipation. We have rented 50-foot tall Godzilla inflatables. We have put series-specific t-shirts on our volunteers. In the fall, we have created football-like carnival games in the grassy areas. Again, creating a fun, inviting environment outside sets a great tone before our guests walk inside.

I’m sure that only scratches the surface, but it’s a start. I’d love to hear what your church does to leverage the parking lot as an extension of the auditorium. Really, I’d just love to steal your great ideas, so leave a comment below.

Lastly, if you found this list helpful, please share it with your friends or your pastor. The more ideas we can unearth, the better our church experiences will be!

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Ann Unruh says:

    Do you have a name for your Parking Team? We’re starting this ministry and trying to name it something other than Parking Lot Ministry or Parking Team, because it’s much more than about parking cars. Any ideas?

  • Hey Gavin! I loved this article. It gave me some great ideas for the outside team we are trying to build at the church I attend. Could you give me some more information on how your Guest Services Team operates? We want to focus on new people in the parking lot and I think creating a team like this would be beneficial. Thanks!

  • Joe Arnett says:

    Great read, lots of really strong points regardless of church size. I attend Hawk Creek Church in London Ky under Pastor Trevor Barton. A bunch of us are North Point Junkies. Got to have our fix whether its Your Move or but either way its all good. I personally volunteer in the First touch and Parking Lot and am constantly looking for ways to better serve the needs of our people. Whether guest or otherwise.
    We are running multiple services and of course that’s when if there is gonna be congestion it will be. In your organization, maybe not at Watermark, but at the venues in their permanent structures how are the parking teams structured ? London is a wee bit smaller than ATLANTA so we don’t have access to say a traffic flow engineer etc. It seems no matter what we try pattern wise someone will not be happy and that is to be expected but I really want to do the best.
    Thanks, Joe Arnett

    • Gavin Adams says:

      Joe, that’s a good and complicated question. Every situation is so different. In my context, we have a parking lot that only fits 1/3 of our cars. Maybe less. So we are leverage off-site lots and shuttles every week. Needless to say, our parking is complex.

      Without knowing details, here’s what I would suggest. Evaluate what you want to happen for guest first. What’s the hope? Then look at your parking lot, easement points, etc., and consider solutions that maximize the space and minimize the frustration. The time between services really matters, as well. Many things impact the parking experience outside of the parking lot. We need a hour between services to effectively flip the parking (and other areas). So don’t ignore the secondary impacts.

      Last thing: You have to design a plan that everyone will own publicly. I have commented multiple times from stage that our parking teams are doing the best with our options, and by following their lead, the system will work best. We have removed parking volunteers who kept trying to circumvent the system rather than execute the system. Everybody following one plan is always better than everybody following their own plan.

      I hope that’s helpful to some extent. Again, every situation is so unique. Thanks for reading!

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