Saturday, October 20, 2007

Take Me Out to the Church Service

Gerald Calvin, Staff Writer

Thousands of churches have experienced declining attendance in recent years, while in the same period, attendance at major league baseball games has steadily increased. Some church workers like Shaun Giamatti believe baseball can teach congregations.

“Baseball has something we are missing,” said Giamatti. “They get crowds of 40 to 50 thousand every night—unless you’re the [Tampa Bay] Devil Rays, of course—and we’re lucky to get 150 once a week. That begs the question, what are they doing that we aren’t?”

Giamatti sums up the difference in one word: “giveaways.”

Just as the World Series opens up next week, Giamatti’s Sentinel Episcopal Church in Orlando will debut its giveaway plan to increase worship attendance. The Moses bobblehead doll, to be given to the first 200 worshippers, will reinforce Rector Frances McCourt’s sermon on the Ten Commandments. The church hopes it will also lure in a few dozen new members.

Other scheduled giveaways include seat cushions with the text “I am the light of the world” on one side, and an advertisement for Orlando Power and Gas on the other; giant foam fingers that display the peace sign rather than the “number one” typical of sports venues; and Photo Day, where before the service the rector and choir will mingle with the congregation to pose for photos and sign autographs.

And, of course, there will also be a series of bobblehead Sundays. Jesus, Peter, Mary, Jonah and Obadiah are ready, but bobbleheads of McCourt and the choir director will also be given away on the Sundays nearest their birthdays.

Giamatti began working on the plan this summer when he became the Director of Marketing for the church. The position was created in order to address the crisis of declining membership and giving in the 50-year old church. The congregation was once a robust 400-members just 40 years ago, it has shrunk to an anemic 350 since.

“We had a choice: change or die,” said Rector Frances McCourt. “The congregation showed their commitment to change when they created this position.

“The people had been asking the right questions—where are all our children? Why aren’t people as committed as they used to be? Where did the finance chairperson run off to with our Endowment Fund money? Finally, though, they asked an even better question: what can we do about it?

“That’s when we decided to hire a marketing director,” McCourt concluded.

Giamatti seems to be the man for the job. He worked for several summers in concessions for the Florida Marlins. Giamatti said, “I was a glorified hot dog salesman.” He laughed, then became serious again. “Actually, I did sell hot dogs, but I learned a lot in my three years with the club. I’ve seen every giveaway you can imagine.”

That experience is just the magic ingredient Sentinel Episcopal Church hopes will breathe life into its dying soul.

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