by Gail Kiley

Simple strategies for recruiting ringers and keeping them ringing are the keys to a thriving handbell program.

In a world with ever-increasing demands on time and talents, finding and keeping ringers is a challenge that can make or break a handbell choir. People look to their church as an outlet for worship, a place for learning and sharing their faith, and an opportunity to build and sustain relationships. All of these goals can be reached by ringing handbells. Simple strategies in recruiting ringers and keeping them ringing are the keys to a thriving handbell program.

Increasing Visibility

Increasing the visibility of the handbell choir is a start. This indirect method is a benefit which will pay off when you move into direct recruiting. Notes in church bulletins, direct mailings, and articles on church websites have their value. Adding a photograph of ringers, preferably a candid shot of the choir ringing, is a good way to get attention. Hanging your hat on indirect ways to reach people is almost always a mistake, though. Most of us can point to times when we have made a bulletin announcement asking for attendance at an event or meeting, only to end up sitting there alone.

Recruitment

Recruitment that works can be summed up in one word — Ask. People agree to add to their busy schedules because they feel valued when someone approaches them directly, face to face. In the one-on-one invitation, visibility increasing efforts are worth referencing. “You saw the note in the bulletin. Now I want you to know that it was written for you. Join us.” Moving out of the sanctuary and into church social events or meetings is also an option. Go to Sunday School classes, carrying handbells and/or chimes. Pass them around and encourage people to ring. Give a three-second lesson in vibrato. Putting a bell or chime in the hand of a novice is an almost irresistible invitation. They feel compelled to try, and short of dropping the bell, there is no way to go wrong.

The director of the choir is the most effective recruiter, but you don’t have to carry the entire burden alone. Ask ringers to support the effort. “We need two more ringers for next year. Does anyone know someone we could ask? Will you call her first, then introduce her to me next Sunday?” Remind assistant recruiters to talk about their experiences with handbells. Maybe they were hesitant at first. Perhaps they didn’t know another soul in the choir or hadn’t done anything musical since 6th grade piano lessons. Yet, they found that ringing handbells is possible, probable, and enjoyable.

One of my most loyal ringers agreed to try ringing shortly after the death of her elderly father. I was pulled aside by our church custodian, who said, “Rhoda really needs this right now. If you ask her, I bet she’ll say yes.” She was hesitant and unsure of her skills, and needed flexibility from the rehearsal schedule as her mother became ill and later died. Ten years later, she finally had to leave the group to move with her husband 1500 miles away. In saying goodbye to us, she quoted my original phone call and finally told everyone the identity of the person who referred her to us.

Begin the recruitment conversation with a word of affirmation. “I heard you singing tenor behind me in the pew. You are obviously a music reader. Let me tell you about our handbell choir.” Be up front about the time commitment that rehearsals and worship services take. Offer to show a printed schedule of rehearsals and worship times with handbells. Invite the recruit to come to a rehearsal and watch, or take one bell next to someone he already knows. Stress the social and spiritual relationships that grow from using the gift of music with other people in church.

If the recruit cannot commit now, but hasn’t refused outright, ask when to call again, and do it. Ask if he’d be willing to be on-call for substitute ringing. Ask what would be necessary for him to be able to ring. Perhaps it’s a childcare issue, or a youth might need a carpool. Most church musicians are masters of networking. Those who enjoy ringing will be willing to keep the choir afloat by encouraging new members.

Retention

Specific retention efforts are as important as recruitment. Do not assume that every person who joins a handbell choir will remain for a lifetime. Life’s only constant is change. People go to church looking for spiritual and social connections. Ringers who stay in a handbell choir have their spiritual, social, and musical needs met. The handbell choir director who deliberately affirms ringers increases the time that each ringer will stay in the group.

Remember what ringing handbells in church is about and what it is for. Ringing handbells is about worship, whether that be making a joyful noise at Christmas or setting the tone during Lent. Ringing handbells is for enhancing the worship experience for the people in the pews, and for the ringers. In rehearsal and prior to worship, pray. Give thanks for the gift of music and the place and time to use that gift. Ask ringers for prayer concerns and joys and include them aloud. Open a moment for ringers to insert a spoken or silent word of prayer. Always be grateful and humble and glad for the opportunity to share music in this world.

I admit that in the early days as director of the handbell choirs at my church, I relied on volunteers to offer prayers aloud, because I felt awkward and tended to ramble. A year ago, I told my ringers that I would pray every week, no matter what. We close rehearsals in a circle, holding hands, putting individual concerns into the center, and we pray. My senior high choir rehearses last on Sunday nights, from 8-9 p.m., and the prayer sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of packing up the bells and rushing out the door to finish a last-minute assignment before the school week begins. One night I locked up, alone, and trudged out to my car to find two kids standing there waiting. “Mrs. Kiley, we didn’t pray!” Before I knew it, cars were screeching to a halt, kids were jumping out, and 10 of us huddled and prayed together under the parking lot lights.

Ringers will continue to ring because they see value in the hour that rehearsal requires. Be consistent. Begin and end rehearsal on time. Create and use a rehearsal plan for each week. Use the entire rehearsal hour for ringing. Attend to details such as room temperature, equipment needs, substitute ringers being in place, and having sheet music available. Enforce expectations across the board.

Choose music wisely. Keep ringers busy, keep them challenged, and keep them successful. Vary musical styles, special techniques, and instrumentation. Think outside the box. Ring from the back of the sanctuary or the balcony once or twice. Attempt a processional. Accompany a hymn with a descant or random ringing. There is a wealth of published music to support these variations on the theme of “Doing it the Way it’s Always Been Done.”

Ringers will continue to ring because they feel a sense of ownership in the choir. Divide among the choir jobs that a director often takes on. A music librarian can file, organize, create a database, and help to search out new titles. A secretary can take charge of the e-mail or phone chain and get news out. A glove captain can launder and keep performance gloves until needed. A publicist can take pictures and write articles for the church web page, bulletin, or local newspaper. A seamstress can sew muslin covers for table pads or finer covers for tables. A technician can perform minor maintenance and repair on handbells, and can often be coerced into constructing poles for bell trees, table extensions, or dollies for moving heavy equipment. A social chairperson plans carry-in dinners and arranges for coffee before services. All of these roles should be renewed yearly, and the ringers thanked lavishly.

Ringers will continue to ring because it’s fun. Welcome them as they walk in the door. Use every ringer’s name with an affirmation in every rehearsal. Emphasize the social aspects of belonging to the group. Encourage the group to praise each other. Play games that build community like the “Cup Game,” or “Guess Who the Baby Is” with pictures of ringers in their youth. Go as a group to conferences and concerts by visiting handbell choirs. Watch videos of successful groups. Invite a clinician to come and give a lesson in the basics of ringing. Commission a T-shirt design or some other uniform way of identification.

Ringers will continue to ring because they feel that their feelings and opinions are valued. Survey ringers every few years. Hand out a questionnaire and pencils, and give ringers time to fill it out. Ask about their joys in ringing and their challenges. Ask for music purchasing suggestions. Include an open-ended question that reads, “If I could tell my director one thing, it would be…”

Allow them to fill out their surveys anonymously, and thank them for their honesty. Most importantly, act on those responses. Talk about their suggestions and implement them.

Church membership is all about relationships. Practicing one’s faith is the most personal relational act. We seek out others who share our faith and move beyond our individual communion with God to work in our world. Ringing handbells in a church choir is a joyful piece of work. Emphasizing the social side of ringing will assist you in your efforts to increase visibility, recruit, and retain ringers.