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Ex-retail manager urges ministry to overstressed mall employees

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–Tired of fighting the crowds at the local shopping mall for hours on end? Consider the occupational hazards for those who work there: high stress, uncertain hours and schedules necessarily linked to the leisure time of others — including Sundays.
Those are the individuals “mall minister” and Missions Service Corps volunteer Robert Griffis is trying to reach.
“It’s a tough job all the way through,” said Griffis, a former retail manager at both store and corporate levels. “There is a great need for friendship, support, counseling and ministry. Also, people like these are people who need to worship, who need to be in the presence of God. And if they are believers, they need an atmosphere in which they can practice their faith.”
Griffis led a workshop on mall ministry at “Jericho ’98: A Missions Festival to Change your World,” June 24-27 at Glorieta (N.M.) Conference Center.
Griffis led conference participants in a typical day for a retail manager, a rigorous juggling act of employee scheduling, customer service, security issues and countless other tasks required to keep a store looking fresh and inviting. And if anything goes wrong, the manager must stay around until it is corrected.
It is an environment in which competition of recent years has forced a standard of near absolute perfection, he said.
“In my last couple of years as a supervisor I spent most of my time counseling store managers who were literally breaking down in tears,” Griffis said. “They were saying, ‘I just can’t take it.'”
It was because of those needs that he returned to the mall after taking another job in software distribution about a year and a half ago. Steady evening work hours gave him opportunities to “wander aimlessly” through the mall, building relationships with individuals, determining how he can meet their needs, lending a sympathetic ear and sharing the hope found in Jesus Christ as opportunities arise.
He also has helped institute a Sunday morning “worship breakfast,” in which employees can come early to work and enjoy a light breakfast, fellowship and brief devotional and worship service before beginning their day. Bibles in a contemporary format with lots of separate articles are also given away, with hopes they will find a regular place in employee break rooms.
Some of his best opportunities for building relationships have come in the period after those worship services when participants have a chance to chat, and others who were not able to come are offered leftover donuts and pastries.
“The neat thing about that is we have a good worship experience, a good walk-and-talk atmosphere and we are just able to hang out and see what the Lord’s going to do afterwards,” he said.
The act of worship itself in the mall environment is exciting, he said.
“We are in a stronghold of materialism where people go to get the stuff they don’t need and the almighty dollar reigns. And we are worshiping the almighty God under that roof. That just gives me chills to think of that,” he said.
For those interested in starting a ministry to mall employees, Griffis emphasized the importance of making it a group project. It is difficult for one person to make an impact alone.
“It takes a group, and it takes time,” he said. “You’re talking shopping on a frequent basis, and you’re talking really about establishing a relationship. That’s not going to happen overnight.”
The first step is a “prayerwalk” of the mall, when groups of two or three circle the mall praying for individuals and for potential ministry efforts.
“Prayer opens the door for God to work, and that’s why before we go into any mall we will pray before we attempt to minister,” he said, noting the difficult part of prayerwalking is getting started. “Emphasize starting to pray right away, or it gets easier to start talking.”
As the ministry begins, volunteers can start forming relationships with employees, recruiting other Christians to join in the effort and reaching out to non-Christians.
Throughout the process, he said it is important to cooperate with mall management. Overt evangelism in malls is often not permitted, but sometimes managers can assist in areas such as securing a meeting place.
In his case, Griffis’ prayers for a new mall manager sympathetic to his efforts were answered, and vacant space is leased for only $10 per use.
“Prayer is what opens the door,” he said.
For information on starting a mall ministry, contact Robert Griffis at Mall Ministries of America, 929 St. Charles St., Elgin, IL 60120, (847) 289-8797.

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  • James Dotson