Practicing our slogan

September 29, 2011

"The Episcopal Church welcomes you!" That's our deal, right? We're welcoming. Or not so much. Now that I'm not serving in a parish, I have been visiting lots of Episcopal congregations. It's been illuminating, both in good and in troubling ways.

I'm not breaking new ground when I say that most congregations simply aren't welcoming. Sure, the current members feel welcome, but that's because they're already in the club. If you show up as a new face, there's often a distinct lack of warmth. When I visit congregations, I'm usually not wearing a clerical collar, so I get the same welcome that they'd give any guest. It's usually not much of a welcome at all.

Here's a recent experience: I arrive 10-15 minutes before the service. As I enter the narthex, I see the usher engaged in conversation with a parishioner. The usher is clutching a pile of service leaflets. No problem, I'll just grab one off a table and take myself to a pew. No dice. The only leaflets are held by the talking usher. I walk toward him, waiting for him to pause. He glances at me: "Oh, you need a program?" in a not particularly friendly tone. "Yes, please. Thank you." Without a further glance or a word, he shoves a leaflet my direction and continues the conversation. Welcome to the Episcopal Church.

In that same church, I make my way to a pew. A few folks cast friendly-ish looks my direction. Good. I pray. When it's time for the service to start, I note that the clergy in procession are not singing. Instead, they are smiling and nodding at people they know in the congregation. None of the clergy does the same for me. I stand out. Literally. 6' 6".

At the end of the service, as the choir are leading the procession out, I see that the preacher is yucking it up with the presider and deacon at the Holy Table. I don't know what's so funny, but they're having a good time. Meanwhile, we're theoretically singing a hymn. So not only are the clergy and people of this congregation apparently intent on talking only to one another, they can't be bothered to focus on the worship of Almighty God.

After listening to the postlude, I decide it's time to leave. What do you know? There's a gaggle of parishioners engaged in conversation at the back door. Blocking the door, in fact. I have to excuse myself to get past them. No one says a word or gives a glance.

If I were looking for a church, I would write this one off. It's pretty clear that they're happy with one another and don't particularly care to greet a guest. It's not one thing, but a whole cluster of related behaviors that suggest Benedictine hospitality has never been taught here. Or even good manners, sadly.

It might seem that I'm making too much of this. But you see, this is one of the most basic things a congregation needs to get right, if it wants to grow. It costs nothing, except some time for teaching and practice. A few simple changes, and this congregation — and our whole church — could be growing instead of declining. There's more to growth than this, but if we put up so many barriers to entry, how can we expect to attract new members?

The last two congregations where I served grew dramatically better at greetings guests. I have consulted with other congregations about hospitality. Here are five things I encourage:

1. Stop saying "visitors" and start saying "guests." It's a constant reminder that our vocation is to welcome people with gracious hospitality, not merely to tolerate people to "visit" "our" church. Words matter.

2. Preach about hospitality regularly. When guests arrive, statistics show that the vast majority of them are experiencing a major life transition (e.g. new job, new home, death, birth, marriage, divorce). How we treat people, who are often vulnerable, will have a tremendous impact — good or bad –on those who come to us. What we do reflects not just on our congregation, but upon the whole church. This is a massive responsibility which we must never take lightly.

Preaching about the theology and the practice of hospitality raises the bar, because we realize that our vague promises about "seeking and serving Christ in all persons" can begin at coffee hour. We can practice being agents of healing in a broken world simply by offering gracious welcome to a stressed-out family. Our goal is not to convince someone to be a member of "our" congregation, but rather to offer the peace of Christ in word and deed.

3. Teach Benedict's rule: "Let all guests who come be received as Christ." One congregation I know proudly invites guests to sit in its best pew. "George Washington sat here, and we would like you to have our best seat." Sounds a bit like the Gospel: offering our best to those who come our way. What if we made it our top priority on Sundays to ensure — above nearly everything else — that our first-time guests had a good experience?

In the last parish I served, we put a sign on the outside of the church with Benedict's words. It was a regular reminder to our members and our guests of our high standards. Think about it: let all guests be received as Christ.

4. Invite "mystery worshipers" to attend, and listen to their feedback. I like to invite friends, who do not attend the congregation (or perhaps any congregation), to come on a Sunday. Then after they get home, I pepper them with questions. "Did the greeters welcome you at the door?" "What did you think of the service, and were you able to follow along with our service leaflet?" "Did anyone invite you to coffee hour?" And here's the big one, the acid test: "Did anyone talk with you at coffee hour?" Then I pass this feedback along to relevant folks.

If we get a good report, we celebrate our success at hospitality. If the report is problematic, we talk about how to improve. Rinse and repeat. After a while, every guest has a consistent experience, and the congregation begins to understand that welcoming is the vocation of everyone, not just of a few. It becomes a joy, and we start to live up to our Episcopal slogan.

5. Get key leaders to be guests in another congregation. One of the first things I recommend, especially if people believe their congregation is "very friendly" is encourage folks to attend a church to which they've never been. No cheating. In one congregation, this was homework for a task group aimed at improving our welcome.

When people got back, they said things like this:

I wasn't sure where to park.
After I parked, I didn't know which door to go in.
I couldn't find the bathroom.
Their liturgy wasn't the same as what was in the bulletin.
I went to coffee hour, and not a single person spoke with me.

Then I asked, "Do you think there are similarities with how a guest might experience us?" Glimmer of recognition. Suddenly the task force wanted to work on signage. They worked to establish a coffee hour host whose only task was to ensure that any guests were seated at a table and welcomed at coffee hour. And so it went. Seeing another congregation through guests' eyes helped them to see our congregation through guests' eyes.

Thank you, dear reader, for making it to the end of my rant. My point is that currently, our slogan ought to be: "The Episcopal Church welcomes you, if you look about like us and come here often." But we can and must change that. It's not just that the survival of our institution depends on it. Our vocation as Christians, called to share the love of God and to serve Christ in all persons, demands it.

So let me ask you to do two things.

  • Offer a warm greeting to the next guest you find in your congregation.
  • Go enjoy someone else's hospitality — or lack therof — and learn from it.

The Episcopal Church welcomes you. That's not expensive or controversial, so let's get it right.

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