Welcoming the Guest

By Michelle Walker

photo courtesy of hellobo via C.C. License at FlickrThese people and all in the countryside welcomed him with garlands and dances and tambourines (Judith 3:7).

As an Episcopalian, the type of welcome offered in Judith would be overwhelming. But after having moved to a new city in October, I can tell you that the welcome I have received at the six churches I've visited has definitely been more underwhelming.

At the church I left, we often congratulated ourselves on how welcoming we were -- after all, it said we were welcoming right in our mission statement. We hosted a lovely coffee hour, had a big board full of nametags, and were enthusiastic sharers of the peace. What more could the stranger among us want? After three months of being the stranger, I can answer that question.

Keep your website up to date. According to recent research, the number one thing a user is looking for on a church website is (drum roll, please!) the dates and times of services. Which is exactly what I was looking for when I moved. Unfortunately, I was 30 minutes early for the first service I tried to attend because the website still had the summer hours -- which were not labeled as "summer hours."

On Sunday mornings, open every door that leads to the street. At the church nearest to my home, long time parishioners all seemed to know a secret way to a back door that doesn't face the street that is the church's address. When I attended, I sat in my car staring at a closed door, worried that I had come at the wrong time. When I finally worked up my courage and went in, no one was at that door to greet me. Everyone was facing away from me, welcoming the regulars on the other side of the building. I had to walk across to the other side of a wide vestibule to get a bulletin.

Post ushers at every door through which a person might enter. Being greeted by a smiling face with bulletin in hand eases the visitor over the first hurdle of attending a new church. And if a service is not starting on time, or is beginning in another area of the church, someone should be at the main doors to direct the newcomer. I sat in one sanctuary, alone, for 15 minutes after being told by an Altar Guild lady that the service would start "in a minute." The congregation was listening to a presentation by the youth in the parish hall. I waited...alone...15 minutes.

Wear nametags every Sunday. I was too overwhelmed during the peace to catch or remember every name that was thrown at me at one very engaging parish. And on a second visit at that church, folks seemed to think I would remember their names. Nope, not happening. A discreet glance at a nametag would have saved me some embarrassment, if everyone had been wearing one. Having them on a board out front does not a welcoming gesture make.

In early October, I attended a Stewardship Sunday service (Stewardship season is a bad time to church shop!). The plan for the service was for folks to go into small groups and discuss what St. Swithin's church had meant to them in the previous year.  Awkward.  I might have been their only visitor that day, but it would have been more welcoming to have an alternate plan for anyone with less than a couple of months of attendance. Make room for the visitor, even if s/he doesn't show up.

Many lovely people at the churches I have visited have told me about the fabulous coffee hour offered in their parish hall after the service. So far however, not one of them has invited me to go with them to said coffee hour. Invite the guest to be your guest. Take him/her to coffee hour and introduce them around. The first church where someone does that is going to be my home parish (though I fear I will never find that church).  And if the visitor has declined your kind offer of coffee and heads for the door, someone should be at every door waiting to say good-bye and invite them to come again. At the parish with the secret back door, no one was at the door I left by. An opportunity was missed to offer me one final welcome and to answer a question that might have led to my return the following Sunday.

So a few simple steps: open the doors, post an usher, wear nametags, invite the visitor to go with you to coffee hour, say good-bye. Remembering to offer this level of welcome every Sunday will help the visitor to feel included on a deeper level.

At every church I have gone to, folks have been pleasant, and seemed genuinely glad that I was worshipping with them. But I usually left feeling a little bereft. I missed my old church, where I knew everyone. I wanted to feel at home. I wanted to recognize faces. I wanted the things that only come with regular attendance. But, well, I would have settled for cookies.

After 20 years of very active membership in an Episcopal church in Mill Valley, CA, Michelle Walker moved all the way across the country. She is the Director of Financial Aid at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Michelle has recently joined a new church in Richmond, VA, in spite of the fact that no one ever invited her to coffee hour. 

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