March 8, 2016

Practicing Welcome: New Member Handbooks

When you start a job, you receive a handbook (or at least, you should). The handbook contains information about the company and its policies and procedures. Of course, the handbook doesn’t cover everything. There are those office culture and traditions that new employees tend to stumble upon. Oh, we celebrate birthdays by bringing in a treat for everyone to share? Oh, the office closes for the opening day of baseball? Oops, we’re not supposed to use scotch tape on the wall…

An office handbook can’t cover every situation, but a helpful human resources associate can guide a newcomer through some of the local customs. But the fact remains that this is a job, and you’re getting paid for it. When people are voluntarily coming to a church for the first or second time, they’re making a choice. And if they don’t feel welcome or included, the choice may quickly become to find another place of worship.

Some of our congregations are really good at the initial welcome (others are not, but that’s a topic for another day). But when it comes to incorporating new people into our churches, the track record of most congregations is pretty dismal.

Our congregation has been studying evangelism during Lent. It’s an unusual topic, perhaps, during this season of penitence. But the goal is to have parishioners reflect in meaningful, thoughtful ways about abiding Christ’s commandment to make disciples of all people. One interesting outgrowth of the discussions, spurred both by the Sunday sermons and Wednesday studies, is the need for a handbook for newcomers. In some ways, this handbook would be like one you receive at a job. It would include office hours and details about worship (times, childcare availability, etc.). The handbook would feature different ministries of the church, with contact information, meeting times, and a short description. It might offer a page on Episcopal basics: when we stand, sit, or kneel; an invitation to all baptized to partake in Holy Eucharist – and all people to come forward for a blessing; maybe even a short glossary of terms (sexton, narthex, etc.). 

But parishioners, especially those relatively new to the church, have suggested that the handbook also include information about some local practices. Our congregation offers blessings for birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and baptismal and confirmation anniversaries. Often people bring a few dollars to put in a jar in thanksgiving. If you’re new, you might feel embarrassed if you don’t know the custom. On Easter Sunday, the children “flower the cross.” Essentially children of the church come up to the front of the church and place different flowers into a wooden cross. At the end, the cross is adorned with beautiful, colorful flowers—a wonderful symbol of new life. But if you’re new and you don’t know anything about this custom, you have no idea that you should send your children to the fellowship hall before the service to get flowers and process in with the cross. So your child sits there, feeling left out, and you wonder if this is a church that needs or wants you.

A handbook can’t cover every aspect of the life of a church, but it can hit the high spots. And its intentional nature of hospitality and welcome hopefully signals to newcomers that they are valued, wanted, and needed.

We are beginning work on this handbook, which we expect to give to folks on their second or third visit (Not the first. That might be a bit overwhelming). We covet your suggestions. Or, if you have a similar handbook already, please share a copy with Vital Practices. Imitation (and sharing of best practices) is indeed a sincere form of flattery and an apt expression of our common life as the Body of Christ.

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