January 17, 2012

Easier Hospitality

There are few things lonelier than standing alone in a parish hall during coffee hour, sipping coffee and hoping someone will speak to you. If you’ve stuck around after church for coffee hour, then it’s probably because you want to meet people (or you really want some coffee), and yet there you are eating cookies with no one to talk to. You could go to the welcoming table, but maybe, like me, you’ve stopped by too many of those tables only to receive friendly looks as they waited for you to ask a question. When I go to these tables, it’s often not because I have a question; I just want someone to talk to me.

After I moved to New York from Texas I went to several Episcopal churches in Manhattan and Brooklyn looking for a new community. I had left a church in Texas in which I knew just about everyone and just about everyone knew me, and I was hoping to find that kind of community again: where I could feel known and needed. I attended the same church half a dozen times and no one seemed to notice.

Eventually, I attended a service at St. Lydia’s one Sunday evening, and was immediately asked to join in with other congregants as they set the table. St. Lydia’s is a community that combines dinner and liturgy in Brooklyn. While I chatted with other members of the small congregation, I helped prepare the meal and put out plates and napkins, and washed dishes afterward. I’ve been going back just about every week since.

I recognize that St. Lydia’s is, in many ways, a special case. The congregation is small (about 15-20 people per Sunday), so it’s easy to recognize newcomers. And, of course, most churches don’t make dinner together. But I think there is something larger churches with more traditional liturgies can learn from St. Lydia’s about making newcomers feel welcome, despite the differences in style and size. It’s this: make it easy to be welcoming.

Greeting guests is hard. I’m relatively shy, so I’m often the person standing in a cluster of friends ignoring the new person, unsure of what to say to them and afraid they’ll respond to my questions by saying “I’ve been coming here for years. Who are you?” What St. Lydia’s does is provide me with an easy way to interact. If someone looks like they need something to do, I can ask them to help me put the silverware out, and it’s easy to start a conversation. Despite the difficulty I have generating small talk, I can still help a guest feel welcome.

For your typical Episcopal church, this translates into equipping your congregation to be hospitable. Most of us have heard more than a few hospitality sermons, and this is a good start, but it needs to be coupled with more practical preparation. Every church has greeters and a welcoming committee, but too often they aren’t well trained. The ushers and greeters should know as much as possible about what’s going on at the church – service times and where the bathrooms are, of course, but also who is in charge of each committee and who the regulars are and who’s only been there once or twice.

Not everyone is well suited for this job. I’ve been asked to do this, but as a relatively shy person, it made me dread coffee hour. Church leaders should identify the people who are naturally outgoing and friendly, and give them an official role. Tell people that if they’re not sure what to say, they can take guests to the welcome table, and give those who staff that table some questions to ask and some materials to hand out. I’m sure you have ideas for your congregation.

We all know that hospitality is essential to the life and health of a congregation, but if it were easy, then we wouldn’t’ be talking about it all the time. The next step for church leaders is teaching your congregation how to be hospitable, and making it as easy as possible.