March 2010
Welcoming Newcomers

Amp up your hospitality

Think about it. When you visit a parish, how long does it take for you to begin to get a feeling for what the place is really like? Likely, it will be mere moments. So when a guest (note the terminology — “guest” and not “visitor”) comes to your church, one of your first challenges is to help manage first impressions. Here are a few basic ideas to amp up your parish hospitality.

Ask some acquaintances from other churches to pay a visit and give you some objective feedback.
What IS the first impression your congregation is conveying to your guests right now? Listen carefully.

Consider your theology of welcome and hospitality.
Besides “love one another,” the clearest imperative of the Gospel is to offer hospitality and meet people where they are. At the Eucharistic table, we set out our finest linens and silver to honor the living Christ in our midst. Shouldn’t we extend just a bit of that same sense of aesthetics and care to our cluttered narthex or dirty parish hall? What simple low or no-cost changes can you make to reflect your theology of hospitality?

Evaluate your first contacts.
Listen to your church answering machine and evaluate how it may become a better tool
for capturing the real spirit and personality of your parish. Remember — there is no “rule” that recorded messages must be done by clergy or the church secretary. Who has the best voice in your congregation to extend a warm and friendly voice message greeting? Enlist some acquaintances to make a phone call to the church office, to get a sense of how your church secretary, office volunteers, and clergy are doing with inquiry calls. Get some objective feedback on your website, too. How easy do you make it for someone to find your church and make a visit?

Devote a portion of an upcoming vestry meeting to an actual walking or driving tour of the immediate four-block area surrounding your church.
View your neighborhood and your exterior building and grounds from the perspective of someone who has never seen it all before. How easy is it — REALLY — for guests to find your church? What could you do with some simple directional signage or Sunday morning volunteers to make it easier? Is it abundantly clear where to park, which door to use?

Appoint someone or some group to a “ministry of first impressions.”
You can have the most exciting and creative ministry in the world going on inside of your buildings and a vibrant personality as a parish family. Yet if the exterior of your property doesn’t reflect all of that, you are delivering a mixed message to potential guests! One good first goal — particularly if you are in an older church building in an aging neighborhood and are feeling increasingly invisible — is to work to make the exterior of your building look different enough each week that passersby will turn their head and look. Example: If you want to non-verbally communicate that you are a child-friendly church, put children’s artwork on a clothesline stretched across the church lawn. Use balloons, kites, banners, and streamers regularly. These are very low-cost ways to highlight your buildings and grounds and can even be used to frame and define space when you have multiple buildings and parking lots.

Take the McDonald’s or Wal-Mart challenge.
Have each vestry member casually ask one person at a local fast food place, gas station, or Wal-Mart a couple of questions prior to the next vestry meeting: “Do you know where xyz church is?” and “So, do you know happen to know anything about that church?” The answers you get will give you a quick, insightful portrait of who in the community knows where you are located and what/how they know about you.

Identify and covenant as a congregation to modify habits that are less-than-helpful to welcoming your guests.
Some of these behaviors may include non-verbally discouraging guests from sitting in “my” pew, speaking to friends while ignoring guests, and complaining about insignificant things within earshot of those visiting. Developing a strategy of covenant and holding each other accountable for our Sunday morning behaviors is important.

Develop distinct roles/job descriptions for your greeters and ushers.
One possible model — greeters begin in the parking lot or on the sidewalk, seeing to the immediate comfort and needs of your guests. This may mean offering an umbrella if it is raining, helping them get a wheelchair or stroller out of their car, pointing them to the drinking fountains and restrooms, and introducing them to an usher, who then takes on the role of helping them navigate the worship service, introducing them to clergy and others, and seeing they get escorted to coffee hour or church school.

Put together a congregation plan for tracking and assimilating guests into the life of your congregation.
Good assimilation begins sixty seconds after worship ends and intentionally extends at least six months out. Congregations that do assimilation well have a shared value that this is everyone’s job and ministry — not just the clergy’s.

Kathy Copas is Coordinator of Communication and Evangelism for the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis. A former vestry member at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New Albany, Indiana, she “joined the church with such zeal” at age twenty-four that she was baptized and confirmed on Sunday and appointed to fill out a vestry term the very next day.

This article is part of the March 2010 Vestry Papers issue on Welcoming Newcomers