The Episcopal Church welcomes you. Sort of.

Pitfalls to avoid when welcoming newcomers

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The Episcopal Church welcomes you.

But does it really?

Church consultants say that despite what are often good intentions, some congregations are making basic mistakes that can scare away new faces.

Two professional congregational development consultants weigh in on a few of these mistakes and what churches might do to avoid them.

Like a Foreign Language

Tracey Herzer, the Atlanta-based executive director of LeaderResources, once worked with a church that was hoping to grow its membership by inviting new folks in town for mass and coffee.

It seemed like a good idea until Herzer heard what the senior warden said during announcements.

With great warmth and obvious enthusiasm, he said, “We’re so glad you are here with us today! If you would like to learn more about becoming a communicant of this parish, please see the rector in the narthex after Eucharist.”

Herzer explained, “A visitor who isn’t familiar with our church could probably figure out ‘parish’ means ‘church,’ but everything else is practically a foreign language to some.”

While the senior warden meant well, his welcome may have not had the effect he intended, and likely alienating and confusing visitors with too much church jargon, Herzer said.

And it’s not just our words that can be confusing. Herzer pointed out that a newcomer can also feel overwhelmed and embarrassed if they don’t know where or when to sit, stand or kneel, or which book to use when.

Herzer believes that churches can become more welcoming by making sure greeters are trained to give plain-English information to newcomers about what to expect in the service, who they can to speak to afterward if they have questions, and volunteer basic information such as the location of the bathroom or children’s Sunday school rooms.

Churches might also consider writing “stage directions” for the service in their bulletin or service leaflet so newcomers can feel more confident about what to do during the service.

For example, one congregation Herzer worked with wrote in their bulletin, “We sit to listen, stand to sing and kneel to pray.” And “Sitting, kneeling and standing are all appropriate postures for prayer; please use what is most comfortable for you.”

“It was simple and welcoming, and not intimidating,” she said.

We Welcome Young Families, Sort Of 

Despite many churches’ desire to attract new young families, congregations are sometimes making mistakes that can drive families away, said Michelle Heyne, a founder and trainer with Shaping the Parish, a program to develop and nurture healthier congregations.

At one church Heyne worked with, the rector designated the last pews in the church as the “family section,” complete with signage.

The rector had reserved the section for families with babies and young children, many of whom were new to the church, as he wanted them to feel comfortable with plenty of space to move around during the service, explained Heyne.

As it turns out, he also really wanted to shield them from some of the members of the church who sat in the front and would give dirty looks to families when their children made noise.

While the rector had been well meaning, “It definitely wasn’t welcoming,” Heyne said. The signs made may of the families feel as though they were being penalized.

As this wasn’t his intention, the rector quickly took the signs down.

Instead, to foster a greater sense of welcome, Heyne recommends churches invite new and existing members to explore together the spiritual practices of the church, such as the Daily Office or Centering Prayer, for example.

Heyne suggests that to “build competence for Christian life in a critical mass of members … is the single most important thing a parish can do to be ‘welcoming.’”

Structured, well-facilitated community meetings two to three times a year that allow the parish to surface concerns, hopes and idea for improvement, can also help foster welcome, Heyne added. “This provides practice in listening, respectful influence and not getting everything you want.”

 

(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship.)

Comments

  1. Alexander Delgado says:

    I have felt, during my time as a parent, that
    1) it can be more difficult to get to mass on Sunday because
    a) now it’s not just getting dressed and leaving home it takes more time to get ready
    b) I also enjoy sleeping in the mornings, so, even in the few times that I do make it, it’s by
    a hair that I make it. (I wish there was an afternoon or evening service)
    2) the experience changes — now my attention is divided between
    a) what is happening at mass and the experience of it
    b) my daughter and what she is doing
    c) what I think other people think when my daughter makes a noise or does something she is not supposed to do

    How can these challenges be handled?

    I know there is “light at the end of the tunnel”, that later when my daughters are a bit older and start school things will be different than during the baby / toddler years.

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