No matter your age, your size, the color of your eyes, your hair, your skin. You are welcome here.
No matter whom you love, or how you speak, or whatever your abilities. You are welcome here.
When I am a Sunday celebrant, I say these words. But how do I do what I say? How do I truly welcome someone I’m meeting for the first time at church?
“Hello. My name is Nancy.
“What brings you here? How did you hear about the church?”
These are my standard opening lines when I’m trying to introduce myself and chat a bit with someone I don’t recognize. It sounds simple, but it’s taken me years to figure out how to do even this much. So many things, big and small, stand between me and a newcomer.
Doubt — does this person really want to talk to me? Maybe he or she would rather just observe and not interact. Distraction — who was it I needed to talk to today? What church-related activity have I forgotten about? Will my long-time church friends feel neglected?
And what will I say to someone new anyway? It can be tricky to think of those inviting but not too prying questions, the balance between the inviting “I’m interested in you” and the judgmental “I’m checking to see if I want to know you.” Then there are the difficulties with people I’ve already introduced myself to, but have forgotten just about all the details of the conversation – which I’m sure they remember in detail.
Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, there’s even a bit of fear of the unknown. Not all newcomers look or act like me. Will I have anything in common with this person? How will I figure out what to say to someone who is different from me?
The truth is that it’s easier to linger in conversation with a friend rather than seek out and talk to the newcomer. But that’s not what I want to do, it’s not how I want our church to be. I want us to be the church that talks to the new people. We need them and they need us. As the Rev. Peter Morales, president of our denomination, says in his 2005 essay titled “Repel Fewer Newcomers”:
“Going to a strange church for the ﬁrst time is a big decision. Our visitors make a conscious and courageous decision to visit an unknown church! Our newcomers are people who already share our progressive world view and who are looking for a place to belong.They are us.”
If someone is brave enough to walk into a room full of strangers, I am called to be hospitable. It isn’t always easy, but neither is terribly hard. Over the last two years,as I’ve made a conscious effort to be more welcoming, I’ve developed a few personal behavior guidelines to help myself stay on track. Maybe something in the list will work for you.
A Personal and Practical Guide to Newcomer Conversations
* Talk to newcomers whenever I have a chance. I try to postpone conversations with friends and church business until later when possible.
* Try to introduce a newcomer to another person at church. Finding common interests between the two is a bonus and something I’ve only managed a couple of times. But I keep trying!
* Wear my name tag. (I’m getting really good at this one.)
* Show up to church as often as I can, so I’ll be a familiar face to people who just started coming.
*Talk to everyone, not just the white, graying, females without makeup that look most like me.
* Never let anyone stand alone with a cup of coffee downstairs. If anyone, old or new, is downstairs with a cup, he or she is hoping for a conversation. If I’m already in a conversation, I sometimes try to get that person to join us. If I need to wind up a conversation so I can go chat with the person alone, I do it. Never let anyone stand alone with a coffee cup.
*Invite a newcomer to lunch at the Moscow Food Co-op after church. Okay, I haven’t actually done this. But I’ve wanted to try it and I saw member Mary Jo Hamilton do it. It strikes me as a sociable and easy thing to do that would make a new acquaintance feel wanted. It also just seems like fun.
Sometimes, I’m good at following through on what I intend and sometimes my efforts fall a bit flat. I try not to worry about my awkward moments; I’ve noticed that newcomers keep coming. Nearly every Sunday, there are more than a few people who are visiting for the first time, especially in the late summer and early fall when many people arrive in the area for work or school.
We are lucky to have many more people than me trying to connect with our visitors. The UUCP has a tireless Welcome Committee — you may know them as the ones who wear the yellow name tags. (They are really good at wearing their name tags.) The group is led by Joan Webb and includes Pat Scott, Marguerite Thoreson-Browne, Elisabeth Berlinger, Sara Holup, Donna Bradberry, and Dan and Pat Rathmann. Their goal is to personally connect with every newcomer on the day a person visits/. They then follow up with a note or phone call afterwards.
The group gives newcomers a visitor’s packet with a new brochure describing the UUCP. Committee members also host monthly luncheons to give newcomers a chance to visit with our Rev. Elizabeth Stevens and get to know church members better.
The Welcome Committee is probably our most visible and valuable committee for a Sunday visitor. Their energy and enthusiasm has benefited us repeatedly as new people walk in the door are attracted rather than repelled. But Joan knows the committee can’t be the only welcoming group at the UUCP, not if we truly want people to feel that they might have a place with us after their first visit. As Joan says, we all need to be part of the welcoming.
Every week comes with a Sunday and a service at our church. Who knows who we’ll meet or what difference we might make for someone. A kindly worded question, a shared song, a cup of coffee . . . it’s all an opportunity for good.
And since I’m writing this on a Saturday — I’ll have my chance tomorrow!