Is Your Congregation Welcoming?

Do you belong to a welcoming congregation?

It’s a loaded and perhaps ironic question. First, it’s ironic to ask because your congregation was obviously welcoming to you if you belong. Your congregation may be certified as “welcoming” by the UUA for being inclusive of a particular subgroup like the gay and transgender community, aka LGBT.

But, just like when we say you can “believe anything” and still be a UU, there’s a flipside to saying that we’re welcoming to all. We may not be welcoming to those who do not share our beliefs that all people have inherent worth and dignity, for example.  And, in a broader sense, just because you think its easy to fit in your congregation, doesn’t mean everyone would find it easy to understand and assimilate. We, like any other denomination, have little idiosyncrasies that make each congregation unique, and may in fact be undermining an attempt to be welcoming.

There’s a lot we sometimes take for granted.  Like, knowing when to sit or stand.  Knowing how to find something in the hymnal.  And then there’s all the terms we bally around for our various projects and committees.  For example: “welcoming congregation.” The UUA’s website is explicit in the fact that it chose that term to not be explicit, stating “it’s a code word of sorts.”

I do not mean to disparage this noble effort in the least bit.  However, isn’t it ironic that we ascribe the term “code word” to “welcoming.”  That is to say, we ascribe a special meaning for those in the know to understand what may not be assumed or known by the broader population.  When we say “welcoming,” those who hear it for the first time may or may not understand what it means.  And, if you don’t know what it means, you may feel like an outsider if it is not explained in a sensitive way.

Being welcoming is a challenge, whether you’re trying to be hospitable to one person, to a broad group, or are mad enough to think you can truly be welcoming to all. While I was still on the Board at my congregation, I gave each member of that leadership group a copy of a wonderful book titled: The Spirituality of Weloming by Dr. Ron Wolfson.  It was written for a Jewish audience and describes some things that UU’s may not be familiar with, such as the phenomenon of collecting tickets for seats in the synagogue during the High Holy Days.  However, I found it a very useful book and haven’t found it’s equal in the UU literary universe.

Though there are many useful chestnuts on the UUA’s website under “growing your congregation,” finding them requires more determination and focus through many clicking and downloads than opening up a nice paperback.  Also, many of them are hidden under the “leaders” resources.  Wolfson makes the important point that making a congregation welcoming doesn’t take a few leaders, it takes the vision and commitment of every person (member, friend, and visitor) who enters the building.

What if we took the same sense of mission that we felt when addressing the spiritual needs of the LGBT community and applied them to our congregations as a whole? The welcoming congregation was designed to reach out to a group that is admittedly often spiritually abandoned by other denominations and even our society, but there are others who are in just as dire spiritual need of being welcomed.

Many congregations have begun “new church years” which gives us an opportunity to see our buildings and our personal manners afresh.  Whenever I visited a congregation for the first time, I appreciated the small details that are so easy to overlook.  Like, how easy or difficult is it to park?  How easy or difficult is it to find the bathroom? Do the members and friends make a point of greeting newcomers or do the keep to themselves?

I witnessed one of the simplest, but (I thought) ingenious efforts to be welcoming while visiting a congregation in Maine.  At the beginning of services, an announcement was made that during coffee hour, first time visitors were encouraged to help themselves to red coffee mugs. The announcement also stressed that all members and friends who were familiar with the congregation should keep an eye out for red-mug-holders and make a point of speaking to them. This gave anyone who might be shy the option of selecting a regular white mug, should they chose to not announce themselves as visitors.   What was even more impressive was that this concept was not just announced during the service, but there were easy to read signs above the coffee mugs restating it. When my husband and I grabbed our special colored mugs, we found that we were quickly greeted by not one by several people.  There wasn’t a moment that we were standing awkwardly looking at each other and wondering how to break in to a conversation among a tight group. It was clear that this wasn’t just an idea one person had and decided to try.  This was a group of people who had decided to work together to get behind an idea. I’m not talking about the idea of colored mugs, but the idea that visitors should be welcomed, and that responsibility belonged to not just a small committee or designated staff, but to everyone.

I’ve seen some poor execution and heard some sad stories, too.  One of Wolfson’s stories that struck a particular chord with me revolved around the idea of “your pew.”  While Wolfson was a visitor in a near-empty synagogue he was asked to move from the seat he has chosen by a person he described as “a sweet old man with the saddest eyes.” Wolfson gladly did move because he understood the man’s seat had a special meaning to him, but pointed out that there may have been ways for the man to have his seat and welcome a visitor at the same time.

Wolfson’s story struck me because it contrasted with a story shared by a prominent leader in the UUA who had visited my congregation.  No, we didn’t have seating issues that morning.  Actually, that woman shared a story in which a visitor took the pew that “belonged” to a family that were long-time members of a UU congregation, and everyone was nervously whispering to themselves about whether they should be asked to move.  The speaker obviously found it very amusing, introducing the story by saying she noticed how we all seemed to have seats we chose regularly.  This was thankfully not true of my congregation, but I found her story unsettling. I couldn’t help put myself in the shoes of those visitors and imagine the nervous whispering and glances revolving around me. How much more perfect of an example of unconscious unwelcoming could there be than it being expected that “everyone” should “know” that a pew belonged to a certain family.  Luckily I’ve never had a personal experience that extreme.

At my own congregation, we were struggling with the transition from a small “family” sized group to something else.  (For more on congregational size theory: http://www.uua.org/growth/128566.shtml)  One of the hardest sells for some members was the idea of wearing a name tag consistently.  “But everyone knows me!” was the common complaint.  They didn’t understand that it wasn’t about putting their identity on display, but about being prepared for that new visitor who would doubtlessly appreciate being able to sneak a peak at the name tag after hopefully having a nice conversation.

Another challenge was from getting everyone who had an announcement to come forward and use the microphone, and to introduce themselves. In a telling way, most times people would say, “oh, I’ll just speak loudly. I know you all can hear me,” from their seats.  Meanwhile, a long-time member was losing her hearing and almost entirely dependent on a headset that she wore that was tied into the PA system.

Eventually we made progress on microphone utilization by pointing out that particular member.  But, I personally feel that was its own mistake.  In Harvest the Power, I learned that this could be marginalization or, making a person stand for an issue, and not seeing the complexities of either.

Writing this makes me realize how much I miss being a part of a congregation. When people come together for spiritual enrichment they are often able to tap into something larger than even the Internet which I can click back and forth on while writing this blog. I miss seeing how all the little details of congregational life work together. I am wistful over an experience that I have imagined, but unfortunately never found. That is, a large group of people who truly believe that they share a mission that cannot be fully realized unless all who want to share in it are welcomed.

Maybe it’s time to become a visitor myself, and see what happens.

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