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10 Things My Gym Taught Me about How to Be Welcoming in Worship
10 Things My Gym Taught Me about How to Be Welcoming in Worship

I begin this post on a personal note so you’ll understand this isn't about “swimsuit season.” A year ago, I completed treatment for breast cancer, whose chemo/radiation combo trashed my muscles and joints. I was often winded, back then, and experienced debilitating knee pain. My medical team explained my options: I could get used to taking painkillers or I could put in sustained effort to strengthen my body. (I'm more than aware that the previous sentence contains many layers of privilege.)

For the past six months, I’ve been going to a gym for weight-training and Spinning classes, where I've learned what it’s like to be a newcomer in a community, and how leaders can create a climate of acceptance, encouragement, and empowerment for those newcomers.

1. When they arrive, people already want to belong

When I decided to find a gym, I asked for advice from people I trust. I investigated websites. I called gyms to ask questions (their responsiveness was a factor in my choice). By the time I showed up at my gym for the first time, I had already decided it was the right place for me. The owner didn’t have to entice me to return or do backflips to make me happy. All she had to do was be congruent with what I’d already experienced. All she had to do was not lose me.

2. Clean says “welcome”

I’ve visited gyms (…and churches) with dustballs in every corner, crust around the bathroom faucet, and a redolent odor of urine in the bathrooms. It’s a lot to ask guests to overlook that grime. One reason I love my gym is that it’s clean—not just regular clean, but super-duper clean—which communicates the owner’s pride in her space, and her desire for people to feel comfortable there.

3. To be called by name is to feel known

When I show up for a gym class, I always receive a warm welcome: a “Good morning,” eye contact, and a smile (usually I also get called by name, which gives me the warm fuzzies). That greeting makes me feel valued rather than just a paying customer, but it doesn’t happen by accident.

Anyone who’s staffed a welcome table or a sanctuary door knows that distractions abound; in any given moment, you’ll see someone you feel like chatting with or a task that needs to be done. Personal greetings require the effort of attention, which is also the effort of bypassing the desire to spend one’s time connecting with friends.  

4. Meet people where they are

Newbies can require a lot of explaining. We’re self-conscious; we’re afraid to ask questions; we make mistakes. Good instructors (read: leaders) remember to go through the basics, and to patiently model what they’re asking a group to do. They never say, “Wow—you didn’t know that?” or “You’re taking a long time to learn this.” Good leaders put people at ease.

5. If someone’s anxious, putting them on the spot will make things worse

Earlier this month, a young woman came to our strength training class. Within minutes, it was clear that she wasn’t just struggling—she was in over her head. The well-intentioned instructor singled her out for instruction, trying to “help” by correcting her form. When the instructor said, “Keep your back flat,” what the woman heard was, You’re screwing up. As the instructor doubled down, the woman crumbled. She excused herself to go to the restroom and never came back. Later, I spotted her leaving the gym with red eyes.

People come to our worship services for many reasons, but newcomers often come because of a restlessness, a hunger, or outright pain. Putting them on the spot—for example, locking eyes on them for a prolonged moment while asking, “Would any visitors like to introduce themselves?”—can be the opposite of welcoming. To truly feel welcome, some people need space; they need time to emerge from their own shyness or sadness.

6. The leader belongs to everyone

When a leader is “on”—by which I mean present, period—they belong to the Whole, not to the Insiders.

Once in a while, an instructor at my gym engrosses themselves in conversation with only one or two people in the class. Some people might conclude, “That’s so nice—people here are friends.” Not me: I feel excluded, and wonder whether the instructor is paying attention to the rest of us.

In our Sunday services, worship leaders serve as the face and the voice for the entire congregation. They’re a conduit for the spirit that moves among and beyond the people, holding space for every person—whether stranger or friend, whether they interact with each person or not. A worship leader who uses their role to cement their own sense of importance or to further their own personal agenda is a worship leader abusing their power.

7. Offer encouragement

One day, as an inexperienced Spinning instructor led us through class, he grimly called out, “It sucks, I know. It really sucks.” I nearly stopped pedaling. If the expert, the leader, can’t offer encouragement to followers, why should any of us keep going?

During long slogs on the Spinning bike, my favorite instructor buoys us with shouted encouragement. “You got this,” he booms. “You can do this.” He’s convincing enough to make me pedal faster. My other favorite thing to hear is “You’re doing GREAT.” I don’t care whether it’s true—I just need to hear it. So do the people in our pews.

8. A great playlist works wonders

I’ve come to know the instructors at my gym by their playlists. One of them (like me) is partial to “Best of the 80s” music; another brings in rockin’ beats with excellent drum solos. Can we pull that off in worship? Maybe not. But when the music is part of the planning, not an afterthought, it draws more out of me than I was planning to give.

9. Stay hydrated

This doesn’t have much to do with worship; it’s just good advice all the time.

10. Seek effectiveness, not happiness

I wrote this blog post in my head during a Spinning class that wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m certain that my parishioners have done something similarly productive while listening to a sermon of mine that didn’t exactly light their fireworks.

That’s okay: it’s not my Spinning instructor’s job to be fabulous every single morning; it’s her job to guide me safely through one more day of getting healthy. At that, she’s wonderfully effective.

As worship leaders, we have a mission. It's not to satisfy individual preferences in the illusion that we can make everyone happy. Rather, it’s to be effective in holding space for people to find their center, or fill their spiritual tanks, or find a little mercy and courage to take with them into the week. (If you want to set a secondary goal of "be fabulous every single Sunday," be my guest... but that's a high bar.)

The Takeaway

I joined my gym with a narrow purpose: to be able to walk up and down stairs without panting or pain. I accomplished that goal a while ago. Am I leaving anytime soon? Not a chance: I’m having fun. Only now am I beginning to grasp the depth of that community, and to make new friends. I’d like to think that if I disappeared, people would miss me. (Is that not the definition of relationship?)

When we create and offer our communities to seekers, we’re inviting them—and ourselves—to be changed. The impulse that carries newcomers through our doors might evolve as the layers of community reveal themselves. It’s up to us, as congregational leaders (especially on Sunday mornings) to do all that we can to create the conditions for relationships of belonging to flourish.

You got this.

About the Author

  • Erika Hewitt is the UUA's Minister of Worship Arts and Editor of Braver/Wiser , a weekly spirituality series. She also serves as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister and wedding officiant in Maine. Her book of theme-based ministry resources, co-written with educator Becky...

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