Hospitality

This guide provides practices and tools useful in training: 

Welcome on a wooden tag attached to a hyacinth
  • membership teams and/or professionals
  • hospitality teams
  • ushers
  • people who prepare coffee hour
  • worship leaders

In a time in which fewer and fewer people believe that it is important to be part of any kind of religious community, it should be heartbreaking to us all that people who need our saving message, who are sure that our values could help transform their lives, are trying to be part of us and yet cannot exist within our communities because we lack basic skills in welcoming the personhood and gifts of all people.  From Widening the Circle of Concern.

Asking Friends To Worship, Oh My!

Let’s start with some statistics:

invitation stating "join us"
  • 70 to 90% of people who join a congregation have a friend or relative already in the congregation.
  •  75 to 90% visit because someone invited them.
  •  We know that the most frequent way in which people hear about us is through word of mouth.

However, the average Unitarian Universalist only invites a person to church once every 26 years.

So what’s up with that?  Why are we so hesitant to invite people to our congregation?

So here’s something that might surprise you:

The short term goal of Friendship Sunday is not to increase the membership.  The short term goal is to enable our friends, neighbors and loved ones to experience the place that has brought us such joy and meaning.

The immediate purpose is to spread the good news about Unitarian Universalism.

Let me share a story with you:

A blind beggar boy was once sitting on the pavement. He held up a sign which said: “I am blind, please help.” There were only a few coins in his begging bowl.

A man was walking by. He took a few coins from his pocket and dropped them into the hat. He then took the sign, turned it around and wrote some words. He put the sign back so that everyone who walked by would see the new words.

Soon the hat began to fill up. A lot more people were giving money to the blind boy.

That afternoon the man who had changed the sign came to see how things were. The boy recognized his footsteps and asked, “Were you the one who changed my sign this morning? What did you write?”

The man said, “I only wrote the truth. I said what you said but in a different way.”

What he had written was: “Today is a beautiful day and I cannot see it.”

When we invite people to Friendship Sunday, the sign we’re displaying should not be, “We need more members.  Please help.”  It should be, “We have a beautiful congregation and a beautiful building and you haven’t seen it.”

We are inviting people because we want them to meet the people and see the place that has brought us so much joy and meaning.  And we want them to see it because they as well have brought so much joy and meaning to our lives.

The Big Pitch

Disclaimer:   A true and authentic “ask” comes from the heart and in one’s own words.  Please use this document merely as a guide and a resource of gentle suggestions.

“On Sunday, March 17th, my congregation is having a “Friendship Sunday.”  There will be a service featuring a sermon by our minister and an informal reception following the service.  As you know, this is a community that is very important to me, a place where I feel at home.  As someone who is also important to me, I want you to see this place and to meet the people who mean so much to me.

Will you accept my invitation?”

So what makes this invitation so special?

  • You are only asking the person to experience something that is important to you, not to convert to Unitarian Universalism
  • You are honoring the person by inviting them to meet others who are also important in your life
  • You are being very clear and honest about the agenda and content of the day
  • You are making a straight forward invitation without bargaining, pleading or coercing.  The other has the right and opportunity to say “no” without consequences or diminishing of the relationship
If they ask… You say…
What happens during the service? We listen to music and sing hymns.  There are opening and closing words read by the Worship Associate.  Our Minister also gives about a 20 minute sermon.
Do I have to sing? Only if you want to.
Do people pray? We often have moments of silence and reflection.  These are private times when you can be alone with your thoughts.
Will I be asked to introduce myself? You won’t be singled out in any way.  Hopefully, people will come over to us to say “hi” because they’ll want to meet you.
I won’t have to sign anything, will I? Just a blank check.  I’M KIDDING. You don’t have to sign or do anything you don’t want to.
Can my children come and what will they experience? Yes, and they have the choice of joining you in the service or going to children’s Religious Education classes with a friend of with their own age group.
So why is this Unitarian Universalism faith so important to you?OrWhy is this congregation so important to you? Insert you own answer here and be ready to respond.  If you stutter and stammer and have to think about it for too long, your friend will begin to wonder if this is a place worth visiting.

 

Assess Your Hospitality Using Secret Seekers

Person with a finger over their lips - Shhh

Almost all of our visitors come hoping that they will find their spiritual home.  They have not just wandered off the street and into our sanctuaries, they have done their homework: They know what Unitarian Universalism claims to be, and are now seeing if a particular congregation is the right place for them. 

How might we see our strengths and weaknesses with “fresh eyes?” How might we learn from others?

One way is arranging for a Secret Seeker assessment. Similar to the idea of mystery shopping, it provides an opportunity to humble ourselves to how others perceive our community.

Step 1:  Arrange a meeting with other UU congregations in your cluster (at least 4 works best).  Try to include the minister and 2 membership committee people from each church. (Folx outside your normal demographic, such as those with children or marginalized identities can provide pointed insights.)  At this meeting, go over the assessment form.  Work out a schedule where each church is visited by 2 “secret seekers,” 1 each from a different congregation, and that each church sends 2 “secret seekers,” 1 each to different churches.  Try to arrange the visits so the 2 seekers visit on different Sundays, and that special/holiday services are avoided. 

Step 2: Make the visits. As a “Secret Seeker,” feel yourself fully in your role as non-UU visitor as you consider each item.  Use the same standards you would use in judging a pre-school, coffee shop or an assisted-living facility. For each item, write down some brief notes about what you perceive in the congregation you are visiting, and then check one of three ratings:   

          (1) Could Be Better            (2) Okay As Is            (3) Welcoming!

Please complete the assessment individually and immediately after your secret visit.  Feel free to add any or all significant items that may not be on the form. 

Step 3:  Schedule a second meeting six to eight weeks later, where all of the seekers bring back their assessment forms.  Have each seeker share their observations with the whole group, then at the end everyone give the assessments to the members of the church they visited.

Have gentle and frank discussion about what each congregation did well, and where they could improve.

Secret Seeker Assessment Form

 

 

Checklist for the New Church Year

Paper with checkboxes down one side; hand with pink highlighter putting checks into checkboxes

As late summer approaches so does the surge of church shoppers that many congregations experience. Here are tips to make sure your facilities and programs are prepared for them.

• Many of us can still remember the name of the person who greeted us on our first visit to a UU congregation. Go over greeting practices with greeters. Hold a role-play practice if necessary. Visit other congregations in the area and see what you can learn from them.

•  Can visitors easily identify which door to enter from the parking lot? If not, add some signage. Also consider posting a greeter in the parking area or on the sidewalk outside the front door.

• Make sure your bathrooms pass the smell test. Add a basket with a few band-aids, feminine products, safety pins, diapers, and baby wipes.

• Check out the sound system, making sure it works properly. If you offer electronic aids for those who need hearing assistance, make sure that they have fresh batteries and that someone knows how to operate them.

• For Coffee hour, give one or two people the job of monitoring the room to make sure that visitors are connecting with members and to facilitate that process. Set up a laptop or other device that will continually show a brief video of congregational activities. It will give introverted visitors something to do if they are overwhelmed by conversation.

• Think about providing milk or half-and-half for the coffee rather than the powdered dairy substitute.

• Be prepared with a list of small groups and upcoming programs that guests can connect with as a next step.

• Have guests fill out an information sheet so that when they return next Sunday you can call them by name. Remember that most of them will have already checked the congregation out online and are already prepared to like you.

Entry Points

I bet your congregation changes lives. That’s why you keep coming back, right? So if it’s true that your congregation has something amazing to offer, how do people get to know about it, and how do they get connected?

We know how people find out about Unitarian Universalism. They stumble across our awesome websites, they see our fabulous blog posts, they hear about our justice work in the news. Every day, I help congregations use social media, branding and other communications tools to reach new audiences. But once those new people find out about you, what happens next? How do you translate that awareness into longer-term engagement?

Entry points are a great way to introduce your congregation to new people and help them learn how to get involved. Think of an entry point as doorway into the life of your congregation. In the past, simply inviting someone to visit next Sunday might have been enough. But today, as Americans are becoming less religious, we need more ways to connect with our community that don’t feel so church-y up front. Give folks a chance to see what your congregation has to offer before they take what can feel like a big step - showing up for Sunday services.


An entry point can be any activity, program, event or opportunity where you invite new people to connect with your congregation. Here are a few key features of successful entry points:

bite sized mission

Bite-sized mission

Entry point opportunities should be explicitly connected to the life and purpose of your congregation. Lots of churches host yoga classes, day care programs and recovery groups, and those are all really important. But if you can’t say clearly WHY an event is a core part of your congregation’s mission, then it doesn’t work as a true entry point, and it’s just a nice but unrelated event.

 

friend test

Pass the “Friend Test”

 Would you invite your friend who is not a UU? If not, your entry point opportunity has failed the “Friend Test.” Your entry point could be too insider-y (the weekly Women’s Circle that’s met for the past 20 years) or too high commitment (a ten-week adult faith development class). You want someone who is not currently “church shopping” to feel excited to come.

Probably not Sunday morning

Though most congregations have a welcome script during Sunday worship services, the focus on visitors often stops there. For visitors, going to religious education classes can be confusing, coffee hour can be clique-y, and joys & concerns can run long. So it’s usually better to create entry points where the visitor experience is central to the design and planning (and they don’t even have to be in your building, like doing a park cleanup!). Special Sundays can be decent entry points, like an all-ages holiday service, if they are planned and advertised well.


Once you’ve got an entry point planned, promote the heck out of it! Whenever I talk to congregations that are planning to spend money on advertising or direct mail, (and I hope more do!) I always tell them to include an invitation to an entry point event. This gives you a reason to reach out, a call to action, instead of just saying “hey, we exist!” At the UUA, we’re actually working on a promotional toolkit for congregations, hopefully to be released fall 2016, so stay tuned.

Here are some examples of super-cool entry points:

  • Seedy Saturday, annual event to celebrate and learn about gardening and environmental issues (Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga, ON)
  • Luna Rising, community celebration of women and girls (UU Church of Charlotte, NC)
  • Hogwarts/CampUU, Harry Potter-themed summer camp for ages 6-11 (First UU Church of Austin, TX)
  • For the Love of Tiny Houses, showcase of the tiny house movement as a response to the lack of affordable housing (UU Fellowship of Redwood City, CA)
  • Play GroUUp, weekly gathering of toddlers and parents (UU Congregation of Las Vegas, NV)

Remember, entry points can be really valuable for current members as well. All these examples listed here involved members of the host congregation. If you think about the Spectrum of Faithful Relationship, events and activities planned for folks on the left side of the spectrum (your fans and friends) can appeal to those on the right side (your core members and leaders). But it doesn’t work the other way around; events planned for congregational leaders have a much narrower audience.

My final piece of advice for congregations planning entry point opportunities – always have a “next ask,” or an upcoming event you can invite people to. This gives you a reason to collect email addresses and follow up with attendees, one of the best ways to build trust and engagement. Make sure your follow-up event is connected to the theme your entry point event, which shows that you take your congregation’s mission seriously. For example, if you do a panel on the tiny house movement, then do a tiny house tour two months later (good job, UU Fellowship of Redwood City!).

So get out there, start scheduling entry point opportunities! Get the word out, have fun, and collect some email addresses. 

Outreach: Do they need us, or we them?

The current social and political climate presents Unitarian Universalists with an opportunity, as well as a challenge. We are overwhelmed by the need to reach out to support those affected by recent racist, heterosexist, transphobic, and Islamophobic policies, and counter with our Unitarian Universalist message of radical love and beloved community. In times like these, how do we stay grounded in our core purposes for reaching out and not get swept up in the latest news cycle, as relevant as it may be. Why do Unitarian Universalists want to reach out?

girl looking out from door

One reason to reach out is to be loud about our values of love and justice – to evangelize. Evangelism isn’t about recruiting; it says that we have good news for the world, and that we should spread it! We have a truth to share because it may benefit others. Unitarian Universalism may not have a single creed that we want others to adopt, but we do have a message of hope. Our principles describe a vision of an equitable, peaceful, and justice-filled world. We can call this the “they need us” approach, although we know more accurately that they do not need you and me as individuals, but they need the message that we share.

On the other hand, there is a “we need them” approach. This is the seventh principle kind of “we need them.” More than the practical logic that we can accomplish more together than separately, it is the recognition that we have always been inherently interconnected to one another. When we try to achieve our vision of diverse and equitable community with only the people we already know, through networks and methods we are already familiar with, we fall short that very vision which calls us on. The act of outreach is not merely a means to the beloved community, but it is actively how we create it.

Of course, the truth is that these two approaches are not opposites. They are deeply intertwined aspects of outreach. I strongly believe Unitarian Universalism proclaims a saving message that our country is in dire need of today.  If we are to stay true to the content of this message and spread it far and wide, we have to be on guard against talking only to ourselves. Opening our hearts and doors to create vibrant relationships with new people and their communities is both the method and the message.

This isn’t easy. It requires being brave and putting ourselves out there and being vulnerable, and we always want to articulate our message as clearly and powerfully as possible. The good news is you are not left on your own! Use some social media graphics you can use to spread the good word.

Why outreach? Because it is by building relationships and diverse community that we can transform ourselves and the world. If it is true that we should be the change we wish to see in the world, then our congregations can start the process by practicing radical hospitality within our walls and by preaching love outward into the larger society.

 

Preemptive

Preemptive Radical Inclusion, a framework used by Justice and Peace Consulting, is an adaptive set of perspectives and practices that people can use to increase justice and equity in their lives and organizations.

Preemptive Radical Incusion (PRI) is more than just a philosophical approach, it is an intervention, an activity, a process. PRI requires reflection and exploration, and it leads us to make decisions about what our next moves will be to involve everyone within those spaces where we have leadership responsibility.  

How might this look in practice? Here is an example: What if we hosted church like we would host an Ice Cream Sundae Party?

Radical Hospitality Theology

Decorative hearts hanging by strings

I believe that the theological basis for hospitality – radical hospitality –is the concept of the Creative Interchange as expressed by process theologian Henry Nelson Wieman.  In Wieman’s theological model, the source of human good is what he calls the Creative Interchange.  You and I interact, we learn something new from one another, we absorb that experience into our own being, it enriches our experience of the world.  Our enriched selves in turn enrich others in subsequent interactions.  This ripple effect enriches the world.  The more varied our experiences and the more we interact with different people, the greater the increase of human good.

Think about how your own experience has been enriched by the interactions with those around you.    Think of someone you have met here at church – someone who you wouldn’t have met in your other social circles, or someone that you gotten to know in a different way because this is a faith community.  Perhaps someone of a different generation or social class.  Perhaps someone who feels safe enough to be out here at church, but not in other areas of our society.  How would you be different if you had never met this person?  How might your relationship have been different if you met this person in a different social context? 

Perhaps you yourself feel that you have to keep part of yourself hidden, (your politics, your sexual identity, your faith) when you are with certain social circles.  How does it feel when you can’t be authentic?  How does it feel when your outer persona reflects your inner being? 

An ideal of a liberal faith community is to provide a safe space, a place where we don’t have a check a part of our selves at the door.  Our Welcoming Congregation program helps us to do this for the LGBT community.  We aspire to be a place where our interiors and our exteriors are the same.   Sometimes this means we have an interior ideal and we struggle to match our actions with our beliefs.  Other times this means we practice acting in the way we know is right, and work to transform our attitudes and beliefs through our right actions.  Sometimes the interior and exterior become so strongly aligned that we can become almost rigid in our convictions. 

Practicing radical hospitality opens up possibilities for interaction with different people, allowing for diverse experiences and an expanded creative interchange.  And it’s about meeting people where they are.  It’s about learning together.  We are all works in progress. 

Radical hospitality is about putting our own assumptions up for examination.  To me, this is the heart of Unitarian Universalism.  No one claims to know the truth.  But we know the way to get closer to the truth is to gather as a congregation and try to figure it out together.  New people will bring new ideas.  Different people will bring different ideas.  We can either look at this as a threat….or as a gift.

Look at the congregations that are growing.  These are communities that see each new person who comes through their doors as a gift – a mysterious treasure whose value will be revealed over time and that will enrich the community in some way.  And they know that this takes time, patience and unconditional loving-kindness.

Our constant challenge is to keep reminding ourselves that we are in community with people who are not like us.  To be radically hospitable is to have a congregational norm that is radically inclusive, not out of duty, but out of our anticipation of how each new person will change us.  May it be so.

Sprucing Up Your Spiritual Hospitality

hosptiality

Photo Copyright Brad Bolton.

I'm a "stealth greeter" in my home congregation. I go up to newcomers after a service and strike up a conversation about what brought them to church that day, and then I listen. 

What are they looking for?

Community, meaning, direction and connection to a purpose greater than themselves.

Most of our congregations are pretty good at the first two. We provide community in our social events and meaning in the Sunday worship service. I think it's because community and meaning are what our older adults are looking for and our older adults run the show and can make sure those are happening.

But the young adults that I talk to are looking for direction and connection to a purpose greater than themselves. An article in the Atlantic starts out telling the story of the young adult ramblings of our venerable Henry David Thoreau and how today's millennials need to find their way into adulthood, not with predetermined markers (job, marriage, house, children) but within their sense of self. Congregational leaders who want to create a culture that is welcoming to young adult seekers are facing the adaptive challenge of being a community that not only serves the existing members, but also provides spiritual hospitality. 

This kind of hospitality is based on the Platinum Rule--an intercultural version of the Golden Rule--of doing unto others what they would have done for themselves. My congregation uses monthly themes and has different ways for people to connect and engage with them. We also strive to offer life-stage groups (single young adult, parents of young children, parents of adolescents, retiree) and other kinds of groups to help people connect and find their own direction.

As I share these concrete possibilities with the visitor, I can see their delight as they see the possibility of this becoming their spiritual home. What might your congregation do to provide spiritual hospitality?

Welcoming in an Unwelcoming World

welcoming-vs-othering

welcoming-vs-othering

UU Churches often experience first-time visitors and returning old friends. On social media, people are looking for community and are being pointed to our congregations. Gone are the days when a liberals asked with puzzlement, "You're a Uni-What?"

We need to be ready, every Sunday. We need to be at our best, showing up on the Side of Love, and ready to meet people where they are. We need to encounter one another without assumptions and stereotypes clouding our interactions.

What You Can Do

Your Website is Your Front Door

Front door of a UU church with chalice

When I was a minister in a vibrant, busy congregation there was always something more caring and time-sensitive to do than sit down and write for the congregation’s website. Because the website had no clear deadline (like sermons and newsletters and pastoral care) it stayed at the bottom of my to-do list for years.

What I didn’t realize then, and what I know now, is that our websites must be high priority. And it’s not enough to simply keep them functional and up to date. They are where we tell the world who we are, what we do, and why it matters.

People’s experience of our websites form indelible first impressions. In the minds of online visitors:

  • If our websites are wordy and sparse on people, we are wordy and sparse on people.
  • If it’s hard to find what you need on our websites, it’s hard to find what you need from us.
  • If our websites are full of insider language and graduate-level language, we are too.

It can take a lot to undo those first impressions.

Instead, let’s show how our congregations are welcoming, warm, and accessible. Let’s show that by looking at our site with “outreach glasses” – using the lenses of the people we want to reach. Wearing those glasses involves thinking about what the people are looking for when they come to our sites. Each comes for a reason, whether they’re seeking emotional information or technical information.

Here are some kinds of questions that website visitors bring:

  • Who are Unitarian Universalists? What do they stand for?
  • What are the people like? Could they be my people?
  • How can I get involved in something meaningful right away?

I invite you to join me in looking at your website with “outreach glasses.” Look with the lenses of someone who’s spiritually progressive, someone whose ideas about the sacred don’t fit neatly into any creed, someone who wants to make a difference in the world – yet is not familiar with Unitarian Universalism. Take a look, and talk about what you see.