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Greet Visitors Thoughtfully to Build Welcome Feeling

There are moments in each of our lives that stand out because they mark the beginning of a significant chapter—graduation from high school or college, the birth of a child, achieving a major career goal. Many of us can also remember with great clarity the first time we stepped inside the church that was to become our spiritual home. Whether we remember that particular day with fondness or not depends on how (and whether) we were greeted.

Rev. Katie Stein Sather of the Avalon Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship in St. John's, Newfoundland, tells about visiting one UU church: "I visited a church that used blue coffee cups for visitors. I picked up one without knowing that it was any different from the white ones. No one spoke to me for at least ten minutes. "I started a conversation with another blue cup person, and we chatted about how no one was speaking to us. Finally the one greeter got around to me. I think that means if you have lots of visitors you need lots of greeters."

"I have found that the best scenario for welcoming visitors is when the whole congregation has a culture of being welcoming and open to new people and new faces, " Sather said. "It is then everyone's 'way of being,' not just a task, to chat with new people or people not seen lately."

Greeting practices at UU churches vary considerably, yet have many constants. Most of them include coffee, the Unitarian Universalist holy water. We ply our visitors with brochures, bookmarks, newsletters, conversation, and sometimes even lunch.

At the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos, NM (151 members), Sunday visitors are sent a personalized letter on Monday morning. Then Kok-Heong McNaughton, church administrator and one of the greeters, gathers all the information she can from other greeters and sends it to board members and other interested members. Then, when the visitors return, all of that background makes it possible for other greeters to talk knowingly to the newcomers so they start to feel at home.

All of that attention pays off. McNaughton cited the example of a visitor who had an interest in music. "One week he visited," she said, "and the next week he joined the choir and then the music committee. He got fully involved immediately."

The Tuscaloosa, AL, UU Fellowship (80) has had an unwritten policy that visitors are tended to first and faithfully at coffee hour, said David Kopaska-Merkel, newsletter editor at the fellowship. "Our recently retired minister felt very strongly about it and reminded board members and committee chairs about it frequently. She did succeed in raising people's consciousness about paying attention to visitors."

Nancy Proctor, membership chair at the UU Church of Annapolis, MD (376), said that at her church five or six longtime members have, on their own, committed to seeking out the newcomers. "It's worked so well," she said, "that other measures, such as colored coffee cups, are unnecessary."

And sometimes greeting works best if visitors don't know they're being greeted. Rev. Bill Zelazny, minister at First UU Church in Austin, TX (378), is organizing a group of what he calls "phantom greeters," about twenty regular attendees who like to talk to people and are knowledgable about the church. They do not identify themselves as part of a greeting program, but simply as members when they approach newcomers. Zelazny noted that at his former church, First Unitarian Society of Wilmington, DE (840), the "phantom greeter" program worked so well that the ministers and other staff had to stand in line to meet the visitors.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has an electronic discussion group called MEMB-L for UUs interested in membership issues.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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