We see them standing there after the service, intently studying the bulletin board, carefully reading the framed copy of the Seven Principles on the wall, or focusing into their coffee. Visitors. We know in our hearts we should speak to them.
And we would, but secretly we're afraid that after we say hello and exchange names there won't be anything else to say. We'll find ourselves in the middle of a long, embarrassing silence. Or we'll be asked to explain the sermon or the philosophy of Unitarian Universalism. Or the meaning of life.
And so we often don't say anything and visitors go away thinking we're aloof. Maybe it's time to brush up on our conversational skills.
At DuPage Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church, Naperville, IL (281 members), the visitor relations committee holds training sessions for greeters from time to time, says Lynn Calvin, a former committee member. "We do role playing. First we have a couple of chatty comfortable people role play with easy pretend visitors. Then the trainees do it and then a couple of experienced greeters take on a pair of 'difficult' visitors.
Like the ones who say: 'I'm just outraged. I didn't hear a single Bible message during the service.'" To that, Calvin usually responds, "I've been a UU for years and this is not uncommon in our tradition. Sometimes we have Bible readings, but you will find many different views and sources in our pulpit." Calvin has found that talking about yourself is the best way to get visitors to talk about themselves. She says things like this:
- "Is this your first time here?"
- "I've been a member for three years, and I love it."
- "So, are you new to the area? I've lived here for eleven years. I came from the Washington, DC, area before that and lived most of my life there."
- "We have a pretty good children's religious education program here.
- My kids are taking XYZ curriculum."
Spend some time reflecting on your own beliefs before talking with visitors, says Lawrence Palmieri Peers, the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) Education and Research Director in the department of Congregational, District, and Extension Services. He leads a workshop, Sharing Our Unitarian Universalist Faith, available through UUA district offices, that helps congregational teams understand their own religious journeys and explain Unitarian Universalism to others.
At the UU Church, Kent, OH (124), Renee Larwin approaches visitors in the following manner: "I don't believe we've met. Is this your first time visiting us?" She follows up with, "How did you hear about us?" and "Have you ever been to a Unitarian Universalist church before?"
If the visitors seem interested in connecting, she shares her own religious history and then inquires into theirs.
Greeters at the UU Church of Lexington, KY (243), ask, "Is this your first time here?" If visitors say "we used to come here but haven't for a year," then greeters point out what has changed—building addition, new minister, new committees, etc., says Larry Iaquinta.
"If it's their second or third time, we steer them to things they may or may not have noticed yet—pamphlets, the bookstore, sign-in cards, etc." If visitors say they're church-shopping or a friend recommended they come here then greeters at Lexington let them know that 85 percent of the people at UU churches came from another religion. "That gives you an opportunity to talk briefly about your own religious journey," says Iaquinta.