How You Welcome Visitors Makes a Big Difference

By Donald E. Skinner

When four Kansas City-area Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations were invited in the summer of 2002 to be part of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA’s) proposed media test to begin the following January, they jumped at the opportunity. They saw the campaign’s proposed radio and TV ads and billboards as a great way to increase their visibility.

But were they ready for it? The ad campaign would bring in more visitors, and they would need to be welcomed in a manner that would make them want to return.

The congregations were asked to review their welcoming procedures. That was an eye-opener for All Souls UU Church in Kansas City, MO, which, at 400 members, is the largest congregation in the test. “We had a generic welcoming process,” said Art Dewey, the All Souls board member who was liaison to the membership committee. “We’d greet visitors at the door. We’d ask them to sign our visitor’s book and then during the service we’d invite them to stay for coffee. Afterward we’d send them a letter of welcome and put them on the mailing list for our newsletter. We thought we were in good shape.

“But as the campaign got under way—and the number of visitors increased by 25 percent—we began hearing from people who said they came as visitors and no one spoke to them and they didn’t feel all that welcome. We also found that when people signed in we weren’t getting enough useful nformation from them. And some people weren’t being talked to at coffee hour. So we took a closer look at our process and discovered we needed to change a few things.”

First, All Souls started thinking about visitors not as visitors but as guests, said Dewey. “That made a big difference in how we regarded them.” All Souls also changed its greeter program structure. The congregation has three Sunday events—an early service, a forum, and a late service. When the media campaign began there had been separate greeter teams for the early and late services. But there were problems, said Dewey. “The handoff just didn’t work. So we went to one set of greeters for an entire morning. Greeters connect much better with visitors.”

All Souls also initiated “floaters,” people who are trained to look for visitors and initiate conversations. In addition, different information is collected from visitors. First-time visitors are asked for their name, address, phone, e-mail, how they learned about All Souls, whether they’d like a nametag, and if they’d like to receive the newsletter for three months.

Previously visitors were just asked for name and address, then were sent a check-off card which they were asked to return if they wanted information on various programs or a call from the minister. But now, said membership coordinator Chloe Mason Seagrove, “We’re in much more frequent contact with visitors, and we ask these questions in person. It works better than relying on them to send in the card.”

All Souls uses its visitor nametags to track return visitors. When they leave, they drop the tags in a basket. That lets Mason Seagrove know which visitors returned. All Souls also initiated a monthly half-hour “Getting to Know UU” session for visitors after the late service, led by the Rev. Jim Eller, Mason Seagrove, and the membership committee. And visitors are invited to stay for the monthly luncheon after the service.

Shawnee Mission UU Church in Overland Park, KS (232), the second-largest church in the test, also experienced a 25 percent increase in visitors. It instituted “stealth greeters,” a dozen or so extroverted folks who were expressly asked to look for visitors standing alone and talk to them. “That worked really well,” said Vickie Trott, cochair of the church’s membership committee.

Shawnee Mission and the Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence (137), both developed scripts to use in talking to visitors. “We had practice sessions on making small talk,” said Stuart Boley, Lawrence’s media campaign coordinator. “One of our big breakthroughs was finding that we could talk to someone for a few minutes and make them feel comfortable and then go on and do it with the next person.” Lawrence also formalized its procedures for greeters rather than assuming that everyone knew how to greet. “We became much more intentional,” said Boley.

Since Lawrence is entirely lay-led, all of this work was a challenge, said Boley, but it paid off. “We didn’t gain a lot of members from the media campaign but we gained a few, and the changes that we made in our processes will stand us in good stead for the future,” he said.

Shawnee Mission developed comprehensive first-time visitor packets for the media test and continues to use them. The 8.5- by 11-inch folders include a welcome letter, church brochure, children’s religious education brochure, copy of UU World, a newsletter, a list of frequently asked questions, and lists of ways to learn more about UUism. The packets also make it easier to identify visitors. “If we see someone new who is not carrying a packet, we introduce ourselves,” said Trott.

Shawnee Mission shined up its foyer and bathrooms and uncluttered its bulletin boards. It also paid attention to the content of all Sunday services. “We don’t want to ever have a bad service,” said Trott, “because it’s the only one a visitor might see.”

Lawrence also attracted hundreds of people to a presentation at the University of Kansas by the Rev. William Schulz, director of Amnesty International USA, as part of the media campaign. “We’d never done an event like this, but with help from the UUA it wasn’t that hard,” said Boley.

The fourth congregation in the test, the Gaia Community, Overland Park, KS (37), added a welcome back table for return visitors, in addition to a welcome table for first-time visitors.

Want to know if all this effort is worth it? Ask those who found Kansas City area congregations during the campaign. Victoria Calhoun came to Shawnee Mission UU Church with her eight-year-old daughter after reading the advertising insert about Unitarian Universalism in her Kansas City Star in August. “I didn’t consider myself religious, but I was happy to finally find a religion that was open-minded and inclusive,” she said. “I read a line about how what was important was not that we be saved as individuals but that we find ways to save the world. Those are the kinds of things I think about. And the first Sunday that I took my daughter, her class talked about the Native American buffalo spirit. That felt right.”

Kappy and Tim Hodges had not attended a church in more than ten years when Tim saw a billboard that said something about “a different trinity.” Tim said, “I was really surprised to see a church billboard that didn’t talk about what church billboards usually talk about. It was about peace and justice. He and Kappy joined Kansas City’s All Souls UU Church two months later. “It was like a breath of fresh air,” he said.

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

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.

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