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(Un)welcoming Churches: How Do Visitors See Us?

Editor's Note: In the previous issue we reported on a "Mystery Worshipper" program operated by one UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) district. In this issue a president of one of our congregations reports his experience visiting another UU (Unitarian Universalist) congregation.

Recently, I was traveling to a large city and took the opportunity to attend services at the closest UU congregation. As a board member and congregational president, I look forward to visiting other congregations when traveling.

I arrived thirty minutes prior to the service to have some coffee and chat with the local people. A membership committee member met me at the church entrance and gave me a different color nametag, which I was told would identify me as a visitor.

I followed my nose to the coffee area and walked the length of the large room, where coffee and fellowship abounded. Upon getting a cup of coffee, I began my mission to chat with like-minded souls and see how they did church.

To that point, no one had looked at me. But, armed with a friendly smile on my face, a special visitor nametag, and a full cup of coffee, I wandered around a room filled with folks chatting and laughing with one another.

First, I worked a string of tables with easels, literature, and sign-up sheets. Since only two of the positions behind the easels were staffed, I spoke with one of them about what her easel was advocating. She quickly filled me in, and then without additional chatter, she turned back to the only other person behind the tables to continue their conversation.

At the beginning of the service, the board member making the announcements invited visitors and guests to meet with members of the church leadership after the service.

With anticipation of a new beginning, I went to the designated place after the service and found the leaders engaged in conversation—among themselves. It became obvious that it was up to me, the visitor, to try to break up their chat clusters and introduce myself. I did just that, but found they were more interested in conducting church business with one another than in making an effort to welcome a visitor or potential new member.

The whole experience reminded me of the membership seminars held at UU University before General Assembly 2005. There, members of the Jefferson Unitarian Church of Golden, CO, tried to teach us that every member of a congregation needs to be proactive in making visitors feel welcome. They also told us that church business should not be conducted during the Sunday morning experience.

Would I return to that church? Definitely not.

But as I reflected later upon my own home congregation and that Sunday morning experience, I thought: We are a lot like them.

I've been just as guilty as their leaders—many times! After that experience, I returned to my home congregation with great enthusiasm for improving our greeting of guests and visitors.

Being welcoming isn't hard. Look a visitor in the eye and tell them you're glad they've come. Help them find a seat and chat with them at coffee hour. Years later many UUs can still remember who greeted them on their first Sunday. It's a memory worth making, and if visitors take away one good memory they might overlook a cobweb in the bathroom or a glitch in the sound system. To ensure that your congregation is truly welcoming to visitors, share and discuss this article with others in your congregation.

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.

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