How Welcoming Do Your Visitors Think You Are?

By Donald E. Skinner

All of us are welcoming. Right? Visitors come on Sunday morning, and as soon as they step in the door they feel the love, not only from the official greeters, but from everyone else. The people they meet in the foyer, the ones they sit next to in the service, the people in coffee hour, they’re all about looking for the new folks and they make eye contact and walk over and strike up conversations and then they invite these folks back the next week.

Maybe. There are, of course, those times when we leave welcoming to other people. And hope they’re not leaving it to us.

Sometimes it helps to see ourselves as others see us. To that end, several districts within the Unitarian Universalist Association have developed practices to help congregations discover, through the eyes of a visitor, just how welcoming—or unwelcoming––they are.

They have created “Mystery Worshipper” or “Anonymous Visitor” programs. Here’s how it works. A congregation agrees in advance to be part of the program. Then, on a Sunday morning a visitor from another congregation visits the first church, purporting to be a first-time visitor. After the visit the visitor fills out a checklist with items ranging from friendliness to quality of worship. The checklist is shared with the congregation’s leadership by the district executive.

Here are excerpts from one visit by a Mystery Worshiper. The congregation and district shall remain nameless.

Since all church visits start with finding the front door—not always an obvious thing—that’s where our visitor started: “As I approached the building, I wasn’t sure where the entrance was located. I would have appreciated an architectural feature that more clearly designated the main entrance.”

The visitor experienced a warm welcome from a greeter who also explained the layout of the building. “But when I moved beyond the welcoming table, I did not feel that people extended themselves to me. I kept a neutral face, attempting to make eye contact. Most people didn’t give me eye contact. If they did make eye contact with me, there was no sign of greeting in their faces.”

Seated in the sanctuary before the service, the visitor observed that the service leaders were busy at the front of the room setting up the chancel area. Those actions detracted from what could have been a meditative period, said the visitor.

Three people lit candles for joys and sorrows that Sunday and one of them took up about half of the time, making a lengthy announcement. The visitor wished that the joys and concerns table would have been tidier and arranged differently so that people weren’t reaching over burning candles to light new ones. But the visitor appreciated the way the worship leader introduced this ritual.

The visitor noted that several parts of the service could have benefited from more attention—a reader who was unprepared, joys and sorrows that went on too long, and confusion at one point with which hymn verses to sing. The visitor gave high marks to the children’s story because it appealed to adults as well.

After the service the visitor felt abandoned. “I stood for five minutes with my coffee—a few feet away from the food table. I got a few smiles but no one stopped to talk to me. I felt uncomfortable waiting by myself. This was contrasted with the warm connections I had experienced as part of the worship service. I was about to start talking to someone, when the greeter arrived (as he had said he would) and began telling me about Unitarian Universalism and the church. He was excited in his sharing of many things. I’m very appreciative that he kept his word to seek me out after the service.”

Visitors notice things the rest of us miss. This visitor watched an elderly man struggle with a bathroom door that was partly blocked by another door. Problems such as this often have a simple fix once you notice them.

In summary, this visitor gave the congregation an eight on a scale of ten. “I appreciated the effort they are making to build a community and a spiritual home. Once I got talking with people, I felt engaged and welcomed. The emotional outreach to newcomers could be enhanced.”

The Mystery Visitor program ended, but a simliar checklist is available.

Raughley noted that a district does not have to be involved. Two congregations or a cluster of congregations can agree to do this service for each other.

It’s time well spent to carefully inspect your premises before visitors arrive, says Deborah Weiner, the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) director of Electronic Communication who has presented workshops at General Assembly on being welcoming.

“Can visitors tell where to park? Are there cobwebs in the corners of the nursery? Are the bathrooms clearly marked and clean? Would a fresh coat of paint make a noticeable difference? When people come with children is someone there to show the kids where to go? It also makes sense to make sure that your website is up to date and reflects all that your congregation has to offer visitors, since those that like their experience at your church are likely to go to the web to find out more," she said.

“We also need to provide quality services every Sunday that will inspire and move people and make them want to come back. Focus on excellence in all areas. Have a good street sign, ushers at the doors, and let people know that it’s everyone’s responsibility to welcome visitors, not just the greeters. Greeting should be a ministry that we are all engaged in.”

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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