The pandemic changed many facets of congregational life, including attendance. In the past two and half years, congregations have learned new dance steps to accommodate COVID-19. Amidst all the masking/not masking and closing/not closing, congregations wondered what happened to their members. Some congregations moved to multi-platform worship and welcomed new faces or faces they had not seen in a while via online technology. Yet most lay leaders, staff, and clergy I speak with are uncertain, after all these changes, about their membership
About a year into the pandemic congregational consultants in a variety of denominations noted that whatever happened, congregational life would never return to what it had been, that the pandemic would permanently alter facilities, staffing, technology, worship, communities, as well as attendance and membership. Thus far, this seems to be the case. Congregations that never thought it possible to place virtual technology in their historic sanctuaries found a way. And congregations that heavily relied on in-person events found ways to connect in online spaces.
During my time in parish ministry, I observed that people continually came to congregations looking for something; education for their children, pastoral care and connection for themselves and their families, a place to grieve, a place to search for meaning, a place to be whole, something more. The pandemic changed many things, but not these needs. With the arrival of vaccinations for children, good weather, past years spent adding tents and outdoor options, daily updated CDC data, and lots of masks this could be the fall that we welcome visitors and former members. Will your congregation be ready?
In his article 5 Hospitality and Stewardship Lessons from a Homecoming, Reverend Ken Sloane reminds us of the importance of connection. Any time someone enters online or in-person congregational space, there are several opportunities for multiple connection points from which a long-term relationship can continue and grow. Here are some examples:
Recommit to a Community Habit of Greeting
This fall make sure to have welcomers at the door (whether online or in-person doors). Remind congregants to greet people they don’t know. If you are a congregant, alternate between greeting an old friend and meeting a new friend.
Ask Open Questions
If in doubt about whether someone is new try saying, “Hello! My names is XX. I am not sure we have met before” (this statement works in online space too). Ask open and honest questions and share a little about yourself such as “What brought you here today? I came for the XX (singing, sermon, chocolate buffet – fill in the blank).” Avoid asking questions that can be experienced as exclusive such as “What do you do for work?” or “Where do you come from?” or “Where did/do you go to college?” See Widening the Welcome for more ways to be inclusive.
Create More Opportunities for Greeting!
If your connection points are in online space with the capacity for personal engagement, try joining the online room early, or staying late. If there is an enabled chat feature say “hello” to people, or message someone you don’t know and offer greetings.
Your Attention Is A Gift
When you meet someone new, truly listen to them. In his introduction, Learn to Listen Well Reverend Prince Rivers reminds us of what a rare and powerful gift it is to listen to others. It is a ministry to take an interest in a “stranger,” to fully listen, without distraction or interruption. True hospitality involves sincere attention to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others.
Help Create Further Connections
Based on your interaction you can discern if this visitor would like to be introduced to other people, leave the online space, or just find the coffee pot. As the minister, I often kept an eye on visitors, and after first introductions, would find an opportunity to circle around before they left to ask if they had any questions, or just thank them for stopping by.
Create coordinated entry points for visitors to get on the congregational mailing list, either by filling out a card, or through a link that can be shared in an online format. If you have the capacity, create entry points that collect visitor interests and questions. If a visitor indicates an interest in religious education, mail a brochure. If they are interested in social justice, send an email with upcoming congregational events where they can engage.
Personal Invitations Make a Difference
Finally, if you have not seen a member in a while, invite them back. According to a One Invitation Away from Returning by Reverend Rebekah Simon-Peter, a significant minority of former members would return if a friend or acquaintance invited them, and an even higher percentage of millennials would considering returning if invited by someone they know.
Our ministry is to share hospitality and welcome at all connection points, spaces, and places. People are hungry for our values and message. Take the time to engage, listen, and grow.