Belonging to and being a part of a community is an important aspect of congregational life. Many of our members think of their congregations as a second home and think of the other members as part of their extended family. The relationships that we create and nurture by sharing the details of our lives are an important part of the glue that binds us. The problem is that the existing, integrated members' needs for intimacy is in tension with providing hospitality for those who are newer or even visiting for the first time. How do we balance that tension? We can still take our cues from how families operate.
What Does This Mean? Imagine How a Congregation Is like an American Middle-Class House.
In a private residence, these are all-access public spaces like the front porch and yard, that are visible to all and should be inviting and clearly marked. These are the outside parts of our buildings, our parking lots and gardens and our website. We let the world know who we are and what we care about, in language they can understand.
Then we have inside semi-public spaces where we provide hospitality to non-family such as in an open-house party: the living room and dining room. We provide comfortable seating and make sure people are safe and can participate as they wish. We make sure everyone is included in the conversation without being put on the spot. We refrain from over-sharing. When offering refreshments we make sure that everyone can partake, offering gluten-free, caffeine-free and non-alcoholic choices. These are our Sunday morning worship and fellowship times. This is where newcomers come to learn about us without being put on the spot. We get a chance to get to know them through engaged--but not too personal—conversation. This means we try to avoid behaviors that might "creep people out" or make them feel like outsiders.
Dinner with Good Friends
Then we have the close-friends spaces such as the kitchen table and back porch. These are the spaces for more intimate sharing between people who already have relationships. These might be covenant groups, chalice circles or cottage meetings in our congregations.
Doing the Laundry
Then there are the family-only spaces (bedrooms, laundry and rumpus room). These are spaces where we can be ourselves, let our hair down, fuss about the neighbors or perhaps whine about whose turn it is to scoop the litter box. In our congregations, the equivalent spaces might be town hall discussions where we make space to hear one another and meetings of committees, boards and the "congregation in meeting" where decisions are made.
What Does This Mean for Our Congregations?
This is your congregation's "open house" time. As many of our parents say, "Church is here to remind us that it's not 'all about me.'" Sunday worship is a public expression of who we are (our DNA or core values expressed in our mission) and who we aspire to be (our aspirational values as expressed in our vision and strategic plan). A competent minister has a finger on this pulse of the congregation. How we support and care for one another must be expressed in a way that is inclusive and welcoming. If you have a fellowshipped UU minister who is an active UUMA member, they will have the wisdom to find out the best practices from their colleagues. (It's rare that a congregation over 100 members can do this well with an "open mic" Joys & Sorrows format.) The time of fellowship (often called "coffee hour") is our opportunity to provide hospitality to the newcomer -- not just a chance to connect with dear friends. Congregations who have a commitment to growth have leaders who covenant (promise) one another to refrain from conducting business and personal conversation until 30-45 minutes after the service ends.
Your Semi-Public Space
Once people walk through your doors, you will want to make sure you have a clear, consistent message, from your signage (where are the restrooms), to your greeters (where should one sit), to how new parents can know how their children will be kept safe. If your congregation provides gender-neutral bathrooms or accommodations for people with hearing disabilities (such as a loop system) or other initiatives that may be unfamiliar to newcomers, be sure to have trained greeters, ushers and other welcoming volunteers to help new people acclimate.
Tend to the Laundry
If there is an active conflict in your congregation, do not give in to the temptation to process it in the public and semi-public spaces. In fact, any active conflict affects visitors, who can feel the tension when they walk through your doors. Instead, make sure that you have opportunities to "do the laundry" in your congregation with town hall and cottage meetings when ever there is an issue that is eliciting conflict. The world need our saving message of rational thought and universal love. Let's be sure to open our doors and set our tables so we can invite people to hear that message.