Religious hospitality

Religious hospitality

It's not rocket science: Simply smiling and saying hello to visitors would transform our congregations.


I was speaking recently with a friend who is a longtime Unitarian Universalist. She had been traveling and had visited a UU congregation. When she arrived for the Sunday morning service, no one greeted her warmly. She sat alone during the service. After the service, she had difficulty finding the coffee hour. The invitation to coffee hour said to “follow the crowd,” but people scattered in several directions. When she finally found the coffee hour, she eventually did strike up a conversation—with another visitor. No member of the congregation spoke to her.

I winced. I know this story all too well. I have experienced it myself. I recall Bill Sinkford, my predecessor as UUA president, remarking sadly on the number of times no one welcomed him when he arrived somewhere as the guest preacher! I once asked a room full of lay leaders at a district meeting how many of them had felt ignored while visiting a UU congregation away from home. Almost all the hands went up. I winced.

If I had the power to issue an edict that all UUs would immediately obey (what a delicious fantasy!), I would command everyone to smile and say hello to people they do not know at church. It would transform our movement in one fell swoop.

About ten years ago, while I was serving as a parish minister, our membership committee decided to observe what visitors actually experienced at our congregation. Like so many churches, we thought of ourselves as wonderfully friendly. When we looked carefully at the reality of what our guests experienced, we were all appalled. Often our guests were not warmly greeted and engaged in conversation. Far too often they stood awkwardly alone at coffee hour. The difference between our self-image of hospitality and the reality of our behavior was shocking. This was not how we wanted to be. We were embarrassed, even a little ashamed.

We set about to change. It isn’t rocket science. (The sad fact is that big-box retailers often do a better job of welcoming customers than we do of welcoming spiritual seekers.) We did several very simple things. We carefully recruited warm and outgoing people to be regulars at the welcome table. We made greeting neighbors part of our church service. We changed the text of our greeting at the opening of the service, and so forth. Perhaps most importantly, we worked to create a culture of religious hospitality. We strove to make hospitality a religious practice, not just the job of the membership committee or the staff.

The change was transformational. When we paid more attention to the seekers coming to our congregation, when we reached out and opened ourselves, we created new relationships. More and more visitors returned because they felt accepted and like there was a place for them and for their families. More people wanted to be part of our community and joined the church. Just as importantly, fewer people drifted away. Our church began to grow, in time growing from 400 members to more than 750.

Perhaps most important was that when we opened ourselves and made paying attention to the newcomer a spiritual practice, we transformed ourselves. The very practice of reaching out made us more open, more sensitive. Spiritual practices do that. They change us.

Hundreds of thousands of people will visit our congregations this year. They are looking for a religious home, for spiritual sustenance. They want to be accepted, to be engaged, to be loved.

Smile. Say good morning. Start a conversation. You are about to meet some wonderful people.

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