How to Nurture a Welcoming Eethos

Church Wellness

The measure of a society isn’t how it treats the young, healthy, beautiful and easy-to-like, but how it handles the vulnerable, the needy, the outcast, the hard-to-like.

That’s why the biblical tithe was intended for the care of widows and orphans, not for the building of grand facilities and paying taxes to the government.

In the same way, the measure of a church is how it handles strangers, outcasts, enemies, and the hard-to-like. As Jesus said, it’s no big thing to be kind to your friends. Any community, any church can be friendly to its in-crowd. The challenge is to welcome strangers, to embrace misfits, and to find common ground with people you don’t like.

Before we consider the how, let’s be honest about the obstacles.

Black Dot Some churches have intentional norms that freeze out people of different races and ethnicities.

Black Dot Some have informal norms about ignoring the poorly dressed, or the smartly dressed, about speaking in code language that only “our kind” can understand.

Black Dot Some churches have getting-to-know-you rituals that claim to be inclusive but, in fact, are highly selective, based on factors such as gender, sexuality, age and class.

Since all of us, at one time or another, are misfits, losers and strangers, church can be a profoundly unwelcoming place. That’s a primary reason why we don’t grow. Who wants to stick around a community where you are made to feel unwelcome or invisible?

Church leaders have tried various methods to welcome more effectively. They have organized “hospitality teams,” set up welcome stations, trained clergy to zero in on strangers, and tried to minimize the code language in worship. These are worthwhile steps, but not enough. A stranger can sniff out reality. A trained greeter wearing a name tag is okay, but a member who is genuinely glad to see them and to shepherd them into parish life – and does it from a good heart, not a weekly assignment — that is pure gold.

This is true on Sunday, and it is no less true other times of the week, indeed any time the community gathers.

The point isn’t to develop a welcoming strategy, but to nurture a welcoming ethos. In the end, people will follow their hearts, not their committee assignments. How do you nurture a welcoming ethos, in which people instinctively invite, welcome, engage and embrace?

To some extent, you can’t. People either have it or they don’t. Those who think themselves better than others six days a week aren’t going to shed that illusion on Sunday. Those who deal with self-loathing by projecting their shortcomings onto others don’t suddenly become genial and other-oriented in church. Churches that trade in hypocrisy harvest that self-loathing and feed it back as loathing of others. They turn class anxieties into a culture of victimization.

That said, it is possible to change a congregation’s culture. It takes a long time, strong preaching, leaders who consistently reward good behavior and don’t cave to bad behavior, and strong mission projects that teach kindness and self-sacrifice.

The senior pastor must take on some specific duties:

Black Dot a strong communicator shaping a narrative of kindness and self-sacrifice

Black Dot an active advocate for strangers and misfits even when in-crowds demand preference

Black Dot an entrepreneur of activities like mission trips and small groups

Black Dot a leadership developer who recruits, trains, rewards and supports leaders who understand community-building.

Lay leaders must advocate for strangers, making sure that tolerance and openness are primary norms. They must resist the natural tendency to view Sunday morning and other events as see-my-friends time, but instead to approach it as make-new-friends time. Lay councils shouldn’t conduct business in the coffee hour or right after church. That’s a time to welcome strangers and to invite visitors to lunch.

A welcoming ethos has little to do with facilities. But if you are itching to spend money on facilities, improve your arriving and greeting areas, not your altar.

Hire staff who cover a broad age span and are naturally outgoing.

In the end, nurturing a welcoming ethos is like raising children: you just keep rewarding good behavior, calling out bad behavior, and modeling in your own behavior what you hope others will do.

About the Author

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of Fresh Day online magazine, author of On a Journey and two national newspaper columns. His website is Church Wellness – Morning Walk Media

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