o422ywW (1)Calling all pastors of “We are a friendly church.” What experience do first -time visitors really have when they come through your doors? What if that person is clergy seeking a church home. Today we hear from a retired clergy woman who is starting to wonder if she ever will find her place to worship and serve. Read on!

Dear Matriarchs:

As I’m looking for a new congregation post retirement, I am struck by how very few congregations are really friendly. People “think” they are friendly! And that’s usually because they are friendly to the people they know. We come early and stay for coffee and try to engage with people, usually to no avail. How do you encourage your congregation to “welcome the stranger”? Especially if they don’t have children. If I weren’t so committed to finding a congregation, we’d surely have given up by now. It’s disheartening.

Looking for a place to be part of a community

Thanks for the heads up, dear Looking Pastor. A church that perceives themselves as friendly might not be experienced by new folks as welcoming. Our matriarchs are here to offer some help.

Anne Andert
In the congregations we served, my hubby and I encouraged people to talk to others they didn’t know for at least the first five minutes at the close of worship, and THEN talk to their friends. Also to look around for new faces during the passing of the peace and be sure to give a warm welcome. NOT a welcome that says, we need more money and workers here, but a welcome that says, we care about you and welcome you into this community. The difference is not lost on the stranger.

Eileen MacMillan Conway
I was told, more than once, that when (otherwise perfectly competent) adults come into church, they regress emotionally to the age of six. They no longer remember how to walk up to a stranger, stick out the hand, and say, “Hi there, I’m Joe Doakes — and you are?” And I’ve seen it “in the field.” It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. So you can try coaching just as you would coach, or have coached, your favourite six-year-olds…

Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath
It isn’t easy to find a new congregational home when you are a church professional. For myself, I needed to find a place where I was at ease in the worship. That had a lot to do with the theology of the sermons and the energy of the service as a whole. Were people engaged? Did the worship leaders seem genuine and inspired? Were they enjoying the service?

I hate being asked to stand, wear a corsage or a special name tag to identify me as a visitor. I have heard the whispers when I sat in someone else’s spot. As a young parent I looked for information about nursery care and bathrooms. They weren’t always evident. I have had to ask for a pen to sign the guestbook.

One of my favorite places to worship is a church that cannot afford a pastor. Their only staff is a part-time piano player. But boy can she play! The tiny choir is inspired. The building is tidy and clean. People are welcoming and thoughtful. I always feel better after worshipping there.

The one thing that always made someone in my family feel noticed was a call or a card or a text after Sunday morning was over. I was especially touched one Sunday when the organist messaged me. We all want to be noticed and seen. It doesn’t have to be flashy but the intentionality of follow-up is so valuable.

Stephanie Elizabeth Anthony
Congregations that welcome well welcome intentionally, in my experience. Also in my experience they have someone (a few someones) respected in the congregation who champion this important ministry or have in the past, the kind of person whose name comes up in every new member class or when longtime members sit around and tell old stories, “Jane Smith was the first person who came up to me….” It isn’t just that one person who does the welcoming, but that person has modeled it and trained others (formally or informally).

Churches I have served that welcome well have designated teams for this. The morning greeters stand right inside the doors the church building (which is not the sanctuary in these churches) and greet every single person who walks in. The greeters rotate each week, so it’s not always the same people, and they are very intentional about saying their own names when they welcome folk. I’ve noticed that it seems to be helpful to have newer members who are friendly do this important job. For one it gives them a sense of belonging in the church when they move from “welcomed” to “welcomer.” And secondly it is often easier for a newcomer to say, “My name is Sam Jones. I don’t think we’ve met yet.”

Another really important thing to train greeters (and others!) to do is to listen then connect. When they are meeting someone new and having those get-to-know-you conversations they can listen for interests, hobbies, hometowns, etc and get ready to make introductions to others in the congregation with whom they have those in common. I also specifically ask the whole congregation that if possible, any time they meet a new person, to bring them to one of the pastors for an introduction, even if it means interrupting a conversation with a member. That is is perfectly fine interruption to make!

Every once in a while I write about all of this in the church newsletter to try to remind people of how we are welcoming and engage the whole congregation in this job. It’s not just the work of the greeter team or the New Member Committee. This is the work of all the church.

Sharon Mack Temple
Above all, dear Looking Pastor, don’t give up! We retired clergy who are looking for our church home know that God is calling disciples to a church’s pews, not only their pulpits. There is a place God is preparing for you.

When I retired after 24 years of ordained local church ministry, I found the search for a church home very challenging for many of the same reasons you describe. I, too, was ready to give up. A trusted clergy friend heard my lament and suggested a church that I hadn’t considered. The first Sunday, I could feel that I had found my retirement church. It’s not on my side of the city, but I am pleased to drive 30 minutes to be part of the congregation. Perhaps a colleague can offer you some fresh ideas.

Thank you, matriarchs, for your encouragement of this pastor in her search and for your challenge to congregations to take steps from “friendly” to welcoming.

Is your church a “friendly church” or is yours a truly welcoming congregation? How do you find out what impression you make on visitors? What can you add to this conversation? We welcome you to comment below.

Are you stuck or confounded in any area of your clergy life? Let us offer you support and a new perspective. Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com

Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

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One thought on “Ask the Matriarch: Retired Clergy Seeking Welcoming Congregation for Church Home

  1. Stephanie Elizabeth Anthony, you said something that I had not realized it had been done when I visited what became my home church in January of 1982. The couple who greeted me heard me say I would be away the following Sunday because I was taking the train to visit friends three hours away. They connected me to a woman my age who was going to drive to that community the following weekend to visit her Mom. I now had a drive. And that woman is one of my dearest friends and stood up for me when I got married ten years ago. Listening is so important and I had not realized it until I read Stephanie’s post!


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