One of the most frequent reasons I have been given when someone decides to leave our church is that they don't feel like they have a community or friends at church--except of course the priests, who have "always been very welcoming...". Now, these people have often put in a good faith effort to get involved but have discovered that they don't really fit into the already existing groups/cliques. So...my quandry is this, how do I address this as an issue with the congregation (eg, the "clique" issue--which really is based on natural affinities and long time friendships and I don't believe the members of these groups intend to be exclusive) and how responsible should I feel for losing these members? Should I feel badly for not hanging out "socially" with these individuals? Should I try to create even MORE programs to try and address their needs (we are a family sized congregation that offers a fairly large number of programatic options)? Should I immediately roust my most social congregants and ask them to befriend these individuals? That said, I know my own time for good friends is very limited and I try to prioritize my free time for friends I already have. I just don't have time to carve out for people who I'm not friends with yet (or who I may not have all that much in common). I imagine that many of my congregants feel the same way about their time and social commitments. So, that said, what to do?
The Neophyte in the Front
You’ve raised such an important issue in the life of many congregations.
Your congregation, starting with the governing board, needs to know about the feedback you’ve been receiving. You’re not supposed to be the sole provider of hospitality.
It sounds like it’s a great time for a conversation with key leaders about how folks are welcomed and assimilated into the life of the church. New programs aren’t the answers—rather, doing what you do well in ways that are sensitive to newcomers may hold the key. Some people dive right in when they’re new; others need invitations and encouragement. Are there members of your congregation who serve as shepherds to new folks? Are there folks who would be willing to make sure that newcomers receive personal invitations to church events--- and are there people (deacons, elders, greeters, somebody!!!!) who make sure that new folks are greeted warmly, introduced to others and helped to feel comfortable?
In some settings, I’ve asked folks to consider how they would greet and receive folks in their own home, and use that as a model for what it means to welcome new folks (or anyone who is less than comfortable in group situations) to your church home. Blessings to you in your ministry!
The Vicar of Hogsmeade offers:
It sounds like the established members need some guidance in the difference between "being friendly" and "being friends." Or, as someone else (whose name I cannot remember) said, "Hospitality is not only making room at the table but making room in your heart." Some times established folks don't even realize that they are having "insider" conversations because "everyone" knows XYZ which leaves newer folks on the fringes of conversations. There are groups for whom it only takes a mention of these things for them to be more attentive and, therefore, more mindful and more inclusive. There are other groups for whom the change will be harder. But, if the commitment to building relationships with others is not there, the efforts are not likely to be there either.
The responsibility of assisting new members in their assimilation into small groups and ministry teams belongs to everyone in the congregation. However, if no one who takes assimilation on as a mission or ministry, it will not happen.
Personally, I think that a priest or pastor’s role is not to be the primary “socializer” with new members. Ours is to call members to be intentional about welcoming others into community and into ministry. In the context where I serve, that happens most effectively by finding new members’ interests for service and then giving their names to the team leaders for those serving ministries. Ministry teams are usually quite warm in their welcome to those who want to help with projects.
Sometimes new members come with an interest not yet present in our faith community. Then a member of our staff works with the new member to put the word out to see if there is interest enough to form a new team or activity. We have birthed several new ministries in this way.
Once people are serving together, we often see meaningful social relationships begin to develop as well.Our matriarchs have offered some good wisdom here. What about the rest of you? What has been your experience with getting insiders to reach out?
If you have a question for our matriarchs, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will add it to the queue and our matriarchs will take a crack at it in the coming weeks.