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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Getting the Insiders to Reach Out

This week's question is a tough one, and one which many of us have had to grapple with in some way or another. Our colleague ask:

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. 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

Jennifer writes:

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.

Mompriest writes:

In family sized parishes it is always a blessing when someone from the congregation becomes the designated matchmaker - the one who helps newcomers find their way into the community. Sometimes this person rises up on their own, sometimes this person can be coached in to this ministry. It is also wonderful when churches set up intentional opportunities to get to know each other, such as dinner groups - groups of 5 or 6 couples who, over the course of a year or 6 months, rotate having dinner at each others house, pot luck. This works also for singles.
But most often churches of all sizes have fixed groups and all they really want is to see their friends and not add new folks to their group. Thus begins a lot of teaching, beginning with the leadership team, using outside leaders to come in and do the teaching - or using books and group discussions. Over time the leadership may understanding their role in becoming a truly welcoming church and work toward implementing it.
As the primary leader I would not do take this on as my responsibility without the active engagement of the rest of the leadership team. It will burn you out and fail to help the congregation understand that this is really their responsibility. For those who are leaving, see if you can arrange to have several people on the leadership team (not you) call them with simple questions: "We are wondering how we as a parish are viewed by people who come to this church. Can you share with me your experience of this church"....and then maybe have some specifics to inquire about. IF the leadership will do this they will hear for themselves the comments people are making, and perhaps begin to see the need for change.

revhoney adds:

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 We will add it to the queue and our matriarchs will take a crack at it in the coming weeks.


  1. Leave the church? Gosh, sometimes folks can't actually get into the building, let alone join the church. One of the frustrations I had in my home church as a member was the locking of the church doors during worship. Some of the ushers were over-keen on getting those doors locked up tight. Several friends I'd invited over the course of time arrived just after 11am to locked doors. I've been locked out too. Craaaazy. I ranted about it, I confess. The response was 'oh, but people might come in'... my response: 'yes, but isn't that the whole point - to let people in?' was met with: 'well, yes, but we don't want the wrong kind of people'
    It's taken 3 years of lobbying, and bringing the issue to the Cong. Board repeatedly to at least get the doors unlocked [although they remain closed and univiting].
    I've thought a lot about this and realise, having had a little distance from them due to being away on ministry placements and locum duties, that they are afraid. They are ageing and dying and the congregation is getting smaller and smaller. The locked doors is akin to circling the covered wagons to be safe from attack. My lovely minister - and he is lovely - has pretty much gone into cruise control until he retires in 18 months.
    It's a pity, as the church is on a prominent major road with lots of foot traffic. The only sign we give out is that we are closed for business.
    Ahhh, sorry... small rant over. But it's a situation that's not uncommon in the Church of Scotland and I think a lot about it and wonder if the church that will eventually call me will also suffer from 'locked door' syndrome...

  2. Wow, Nik, that is a weird take on things. We would be locked out too, along with lots of others who for whatever reason, are a few minutes late. (farm work...)

    The original question and answers are brilliant as a topic for council to deal with b/c often we all lose people even before they are members b/c the inside is already established. As someone who is used to being on the outside, I can say that people who are too enthusiastic can be just as much a scary thing. But never being invited to anyone's home or out after services--that is sad.

  3. Hmmmm....I'm like Nik here needing to speak about something that is not the direct subject of question. This has touched a "sore spot" which does not have to do with assimilation of new members but with continuing to encourage/utilize the ones in place. Our leadership has become so focused on finding space for new folks that those of us who have been around for a while are being pushed out. There is no ministry for us and we should be understanding about that because we need to make room for the new people. Kind of came to a head when a lay leader asked me why I was still there. So after spending most of my adult life in this congregation taking on almost every job a person can do, I have been summarily dismissed for all practical purposes. I guess I'll eventually find another church home and maybe they will welcome my offerings in an effort to incorporate the "new" person into the congregation. But this is almost as difficult for me as our divorce was. My words don't speak to the question asked, but I'd suggest that the balance between welcoming new folks into the group and fostering the gifts/work of those that are already there is much trickier than just explaining to the established members that they should play nicely with the new ones.

  4. Wow, Nik and Anon, those are incredible testimonies!

    Balancing the needs of long-time members with the new is sort of like balancing the needs of older and younger people-it's always like walking a tightrope. I recommend a book called "Fireweed Evangelism" by Elizabeth Geitz as a good book for a small group study or an evangelism committee to read. It starts out by talking about the unspoken messages we send vis a vis who we are "willing" to welcome and how we can removed the barriers we often (unconsciously) put up. And there are lots of useful tips for hospitality ministry.

  5. I am just beginning my second year in my first call and this question is one that I wrestle with a lot. I don't find our congregation to be terribly friendly and they have that "insider" conversation thing full of assumed knowledge down to a science. As the pastor it has been like pulling teeth to gather basic information about how the congregation functions, I can't imagine what it must be like for someone off the street.
    But for me the strangest thing is that they view themselves as very friendly, open, and welcoming. Now this might be true in comparison to a very conservative and closed circle congregation in town but from all reports it would be hard to be less welcoming then them.
    So I guess my tag on question is how do you deal with a congregation that says it wants new members, is upset that some members don't come anymore, and yet can't see how their own church culture could be playing a negative role here because their self identity is friendly and open when they are so far from that.

  6. Wow, Anon! That's awful. I can understand why this would be so painful. And you do well to remind us that this issue takes more work than just reminding longer-term members to be nice to new folks.

    Church near cows, you hit on something - I think almost every church considers itself to be friendly! How do we help congregations begin to see themselves as they actually are, and work to address their weaknesses, whatever they may be? It's tough.

    Kris, thank you for the book suggestion!

  7. One church we attended had "Suppers at Seven" where they recruited people (I think there were 8 or 9 families who hosted, not 7, LOL!!) to have monthly dinners at 7 p.m.

    Once they had the volunteers, members of the congregation submitted names, how many would come (including children) and people were matched accordingly. There was a congregation Grand Pooh Bah of sorts who seemed to know EVERYONE and she matched up groups. We met once a month for 7 months, starting in October and skipping December. (though we did go to church events together.) Our group was a delightful mixed bag of empty nesters, families with small children, single adults, etc. The hosts came up with themes, the people helped provide the food as assigned. We did everything from Game Night to Movie Night to a scavenger hunt with the kids. As a result, we felt very plugged in to that church. I still keep in touch with the 7 crowd (even though we have scattered around the country.)

    Each group did it in their own style and in their own way. It was easy, the hosts/hostesses took care of the contacting and arrangements, and it mixed everyone up nicely.

  8. Oh. Forgot to add. THis was in a church in the midwest, about 300-400 or so on Sundays. but I think it could work in smaller churches.

  9. The congregation I serve... considers itself friendly and welcoming of everyone. They say that about themselves. At the same time... on Sunday mornings... they sit around the building... talking about folks... and calling them different names... based on the culture or race. They do not understand why they can't grow.

    If a person... comes into worship... who is the least little bit not like them... they basically shun them. They refuse to visit each other... or the homebound members... much less the visitors that we have.

    Until we... as the church... recognize and practice hospitality... REAL... AUTHENTIC... hospitality... we will not grow... but more importantly... we will not be disciples... being who we are supposed to be through the waters of baptism.

    You can model... teach... preach... talk about it... until the cows come home... but the bottom line is this... if they don't want to be open and hospitable to everyone who worships there... nothing will EVER change.

  10. not sure if this is helpful or not

    but we've struggled with this problem for a long time. Only yesterday a new member came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea - an integration group - a point of reference for newbies ... so they can tell someone what they are interested in /how they'd like to serve and then be teamed up with another/others who can teach them the ropes (tech team, kitchen duties, praise and worship team etc) not only so they can serve but also so that they can more easily break into the inner circle.

    We also talked yesterday about trying to speak to at least one less unfamiliar person each Sunday and welcoming those on the periphery to join your gang for church coffee

    and (((Nik))) hear you about locked/closed and uninviting doors. Grrr. We've at least starting putting a board outside which says welcome :p and in the dark months a candle burns outside too. And posting an usher by the front door (might come across as a bouncer unless that person IS welcoming and chooses to be there him/herself and is loving andwwelcoming and sees the job as welcoming the stranger as well as the regular!

    Anon Loved the supper at 7 idea :)

    Beach walkin' sounds like what you are talking about is church-goers who are trapped in nominal christianity. Where is the transformation and becoming more Christlike? it's a good question and although you write that it can't change unless they want it - I think the wanting to change comes from meeting wihtthe real Jesus not the cardboard cutout who looks just like 'me' (and made in our image)


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