Hospitality 101

I am returning to the theme of how we institutionalize or program hospitality. I struggle with this question, I always assume the answer is obvious. You simply walk up to someone who is new to you and welcome her/him, explain that you are delighted they are here and introduce yourself. Almost always the response includes the other providing her/his name and explaining why they are present, a visitor, passing through, looking for a church. The challenge is to ask questions of the other without it sounding like the fourth degree. I once met a sister of a friend, she was passing through a previous church I served. When I asked her where she was from, what brought her here, she thought me a tad forward. That is a risk. Let me say that while I am sometimes guilty of coming on too strong with my welcome 99.9% of churches fall into the opposite end of that spectrum! A grunt, passing someone a bulletin, turning away to the next person, no smile, no eye contact. That is the usual method of hospitality.

Worse, when the newcomer is leaving no one is there to say “are you coming to coffee hour?” or “thank you for coming, we hope you return soon.” Or, much better, taking the person around the church and introducing them to regular church goers. You never know what connections already exist and what conversations might arise.

I’ve been visiting parishioners for 26 years. It’s just how I get to know people; informal conversations, asking about their background, why they came to the church, where they see the church heading in the future. You cannot have these conversations in the Hall. Most Ministers prefer to see lay visiting teams do this. The aversion to these visits tends to be three fold; the feeling there is no time to do it, the lingering memory of a bygone era when Minister would be escorted to a room in the home for tea and discussions about the weather or the reality that most clergy are introverts and these kind of open-ended conversations are not the easiest way for introverts to connect. My experience is that these kinds of visits draw out people to have authentic conversations that otherwise would be impossible. If there are personal or church issues to be dealt with they will be brought up in this way. I also find that without using names or details the arc of these stories that are shared provide the preacher with a sense of what is on the hearts and minds of those who come to church for hope and inspiration. And as for time, if one is efficient one can get one’s administration work done in the mornings, freeing up afternoons for these important connections with parishioners.

It’s easier for me because I am an extrovert. As an extrovert I am not as good a listener as my more introverted colleagues. But I try to make up for this deficit by being present, remembering what people tell me and being open to share whatever, whenever the other needs me.

In 26 years I have had many, many great visits with people. Many I remember almost word for word. But one “ending” stands out. I was leaving a home of a parishioner and the couple reached out to me and gave me a fresh and tasty apple. As someone who walks or buses to all of my visits the apple was a delightful gift. Apples are local, delicious, healthy and practical. What a great idea Janice and Bud! It got me thinking, what if one of the institutional protocols (professional people love this language, they call parishioners stakeholders!) we tried was to give every newcomer an apple? Who could forget visiting a church and being given an organic, tasty and fresh apple?

Apples. Hospitality 101.