Building community takes work. One technique I use is to delay my participation on coffee hour and spend that time calling/emailing the new people who have joined us for worship. I had a colleague who found this odd, especially coming from an extrovert like me. He really liked basking in the warm affection of the post-church worshipping community. People were in a good mood and were ready to tell “the clergy” what they thought. I like to say that after 28 years of Ministry “basking in the glow” has long lost its appeal. Frankly, I find compliments quite meaningless, as I often know they have more to do with how the person is feeling that day than whatever I said or did. Case in point, one Sunday, early in my career, a parishioner attacked me with vicious language because I had chosen the hymn for that Sunday that had been played at her husband’s funeral. Never mind that I was not the Minister at that funeral or that she had never told me about her affection for that hymn. It was a hard day for her, the anniversary of her husband’s death. I did not take the criticism personally, I knew where it was coming from. But it was a reminder of the emotional reactions to worship experiences.
I am interested in the reactions to the planning I do for worship services. But rather than take a comment here or there, positive and negative, that reflect more the person than the experience, I listen for patterns, common refrains, a cluster of consistency that reflect an emerging consensus of the community about what they need and what they feel.
These kind of comments that represent a consensus of the community tend to come later into the coffee hour time. Initial reaction at coffee hour tends to be “that was great” or “that service was too long”. Neither comment really tells you much about the community other than something in that service likely was too rigid or dull or by rote. The really meaty comments tend to come at the end, by those who have stuck around and as they linger their thoughts become more clear, focused and thoughtful.
After the worship service is over and I have shook every hand at the front door I go into my office to see if there has been an emails in response to the sermon I emailed to new folks who have shared their email address with me. Ushers also provide a list of “Friendship Pads” that contain phone numbers and email address of new folks to the church. I calls them right away, leaving a voicemail so that when they get home after church they are greeted with a personal message of thanksgiving for their presence at church. In the emails and phone messages I always ask if they would like to follow up with a coffee at a café of their choosing.
Meanwhile the community gathers in the Hall. I find that if I go in there immediately after the service ends I am a distraction. After all I have just led the liturgy and spoken for 20 minutes on a topic meaningful to me. If I go into the Hall too soon people line up to talk to me and this prevents and distracts people from talking to each other. Coffee hour ought to be the building of community, not the “lining up” of the lay people to talk to the Minister.
I feel a much better use of my time, directly following the service, is to be connecting with those who have left a record of their attendance with us. I usually go into Coffee hour when things are more settled, when the conversations have taken root and the community is coming to life. At that point only those who really do want to speak to me with come over to share their thoughts. I also find these comments more considered and less “that was great” or “that service was long”. I am usually the last person to leave the Hall, I want those who truly wish to speak to me to have that opportunity.
Community is an organic experience but it does always emerge without some planning.