The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Congregational Hospitality – Part 5

January 22, 2019
In this last blog, we’ve finally made it through the service of the four denominations/eight congregations I visited while on sabbatical.  Now it’s “home again, home, again, jiggity-jig”!  Let’s tie up the last loose ends with some final comments on a hodge-podge of welcoming and not-so-welcoming aspects.
1        Evening Bible study – there was no one at door to buzz me in.  I had to stand at the door and look pathetic until someone passing by noticed me.
          The outdoor sign pointed the way to elevator, but once inside, no more signs.  I know I looked very confused, but no one asked if I needed help so I had to explore.  Once I was on the correct floor, the room had no signage saying it was where the group met.  This was an instance when two parishes combined for Advent so I was not the only visitor.  They met in Room 209 the week (before I knew about it) but when I called the church office to ask, they said “either 207 or 209, I’m not sure”.  The website said 211.  It was 211.  Whew.
2        At each church, I put in the offering plate a check with my address and/or a signed pew card.  Three out of eight congregations acknowledged my visit, one of those after my second Sunday when I also signed a guest book.  Another sent an email immediately the next day from a member who copied the pastor, a friendly welcome as a Lutheran neighbor (I’d explained my membership).  The pastor never responded herself.  I got a second contact from this church, also from a member, though the pastor didn’t seem to be copied.  One congregation I visited three times for worship and once for Bible study never contacted me.
3        Something I found discouraging was that all congregations had a number of activities during the week but NONE advertised on their changeable outdoor signs.  The only way I knew about a Bible study, Advent midweek event, or Taizé service was by reading or hearing it in worship, calling the church office, or seeing it on websites.
4        One person sat next to me and immediately after worship said they could use me for their Christmas choir (though they already had a 60-voice choir). Some people might like this recognition; I appreciated the compliment but felt more like she was recruiting.  As a director of music, I’m grateful for members who help musicians connect with me, but how do we engage with visitors who don’t exhibit obvious gifts?
5        One thing consistent in almost every place was that unless they commented on my voice, no one talked to me after worship.  Now I do have to admit that though I took my time getting out of the sanctuary and stood in line to greet the pastor, I did not go in search of nuts and berries (fellowship) after leaving the sanctuary, nor was I invited to do so.  Any fellowship was not located in an obvious spot to me and again, as an introvert, I was ready to get out of Dodge after an hour or more of trying to fit in!
6        One pleasant woman walked me out to my car and invited me to a group that week even though she was not going to be in town.
7        Bible study at some locations was offered only during the day so that was almost completely attended by seniors.  Do we offer our visitors options for all ages and life situations?
8        Most congregations didn’t offer many outreach/social ministry opportunities.  Being alone, I would have welcomed requests for canned goods, wrapping presents for shelters, etc. both for outreach and as a way to connect socially.  (It has also been proven that many young adults are drawn to opportunities to work for social justice!)
9        One pastor asked my name as I went through the line but broke me off to pursue another visitor he’d apparently missed before. He never returned so I left.
10       Following the Christmas Eve service, the pastors stood in the front of sanctuary rather than the back so people had to go forward to greet them.  This was the church who had a side door up front that led to the big parking lot.  Those in the separate handicap parking had to go up front then to the back again since their parking was in the opposite direction.
11       On Christmas Eve at this same congregation (as #10), I couldn’t find a place to leave my individual candle.  Eventually, a choir member (somewhat grudgingly) showed me basket on the floor of a hallway behind the sanctuary (maybe for choir purposes?).  I found later that if had I gone to the back instead of the front to greet pastor (who I never reached because the line was long and I gave up), there was an unmarked receptacle on the narthex table.
12       One morning, I sat at an empty round table waiting for Sunday school to start. A man and daughter sat down to eat. We exchanged names.  I didn’t want to keep them from eating so said nothing more.  After 10 minutes sitting in silence, the girl showed me her sticker and I mentioned using stickers with children’s choirs.  Several minutes later the dad asked where I did that, then went back to eating.  Other people looked at me but didn’t approach.  I felt very vulnerable and my smile grew forced as I wished for someone to include me.
13.      Websites – a good website was crucial to me in my search for a church home.  If I knew a church I might want to visit, I’d go to the website.  If I didn’t, I’d search for “UCC + Atlanta”, etc.  The websites gave me times (though sometimes incorrectly), directions (though sometimes incomplete), and an idea of what kind of things were important to that faith community.  I always looked for an up-to-date church calendar.  One impressed me; when I clicked on a group or event of a certain day, it opened to say when and where it met, and what the group or event was all about. 
          Beware – if the information is incorrect on the web, it’s better not to be there at all.  I counted on a Sunday school class to start at 9:00 as the site told me, got there and the teacher said it would start at 9:20.  It started at 9:30 in a different room than I’d been told.  I spent the time looking at hall displays, being ignored, and thinking I could have stayed home and opted for an omelet rather than a quick bowl of cereal.
          A Lessons & Carols service was on the web as starting 9:50. I thought it was the only service that day, but when I got there the L & C wasn’t mentioned on their sign, only an 8, 9, and 11:15 service.  I figured the L & C took their place that day, being a “low” Sunday but met people entering church when I left at 11:00.  Actually, had the site been clear, I was starving for a “regular” liturgical service by then and would have attended one of those instead.
          Miscellaneous web problems:  One website calendar didn’t work.  One had the picture of a senior pastor who was no longer there.  One Christmas Eve schedule was on the home page but on 12/23 was still far down the page (so you would have to scroll down) and not under an obvious heading.  One site provided a hunt to find Christmas Eve times because they were in light print across a photo and on a rotation of pictures and events that went too fast to be read.
          I appreciated seeing Lessons & Carols published on the website as offering communion.
          Incense on one site was mentioned for Christmas Eve but the website gave a heads up it would be used. I did find after commenting on it later that the early service was incense-free, just not noted on the site.  Had the site said that, I would have gone; instead I went to another denomination’s service.
One last comment - Remember that I am at home in worship, plus I was determined to worship.  I usually pushed on when met by obstacles, but the average visitor may not be so persistent, patient, or resilient.  We may have only one chance to make our welcome count!
Deacon Jeanette Burgess serves as the Southeastern Synod’s Administrative Liaison for Leadership, as well as Director of Music at St. John’s Lutheran in Atlanta, GA.
Deacon Jeanette Burgess
Deacon Jeanette Burgess serves as the Southeastern Synod’s Administrative Liaison for Leadership, as well as Director of Music at St. John’s Lutheran in Atlanta, GA.