How to have a welcoming parish

Posted July 20, 2017 11:59 pm by Thomas Dowd

I had an excellent discussion with a brother priest this morning (Sunday, July 16) over breakfast concerning what it means to have a welcoming parish. My experience of doing 5 years of in-depth parish pastoral visits revealed to me that most regular parishioners think their parish is a welcoming parish. My experience also revealed that many of those people, when asked why they think theirs is a welcoming parish, have no idea how to respond. It comes down to a feeling, more than facts. In fact, some gentle probing on my part has left me convinced that most people think their parish is welcoming *as a whole* mainly because they have friends whom they see there on a regular basis. I am certainly not against having friends at church, but to be honest I am not sure this is a sufficient criterion for arriving at this broad conclusion. Now I admit, my study was not scientific in the strict sense, but it was intentional, and included more broad-based observations covering many parishes.

So what did those years of visits teach me? Can “welcome” be measured as a feature of parish life? While I have not developed this (yet) into some sort of “welcome score”, from what I can see there are five criteria to measure how welcoming a parish might be. In my experience, a welcoming parish is:

  1. Safe
  2. Clean
  3. Open
  4. Friendly
  5. Helpful

These are layered criteria, i.e. even if a parish is very friendly, I would not call it welcoming if it isn’t safe. Look at it this way: would you let your kids go to the neighbours if, despite those people being very friendly and helpful, their home was neither clean nor safe? If not, even if those people had the honest intention to have their home be a welcoming environment, it just isn’t.

So what do these labels mean? I am still working on fleshing them out, but here are a few thoughts.

Safe

Is the physical environment of the parish safe? Is the structure safe, or is their a danger of falling bricks? Are the steps and railings secure? Could someone easily trip on something? Is there exposed asbestos? Is there mould? Are there potholes in the parking lot that people could step in and injure themselves? Are the walking areas salted in winter to avoid people slipping? Are emergency exits properly marked?

What about the human environment? Is the outside area properly lit at night so nothing unsavory can happen in dark and shadowy parts? Is the inside environment safe, e.g. no access to a machinery room for curious kids? Are there first aid kits, fire extinguishers, and even a small defibrillator available? Are staff, including volunteers, trained in a safe environment policy, including what to do in case of emergency? Is there a code of conduct, outlining clear boundaries, including how to deal with unacceptable interpersonal situations like harassment? Is there a clear abuse prevention policy? Is the environment free of common allergens, even including things like availability of low-gluten alternatives for communion, and the use of hypoallergenic incense (which does exist!)

There are ways to do an audit of envirnmental safety. The fire department here in Montreal will inspect buildings. There are people trained as specialists in workplace safety who can help, and might be able to advise for specific related to a parish environment. The parish insurance company can also advise in this regard, as they have a key interest in risk management.

Clean

To better understand this term, think of what we typically do when guests are coming over. We clean up, right? There is a usual amount of clutter that accumulates in our lives that we hardly notice, except when someone new is visiting. Suddenly, we notice, and we do something about it. Well, parishes are often like a second home for people. That’s generally a good thing, but it can also mean we don’t notice when things are less presentable, and we may not realise how off-putting those things can be for newcomers.

What is the opposite of clean, in this context? At its worst, it means filthy. I’ve seen some filthy parishes, or at least parishes with filthy areas. That’s awful, especially for a house of God. While less extreme, the opposite of clean can mean untidy, messy, cluttered, unkempt, and so on. This starts with the outside environment. I’m not saying every parish needs to win an award for landscaping, but is the lawn at least mowed? If people walk their dogs around the parish, is the animal waste picked up? The inside environment is important too. Are the pews tidied up between masses, picking up the kid’s crackers and cheerios, the books put back in place, Kleenex picked up, and so on? Are the bathrooms regularly checked for cleanliness (and stocked with soap, toilet paper, etc.)? Are the kitchens clean? Are the walls clear of cobwebs, the window sills clear of dust and grime, and so on?

In my experience, the best people to get advice from on environmental cleanliness are successful restaurant operators, especially family restaurants. No one wants to eat in a dirty restaurant. At the same time, those people have to deal with all kinds of members of the public, including kids (who are the messiest of us all, dontcha know). They’ve got lots of experience dealing with all kinds of messes. Another category of people I’d approach for advice are daycare operators. Again, what reasonable parent would leave their kids in a pigsty? So ask your parents what are the daycares with the best reputation for cleanliness, and get their advice.

As a final point, I think it is important to differentiate between cleanliness and opulence. Have you ever gone to someone’s house where the environment was clearly designed to not just welcome, but impress? This can be very intimidating, especially for those from humble backgrounds. I think we can all agree we want our churches to be beautiful, but the standard in our tradition is “noble tradition”, not opulence.

Open

The first element of openness is physical. Starting with the church building, is it usually locked except for services, or can people get in to pray? I know that this can involve security issues, but there are places that manage to overcome those problems. Even if the building is just kept open a bit before and after the usual mass times, it can mean a lot to people needing that sacred space.

Openness also applies to the parish office. What are the hours when it is open to the public? Are those hours convenient for the people, or are they designed more for the staff?

Openness can also mean availability of the facilities. Outside of its own pastoral needs, does the parish rent space for events, or allow community groups (like AA) to use it?

Another aspect of physical openness is accessibility. Can a person with reduced mobility get in? Are there facilities (e.g. bathroom, lift) that they can use?

Openness is also for families, not just individuals. Are their facilities that make the parish family friendly? Is there a crying room, or daycare facilities (such as during mass)? Is there a diaper changing table in the bathroom?

While these elements are about facilities, we need to remember that none of these points actually help people feel comfortable about entering them. Parishes in very public places can also put out a sign letting people know that they can go in, or even just having the doors wide open as an invitation. A good parish website can also help, as people will often go there to get details like mass times. A virtual tour of the parish (which can also be put in pamphlet form for those who actually come to visit) can help people feel like the physical environment is already familiar.

Of course, a parish is about a lot more than facilities. How open are we as a community? A lot of people in challenging situations regularly face the fear of rejection, but Christ has broken down the barriers that isolate us. How welcoming are we to the intellectually handicapped, to the mentally ill, to visible minorities, to people of various cultures, to immigrants, to the divorced, to single parents, and so on? Coming back to Jesus, let’s also not forget that he came to seek and save the lost. The greatest marginalization is sin, and Jesus loves sinners. How is confession being made available and promoted as the sacrament of healing that it is?

Friendly

As I mentioned in my introduction, when most people think their parish is welcoming what they really mean is they believe it is friendly — the only difficulty being that they often only see the reactions of their friends. A truly welcoming parish has to widen the circle.

The key to understanding friendliness is that it is all about human contact. In includes actual walk-ins to the parish office, but extends beyond that to (believe it or not) things like the parish answering machine. How easy is it to get to a human being via the phone menu so many places have? If a message is left, how quickly does someone get a response? We should not underestimate how desperate a family can be in the case of the death of a loved one, for example. Similar questions can be asked regarding contact via Internet, such as via email or a form on the parish website. Of course, the person who does respond to an inquiry has a core responsibility to be a friendly face and voice. Sadly, stories of grumpy parish staff are legion.

Of course, the most important moment of that human contact is on the weekend. That contact starts as people try and get a space in the parking lot: if space is at a premium, is there an attendant to help keep things in order? When people walk through the parish doors, is there someone to greet them? With regards to that greeting, how well trained are people to answer questions and make those arriving feel like part of the family?

Of course, all parish staff, including volunteers, share in this responsibility. While not all need to have answers, all should be approachable and be trained to handle questions. Staff should be easily identified as such, such as via name tags, t-shirts, etc.

In the end, all parishioners share in creating a friendly atmosphere. Apart from exhorting people to smile more, parish leaders can help facilitate this environment. Parish directories and photo albums help people connect names to faces. Social events, if they include personal touches like icebreakers or birthday and marriage anniversary announcements, help build a sense of community. Even an event as simple as a parish bazaar can help make those connections.

It isn’t easy to measure just how friendly a parish might be, but in the end we know it when the opposite is the case. Mean, cold, rude, judgmental, cliquey… these are not the attributes of the kind of human contact a parish should offer. Happily, there are resources to help. As banal as it sounds, stores like Walmart have special training for staff to make sure the client experience avoids these negative elements. Beyond the secular world, many Evangelical churches are known for their talent in this area. Here in Montreal we invited a panel of evangelical pastors to speak at a conference on parish vitality, just because we wanted to learn from the best.

Helpful

The ultimate level of welcome is the point of transition to pastoral care. Parishes that are safe and clean at least don’t drive people away. A parish that is open at least makes it easier for people to come in. Once a parish is truly friendly, then trust starts to really grow. We should not be surprised, then, if the context of that trust means that people reveal their needs and seek help.  It can be as simple as someone needing jumper cables to get their car started. Certainly it can include offering a listening ear, and offering referrals to services in the community, as required. Beyond this, any vulnerability can be the inspiration of the servant discipleship that is meant to characterize all parishes. Obviously that is a much larger topic, but I think it shows how our mission to “seek and save the lost” gets a lot easier if they are comfortable coming to seek us!

What do we say after hello?

There is a lot of focus in the pastoral literature nowadays on the importance of offering a warm welcome in our parishes. Of course, we need more than that. The bread and butter of parish life is worship and catechism. Still, those things can be offered only for those who are already part of the parish in-group. If we want parishes that are really going to be engines of evangelization, reaching out to the spiritual peripheries, then providing a top-class welcome is mission critical. Even better, it can remove the barriers to parishioners getting involved. After all, not everyone can pass on doctrine, but everyone can invite a friend to join a welcoming worshipping community. All we can do to make that easier for people allows the whole parish to more and more become an embassy for the Kingdom of God.

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