I conducted a non-scientific study of all the Presbyterian churches in my state who are seeking a pastor to note how many of them self-identified as some version of warm, welcoming and/or friendly. Almost 66% indeed pitched themselves with at least one of those positive descriptors in their pastoral search papers. (Being “vibrant” is also very popular.)***
It’s old news to say that all congregations see themselves as “friendly.” Churches believe they are friendly . . .
- Even if there is a high stink eye quotient among the older members,
- Even if there is a sign on the playground that says “Keep Out!”
- Even if all the doors are locked on Sunday mornings except the one secret door that members know to use.
I regularly read lots of materials written by church search committees looking for new leadership and have come to the conclusion that saying we are “friendly” and “welcoming” may be aspirational but it’s not really true. When I hear a church tell me they are “friendly” I immediately want to ask them:
- Tell me about the people you have welcomed who are not very lovable.
- Who in church have you gotten to know better in the last month and how has that happened?
- What are the intentional practices of your congregation to make guests feel at home?
I know several congregations who indeed welcome unlovable people, who offer multiple opportunities to build relationships, who train all leaders in intentional hospitality practices – and they rarely self-identify as “friendly.” They don’t have to because they are friendly. It’s like a lovely secret they all know about.
They know to walk people without umbrellas to their cars on rainy days. They know to walk visitors to the nursery or the rest room – not just to point and say “It’s down there.” If they are headed out to brunch and there’s a person standing alone, they ask that person to join them. If they see someone new, they say “excuse me” to the old friends they’ve been talking with and go to that new person to introduce themselves. They know to share their hymnal. They know to invite the grieving person out to lunch many months after the funeral. They know to call and check in.
And why do we do these things? Not to “get new members” – for the love of God.
No, we practice warmth and authentic kindness because we are human beings called to love other human beings. That’s it.
It’s dangerous to advertise that we are warm, welcoming, and friendly (because what if we really aren’t?) It’s much safer to work on being warm, welcoming, and friendly and see what happens next.
***I wonder what would happen if a church seeking a new pastor introduced themselves with something like this:
We are an anxious, quirky, ridiculously imperfect group of people who are trying to follow Jesus but we miss the mark on most days. Nevertheless we hope to call a new pastor who will love us, lead us, challenge us, tell us when we are being unfaithful, and cheer us on when we get it right. We can be cranky and fearful. But we can also be miraculously generous and loving because we have seen glimpses of God working in the world. We’d like to see more of that with the right leader’s guidance. We could use some encouragement as well as a kick in the pants to figure out how God wants us to be the Church here in Little Valley, USA.
I predict that a church like this would be inundated with creative pastors lining up to hear more. Thanks be to God for churches who know who they are and for churches who know who God is.