Every parish has visitors, but not every visit is the same. Are your visitors having a positive experience? Will they come back? Do they feel welcomed? How is our hospitality to these visitors?
Think of the last time you visited another parish for the first time. Did you know where to park? Did you find your way around easily? Did you feel welcomed? Were you a bit nervous? What was positive about the experience and what was negative?
Many Catholic disciples are able to look beyond the negatives in a parish, because they are insiders who understand the reality of the Eucharist. But, most outsiders to our parishes are unable to do the same and they may focus on the externals we may gloss over. The challenge for us is to see our parishes through the eyes of our visitors, so we can be more welcoming to them.
In this way, we can better see the unspoken cultural norms that pervade our parishes. Some of these norms are unhealthy to hospitality.
Therefore, we need to explore how we can be more hospitable and the primary reason why is that it is commanded by Jesus! God wants us to welcome the stranger and tells us this again and again in Sacred Scripture:
- “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” -Lev 19:34
- Jesus identifies himself with those who are strangers to us – “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” -Matt 25:35
- “Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality.” -Rom 12:13
- “Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another.” -1 Peter 4:9
- “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” -Heb 13:2
- Our Christian witness is reflected in how we treat one another – “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” -John 13:35
- Paul was explicit in 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7-8 about how a Bishop is supposed to be hospitable.
I doubt anyone would want their parish to be less hospitable, yet in examining what we need to change, let us first think of the reasons someone may come to your parish who has not come regularly beforehand:
- Visitors from out of town.
- Special occasion (baptism, wedding, funeral, etc).
- A person (or family) going through a tough time and looking for something to help them. Think of folks going through a death, divorce, troubled child, lack of meaning to life, etc. They may have big questions and are looking for answers.
- A non-Catholic who is exploring Catholicism, but doesn’t know where to start, so they come to visit.
- Trying to find a new parish and are “church shopping”.
- A cultural Catholic who hasn’t attended Mass regularly or for a long time – yet decides to go to Mass for whatever reason.
These people will see things differently than we do. I worked for a campus ministry parish that had a business class do a project on our parish. They visited over the course of a week and wrote down their observations. It was a very enlightening exercise for our staff, because they saw things we didn’t (many are now on the list below). A parish “secret shopper” who reports back to the leadership will tell you more than you imagined.
In thinking about our visitors, remember that each person has a unique reason why they are coming to your parish. What every one of them wants is to feel valued and welcomed. In thinking about visitors, let us not forget that at many parishes we have regular attendees who may also have attended for years without anyone greeting them. What a sad state of affairs. So, let us do our part – here are some tips on how we can improve.
16 Tips To Improving Your Parish Hospitality
- The first 10 minutes are key. You only get one chance at a first impression and it really does matter. From the time they enter your parking lot, to the time they sit down and take in the church, they are making judgments about your congregation that may mean the difference in returning or never coming back.
- Your website is where most people will visit first. Will they find what they are looking for easily? Is it well designed? Is there any “insider” or “churchy” language used that they may not recognize?
- Making a stranger introduce themselves to a new congregation is more intimidating than welcoming for strangers. I am an extrovert (and I rarely have awkward moments), but I hate it when I am asked to identify myself as a visitor. Imagine someone who isn’t Catholic and/or very shy. Now, think of it this way – why are we putting the onus on them to make themselves known to us, when we should be the ones seeking them out?
- Make your nursery, cry room, etc easily to find, well marked, clean, and safe. It doesn’t mean these things must be used, but if they are, you want families to have a good experience.
- Have someone who is easy to find, stationed at a prominent place, to answer questions, give literature, make recommendations, etc. Some parishes have added very prominent welcome booths or stations, in the narthex of a church or a rollable stand, that can be set up outside, where it can be seen. This is an easy way to make visitors know where they can come for more information, ask a question, etc.
- Make sure your bathrooms are well-marked, clean, and easy to find. They should be checked regularly, especially on a busy weekend!
- Signage matters! If folks don’t know where they can park, how to find their way around, don’t know where a restroom is, etc – then it increases the negative aspects of a visit.
- Don’t have a million announcements! Having 5 minutes of announcements at the end of Mass can put a damper on an otherwise positive experience.
- Ask your parishioners to park in the back of the parking lot, in order to save spaces up front for guests. You might even mark some spaces for visitors only. If your parking lot is hard to find, confusing, or crowded, then you might form a parking lot team. Think of a rainy weekend in a big parking lot – some folks might just turn right around and leave if things get too bad and they won’t come back.
- Ask parishioners who are able-bodied and don’t have small children to sit in the middle of the pew, to save seats at the end of the pew for those showing up later. This is one of the most common Catholic cultural issues that may not be seen by insiders. Having to climb over others, to get a seat is not very welcoming.
- Train folks in how to start a conversation with someone new. Have them placed in strategic places (note – not just at the front door!). Find folks with a charism for hospitality and empower them to talk to others. Have your leaders show the way, by getting to church early, to help. All it takes is 15 minutes more, per week.
- If you do get to talk to a visitor, invite them to lunch or coffee. What more would say we value you, than trying to continue the relationship outside of church?
- Separate out ushers and members of your hospitality team. They serve a different purpose! Ushers should hold doors, help find seats, clean, help make things safe, and hand out bulletins. A hospitality team does all the other things on this list!
- If you have some Masses that get packed, then make sure ushers are attentive to the needs of those who are trying to find a space to sit. Not being able to find a seat and/or having to go all the way to the front pew, is not a way to make someone feel welcomed.
- If someone volunteers their information, then follow-up within 48 hours. Have a member of the hospitality team call them (do not email) and ask them to come to a welcome dinner for the month or to eat at their house.
- One last thing – pray for those who are visiting your parish, in your prayers of the faithful, during Mass.
Remember, the point isn’t just to be hospitable for the sake of hospitality, but to show the love of God, as a community, to others.
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