The Practice of Welcome

What does it mean to be welcoming? One might think, for example, that a long-time Unitarian Universalist who moved to a new city and joined a new UU church might fit into and feel welcome in their new community rather easily, since they know the ropes. One longtime UU shared with me though his experience, where in his new UU congregation, he showed up at a couple different committee meetings, looking forward to being able to contribute – and immediately felt like an outsider. Everyone assumed that since he was UU, he knew exactly how everything worked in this new congregation, and no one made an effort to try to explain to him “how things were done.” The difficulty, of course, is that there are wide variations between UU churches, and of course each congregation has its own version of “that’s how we do things around here.” Things which everyone who has been “here” for a while knows how they go, and often assumes that everyone else does too.

Welcoming people into our congregation often isn’t just as simple as a warm greeting to newcomers, or engaging them in conversation during coffee hour, though of course those things are still important. Welcoming new people to our community, even people who have signed the book and officially become members, even people who are UUs already – it extends beyond the initial embrace. Welcoming is an intention, an attitude, that needs to persist far beyond the initial hellos and deep into our life as a church. If we want to be truly welcoming, we must try to bring an awareness of what those who are not only new to our church, but those who are “newer” might be experiencing. This includes new members, and even extends to longer-term members. For example, this year, for the first time in my tenure, we offered an orientation session for new members to our Board of Trustees, to provide some basic information and resources, give them a chance to ask question, and to help welcome them into their new roles. It’s a practice I hope we continue.

That word, practice, is a key part of this, because I hope we have not only an ongoing awareness of welcome, but also an ongoing *practice* of welcome. Having a practice of welcome is important, because it’s easy to make assumptions and miss things, even when we’re trying. Just last week, I was made aware of an opportunity to be welcoming that I missed, when we published only the briefest of invitations to the water ceremony in the eBlast. The text read, “don’t forget to bring water from our summer experiences to share if you like,” which of course only makes sense if you’ve been to the Water Ceremony before and know what it’s like. One of our active friends/not-yet-a-member subsequently posted to our church Facebook group wondering what this water ceremony was all about. In retrospect, duh… even though we do the water ceremony every year, of course newcomers aren’t going to know all about it. But I made an assumption, and missed it in the moment.

As we begin our one-year experiment of offering a second service this year, with its accompanying hope that we will be welcoming a number of new people into our community, I hope we can reflect together as a church community about what it means to be welcoming. Welcoming not just the first and second Sunday that people show up, but welcoming at all the other times too, and welcoming still three months later, and even three years later. Because while our practice of welcoming, skillful or not, will impact the success of the two services experiment, it also is a reflection of who we are as an ethical, spiritual and religious community. And it’s a reflection of how well we live into our values and beliefs. We say we are welcoming to a large variety of people and beliefs, but if we don’t bring awareness and intentionally practice that value of welcoming throughout all aspects of our community life – there’s a good chance we’ll fall short far more than we want to.

So as we go about our days, as we go about our lives, I hope we can be intentional about our practice of welcoming. It matters in the life of our church, and it matters in our individual lives as well. We all experience different levels of being welcomed in new and different places, from homes to businesses to community organizations. My family welcomed a new baby this summer, and we’ve tried to be intentional about that process. As a congregation, in addition to a second service and likely new visitors, we’re in the process of welcoming a new intern minister. Opportunities for welcoming happen all the time, and how we handle them matters, it makes a difference. Hopefully, if we pay attention, both in our church and in our lives, we can handle them skillfully, generously, and graciously more often than not.

I look forward to continuing to explore our theme of Welcome with you this month – see you in church!

peace, love and blessings,

Rev. Seth