NEW ORLEANS (CNS) — You had to laugh.
In a workshop on parish hospitality during the annual conference of the International Catholic Stewardship Council held Oct. 2-5 in New Orleans, Christine Heusinger, associate director of stewardship for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, put up a cartoon on the big screen.
The 1988 cartoon by Steve Phelps is timeless. Standing in the middle aisle of the church are “The Martins,” staring down at a pew that is occupied. The problem is, for all intents and purposes, that pew was “The Martins’ pew.”
The caption tells the story: “The whole church watched with nervous anticipation as the visitors sat where the Martins have sat for 42 years.”
There’s no doubt Catholic parishes have a lot to learn from their Protestant neighbors about how to throw out the welcome mat for people who perhaps have not darkened the door of a Catholic church in many years, if ever.
Biblical hospitality is everyone’s responsibility, not just the select few who are members of the hospitality committee, according to Heusinger.
“We need to share with the parish at large that they are all part of the welcome ministry,” she said. “When someone comes to the pew, just move in. That makes such a big difference.”
Heusinger conducts hospitality seminars across the Atlanta archdiocese and has some favorite stories. When she mentioned something about how people should be greeted when they come to church, a man raised his hand and said: “I’m not a greeter; I’m an usher.”
The initial welcoming experience at a church is critical because a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate shows that of all the reasons millennials “are ditching church,” the major one is “the need to feel welcomed in a parish,” Heusinger said.
Some of the practical suggestions for making visitors and returnees more at home are fairly obvious, but every parish would benefit from assessing how well it is doing. Quite often, Heusinger said, the pastor or pastoral council members believe they are doing a great job in terms of welcoming people, but that perception may not be shared by someone walking onto the parish grounds for the first time.
Consider, she said, something as simple and obvious as signage.
“How easy would it be for someone who has never been there to find the parish office?” Heusinger asked. “I’m surprised by how many times I have to search for the parish office. At one parish, I had to knock on four doors before I found it.”
The megachurches have ideas that that need to be, if not quite stolen, then reverently appropriated.
“There’s a Baptist church in Atlanta that has parking signs, ‘For First-Time Visitors Only,'” Heusinger said. “There’s another sign that says, ‘First-Time Visitors Use Low Lights.’ That’s an indication for someone to approach the car and show them where to park and where to go. I’ve been in some parishes where the ushers looked like military servers — no smiles.”
There are success stories, of course. Heusinger was blown away one Sunday when she saw the pastor, 10 minutes before Mass, mingling with parishioners and greeting visitors inside the church. One Atlanta parish has an umbrella brigade, composed of teens who will walk parishioners to and from their cars in bad weather.
Heusinger also witnessed a graced moment of perfect hospitality. She was in the vestibule of the church before a meeting when she overheard a person approach a parishioner and ask where the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was.
“The parishioner said, ‘I don’t know, but I know where the information is,'” Heusinger said. “Then they walked down to the TV screen that showed the meeting was in Classroom 3. The parishioner said, ‘Let me take you there.’ She was a true hospitality angel.”
The leaders of parish ministries also need to review how welcoming they are. Heusinger said someone she knows was not innately a “joiner,” but he finally decided to offer his help to the Men’s Club at the annual parish picnic by signing up to serve one hour as “a burger flipper.”
When the volunteer showed up for his shift, he was told: “We’re fine. We’ve got everything under control.”
The response from the volunteer was: “They didn’t have any need for me.”
“I’m sure no malice was meant, but that was a horrible misstep,” Heusinger said. “Our ministries have to be open to new people coming in.”
Whether it’s welcoming new parishioners with “Breakfast with Father Bob,” greeting them with a smile at the parish office, providing succinct welcome cards about the parish during Easter and Christmas, pairing up new families with mentor families or cooking meals for families after they have lost a loved one, Heusinger said hospitality is all about nurturing relationships.
“We want people to know they are missed,” she said.
Even if they’re sitting in my pew.
Finney is executive editor and general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.