Becoming a Welcoming Cathedral

Someone who is visiting Glasgow at the moment and who has been to St Mary’s a couple of times, said to me this week, “Well, whatever you are telling those people about Welcome, they are actually doing it.”

It reminded me of someone in the congregation who said early on in my ministry here, “You are doing something to us from the front of the church and I can’t work out what it is. Something to do with the language you use. But it is making us nicer and like one another more.”

The truth is, one of the core goals that I had when I came here was to help the congregation to become more welcoming. That was one of the things that the people who were interviewing me named as a hope when I was considering coming here.

Nowadays, people commonly say that St Mary’s is indeed a welcoming place.

Whenever I hear that I get scared that we will rest on our laurels and stop working at it. You are only as welcoming as the experience that someone turning up for the first time had last week. There will inevitably be people who do come who don’t catch the welcome that is in the air that other people feel and turning a congregation into a more welcoming congregation is one of those jobs that is never done.

However, I do think that we’ve come a long way and that St Mary’s is indeed a much better place for someone turning up than it used to be.

So what are the keys?

Well, most people would think that it starts by organising people into “welcoming teams” and launching them at unsuspecting new meat.

In fact, that’s not where I think it has to start.

Becoming a welcoming church or cathedral starts somewhere else. For me it begins with moods and attitudes and does indeed have quite a lot to do with the message coming from the front.

Have you noticed that I’ve never once used the word “Visitor” in what I’ve written above? Have you noticed that I don’t use it in church either? Here at St Mary’s we don’t have visitors. We do have people who are there for the first time and we do speak of people finding a way into the congregation. However, the V word is absent from our vocabulary at the front of the church.

There is nothing less welcoming than standing at the front of a church and saying, “Good morning everyone, today we welcome lots of visitors to St Marys”.

Why? Well, it sets up those there for the first time as aliens and strangers and it also sets up an ugly dynamic of those who are the We and those who are the Them.

I try very hard not to think like that and stop myself from speaking like that – it just doesn’t help.

For the same reason, our notices are all written in neutral 3rd person language – you don’t find groups imploring people to “Join us on Thursday for a great….”

Because there is no us and them in the kingdom, that’s why.

There are people around in church who are trying to look out for folk who might want a conversation but we also know that lots of people come to St Mary’s and don’t want to talk yet either. They’ve got to be allowed to sit behind a pillar and make a quick exit for as long as they want to.

One of the strangest things that churches do to people who come for the first time is offer them coffee at the end of the service as though that is hospitable.

Consistently people tell me that church coffee hours can be terrifying if you’ve just turned up. Putting coffee on after a service is a good idea but only if you are prepared to ensure that those who’ve been coming for years don’t use it to huddle. If they do, I’d say that you’d be better off doing something entirely different.

In some parts of the world, there’s quite an emphasis on identifying new faces with badges and pins and that kind of thing.

By far the worst welcome I ever received in a church was in a cathedral which said on its bulletin, “If you are here for the first time, please make your way to the Welcome Desk and ask for a Welcome Button (ie a badge for UK speakers). Wear the button to our Coffee Hour and everyone will know to give you a special welcome”. Dutifully I made my way to the welcome desk expecting to be given a discrete badge an inch across with a picture of the church on it. Instead I was given an enormous stick on label that covered my heart, on which they wrote my name in large black marker-pen and I was launched through a set of double doors into their coffee hour feeling that I was wearing something that was designed more for target practice than anything else. I then found myself standing around on my own wearing this large and prominent marker of my newness whilst all around me proceeded to ignore me. Five minutes later I was, predictably, doing a runner.

That was a good example of a church that had thought a lot about it and was still getting it wrong.

I can’t claim that St Mary’s is getting it right all the time, but I think we are trying to do so in ways that some people haven’t thought about. You can find out a bit of what it is like to come to St Mary’s at the 10.30 service by checking the “First time?” section on the website.

So, in short, if you want to be welcoming:

  • Don’t use the V word – there are no visitors in heaven.
  • Don’t talk about us – there is no us and them either.
  • Don’t serve coffee unless you are prepared to work hard to make sure it isn’t a collection of closed groups.
  • Do think about language.
  • Do concientize people in the congregation about what a welcoming church feels like – it is a culture that has to be built over years
  • Do presume that the website is for those who’ve never looked at it before and for those who’ve never yet turned up.

Ah, websites! But that can wait until another day.