Becoming a welcoming parish is a process, not an event. Since the circumstances of each parish in unique, there is no “one size, fits all” program for growing into a welcoming parish. What follows is one possible process that a parish can employ to develop and implement a strategy to become a more welcoming parish. That which follows are merely suggestions which need to be adapted to the lived circumstances of individual parishes.
Ideally, this process must come out of the felt need of the pastor to have his parish become a more welcoming community. Parishes have a hard time transcending the limitations of their pastor’s, so without the pastor’s support, the potential success of this process is greatly restricted, perhaps impossible.
The basic steps to this process are:
Our booklet, "Company's
Coming," explains this process in great detail, and provides you with most
of the information you need to employ this process with minimal outside help.
Having visited hundreds of parishes throughout the country as strangers, our most common experience is that we feel invisible, as if our presence made no difference to anyone. Too many greeters welcome only those they know and ignore (sometimes intentionally) the stranger. Sometimes we’re made to feel downright unwelcomed, like when we get a dirty look because we’re seated in someone else’s seat or when we have to climb over someone who is seated at the end of an empty pew. And then rarely, all too rarely, we’re made to feel welcomed.
Whether a parish is welcoming or not is often times embedded in the parish culture. Now if a parish is already welcoming, trying out some best practices make sense and has a high likelihood of success because of the favorably established culture. But if a parish has an unwelcoming or indifferent culture, trying out some best practices may have a short term impact but will eventually die out without a concomitant cultural transformation.
Culture change does not happen overnight and does not happen by simply changing some practices, it requires a process, ideally a spiritual process for the parish as a whole to go through. Our firm belief is that if you leave welcoming and hospitality in the hands of a small committee the ultimate impact will be limited. It is too easy for all other parishioners to feel that welcoming is not their job because “we have a committee that handles that.” The best parish welcoming committee is the entire parish! It can begin with a small committee but that committee must have as its expressed goal that they should work themselves out of a job by catechizing the entire parish that welcoming and hospitality is every Catholic’s responsibility by virtue of our baptism. Jesus even said that our final judgment before God will include, in part, the extent to which we welcomed the stranger (Mt 25:31-46), not just the pastor, not just the welcoming committee, not just the greeters but EVERY baptized Catholic. When most or all parishioners are convinced that welcoming and hospitality is their responsibility, then best practices can take root and flourish.
Many churches have used our process to bring about the culture change necessary to have a truly welcoming parish. It must begin and be accompanied by prayer. Those involved must pray for the wisdom, inspiration and strength to persevere in the hard work of culture change. We have had parishes use the USCCB prayer for “welcoming the stranger,” as the closing for the prayers of petition at every Mass. (Can be found in: “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us; Unity in Diversity,” USCCB, 2000)
The pastor must be on board with the desire to create a more welcoming parish. It is nearly impossible for parishioners to accomplish this alone without the active support of the pastor. The pastor then calls together a group (The Dream Team) whose responsibility it will be to facilitate and engage in the process, to communicate with the rest of the parish and, as stated previously to work themselves out of a job by convincing all that welcoming is their responsibility.
The next two steps in the process can be accomplished simultaneously or sequentially depending on the desire of the dream team. An assessment of the current reality of welcoming in the parish must be done. Several things must be determined: 1) the extent to which the parishioners believe their parish is truly welcoming, 2) the extent to which parishioners believe that welcoming the stranger is important, and 3) the actual reception a stranger receives when coming to the parish for the first time. Item #3 is accomplished by having an informed stranger come to all the weekend Masses and reporting on the extent to which they felt welcomed or not. This informed stranger also calls the parish and connects with them via email to assess the welcoming they receive through these two venues. Item #1 & #2 is accomplished by surveying parishioners and evaluating the results of the survey. Our survey contains 16 questions that pertain to welcoming and hospitality. For each question respondents are asked to rate how well the parish is doing and how important that item is to the respondent.
The other step is for the dream team to actively and prayerfully discern what they believe God’s vision is for their parish in terms of welcoming and hospitality. They attempt to discern God’s vision because it raises our feeble human perspective to a higher level. This discernment is a process unto itself.
When the dream team has the current assessment of reality and God’s vision for the parish as they discern it, then they devise a plan which moves them from the current reality toward God’s vision. Then they implement the plan that they have devised. Once their plan has been in place for a while (3-6 months at least) they then conduct another assessment of reality (similar to what they did previously) in order to determine if the plan has moved the parish in the direction they had hoped. If a significant gaps still exists between the current assessment of reality and God’s vision, then another plan is developed and implemented.
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