Welcoming Congregation

Speaker: Amy Geyer

A few years ago our church successfully completed the Welcoming Congregation Program and earned our designation as a Welcoming Congregation. This means that we, as a congregation, publicly welcome gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender people.

Fifty years ago the title Welcoming Congregation may have meant that we publicly welcome people of color. A hundred years ago it may have meant we publicly welcome Italian, Irish or Chinese immigrants; or that we allow women to take on leadership roles.

Times do change.

As a society, in this country, we have begun to move from visually judging people to making judgments about the way individuals choose to express themselves and whom they choose to love in intimate relationships. Sadly, even some our federal lawmakers attempted to define the word marriage.

In some ways this kind of judgment is more detrimental to individuals. Gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender people have been lead to believe that something is wrong with them. That their feelings are invalid and immoral. This condemnation stems from long held beliefs in our Judeo Christian society.

Not only are GBLT people denied the validity of their feelings, they are also denied access to spiritual growth.

This is why the UUA singled out this particular group of people.

The Rev. Douglas Morgan Strong makes a wonderful statement in the Welcoming Congregation manual:

“For centuries, the church has been a leading force against sexual minorities. It is not surprising that gay people are reluctant to reach out to the very institution that oppresses them. Yet, gay, lesbian, [transgender], and bisexual people have no less need for warmth, caring, and affirmation than anyone else who calls the liberal church their religious home. In fact, as a subculture in society gay, lesbian, [transgender], and bisexual people may need our support more than the general population.”

And so we the people of First UU of Wichita are designated as a Welcoming Congregation.

Now, how do we practice this? First we need to make sure we welcome every single person who walks through our door as a person. Not as a member of a subculture. But as a person, as an individual and as a family as the case may be. Second, we do not want to make assumptions about newcomers or about existing members.

Lets take a look at some insights that were collected at the 2007 General Assembly.
· A white person greeted a mixed-race couple by saying, “We need more people like you here.”
· A birth-right young adult UU who wanted to study the Bible was told she doesn’t belong in her home church by her humanist elders.
· Over-welcoming turns People of Color away.
· Emotional disability is not tolerated as much as physical disability. People with a physical disability are expected to do less than they are able while people with an unseen disability are expected to do more than they are able.
· A Woman was leaving a 30+ year marriage and coming out as a lesbian when she entered a UU church in her hometown for the first time. It was a Gay Pride service. The hymn “We Are a Gentle, Angry People” left her in tears. She felt welcomed from that day on.
· A visitor usually knows within 10 minutes whether he or she is welcomed.

I would like to address one of the biggest problems regarding newcomers to UU churches across the country. And here I admit I am certainly guilty!

We, as UU’s have a tendency to conduct church business after the service. The following story is from UU Congregation President, about his experience at another UU congregation while on vacation.

“I followed my nose to the coffee area and walked the length of the large room, where coffee and fellowship abounded. Upon getting a cup of coffee, I began my mission to chat with like-minded souls and see how they did church.

To that point, no one had looked at me. But, armed with a friendly smile on my face, a special visitor nametag, and a full cup of coffee, I wandered around a room filled with folks chatting and laughing with one another.

First, I worked a string of tables with easels, literature, and sign-up sheets. Since only two of the positions behind the easels were staffed, I spoke with one of them about what her easel was advocating. She quickly filled me in, and then without additional chatter, she turned back to the only other person behind the tables to continue their conversation.

At the beginning of the service, the board member making the announcements invited visitors and guests to meet with members of the church leadership after the service.

With anticipation of a new beginning, I went to the designated place after the service and found the leaders engaged in conversation—among themselves. It became obvious that it was up to me, the visitor, to try to break up their chat clusters and introduce myself. I did just that, but found they were more interested in conducting church business with one another than in making an effort to welcome a visitor or potential new member.

Would I return to that church? Definitely not. But as I reflected later upon my own home congregation and that Sunday morning experience, I thought: We are a lot like them.”

Many churches have begun a policy of setting aside the first hour after the service for socialization only. Folks who need to conduct business are asked to do so after the social hour or later in the week. I am asking all of you to join me this practice.

I would also like to ask all of our committee members to join me in a welcoming exercise. At your next committee meeting draw up a schedule. Assign at least one member for each Sunday to be your official welcoming representative. This person will be responsible for introducing himself to either a newcomer or someone in the congregation that he has not met before and to tell the other person about the committee’s purpose, current activities and to extend an invitation to the next activity or meeting. Lets keep the schedule going until this practice becomes second nature for all of us. Our Sunday morning greeters are responsible for greeting people as they come in. It is up to all of us to make people feel welcome.

When we take the time to introduce ourselves and put the focus on what we are familiar with we reduce our own internal fear of meeting new people and we make ourselves more approachable to others because we took the first step.

There is no one size fits all manual for welcoming people. It is up to each of us as individuals to find ways to reach out to others. We can start with the some of the practices I have suggested as well as by making a simple introduction and asking one question such as how did you find us? Or would you like a tour of our new building?

In doing these things we can begin to foster a truly welcoming congregation.