Which Parish Would You Choose?

Originally published in the
Parish Pulse newsletter, January 2015.

Diocese of Western PA

We recently heard from an Orthodox couple who, due to job transfer, moved to a new town in a different state. This wasn’t a first move. Not timid, the couple is familiar with a panorama of parish experiences.

As they began looking for a new Orthodox parish they had two choices. Each parish was a similar distance and had similar size and demographics. They received a reasonably warm first visit greeting at each parish. There was little discernible difference in the quality of preaching.

After a few visits to each parish, a set of clear impressions began to evolve.

Parish A

No directions or easily found address on parish website. (Impacted first visit only.) Exterior sign was old and unattractive. Grass was disheveled, church steps were dirty –not swept. Shrubs not trimmed and beds needed to be weeded. Church interior dusty with a few cobwebs. (This catches the eye on a first visit.) Papers and bulletins strewn about. Candle stands unkempt.

No service books available and variable part of services not distributed. Nobody except the choir sings during liturgy. Liturgy was deliberate.The choir more so.

Though greeted reasonably on their first visit, subsequent visits found them isolated and alone. Parishioners were connected to their particular conversation groups. No acknowledgement or inclusion on a mailing list.

No sense that the parish had a direction or a thirst for a brighter future. An abiding sense of “good enough” had settled in. “There was no joy,” was a specific observation.

Parish B

Easily found with web directions and neat grounds and interior.The couple received a welcome packet in the mail after their first visit with a note from the pastor.

Liturgy exuded a sense of a participative gathering of the faithful. Subsequent visits found them not ignored but meeting new people. No instant friendships mind you but a sense that conversations of some depth were possible.There was a feeling of striving — possibilities — a journey. A willingness to be challenged. Oh yes, smiles and a few hugs.

Providing a Compelling Reason to Return

Most parishes can resemble parish A on any given Sunday. The issue for leaders is whether we settle into becoming parish A every weekend.

We’ve mentioned before that ‘surveys say’ that Americans evaluate congregational friendliness by how many people talk to them within ten minutes of the end of the service. But of course its important to take the welcome to the next level. Listen to questions. Encourage questions. Find common ground. Share something of yourself. Share opportunities for discipleship and ministry.  Help new parishioners understand the parish background and identity.

When many characteristics are similar, the key differentiating factor for choosing a parish may become the inquirer’s ability to feel like “I could learn to enjoy being with these people regularly. I could find a friend here. Parish B, by simple being the Church, was providing what could be described as a ‘compelling reason to return’. They were quenching a thirst.

Making a Difference

Most of us would choose parish B. Yet this couple could likely make a true difference in parish A. And that’s how parishes get stronger. One new person or family at a time.

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Improving Your Parish Welcoming Atmosphere

Parishes looking to improve their ability to welcome guests and help them want to return again and again may want to consider the following questions:

  • How many guests have we had in the last 6 months? How many returned? Why? Why not?
  • What were they looking for? Did they find it? How would they evaluate that?
  • What brought them here?
  • What is it like to be a guest in our church? What might they find unusual? What might make it difficult?
  • What do we want it to be like? What would we like a guest to feel afterward?  How can we do this better?