Crowdsourcing wisdom: hospitality ministry and introverts

There’s a lot of collective wisdom wandering around this blog, I’ve noticed. Let’s put it to work on some questions about liturgical ministry. Feel free to email me if you have a ministry question you’d like to crowdsource.

Hospitality ministry is, I think, one of the most difficult tasks to define, let alone do well. It has no specific form or rubrics. It depends not only on cultural context but even on individuals’ personalities. Yet its purpose, to help integrate people into the social community of a parish, is indispensable for church life.

I confess, I’m an introvert. When this image appeared in my Facebook feed, I laughed. And it reminded me of my first visit to a Catholic mass. Being young and introverted, I was extremely self-conscious. Having spent some time within Southern evangelicalism, I was expecting a lot of greeting and questioning of the “what can we do to help you?” variety, which I normally interpreted (probably wrongly) as “what can we do to save your soul?” I was greatly relieved to discover that no one seemed to notice me. I could relate to Thomas Merton, whose book I read later: “What a revelation it was, to discover so many ordinary people in a place together, more conscious of God than of one another” (Seven Storey Mountain, 227).

Clearly, not noticing me is an effective way of welcoming me, but I suspect it doesn’t work for everybody. How do you practice hospitality while respecting differences? What other differences call for an unusual approach to hospitality?

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22 comments

  1. Besides better preaching, the thing Catholics who have visited other Christian churches are especially impressed with is the hospitality/welcome they receive when visiting those churches. It’s a welcome they experience not only from ‘officially designated’ ministers or greeters but from congregants as a whole. They experience a new level of meaning of “fellowship”.
    Sadly, for many Catholics worship remains a “Jesus and me” experience. I go to “my” Mass. I say “my” prayers. I sit in “my” favorite –back– pew. This is often unconsciously modelled by parish ministers who impose their personal style on a congregation.

    1. @John Swencki – comment #2:
      That’s true for many Catholics, but not all. Let’s not casually universalize. The post is intended to get past that.

      Not everyone who finds that kind of fellowship a burden is a “Jesus and me” kind of Catholic. Far from it, as best I can tell: sensory and social overload can actually produce that very result because the burdened person has to spend so much time filtering the excessive incoming stimuli. So, can we get past counterproductive shibboleths like “Jesus and me” and “fellowship” as having universal valency?

  2. As an introvert, I enjoyed the guide to introverts.

    I love to be invited to places as long as I can sit in a corner, observe and listen.

    Of course, I don’t know how comfortable most extraverts are with the social psychologist in the corner listening and observing but not saying much.

  3. I think John Swencki has a point. Getting a welcome “not only from ‘officially designated’ ministers or greeters but from congregants as a whole” depends on a certain kind of community culture that a lot of parishes don’t have (and that many Catholics don’t expect parishes to have). I have to admit that I find this kind of welcome (a mellow nod from people I sit by, or someone handing me the right book) a lot less taxing as an introvert.

  4. Our hospitality takes several forms. There are the official “greeters” who welcome congregants with a smile and a handshake/hug depending on whom they are welcoming….no questions asked, just “hello” and welcome. The congregants themselves greet one another and are sensitive to newcomers.The ministers (priest deacon, cantor, choir) do the same as time allows before Mass begins. I place the pre-mass rehearsal under the heading of hospitality because it invites the assembly to participate and gives them the means, if they wish to participate.

  5. The most interesting line in the image was “Introverts get lonely too”. How true!

    What the image did not go into is the difference between introversion and shyness, between extraversion and an apparent outgoing style.

    It was not until I underwent MBTI that I discovered thatit is possible to be a “shy extravert”, someone who derives their energy from other people and yet can be embarrassed at too much attention, even in extreme cases over-modest. That was a revelation to me, because (my friends will perhaps be surprised to learn) I am one of those. Not over-modest, perhaps, but certainly someone who has had to learn to deal with a fear of not being accepted by others despite loving and needing others.

    Similarly, I have friends who derive their energy from within themselves, and yet who present the most flamboyant, extravert exterior — the “outgoing introvert”. The reason for this is, I think, an almost pathological need for affirmation, a desire to be the centre of attention. They have learned that in order to receive that affirmation they need to be outgoing, and so they become caricatures of themselves, and in fact pour so much of their own energy into getting to the pitch where they can present this persona that they almost burn themselves out before they start. Afterwards they are like wet rags and crawl away into a corner to recover, unlike the extravert, who will happily continue chatting to people as long as the day lasts.

    So yes, if you think someone is introverted, don’t assume that means that they don’t need to feel valued by others. They most certainly do. Tbey, too, need attention. And if you think someone is extraverted, don’t assume that they have all the answers to life and relationships either. They may need their own space in order to refocus.

    Applying this to the ministry of welcome, it is important to recognize those people who are happy to be greeted with a smile and those who just want to sneak into the back of the church without being noticed. I believe, though, that the default setting for the welcomer should always be one of stepping outside themselves, even if the receipient may not always be comfortable with being greeted. You may not find out which type a person is until you have made the gesture, but that is not a reason for not making it. Here I think the needs of the majority and the positive effects of responding to that will outweigh the occasional “misfire”. In general, a look in the eye and a genuine smile is worth a thousand words, even though it’s precisely the look in the eye that may make the intense introvert feel uncomfortable.

  6. Kimberly, what a great post. This topic is at the heart of my my ministry – from my work in the parish, to my social media presence.

    A few thoughts from my the parish where I work, where a particular hospitality is practiced, that should not tax the introvert! We have made some improvements so that the physical landscape and entryway to the church speak of welcome. Some of these are cosmetic, some aesthetic, and people are quite aware of this.

    Please note that even an extrovert like myself is made uncomfortable with a welcome energy that is too intrusive. It is hard to gauge these things. Having people and clergy at the doors saying hello, exuding warmth is important. I like that the pastor where I work often says, “Have I seen you here before?” In a kind way, not angry or suspicious. And when we register new parishioners we do ask them to come to the rectory to meet with him. That way, he can come to know and remember them.

    A side story… I am reminded of a parish in downstate NY, that I attended faithfully for 2 years. I was there pretty much every single Saturday, one of a small group of people, in a mostly empty medium sized church. No one sat near one another, people clumped up here and there. I often sat near another, and was often given a funny look. I did not take that personally, it was more like “there are a zillion seats here, you have to sit next to me?” The peace ritual rarely included a handshake – because of proximity I suppose! No one ever spoke to me.

    There was no worship aid, and the hymn number was not always given. The organist was a distant voice in the choir loft behind me; I never saw her once. There was never a cantor, and typically the psalm was proclaimed and not sung. And with respect for the organist and singer, it was not good. But God bless her for her weekly presence nonetheless!

    All of this felt like a benign lack of hospitality – no one noticed the impact of this collective set of circumstances. As a single outsider who had fled another parish, I was highly…

  7. With the input of other hospitality ministers, we’re trying to move “greeters” away from the carts where hymnals are passed out to the doors of the church. I’ve already gotten some pushback. Some greeters feel safe with their props.

    But many people appreciate the gesture of someone opening a door for them, which is not a bad alternative to handing them a book.

    Good hospitality requires authenticity. If houseguests don’t want seconds, they shouldn’t be pestered into gluttony. Likewise, respect for a person, introverted or just plain preoccupied, is essential. It’s the task of true ministers to make sure the doors are unlocked, there’s an open seat for a person, and to know where to point out the bathrooms and fire extinguisher, as needed.

  8. I’ve also found that gestures which people find to be the most welcoming and hospitable actually succeed in accomplishing the opposite.

    A certain “down-home style” will accomplish this every time. An example in the announcement at the beginning of mass: “Our celebrant today is Fr. Tom,” spoken in a really casual style. Who is Fr. Tom? Is he the pastor? Last name? It would be far more welcoming to come at it with the assumption that you are speaking to those who are outsiders: “Today’s celebrant is Fr. Thomas O’Grady, parochial vicar of St. Mary’s.” Similarly, little kitchy type things to make it “feel like a family” actually end up coming off like an inside joke, making an outsider realize that everyone else “gets it,” but they don’t. An example would be making informal references to things/people/events in the parish buy their nicknames instead of their formal titles, such as “After mass you can get your PSR registration forms at the little schoolhouse,” a reference that apparently means the smaller school on the north end of the parking lot that USED to be St. Mary’s grade school before the new one was built.

    All in all, as to the greetings and external hospitality, I’m a proponent of letting people be! Let them be themselves. If they want to sit unnoticed in the back of the church, let them! Maybe that’s where their faith is right now. Maybe that’s the kind of day/week they had or are having. Don’t criticize them and say “Oh, another ‘Jesus and Me’ catholic.” Being a “Jesus and Me” Catholic isn’t a mortal sin, even if it misses out on the fullness of the theological implications of the mass.

    In short: Be pastoral!

    1. @David Jaronowski – comment #12:
      I second this. Sometimes –whether at Mass or meetings of ministry groups or religious ed or whatever– we forget newcomers might be present who may not know what ‘old timers’ take for granted. Consideration.
      Certainly, being a “Jesus and Me” Catholic is not a mortal sin but neither is it the fullness of life to which we are called. While being sensitive and respectful of “where people are at” we can still issue the ongoing invitation, “Come higher, friend”.
      How to challenge without choking.
      v

    2. @David Jaronowski – comment #12:
      Yes.

      The old saw is that the Evil One sends evil in pairs, so that we flee from one to cling to the other. This is based on sound anthropological insight that, in attempting to fix something, we end up replicating it in some way but we can’t see how we are doing that – what we should be is more aware of the likelihood of it. (And resisting too hard the urge to fix things can cause us to cling to variations on fatalism….) One of the things I like about Pope Francis is he has obviously cultivated an awareness of how he has hurt others while trying to help, and learns carefully from this awareness. Egoism is like quicksilver, it speeds to find ground so fast we can hardly see it.

    3. @David Jaronowski – comment #12:
      Excellent. Letting people be: excellent. The fewer words the better–I especially have to caution my most extroverted student leaders that they sometimes tend to be too effusive. My youngest music director concedes it and sees it, and he works on it. It’s a matter of trust: God has brought a lot of people to church, and it’s not always incumbent on us to horn in o n the Lord’s mission with these folks.

  9. What wonderful comments. And thanks to Paul Inwood, I now suspect that I am an outgoing introvert – which might explain a lot to my students who are often surprised to discover I consider myself an introvert.

    I’d like to hear more about how to make the landscape and environment “speak of welcome.” Maybe this is a way to move us from having a “hospitality ministry” to being “hospitality communities.” (See what the Benedictines have done to me??)

    1. @Kimberly Hope Belcher – comment #16:
      Kimberly I would love to talk to you about the landscape and environment as welcome.

      Just this weekend our pastor said that communities that describe themselves as warm and welcoming should take pause… It is those who enter into those communities that should be saying that. His point – too many communities try too hard, and something is lost.

  10. This is not the first time I have said this, but it’s very important: one Sunday Mass should not have greeters, the pre-Mass communal introduction, the Pax, and organ or instrumental accompaniment. The GIRM rubric which requires singing at every Sunday Mass could be accomplished by the priest alone leading the congregants in a simple plainsong setting of the ordinary, Latin or vernacular. If the priest can’t sing, a person in the congregation can lead everyone else. The absence of hymns allows for long and extended periods of silence. Not a few priests prefer to say the first Sunday Mass, and might appreciate a said liturgy.

    A Catholic who attends said or “low” Mass isn’t necessarily antisocial. Quite the contrary! The low Mass adherent soaks in the significance of Mass in word, sacrifice, mystery, and banquet. He or she is akin to a solar-charged flashlight. The energy of the word and sacrament is stored for future utilization in acts of charity. The energy is not dispersed immediately, but displayed in less obvious but still important circumstances.

    Traditionalists still respect this spirituality, and make a place for it in their congregations. I do wonder many times if the emphasis on “full, conscious, and active participation” in the reformed liturgy is purposefully shaped by many to exclude strong introverts. A place can be made in celebrations of the Ordinary Form for a quiet spirituality. Few liturgists and clergy wish to make space for quiet and contemplation. I have grave disagreements with traditionalism and traditionalist culture, but at the very least there is space for silence in their pews.

    EDIT: I am convinced that attendance at the sacrifice is a more than sufficient statement that a person is willing to live in charity and cooperation with his or her brothers and sisters. (cf. Mt. 5:24) I do not see why any physical token sign of friendship is salutary or required.

  11. Doesn’t everyone need time alone to recharge? I never knew I was an introvert. I thought my way was everybody’s way, naturally!

  12. One thing that my priest, when I lived in Glasgow, would often say before Mass: “you are welcome, this is home”. It touched me on a deep level every time. It is quick and simple and worked, for me at least, much more effectively than any greeter or hymn-book person.

  13. I forget the statistic, but some large percentage of people visit a church’s website two or more times before they ever set foot on the property. Some parishes have very welcoming and attractive websites, but most are still amateurish-looking electronic filing cabinets with loads of (perhaps outdated) information given out of context with no organized way to navigate.

    It’s interesting to look at the parish website, bulletin, newsletters, signage, and other communication to see how much they are focused on the in-crowd vs. guests and visitors unfamiliar with your community. “Saturday April 15: Spring Fling in the PC. For more information, call Terry.” What’s a spring fling? Where’s the PC? Does this involve me? Who’s Terry? Oh, never mind!

  14. Some data to stimulate Crowd Sourcing: Can thinking about the 2003 Vibrant Parish Life Study of 129 parishes and 46,241 respondents help parishes fine turn their hospitality.

    The following social items ranked in the top ten of 39 items in importance (#) but were half down the list in being well done (that rank in parenthesis)

    #2 The parish as a supportive, caring community (21st)
    #4 The parish exhibiting a spirit of warmth and hospitality ((18th)
    #6 New members of the parish are welcomed (24th)
    #8 Support for families who have experienced death (17th)

    Why do parishes receive mediocre ratings for doing all these things well?

    These items would seem to indicate as lease two important dimensions of community: deeper relationships (supportive, caring) and more superficial social relationships (hospitality, welcoming ).

    How are these two dimensions related in your experience? Can parishes have one without the other? Are some people more interested in deeper relationships? Others in sociability? Are there other important communal dimensions?

    An example: Some friends of mine were seeking a new parish. They choose one that had a good welcoming program and many small groups. However they were disappointed and are seeking another parish or congregation. “Everything is dominated by in-groups there.”

  15. When I visited a (Baptist) church as a college freshman, I thought the couple behind us were just friendly and interested in young people. No. It turns out they introduced us during announcement time. Terribly uncomfortable and unwelcoming for an introvert.
    Since then (although a dedicated liturgical tourist) I avoid any church that openly admits to inflicting such misery. And if I by chance wander into a church w/ this practice, I’m quite stunned that any visitor/newcomer would raise their hand or otherwise self-identify.
    Give me a polite smile and directions to coffee hour – that feels like hospitality to me. Then maybe there will be a next time. And eventually conversation.

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