April 6, 2009

The folks at St. Mary Magdalene Roman Catholic Church certainly know how to make a newcomer feel welcome. Let me tell you my story:

Two weeks ago after Mass I stopped by the parish information table (strategically positioned near the front door of the school where they hold their services and staffed immediate before and after Mass) and expressed my interest in joining the parish. The lady staffing the table gave me an application and told me to complete it in my spare time. Once I returned it, she said with a smile, they’d take it from there.

Well she was spot on about that. Once I returned the application a week ago, it didn’t take long for the parish newcomer’s committee to spring into action. This past Thursday I received a “Welcome to St. Mary Magdalene” e-mail from Richard, the parish’s ministry coordinator. No pressure, just a welcome e-mail introducing himself and to say if I was interested in involving myself in any of the parish’s activities to just let him know.

In Saturday’s bulletin my name was included with seven other people (talk about fast growing!) in their “Welcome New Members” section.

Today I went out to the mailbox and found in Saturday’s mail a welcome packet that included a welcome card, two letters from the parish priest, several parish ministry fliers, and a document providing various options for pledging (including payroll deduction, which I personally think is kinda bizarre, but hey it’s the 21st century, right?). I’m also told I can expect a call from someone on the newcomer’s committee this week just to make sure I got the packet and to answer any questions I might have.

It’s obvious that St. Mary Magdalene understands the challenges of creating a sense of community and intimacy in a rapidly-growing parish when there is no standing church building, and I find it both reassuring and refreshing that there are still churches out there that take newcomer ministry seriously. For churches nowadays, it’s absolutely critical to their success, and I doubt most churches – especially smaller ones – know how to do it well.

In some ways, large parishes have it a lot easier than small parishes. In a small parish newcomers stand out like a sore thumb, and you have to be careful to be welcoming, yet not be so overbearing as to turn people off or away. The other problem is that when you’re a small parish, the majority (whatever that might be) stands out, and, rightly or not, that can be a barrier to attracting newcomers and convincing them to stay. For example, if you’re a young family looking for aparish with a church school program and visit a parish where the majority of the population is elderly you’ll never get past square one.

In large parishes, the challenge is to make people feel welcome, and do it quickly. At St. Mary Magdalene, where you have numerous Masses with hundreds of people attending it’s more difficult to tell who might be just visiting or who’s actually new to the parish. Therefore, you need to get contact information and follow up so as not to allow that person to fall through the cracks. Large parishes have to be able to show they care about the individual and make them feel important and welcome. Small things like not just asking a person’s full name but the name they like to use, and then follow up in communications with that person’s name used and spelled correctly makes a big difference. If a parish pays attention to the little things, you can be pretty sure they’re on the ball when it comes to the bigger things as well.

In the end, what makes welcoming newcomers and making them feel truly welcome so challenging is that it remains a kind of an art form – there’s no right way to do it, and there are a lot of dynamics involved. The parishes that do it best, I think, are those who recognize those people in their own midst who have a gift for being able to make strangers feel welcome in a non-threatening way. My dear friend Pete has that gift, and seeing him in action is a marvelous thing to behold – it truly is a gift from God.

So congrats go out to the St. Mary Magdalene welcoming committee and ministry – if the rest of the parish operates as well as these guys do, they’re going to have a lot of success in the ministry and evangelism field in the future. As our Lord said, the harvest is plentiful and the fields ripe for picking. You just have to want to bring that harvest in.

Filed in: Religion & Culture by The Great White Shank at 00:43 | Comments (0)
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