Your Parish isn’t a Welcoming Place

Your Parish isn’t a Welcoming Place

Closeup portrait of a man giving his hand for handshake
[lead dropcap="yes"]Our family has recently become homeless, from a Catholic parish standpoint[1], and so we’ve spent recent Sundays going to a variety of parishes in surrounding towns, trying to find a new home. We tried the neighboring parish that is paired with ours at 9am, but there wasn’t even an attempt to welcome the refugees from the lost Mass at our old parish, except to point out where offering envelopes were.[/lead]

The next Sunday, we went to Mass at one of the parishes where I work, which was nice because I already know people there of course. Unfortunately, while Mass is at 9:30, it’s about 30–40 minutes drive. Not insurmountable, but there’s something like 20 parishes within that same driving distance so we decided to look a little closer for the time being.

This whole experience has revealed something profound, something I sort of expected, but didn’t realize the extent of: Our parishes are terrible at welcoming strangers. I looked at a dozen parish web sites on Saturday to find Mass times and approached them as if I were someone new to the Catholic Church. They were universally bad.

None put the Mass times right up front where someone would look for them. One had a splash page that I had to click through to get to the real home page. Another was still using to host their free site, which looked like it hadn’t been updated since it was put online in 2000. One parish’s site had almost nothing on it, except a several thousand-word essay from the pastor on decorum in Mass, including when to go to the bathroom, an admonition to turn off phones and pagers, what to wear, and more. All of that is good and true as far as it goes, but from the perspective of a newcomer to the Church, since it’s seemed to be the main focus of the web site, and thus the pastor, is that my primary impact on that community, if I chose to worship with them, would probably be an infraction of the rules and an embarrasing scolding.

Another parish was conveniently close with a Mass time that was perfect for us, but I noticed a link on their home page called “renovation update.” When I clicked on it out of curiousity, I read that the long-awaited church renovations are underway and that Masses would be held in the “Smith” Auditorium. I have no idea when that update was posted (This week? Two years ago?) or even where this auditorium is. Certainly nothing on the site told me.

I could go on and on: sites whose front page consisted of a list of parish staff and their phone numbers; sites whose most prominent feature was a donation button.

And yet I would venture that all of these parishes would consider themselves to be welcoming places. They even tell you so right on their web pages and bulletins. But it doesn’t go any further than those platitudes.

The parish web sites I design aren’t perfect, but a key aspect of them is that they explicitly welcome strangers. They provide the sort of information an outsider needs and wants. That said, I’m going to be going back over my parish web sites with a new eye to finding any place that I use insider jargon or assume knowledge about the places. The reality is that more and more, the first impression people new to our parishes will have is our web site. What impression will it give?

Are we serious about Christ’s admonition to go out and evangelize the whole world? How about even those who wander across our thresholds?

As a coda to this post, I would add that our actual experience at parishes where we truly are strangers hasn’t been very welcoming either. At the two places so far where we were truly newcomers, not one person made an effort to approach us before or after Mass to welcome us, to strike up a conversation. We’re a family with five young children who always sits up front. It’s not like we’re hard to miss in our typical parishes. Hopefully, we’ll find a parish that is better at this in the coming weeks.

Photo: Andrew Hughey. Used under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA–2.0) license.

  1. Our pastor was given an unexpectedly early reassignment to shepherd two other parishes. In return the pastor of a neighboring parish was made administrator of ours. To reconcile the Sunday Mass schedule that won’t work for one priest, he eliminated the 9:30am Mass at our parish. That left us with either the 7:30am or 11am Masses, which are too early for five kids and too late, the latter being right at lunch time.  ↩

Image Credit

  • Welcome: Graphicstock | Copyright by owner. Used with permission.
  • I’ve recently moved to a small city with 2 English-speaking parishes (there is also a Spanish parish, but I don’t speak Spanish so it’s automatically out). Both parish websites are pretty informative as far as Mass and confession times and also have their weekly calendars posted. From the websites, both seemed welcoming. I visited both and settled on one because it offered more adult faith formation activities. I’ve joined a Bible study and have attended the monthly women’s group. The Bible study has been good. However, in general I’ve been quite frustrated with the lack of welcome I’ve felt.

    I’m a Protestant convert (East 2011) and it’s been a very different experience looking for a parish as a Catholic than it was as a protestant. In visiting new Protestant churches, there was usually a visitor card to fill out for more information, there were often people at the service whose task was to greet the new people and make them feel welcome. On several occasions, I was invited to a family’s house for Sunday dinner, even though they just met me. If this didn’t happen on a first or second visit, usually within a month or so I was asked to come over for dinner, or some other activity, either by the pastor/priest and his wife (My last stop before the Catholic church was Anglican), or by another family in the church.

    This has not happened once since I’ve been attending the new parish in September. I’m not saying that I need to be invited to someone’s house to be welcome. It’s more the intent behind the gesture – you’re important and we want to get to know you. I have not experienced this yet in a Catholic parish. As a single woman in my 30s who has moved back home with my (non-Christian) parents, I am not in a position to invite people for dinner. I know I need to keep doing my part in participating in the parish, but I wish there was more effort by the parish/parishioners to get to know new people.

    Ack, I’m sorry this has turned into a rant. I’m just frustrated and your post resonated with me.

  • Join us among the homeless. We left our home parish for several reasons…but I did love their later Sunday mass time (as Sunday is a day of work for me). The parish closest to us only has early masses, and each time I’ve been there I haven’t felt welcomed at all. Truthfully, I’m almost tempted to attend service at a non catholic church nearby, as the pastor there has been so welcoming and so open and so “come and join us!”.

    I do struggle with a lot of the Catholic faith, and not having a parish feel like home makes the struggle even harder…

    It’s sad that I feel more attached to the mass on my television than I do to an in person mass near my home.

    Anyway, I’m so glad you wrote this – as it’s nice to hear that a devout Catholic feels a similar way….

  • Glad you put these thoughts down in a blog, Dom. I wonder when this will become a priority across the board.

    Our archdiocese is currently in the midst of a “Season of Welcome ” during which we’re being encouraged to invite people to Mass with us, and parishes are making more of an effort to be welcoming. However, this blog has made me curious as to whether the “Season of Welcome” has had any bearing on parish websites.

  • ‘When I read this, I remembered the last time I attended a meeting at my Parish, where I felt
    led to ask the question, are we ‘welcoming?’ It’s also interesting to note that this is what Our
    Holy Father Pope Francis is concerned about. Our Church has taught and continues to
    teach, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit , the ‘Truth’ of our Catholic Faith. We need to
    remember that we are called to be ‘like Jesus’ and welcome the ‘stranger.’ Our Faith, after all
    is about ‘our relationship with the God of Love’ therefore, we need to welcome others as Jesus did as He calls us to do the same.

  • This is very interesting. I never really thought about the “welcoming” aspect of a parish so I’m probably one of the people who might not seem welcoming, but it’s unintentional. I just don’t even think about it. I have been to Protestant churches where the welcoming has almost been too overwhelming for me. I once went to a church to hear their choir, as a friend sang with them. Turns out she wasn’t there that Sunday, but I stayed for the service. Of course, because I was a new face, everyone had to come up to me and introduce themselves and ask about me. When I got home, my friend called me 10 minutes later, saying “I heard you were at my church this morning!” I know it’s fellowship and they mean well, but coming from a background of a certain “anonymity” in Cathoic parishes, it was a little freaky for me.

    • I think you’ve hit on a real problem. There are people (like myself) who don’t want to be noticed right away. I’d rather get the feel of a place and decide if I like it before I meet people. I have traveled around the country for my kids’ activities and so we have often found ourselves strangers at a Sunday Mass. I particularly remember my daughter and I attending one very small parish in Cleveland. Everyone was much older and we felt like the whole congregation was staring at us and smiling. At the kiss of peace, people were tripping over each other to shake our hands or wave to us. After Communion, my daughter (who was in front of me in line) walked straight to the door and out to the car. Concerned, I followed. She said, “Sorry, Mom. I just knew everyone there was going to want to talk to us and I didn’t feel like facing them.” I know leaving Mass before it’s over isn’t right, but I’d be lying if I said I weren’t tempted the same way for the exact same reason.

      I think for many of us, a friendly smile after Mass, maybe even some chitchat, e.g. “What a beautiful baby!” without a formal greeting is the best way to feel welcomed.

  • I recommend a book by Tom Ehrich called “Church Wellness” that addresses this point and guides parishes in ways to improve the welcoming process. Two examples struck me: some parishes reserve the 4-5 best parking spaces for newcomers or visitors, b/c many newcomers cant even find parking so they just drive off. Secondly, some uber-successful mega churches in the South are designed so that you cannot exit the church without passing through the Welcome Center, where volunteers are poised to stop and chat with you. Brilliant!. There’s also a statistic about follow-up. Something like this: for every day that goes by after the newcomer’s first visit where the newcomer does not receive a follow-up call or email from the church, the likelihood of a return visit drops dramatically, something like 10-20%/ per day. Its a good read.