Newcomers Feel Really Welcome

by Clair Woodbury

The Sunday we walked in the door of St. Paul's United Church on the east side of Saskatoon, the first thing we saw was Esther Edmonds offering us a cup of coffee. It was good coffee too, and yes, we could take it into the worship with us. About eighty others brought their coffee in with them. There is something going on here, I thought.

Esther was one of a group of four from the congregation, including their two clergy, who had taken our Small Group Ministry training in Athabasca the summer before. We'd been invited to do a Saturday workshop to share some of the SGM ideas with more of the congregation. That is where we heard about Esther and the newcomers luncheons. We talked to Esther later, and were very excited by what we heard.

During the service, Esther sits in the back pew and takes note of people who have the temporary name tag that identifies them as a visitor. At some point, she told us, "I just go up to them and say, 'I haven't met you before ...' and have a conversation."

She tells people about the newcomers luncheon she hosts and asks if they would be interested. The majority of them are, she told us. The ones she had held take place for an hour after church on three successive Sundays. She likes to have another person from the church share the leadership with her.

She uses a Small Group Ministry format. They light a candle on the centre table. There is a check-in where people get to know one another, a time for the theme of the day, then a closing. She makes soup for the lunch, Esther told us, "and if I think of it, they get dessert."

The first session deals with people's life story. They light the candle and say grace, followed by an ice-breaker, sharing "the funniest thing that has happened to you." It is kept light. Esther talks about the congregation's mission and vision, then invites people to tell their life story, starting herself so they feel comfortable and know what is expected. People have been told ahead of time what will happen, so there are no surprises.

The second session deals with people's faith stories. We wondered if folks would be hesitant to share so soon at this level. "Some tell a little more than others. Again, I start off with my faith story. They have been told the week before to think about their faith story." It's not a problem.

The theme of the third session is the gifts they would like to bring to the congregation, and the gifts the congregation can offer them. They share their expectations of the congregation, then their gifts. "Then we talk about Small group Ministry." Esther gives the participants a list of the small groups they have, and ones they would like to have. It's a list to break people open to see new ways that they can participate in the congregation.

The list includes praying, gardening, walking in the woods, singing, gathering for coffee or tea with friends, drawing, painting, sculpting, writing stories, walking the labyrinth, canoeing or kayaking, cooking, knitting, crocheting, bird watching, reading the Bible, reading novels or short stories -- books that raise religious or theological questions -- watching the stars, listening to music, visiting the sick, Inn out of the Cold program, teaching Sunday School, helping to plan worship, developing rituals to express my growing faith, and being involved in governance boards.

What are the results. "The feedback I get is that they feel welcome now. We have made an effort. We know they are here." When people come into worship, now they either look for Esther or for others that were in their group. When they go for coffee, they know people. It makes a difference. They have experienced the church as community, as a safe place where they can connect - with each other and with God.

Congregational News September 2007 Vol. 14 No. 1

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