We church folks are coming up short on our welcome, and it’s our eyes that are giving it away. Spending the last few months in a sort of clerical no-(wo)man’s land has given me an unusual opportunity to make an informal study of hospitality at a variety of places, both church and non-church, and I think I’ve found something. As a vocational deacon in studies for priesthood, I’ve concluded my parish deacon assignment, and am waiting a few unassigned weeks to begin my new post as head of congregation to a small Episcopal congregation. It was on a visit to St. Somewhere Else that I first noticed the issue. I was there relatively incognito, having introduced myself to host clergy shortly before the service, but I was in my civvies and nobody in the pews knew me. As the service approached the exchange of peace, a traditional time of open greeting in the pews, I was a little giddy with excitement at the rare prospect of being an actual visitor, and receiving a real newcomer’s welcome. When the time came, I waited, small nice-to-meet-you smile in place, turning slightly side-to-side to be sure I didn’t miss anyone. I needn’t have worried. Busy hugging and saying hello to familiar friends, nobody on any side offered a welcome, asked me my name, or extended a hand. Finally, a woman in front of me, looking slightly annoyed she’d accidentally caught my eye, reached her hand out and said hello. And then it happened: The Sliding Eyes. That’s when a visitor gets a handshake, a greeting, but no measurable eye contact. Mid-handshake, the greeter’s pupils are sliding over to one side, anticipating the next person to talk to, instead of focusing on the visitor right in front of them. It happens when we are engaged in what I like to call Automatic Welcome Mode, an absent-minded, I’m-not-really-interested kind of greeting. The greeter may be a perfectly friendly person, perhaps even one of those tagged as gifted in hospitality, but this kind of welcome leaves a lot to be desired. Of course, as clergy, I wasn’t the newcomer anyone needed to worry about. But, even as clergy with somewhat thickened skin, I had to admit the Sliding Eyes still hurt a little. Nobody likes to feel like they don’t matter, or to discover they’re seeking spiritual or emotional inclusion in a closed system. I can only imagine what an actual first-time visitor would have felt in my shoes, and I shudder to think how a lonely, hurting visitor would feel. I started paying closer attention after that, and discovered the Sliding Eyes in a number of places – more churches, unfortunately – but also routinely in community activities and business situations.
Of course, nobody wants to be stared down. But hospitality training should include making basic eye contact to authenticate a greeting or introduction. It could make a world of difference to the visitor. It conveys you are engaged/interested/invested in the Other. And isn’t that what we want our church visitors to know? Isn’t that what we believe about ourselves? There is so much out there on websites and social media about The Welcome. But from my experience in trying to prepare for church leadership, there is a lot published on welcomes about the What, but little about the How. It’s time to make eye contact with ourselves and the specific quality
of our welcome. We need to go beyond merely identifying those gifted in hospitality, tapping as well those in our churches who have the gift of making others feel like they matter and are included, drawing on their experience and encouragement to make out of us churches that aren’t afraid to look somebody in the eye and make them welcome.