Monthly Archives: September 2017

A Sense of Belonging

We’ve covered the first four questions of seeker-oriented outreach:

1) How can we make sure that seekers know Quakers exist?

2) How can we help seekers find the local Quaker meeting?

3) How can we make it easy for seekers to decide to visit the meeting?

4) How can we make sure that the first visit helps seekers decide to come back?

Now, let’s take a look at the fifth question:

5) How can we help new attenders to develop a sense of belonging?

By “new attenders,” I’m talking about people who have been to the meeting at least a couple of times but haven’t been around for more than six months or so. It’s a critical time—the person has enough interest in the community to stick around but hasn’t gotten to the point of making a commitment yet. Spirit is working on them; we are, too, whether we know it or not.

It’s worth noting that for many of us, the definition of “outreach”—and the scope of outreach and advancement committees—generally ends here. The person has come through the door and has been welcomed, and now the next steps are the responsibility of somebody else—often a rather vaguely defined “somebody else.” But from the perspective of the seeker, the journey with Friends has barely begun. We are absolutely still introducing our community to the seeker, and the seeker to our community. We might as well do so with intention.

How can we help new attenders make the transition from “I’m a visitor here” to “I feel like I belong?”

 

Newcomers are invited to participate in formal or informal small groups. Sociological research tells us that it’s easier to enter a group in formation than it is to enter an established group. Established groups have unwritten rules and norms; it’s easy for the newcomer to accidentally sit in somebody else’s seat or bring the wrong thing for snack or ask questions at an inappropriate time, and for that reason, the newcomer feels awkward. A group—especially a small group—that is just being established is a lot easier to enter because the newcomer can be part of the creation of the social norms.

Ideally, even a small or medium-sized meeting would start some kind of new small group activity at least once a year—gardening groups, book clubs, Friendly Eights, parenting worship groups, neighborhood clean-up teams, just about anything. A large meeting might have multiple small groups running and start new ones every three to six months. There’s no reason why any small group activity needs to be considered permanent, and in fact, implied permanence makes it a lot harder to be agile as conditions change; start new groups with the expectation that they’ll last for a certain length of time (six months or a year) and then maybe continue, if there’s still a lot of excitement for it.

Committees can function as small groups for new attenders, but not easily. The work of a standing committee tends to be established, with little room for the new attender to be involved in inventing or re-inventing things. Working groups or task groups (relatively new and temporary by nature) might be better.

 

The whole meeting engages regularly in fun multigenerational activities. Some Quaker meetings do this very well, but for many of us, this is a challenge. “Multigenerational” sometimes ends up being interpreted as meaning “something for the little kids that the grown-ups tolerate.” And many times, adults without children simply don’t participate in any meeting activity where the primary purpose is fun. For some adults, games and singing and other types of silliness are pretty far out of the comfort zone.

The thing is, having fun together—especially fun that includes children, teens, young adults, middle-aged adults, and senior citizens—brings a community together in ways that nothing else does. For many people, social time is where trust-building happens. (If you’re someone who prefers serving on committees or participating in business meeting over unstructured social times, you’re probably someone who most naturally experiences trust-building by working together. It’s important to know that many people most naturally experience trust-building by playing together.)

Even neuroscience supports the idea of community play. Laughter stimulates chemicals in our brains that cause us to experience a feeling of bondedness to the people we laugh with.

If we are committed to being in deep, spiritual community, we need to ask ourselves whether that commitment includes the commitment to making time for fun.

 

Quaker jargon is explained briefly and clearly as it is used in all meeting activities. We’ve all had the experience of sitting through twenty minutes of announcements at the end of meeting. What we might not remember is what that experience is like when the twenty minutes of announcements are incomprehensible because they’re all in Quakerese. It can take practice to learn how to translate as we go along, but it’s important. The simple act of explaining what we’re talking about changes the feel of things from coded and exclusionary to inviting and open.

 

The meeting responds positively and supportively to newcomers’ suggestions. In other posts, I’ve used the term “permission-giving culture.” In other words, the default answer to newcomers’ ideas is “yes, and how can I help?” unless there is a compelling, Spirit-led reason to say otherwise. Newcomers develop a sense of belonging when their ideas are taken seriously and when they experience the power to make a difference in the community. This is newcomers of all ages, by the way—including teens and kids.

 

Worship is deep and holds a central place in the meeting, and all ages are welcome. For many meetings, worship absolutely holds a central place. But there are some meetings in which this can be questioned. Does your meeting have multiple Friends who serve on committees or lead activities but who are physically present in meeting for worship less than twice a month? If so, you might consider whether your meeting community as a whole is valuing worship as central to what you do together.

It’s also worth asking whether all ages—indeed, all Friends and seekers—are truly welcome, recalling that there’s a difference between “I am tolerated here” and “I belong here.” One of my favorite meeting rooms is in Ithaca, in central New York. There are probably over a hundred places to sit in the room, and no more than any two or three of them are the same. There are chairs of varying heights, chairs with backs and without, chairs with arms and without, short benches, long benches, benches with cushions and benches without, a gymnastics mat in a corner on the floor, and pillows and blankets stacked against the wall for anyone who needs to make their place softer or warmer. There’s a place for everyone (including squirmy sitters like me, with legs that are several inches too short to reach the floor in a standard chair).

It might not be possible for your meeting to build a space with a hundred different seats, but ask yourself—does our worship space have physical indications (variety of seats, blankets, soft baby toys, signs) that indicate that all are welcome in the space? Does our behavior (smiles of greeting, patience with normal baby noises, flexibility in meeting times, commitment to being present) reinforce the idea that meeting for worship is central to our meeting and open to all?

Is your meeting doing these five things to help new attenders to develop a sense of belonging? If not, might you personally feel called to step up in any of these ways?

And again for the gratitude challenge—I talked in the first blog of this series about the ways in which outreach has many parts and how each of us has gifts and callings to participate somewhere in the broader definition of outreach. Are there people in your meeting who organize small groups, who facilitate fun multigenerational activities, who explain Quaker jargon, who respond positively and supportively to new ideas, or who work toward helping worship be deep and open to all ages? If so, can you set an intention for yourself to notice their work and thank them for their service sometime in the next week?

Will They Come Back?

We’ve covered the first three questions of seeker-oriented outreach:

1) How can we make sure that seekers know Quakers exist?

2) How can we help seekers find the local Quaker meeting?

3) How can we make it easy for seekers to decide to visit the meeting?

Now, let’s take a look at the fourth question:

4) How can we make sure that the first visit helps seekers decide to come back?

Of course, we can’t really make sure that the first visit helps seekers decide to come back. We all know that ultimately, the decision to come back to another Quaker meeting is down to what Spirit does with someone during their first Quaker meeting. If it’s not the right spiritual home for someone, they probably won’t come back, at least not more than a few times. And we wouldn’t want them to.

But it is possible for us, as Quakers, to get in the way of someone coming back. There are ways in which we can be stumbling blocks, and there are ways in which we can greet seekers and offer the warmth and support they need to be able to come back—if it’s right for them.

I’d like to mention four specific ways in which we can offer this warmth and support.

Friends personally welcome visitors of all ages, warmly but not overwhelmingly. It’s a tricky balance. Some new visitors are extremely outgoing and would hope for lots of people to come up, check in, say hello, and offer welcome. Others are shy or uncertain and prefer to be greeted but then essentially left alone. What’s the “right” way to go about this?

One way is to choose greeters who are good at reading signals. Some of us are simply more gifted than others at reading body language and making people feel comfortable. If your meeting is small, this might be a function for the whole meeting, but you probably know which Friends are especially good at it—can you name those Friends and encourage them to continue doing the work, even informally?

It’s also important to have someone who’s comfortable greeting young people. Children should have their own greeting, and if the child is quite young, it’s helpful to bend down to be at eye level. Might it even be possible to ask a child or teen who is particularly good at befriending people to take responsibility for greeting and welcoming visiting children or teens?

The building contains dedicated (separate) spaces for children and for teens, and all ages mix in social times and worship times. There are a few meetings that meet in rental spaces where this is impossible, but most meetings can at least swing a couple of small dedicated spaces. Ideally, you need a space for children preschool age and younger, a space for elementary-age kids, and a space for teens, even if you don’t have any regularly attending Friends in these age ranges. There’s a real difference between “we don’t have any place for you, but we’re willing to make one” and “we have a place already prepared specifically for you.”

It’s important to visiting families, though, that the age spaces are flexible and that all age groups mix. Parents must be welcome in childcare areas, especially when young ones are first visiting, and it’s important that children are equally welcome in the worship space. (This welcome can be clearly indicated with signs—CHILDREN ARE WELCOME IN WORSHIP—and with physical resources to make worship easier for young ones, such as small chairs, soft toys, and mats to sit on the floor.) Finally, social hour should be organized so that the age groups mix easily, with play areas visible to parents and a space where teens can flow easily between the general gathering area and a place of their own.

Simple information about Quakerism is easy for visitors to find and take home. Almost all meetings have some version of take-home information, but somebody has to maintain this, even if the work of doing so isn’t glamorous. Are the stacks tidy? Do the handouts have a modern design, and does someone replenish the photocopies regularly? Are there coloring pages for children along with the materials for adults? Is it obvious which resources should remain at the meetinghouse and which can be taken home for free?

Friends follow up with visitors by phone or email within a few days of the first visit. Some visitors—especially shy ones—might find this kind of foll0w-up intimidating, but they tend to self-select. If visitors are invited and encouraged to write their contact information in a book, they will decide for themselves whether to offer an email address, a phone number, a mailing address, or none of the above. Within days, they should receive a friendly follow-up—“I’m so glad you came. Here are a couple of upcoming events you might want to know about . . . can I answer any questions for you?” This kind of contact makes a visitor feel seen.

Is your meeting doing these four things to help visitors decide to come back after a first visit? If not, might you personally feel called to step up in any of these ways?

And again for the gratitude challenge—I talked in the first blog of this series about the ways in which outreach has many parts and how each of us has gifts and callings to participate somewhere in the broader definition of outreach. Are there people in your meeting who make it a point to welcome visitors of all ages, who maintain dedicated spaces for young people, who make photocopies or straighten the piles for take-home information, or who follow up with visitors by phone or email? If so, can you set an intention for yourself to notice their work and thank them for their service sometime in the next week?

The Path to Visiting

So far in this series, I’ve covered the first two questions of seeker-oriented outreach:

1) How can we make sure that seekers know Quakers exist?

2) How can we help seekers find the local Quaker meeting?

Now, let’s take a look at the third question:

3) How can we make it easy for seekers to decide to visit the meeting?

This is the step in which the seeker, who has been considering the possibility of visiting the meeting, makes the mental shift from “maybe sometime” to “I’m going next Sunday.” This is a step that we never see, but it’s also a crucial turning point and a step that can be very difficult to take.

How can we make it just a little bit easier?

The meeting’s website is aesthetically appealing with photos of diverse people and contains clear, welcoming information about Quakerism, meeting times, and meeting locations. I said before that having a bare-bones website is better than not having a website at all, and that’s still true. If just having something is as much as you can manage, then by all means, do what you can manage. But when you can, go back to the website and punch it up a little. Start posting great photos. Add sections specifically for newcomers. If no one in your meeting has the necessary skills to build a website that is slick and modern, hire somebody. Especially for younger generations, a well-designed website is a sign of relevance to the modern world.

The meeting’s website and Facebook page are frequently updated, and messages are answered promptly. Make sure that someone in your meeting is committed to updating, updating, and updating. If possible, schedule between three and ten Facebook posts every week, with as many photos and videos included as possible—visual posts play much better than text-only on social media. For the website, change the events and announcements at least every two weeks, and once a week is better. This way, the potential visitor browsing your website can think, Oh, look—there’s a potluck three days from now. Maybe that’s the right time to give this a try. It also helps a lot if messages from potential visitors—whether they come in through the website, the Facebook page, or a phone number—are answered quickly, completely, and warmly.

Friends carry multi-age flyers/materials when they do service/witness in the community. This one will almost certainly take a couple of Friends working together, because the Friend who’s inclined to do service and witness activities in the community might not be the same Friend who’s inclined to produce and make photocopies of outreach materials. Let different Friends with different gifts work together to make sure that every time a Friend does a public event in the community, that Friend has take-home materials about the meeting at the ready for anyone who might be interested. It’s one thing for the potential visitor to attend a Friends’ activity in the local library and be intrigued; it’s another for that potential visitor to be able to carry home a pamphlet with the meetinghouse address on it and a page of Quaker stickers for his preschooler.

The meetinghouse is accessible to those with mobility challenges and is visibly intergenerational. The seeker who uses a wheelchair is very unlikely to decide to visit if she sees four steps leading up to the front door. Install ramps and smooth pathways to make the meetinghouse as physically accessible as possible. If you use microphones in meeting for worship, say so on your website so that those who have trouble hearing know that they’ll be able to participate. And if the meeting has children, make that obvious from the outside as well. A swing set or toddler slide in the yard indicates that you’re family-friendly. So does a banner hand-painted by kids.

Is your meeting doing these four things to help seekers find their local Quaker meeting? If not, might you personally feel called to step up in any of these ways?

One more time, the gratitude challenge. I talked in the first blog of this series about the ways in which outreach has many parts and how each of us has gifts and callings to participate somewhere in the broader definition of outreach. Are there people in your meeting who have designed and maintained a really amazing website, who update your Facebook page frequently, who carry Quaker materials into the community, or who have helped to make the meetinghouse more accessible and family-friendly? If so, can you make it a point to notice their work and thank them for their service sometime in the next week?

Helping Seekers Find Us

In my last blog entry, I covered the first question of seeker-oriented outreach:

1) How can we make sure that seekers know Quakers exist?

Now, let’s take a look at the second question:

2) How can we help seekers find their local Quaker meeting?

Most people, having decided ahead of time that they specifically want to attend a Quaker meeting, could probably manage to locate one that’s somewhere near them. Friends General Conference has a Quaker Finder on their website. Friends World Committee for Consultation keeps a pretty good list, too. And in many areas, Googling “Quakers near me” will come up with something.

But for many seekers, the journey might not be that straightforward. The person might Google “faith communities near me” or might have the idea of searching for a faith community in the back of their mind while going about their ordinary lives—running errands, dropping kids off at school, and scrolling through social media feeds. If we hope to reach seekers engaged in these less active and/or less specific searches, we’re going to have to step things up a little.

How do we know if we’re doing that?

The meeting has a website. You don’t have to have the Sistine Chapel of websites, but you do need something that can pop up in a Google search. A bare-bones website might include the name of your meeting; a couple of pictures; the physical address of the place of worship; time of worship; whether you have programs for infants, toddlers, kids, and teens; and an email address and/or phone number where people can ask for more information.

The meeting has a Facebook page and runs social media ads. The majority of people under the age of forty no longer use websites; instead, their exclusive source of information and communications is social media. Instagram, Twitter, and SnapChat are all popular, but Facebook has the largest user base by far, with 68% of people in the United States having a Facebook account and two thirds of those people checking Facebook every day. Your meeting absolutely needs a Facebook presence, and social media ads are a good idea too—not to mention incredibly inexpensive and a lot easier to manage than you might think.

The meetinghouse has clear signage, visible from the road. Some meetings have rental spaces and can’t manage this for that reason, but legal requirements are (in my opinion) the only good reason not to have clear, large signage. At a minimum, the sign should say the word Quaker and should list the worship time or times, and that much must be visible to a car driving by. In smaller print, you might list options for children. If yours is a welcoming and affirming congregation, that’s good to put on your sign, too.

Friends do regular service and witness in the neighborhood community, outside the meetinghouse walls. Again, this is something that I’ve talked about in the past. It’s a huge part of expanding our definition of outreach. If those living in our communities never see us except when we’re walking in and out of our place of worship, then we give the impression of being insular and self-involved, no matter how much service and witness we might be doing in the broader world. Do we show up for community functions like parades and street fairs? Do we throw fundraisers for local schools, community centers, and food pantries? Do we clean up public parks or gardens? And do we do these things while wearing T-shirts, hats, or buttons that say QUAKER?

Is your meeting doing these four things to help seekers find their local Quaker meeting? If not, might you personally feel called to step up in any of these ways?

I’d like to offer one more challenge, too. I talked in the first blog of this series about the ways in which outreach has many parts and how each of us has gifts and callings to participate somewhere in the broader definition of outreach. Are there people in your meeting who created the meeting website, who maintain the meeting’s social media presence, who ordered/designed the signage, or who do regular service and witness in the neighborhood community? If so, can you make it a point to notice their work and thank them for their service sometime in the next week?