Heavenly Greetings

They say a pastor at Church of the Heavenly Rest, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, built his congregation by standing outside the doors on Sunday morning and inviting passers-by to come inside.

I’m sure he did far more than that. The point is: Heavenly Rest got a reputation for welcoming and friendliness because its pastor stood outside and greeted people.

Whatever the physical setting, sidewalk or parking lot, the principle holds: when the pastor greets people as they arrive, the perceived tone of the congregation changes.

People appreciate being greeted by name. Like a gracious host, the pastor in effect escorts the “guest” from the world into the church, making that threshold a welcome mat, not a barrier.

A worshiper who is greeted warmly is likely to extend that same warmth to others. A worshiper bringing a guest to worship appreciates having the guest recognized.

Too often, the pastor is rushing around at the last minute, making sure everything is in place, radiating frenzy. A calm welcome communicates confidence and says, We’re ready for you.

I knew a pastor who couldn’t preach a lick, but he was outside greeting thirty minutes before worship and for another thirty minutes afterward. People trusted him.

Some clergy feel a need to prepare themselves for worship by quiet time. I understand that need, but the most important preparation for worship is seeing the faces, hearing the voices, and sensing the moods and needs of people gathering for worship. You preach to them, not to the idea of them.

Not every pastor feels comfortable “working the room,” as some put it. I am convinced they need to learn. Even an awkward effort will be appreciated more than an ambiguous absence.

Nothing undermines a pastor’s ministry more than the perception, “He’s too busy for us,” or “She thinks she’s too good for us.”

One tip: carry some 3 x 5 cards for writing down people’s comments. Also, hand out welcome cards asking for newcomers’ names and e-mail addresses. The word will go around: she cares!


Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus, and the founder of the Church Wellness Project.