Generosity Project: Generous Hospitality
by Rev. Dr. Lonnie A. Brown
There is good and bad news in today’s blog. The good news is that hospitality costs relatively little and can have an enormous impact helping people find a place of belonging within our churches. The bad news is that hospitality can be just as challenging as money.
We’ve all been there. Too many jobs to do and not enough volunteers means hospitality is usually an afterthought. It isn’t as important as financial responsibilities or other urgent needs. But even though it doesn’t demand our attention, hospitality may be the most important volunteer position we neglect.
Here are a few simple tips for moving your congregation toward better hospitality.
First, acknowledge the elephant in the room.
I’ve been a pastor for fifteen years. During that time I have missed relatively few Sundays. That means the opportunity for me to visit a new church is rare. On those rare occasions I am usually outed as a pastor and receive a special welcome. Still, even as an experienced clergy person, the experience can sometimes be nerve-racking.
What does that say for someone who doesn’t attend church regularly? Strange symbols and unknown customs are just the beginning. We Baptists like to think we are easily approachable, but we have rituals and code words of our own. Local church autonomy only compounds the stranger-danger anxiety. (I like to call Baptists the Forrest Gump of the church world: you never know what you’re going to get.)
When guests don’t know what to expect, it is only natural for them to be uneasy and guarded. What do I wear? Am I supposed to kneel before sitting? What if I don’t know the words to a song or a prayer? Will I stand out? Will they know I don’t belong?!
The role of hospitality is to help these guests feel valued, which is the first step toward belonging.
Know your Marys from your Marthas
Luke’s Gospel paints a vivid picture of how to help guests feel valued.
Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Marthas runs the hospitality team in most churches. They tirelessly bake brownies and brew coffee, seeing to every conceivable need. Everyone knows that you can’t do hospitality without Marthas.
We also need Marys, people who interact skillfully without concern for brewing or baking. While the Marthas are tending to the urgent needs of preparation and coordination, Marys are freed to do the equally important work of focusing all their energy on our guests and connecting with them on a personal level. They can’t do their job unless the Marthas are scurrying around doing theirs, but their job is just as important.
At my church, this is the season of the year when leadership roles transition for the next year. After a year of tremendous growth and insight, our council chair for the past year–a consummate Mary–is primed to guide us in reshaping our hospitality team. I can’t think of a better-suited person for the job.
Invest in hospitality
Finally, as I mentioned in my previous post on living in abundance, spiritual generosity requires that we be willing to reasonably invest our finances in ministries that support gaining and growing disciples. Because that is the main goal of hospitality, we need to pinch fewer pennies and focus on the people.
Hospitality means putting others’ needs above our own assumptions. Whether we agree with it or not, we live in a culture that spends an obscene amount of money on coffee. Most of us are even complicit. Someone who regularly spends three dollars in the morning for coffee will gladly choke down a store-bought cookie, but there is no way they are drinking a cup of Folgers. Given a choice between cheap coffee that doesn’t serve hospitality and expensive coffee that does, the economical choice is to spring for the good stuff!
Rev. Dr. Lonnie A. Brown is the Senior Minister for Union Baptist Church in Mystic, Connecticut. He has served as an associate pastor for congregations across the country, most recently in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where he served multiple roles with the District of Columbia Baptist Convention. He lives in Ledyard, Connecticut, along with Rachel, his wife of 21 years, and his two teenage children.