Welcome U: What churches can learn from college admissions

My oldest is a high school junior, which means we’ve been logging lots of miles on the road visiting colleges. I’ve discovered that some schools welcome prospective students in the way I remember from my own experience: watch a video, take a tour, offer a few minutes to ask current students questions. These visits are certainly adequate. However, there are other schools that excel at hospitality, making students feel welcome immediately. The schools that excel at hospitality have generally moved up my daughter’s list of prospects. Those that did adequately seem to be moving down the list. Churches, I believe we can learn from these exceptional, and authentic welcome strategies:

The welcome begins off campus. Once students register online for a day at the university, an email is sent with parking information, welcome center location, lodging recommendations, and links to highlights of the school website. As a family, we arrive feeling more relaxed and ready. While churches rarely get advance notice of visitors, we can offer clear information about what people can expect on a Sunday morning on our websites.

Take a look at your website from a visitor’s perspective. What information is missing? Do you offer an opportunity for people to contact ahead of their visit? Is your main entrance easily located?

People are appropriately excited at our arrival. Multiple people stand ready and waiting (not talking to each other or scrolling on their phones) to provide visitors with coffee, water, and information packets. The greeters begin with caring questions, “how was your drive? Where are you from?” Each person is walked through their  individual agenda for the day.

What is your Sunday morning greeting procedure? Do you have a greeting team? Consider recruiting a “secret shopper.” What made them feel welcome? What turned them off?

Awkward social moments are prevented. The school we visited that was the best at hospitality treated us to lunch at the school. When the large group of visitors arrived at the cafeteria, we were shown, restaurant style, to tables. Clear directions were offered about the food options available that day. A faculty member or student joined each table for lunch, providing an opportunity to ask individual questions. That person then introduced us to other faculty or students. At no point were we left to fend for ourselves with no one to talk to. People weren’t pushy, though, either. We got the sense that people were generally interested in getting to know us – not just recruit us.

Look around during social hour. Are guests standing awkwardly about or are they engaged in conversation? Do church members express interest in getting to know guests? Do they introduce guests to others in the church?

The focus of the visit was clear: letting our daughter know how she could become involved in this community. Sure, there was plenty of talk about admissions guidelines, but the message didn’t end there. Every student we talked to that day (I counted 8) shared what clubs and organizations they were involved in.  Not only were we told about the community atmosphere, we were shown how to become a part of it. Tree climbing club, stock investors club, intramural sports – we learned about a variety of options from people who actually participate in those activities. It was exciting!

Even if your church is smaller, members can share with guests what groups and activities they are involved in at church. Do they make it clear how to visitors how one joins in? Are they excited about the ministries they take part in?

Special bonus welcome points go to the school who offered pre-wrapped, signature snacks throughout the day. Not only were they delicious, the admissions staff shared the history behind the snack – one of the school alums had invented it. It was an inexpensive, useful, and memorable way to help us learn about the school.

What is your church’s signature contribution to the world? How might you offer a memorable symbol of your church’s unique ministry?

The above list is not an exhaustive list of welcome strategies, but I have found that they are what has stood out in our visits multiple schools. For more information, please visit UMC.org which offers a number of checklists and strategies for effectively welcoming visitors to your church.

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