By Rev. Grayhame Bowcott
Years ago, before my wife Jacqueline and I were even married, I remember her attending a marmalade-making session hosted by the ladies of a church in which I was placed as a seminarian. She showed up, hoping to meet new people, perhaps make a friend, and offer her assistance wherever needed in the marmalade-making production.
In the church hall, card tables were set up and different areas were assigned different tasks. Jacqueline went to join the first table in which four people were already seated and cutting up orange peels.
When she went to pull up a chair, she was told that their table was already complete. Two pairs of two. She would be the odd one out, so she needed to go find a partner.
This struck Jacqueline as odd, considering the fact that all four of them were simply chatting away while they cut up the oranges, but okay, she’d go looking for a partner.
Jacqueline found a table of three ladies seated at another table and thought: perfect, I’ll join in. The moment she sat down, it was explained to her that this table was awaiting a fourth to join momentarily.
Jacqueline was in her spot. “Hmmm,” thought Jacqueline, “I thought they had announced this event as open to newcomers.”
Figuring that it was safest to simply sit down at her own table, Jacqueline looked across the room at how others were cutting up their orange peels. She began to do the same. She distinctly remembers the first time one of the ladies approached her in conversation. As she looked up to welcome a new face, she was greeted with these words: “You aren’t going to cut them up like that, are you?”
Suffice to say, that was the last time Jacqueline volunteered for marmalade duty. It was also the last event that she attended hosted by the ladies of that congregation.
A common cry of desperation among Anglican congregations across the country is a desire for new members to join our ranks: to participate in our worship services, to volunteer at our various fundraising events and outreach ministries, to replenish the generations of Anglicans who served dutiful, but are now are represented by empty pews and grave stones.
However, despite our longing for new relationships and our regular talk of ‘being welcoming’ more often than not newcomers to our communities experience a phenomenon that I have begun referring to as the “Saran Wrap Welcome”.
The Saran Wrap Welcome is when a congregation claims to be welcoming. It’s when we talk about the ways in which we’d love to include younger generations, those exploring the Anglican tradition or even Christianity for the first time. It’s when we put out the “special visitor” coffee mugs and may even have a welcome package awaiting at the front door of the church.
Yet, despite our expressed desire to be welcoming communities, when newcomers actually arrive on our doorstep, we don’t know how to create space in our routines and friendships to allow for them to change us.
Instead, they experience a lot of talk about: “This is how things are done around here. This is our tradition.” Or in other words: “Don’t go changing anything on us. We like things just the way they are.”
Like Saran Wrap, they can see the bonds of community that exist in our church families, but various invisible forms of barriers exist that prevent them from feeling included.
The truth about any newcomer to a church congregation is that each person is desiring to belong. In order to feel like you belong, you need to be able to contribute your own gifts, ideas and personality to the community.
The Saran Wrap effect is all the ways that churches either consciously or unconsciously fail to create a space for change, for new ideas and ways of doing things that are the gifts that inevitably arrive with each newcomer.
Each new person who joins a church community changes the DNA of that congregation. If prior groups and generations of church members fail to accommodate the new ideas and contributions of newcomers, if we fail to make space for them, then what happens is that these potential new members will become discouraged and seek out other forms of community that are more interested in including them for who they are and for their unique contributions that they have to share. Often these other communities are not Church-based one.
In a recent congregational leadership retreat that I was leading, in which a parish council was exploring ways of fostering new relationships with non-members, it was noted that of the dozen leaders gathered, all of them had been attending their church for ten years or longer. None of them was anything close to being a newcomer.
When we explored the results of a congregational survey, they were shocked to hear some of the comments that it shared: “I wish someone would notice me here,” and “it took five years for anyone to say hello to us.”
We then reflected on the trend of visitors coming to explore their congregation but never seeming to stick around longer than a few initial visits. I pointed out my observation: “I think you have a Saran Wrap problem!”
As the average age of parishioners in Anglican churches continues to age (mid-70s is what I’m seeing in Huron), it is even more important for long term congregation members to understand and appreciate how to make space for newcomers. That all of the efforts of being a ‘welcoming church’ mean nothing at all unless we take the Saran Wrap off our communities and open ourselves up to change. Sometimes creating space for others means we need to step out of the traditions and roles that we, ourselves, are occupying in order to let another try out their own expression of being Church.
Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott is passionate about fostering congregational relationships and sharing our Anglican vocation with others. He serves as rector of St. George’s, The Parish of The Blue Mountains. firstname.lastname@example.org