Tips for Intentionally Inclusive Congregations

 September marks the beginning of another church year. It’s an exciting time,  a chance to launch new programs or Candles in a heart shapeprojects, to resume committee work, and to reconnect with friends. Much of the work that makes the congregational wheels turn happens automatically. But when it comes to creating an intentionally inclusive congregation, some extra effort may be required. Are children and youth welcome in the service? Is the building (and service) accessible to people with disabilities? Is the bulletin board up to date? Do you find it challenging to start new conversations? Read on for tips on how addressing these and other questions can create a truly inclusive and welcoming spiritual community.

 Wear Your Name Tag

When we wear name tags we are inviting conversation with those who can’t remember our names (and who may be too embarrassed to ask). Wearing a name tag says we want to know those who are not already part of our circle.

Talk With Someone You Don’t Know During Coffee Hour

It is tempting to talk to those you already know during coffee hour, but each member of a congregation can be encouraged to welcome and engage with people they don’t know.

Make a Point of Learning Something of a Visitor’s Story

Rather than worry about ‘selling’ your congregation, consider this an opportunity to make a connection with someone you don’t know.

 Remember That Just Because You Don’t Know Someone – They Aren’t Necessarily New

In all but the smallest congregations, it is possible for us to not know when someone is new and when they are not. Assuming someone you don’t know, but who may have been coming for a while, is new, can be interpreted as, “I don’t think you are important enough to notice”.

Consider Yourself an Incognito Greeter

Even if you aren’t in the official greeter role, please consider yourself one of the stealth greeters, taking the time and making the effort to say hello to people you don’t know, offer hymn books to someone who seems to be missing one, etc. The hospitality shown by people other than greeters IS noticed.

Be a Pew Buddy

Before you rush to your usual seat, have a look around the room. Is there anyone there that seems new, or who has a visitor’s name tag on. Why not sit beside them and make a point of saying hello, of welcoming them, and checking that they have an order of service and hymn books. Knowing that someone can help them navigate the experience is important to visitors.

Ask Someone to Join In

If you are thinking of joining an adult program or attending a congregational meal, why not make a point of inviting someone who you don’t know well, or someone who you know is new, to join along with you? Having a buddy to attend activities with can make the experience more enjoyable.

Take Note

Have a look around the congregation when you attend services and activities. Ask yourself, “Is there someone I haven’t seen in a while?” Consider sending a quick email or making a phone call to let them know you are missing them and to ask how they are doing. Sometimes people drift and get out of the habit of attending because they don’t think anyone notices.

It Takes More Than a Ramp

Many congregations are beginning to think about the barriers to participation that make it difficult for those with disabilities to participate in congregational life. But, if your congregation has installed a ramp and thought they’d done what was needed you may need to think again. Our language, our lighting, our sound systems, our programs can all send the message that ‘you are welcome here’ or ‘this congregation isn’t for you’. Which message do you want to send?

Take a Seat

Most of us find a ‘spot’ which feels comfortably familiar, when we attend services. Most of us return to it, week after week. But, before you become too attached to ‘your’ spot, think about where it is. Is it at the end of a row? If so, guests will have to step past you. Is your ‘spot’ at the back of the room? If so you are taking up the easy to find spots that guests look for. Consider how your seating choices affect visitors.

Seen, Heard AND Welcomed

It is common to hear, “I wish we had more young families in the congregation”. The idea of providing young adults and their children with a church community is a worthy one and it does, at times, seem elusive. Does your congregation have a child-friendly culture or does it send the unspoken ‘no kids here’ message? Children that feel welcomed by; child friendly content, activity packs that will allow for some quiet play, adults who take the time to get to know them, smiles and people who are genuinely grateful for the restlessness of children, are more likely to want to come to church, to understand it as something they want to do. In turn, these children are more likely going to grow up as regular attendees. This is a good time of year to ask yourself, “Are we really as welcoming to young families as we tell ourselves we are?” 

Spiritual Diversity

On some level, life in a Unitarian Universalist congregation doesn’t look that different than one from another faith group. And so it is easy, at times, to assume that the dominant theology in a congregation is the only theology. Some of our congregations are predominantly Humanist, others lean towards liberal Christianity and others seem quite to focus on eco-Spirituality. Usually, these dominant theologies are reflected, in an unspoken way, in the worship services, and in the adult program offerings. Yet at the core of our modern UUism is a belief that each person is free to seek meaning in ways that make sense to them. Our Six Sources remind us of our rich theological heritage and the diversity we embrace. Congregations that want to explicitly send the message that they welcome this theological diversity would be wise to pay attention to the balance in their services. What seems generic and one-size-fits-all to the humanist in the congregation, may leave someone else feeling as if there is no room for them. And an eco-spiritual service that relies heavily on meditation or chanting will need some words and information in order to work for others.

AGM, CUC, APC, CRE, YA, ARE, DRE and more – Oh My!

In our congregations on any given Sunday or in the newsletter you are likely to come across one of these, or a dozen other acronyms. Even longtime members may need to scour their brain to understand what is being said, “right, ARE means Adult Religious Education. Whew, got that one!” But the guest in your congregation and the brand new person will be lost. Lacking the skills of a clairvoyant, they won’t understand what is being said. Help make it easier for people to understand by avoiding insider acronyms. When you mean Canadian Unitarian Council, say so. CUC won’t mean anything to people. In fact, even in their long form, some of these common terms may need a bit of explanation. A brief explanation, “Adult Religious Education, the programs we offer for adults to help them explore theology and meaning…” will go a long way in making sure that people aren’t struggling to keep up.

What’s that you say?

For many people with hearing loss, (1 in 4 adult Canadians report some degree of hearing loss) attending services at a congregation is a lot of work. They can often hear what is being said, but it is difficult for them. There are some simple things that speakers can do to make it easier for these people.

  • Pausing at the lectern for just a few seconds before speaking will allow people who need a bit of extra processing time to ‘tune in’.
  • Learning to use the microphone ahead of time (they aren’t all the same, some are multi-directional and others aren’t) will be a big help.
  • Speak clearly! People with hearing loss need you to, speak in a measured way, taking care to pronounce words, so they can follow you.
  • During coffee hour, often in a noisy space, it is a good idea to make eye contact with someone before you start to speak.

The bonus? These tips will make it easier for everyone to hear and understand what is happening. Read more about accessibility and hearing loss 

The White Glove Test?

It is easy when we are in a place regularly to see it with familiar eyes. But, those who are new to your meeting and worship space will see things differently than you do. It is a helpful practice to do a building tour, with the mindset of a visitor. Start at the outside of your building, and make notes as you go. Here are some questions to help you see what familiarity may have obscured:

  • Is the entrance obvious, with lights and signs as needed?
  • Once you are in the building is it easy to see where you should go next?
  • Can you find the restrooms and are they clean and well stocked?
  • Are the children’s spaces clean, bright and in good repair?
  • Are all areas free of cobwebs or dirty corners that might suggest to a visitor that you don’t care about their comfort?
  • Would a visitor understand where to sit?
  • Are public areas free of clutter and are your bulletin boards and literature racks up-to-date?

If you find yourself answering no to these questions they suggest areas for improvement. If you’ve said yes, to all – keep up the good work!

What Does Your Weekly Bulletin Say About You?

It is easy to become so used to your weekly bulletin that you don’t see it in the same way a visitor might. Here are some ideas that will help ensure others are able to use your weekly bulletin as a doorway into your congregation.

  • Keeping in mind that many visitors will keep the Order of Service, make sure you include your Worship time, your address and your web and social media information. This makes it easier for them to learn more about you and to share with someone else.
  • A place for sermon notes. Many people think and process information by jotting down notes. Make it easy for them.
  • Vision and Mission statement; these will help someone understand who you are and what really matters.
  • A visitor information card. This should be included as a loose sheet, along with instructions indicating where it should be left. Unused cards can be recycled for future use.
  • Include an Order of Service. You members may know what is going on, but an Order of Service makes it easy for a visitor to follow along.

Welcoming Children in Worship

Helping families and their children in worship is a goal that many congregations have and is also one that can represent a significant challenge. If you currently worship without many children, having them in your services can disrupt the status quo. Congregations that manage successfully to include children have acknowledged that the change may be difficult for some. Adults who have hearing challenges may find the bustle of children makes it difficult to hear. Some adults, thinking they are easing the burden of parents, will offer discipline to children. Yet, discipline (even of the gentlest kind) without relationship is rarely welcomed. Having activity packs for children, inviting them to be participants in the service, getting to know them, and congregational willingness to be changed by their presence is important. 

LGBTQ: Welcoming Congregations

Since 1990, when the UUA published the Welcoming Congregation Guide for Congregations, most Canadian Congregations have engaged with the work of attaining the Welcoming Congregation status. In fact, 99% of Canadian Unitarian Universalists belong to one of our Welcoming Congregations. And since the Equal Marriage became the law of the land it seems to some as if our work in this area is behind us. However, if congregations want to be explicitly and intentionally welcoming to LGBTQ individuals they’d be wise to do a quick assessment of some of their practices. Here are a few ideas to help you ensure your congregation is being as welcoming as you want to be:

  • claim your welcome out loud and in print
  • ensure you have at least one gender-neutral bathroom
  • question the language you use; consider parent instead of mother, add alternatives to male/female binary language choices are just two suggestions.

Most importantly your congregation can do more work in this area by revisiting the updated Welcoming Congregation program. Once completed congregations can apply for a Welcoming Congregation renewal.

Learning from Congregations that are Growing

If we are trying to be inclusive and welcoming we might reasonably look at characteristics of growing churches…clearly, they are getting something right. Here are some of the traits of growing congregations in the literature. Consider how they might inform your congregational choices,

  1. Growing congregations focus on their health more than church growth. If your congregation is beset by conflict, poor decision-making capacity, lackluster programming, then a focus on congregational health is in order.
  2. Growing congregations do what they do very well. Congregations with high-quality Sunday services, programs and music are ones that people like to be around.
  3. Growing churches are vigilant about their mission, vision and core values. Knowing who you are, what you want to achieve and what values inform you should be key to all your decision making. In turn, your congregation will be one newcomers can understand. If you can’t articulate who you are, they won’t know what they are joining.
  4. Growing churches ruthlessly stop some programming. There is a tendency to add programs, with the idea that they will provide more ‘sticking places’ for newcomers. However, a hard look at what you do, and the decision to eliminate some of the programs will free up energy for programming which is particularly energizing. Some people will not be happy.
  5. Growing churches know that things have to change. Unless you change, you can’t expect different results.
  6. Growing churches celebrate. Growing congregations celebrate, they find ways to have fun together because they are proud of who they are and what they do.

Suffer Little Children

So often congregations and their members declare that they would welcome more young families. The energy and hope they bring to a congregation is exciting. Yet, often parents, and particularly nursing mothers find it difficult to participate in worship because there has been little thought about what makes a comfortable environment for them. Some people are comfortable with their baby in a public space and others would prefer a more secluded space. There have been significant changes in community openness to breastfeeding in public, and some women will comfortably nurse in the pews or chairs of your congregation. Additionally, though, the breastfeeding-friendly congregation will provide a place where the service can be heard, and ideally seen, for the mother who prefers a more comfortable and somewhat more private location. All will want to know that you are aware of their needs and will appreciate the placement of the International Breastfeeding Symbol, assuring them of your welcome.

The World Health Organization and Health Canada recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life and encourage its use beyond that. Families who feel welcome to attend are more likely to develop the habits and practice that makes their participation in congregational life possible.

We Need Not Think Alike to Love Alike

There was a lot of talk in a lot of congregations this fall, about the Federal election. In many of our congregations, there is almost an assumption that members will politically align in a particular way. There is an old joke that Unitarians are really the NDP at prayer. We hear the joke, and we laugh, in the way we do when we recognize the truth in something. Yet, we’d be wise to ask ourselves about how well our assumptions linking liberal religion and liberal politics serves our goal of inclusivity. There are stories about those on the conservative side of the political spectrum leaving congregations because they felt judged. A community that they had hoped would be a safe place to explore questions of meaning, seemed unsafe.

What would it mean to us to stop making assumptions about political affiliation, and instead assume that we are all, independent of political views, acting in a way that is consistent with our understanding of the best outcome? Of course, we may disagree about the policies that will yield that best outcome, but avoiding polarizing language and retaining curiosity about other views can help ensure that those who vote differently than we do are still able to find our congregations to be the welcoming and sustaining communities we hope they will be.

Announcements, Announcements, Announcements! (oh my!)

Announcements are a far more important part of the Sunday Service than many people realize. They tell a story to members and visitors about who you are, what you value – they tell the story of how the congregation serves its members and of its relationships with the larger community.

Too often long and boring they fail to gain people’s interest and aren’t remembered.
If you are going to continue with announcements (and some are choosing to do without them) here are some thoughts that may help ensure they are more effective.

  • Keep them to a minimum – effectiveness of announcements goes down as the numbers go up.
  • Tell people why the event or project matters – connect it with the values of the community.
  • Make sure each announcement is succinct and to the point. (consider developing a template that will help make expectations explicit)
  • Make sure they don’t take up too much of the service time. The life of the congregation is important, but 10 minutes of announcements are 1/6th or the service time. Are they that important?
  • Consider requiring them to be submitted in advance so they can be vetted and edited. Announcements should not be an opportunity for open microphone rambling.

With some planning, your congregation can develop an announcement strategy – moving beyond improvised pitches for Girl Guide cookies, to compelling stories about the lived values of a community. Read 10 Tips for Better Church Announcements

Walking with Your Visitors

Visitors to your congregations might be feeling uncertain or anxious about their reception or how to behave. Remember what it’s like to walk into a new situation for the first time, like a new job or city? I remember attending my first Flow Yoga class and feeling distinctly out of sync with everyone else there – the regulars knew the instructors, knew the language of asanas and tree poses (what??), and what to wear. The instructor realized that I was new and unobtrusively kept checking throughout the class to make sure I didn’t get lost and demonstrated moves so that I could keep up. They made me feel welcome and less awkward. That’s our job with visitors in our congregations – to have them feel welcome and comfortable enough to come back – by interpreting moves and language that might be foreign to them, by not making them feel awkward and foolish, by showing them where the washroom, nursery, coffee areas are, by helping them feel safe enough so that they don’t run away. So instead of asking “are you new here?” try “we haven’t met, my name is __; “can I introduce you to some friends? ” and “can I show you around?”


If parking is at a premium on Sunday mornings, consider reserving special parking spots for visitors to make it easier for them to come through your doors. Encourage regulars and staff to park off-site or in more remote spaces. Post clear signs for visitors, letting them know you’re thinking about them.

Mark Entrances Clearly

When visitors come, do they know what entrance they should use? Are there doors which look like entrances but which aren’t used? Clearly posted signs to entrances, accessible ramp and elevator takes some of the pressure off of visitors who might be too nervous to ask for help.

Is There Room in the Sanctuary?

One thing worship leaders can do to help first time visitors feel welcome is to make sure there is room for them in the sanctuary. We relish having a full sanctuary, but having a worship space that is overly full might communicate to visitors that there is “no room in the inn.” With so many other options of how to spend Sunday mornings, it doesn’t take much for visitors to feel they are not welcome, and not return. If your sanctuary is too full on Sunday mornings, would it be possible to add a second service?

To help visitors feel welcome, encourage regulars to sit towards the front of the sanctuary and avoid sitting in the aisle seat when there is room further in the pew. Late arriving visitors do not relish having to crawl over two or three people to get to an available seat in the middle of the pew. Encouraging regulars to sit up front provides more room in the back for late arrivers, and also creates a warmer, cozier environment.

First-time visitors might arrive late to worship, especially if they have trouble finding parking, are unfamiliar with your location, or if they have children in tow. They will not want to parade up to the front rows because the back seats are full. Most first time visitors want to be noticed, but they don’t want to be on display. One option is to rope off a couple of rows at the back, or put a ‘reserved’ sign on them, for latecomers and visitors; remove the rope or signs just as the service begins so late arriving newcomers have a place to sit. Roping off the back also encourages everyone else to move up into the front seats.

This entire article is available from the Alban Institute.