How to plan parish events that foster real friendships

Be the host with the most and welcome newcomers to your parish with these tips.
In the Pews

It took nine months of attending services at her new parish before Sam, who is shy by nature and admits to avoiding events that could feel like a middle school cafeteria on the first day of school, summoned the courage to stop by coffee hour after Mass. Unfortunately, when she got there, she felt awkward and invisible. “No one smiled at or even made eye contact with me,” she says. “I suppose I could have inserted myself at a table, but I chickened out and went home.” 

Sam continued to partake in weekly Mass but didn’t attend a parish function again. She left the parish a couple of years later without any personal connections.

Although Sam is quick to take responsibility for her lack of involvement, her story highlights a reality felt by many Catholics. While the universal structure of Mass can make us feel at home in Sri Lanka, France, or Timbuktu, that sense of connection often doesn’t extend beyond the confines of Sabbath obligations. 

Our churches can better help parishioners feel welcome and a part of the community, and a good starting place is to consider the gatherings we host. Whether you work in a parish, lead a committee, or volunteer in any capacity, chances are you play some role in welcoming and connecting your community. Consider the advice of several gathering experts as you prepare for upcoming programs, meetings, and events.

Own your role as a host

Because so many of the people who lead within parishes don’t have “official” roles (that is, they don’t receive a paycheck or have a position title), and many parish events are collaborative efforts, steps to help guests feel welcome and comfortable that are ordinarily taken by a program’s designated host are often neglected.

With sensitivity to the fact that no one wants to be—or work with!—the person who hijacks leadership, recognizing and acting on your role as a host in appropriate situations will contribute to a gathering running smoothly and hospitably. If you’re the volunteer who signed up to facilitate that week’s coffee hour, you’re a host, so consider it your job to welcome newcomers. If you’re on the parish cookout team, you’re a host, so make sure everyone has a seat. If you’re a longtime parishioner for whom the church feels like home, you’re a host, so introduce people to one another. 

And if you do have a more formal leadership role, say as a catechist or committee chair, you can adopt certain practices to make the gathering a more pleasant experience for everyone. 

Kathleen Crawford, a consultant facilitator within the field of internal auditing, travels throughout the country leading training sessions for groups as small as three and as large as 75. Although her primary role is to instruct, Crawford recognizes that she is also the host of her training sessions, so she arrives early to make sure the room is clean, the temperature is comfortable, and the refreshments are ready. These small, physical acts go a long way to establishing comfort and productivity at a gathering.

If you’re a longtime parishioner for whom the church feels like home, you’re a host.

Remember that much of hosting is logistical

Part of being a good host is possessing the awareness of and capability to manage the logistical elements of an event. 

Kristin Nicole, the founder and owner of an event planning company and a wedding planner of more than 13 years, describes her job largely as a willingness to make and execute hundreds of small decisions in a timely manner. “There are so many pieces to planning an event,” she says. “I set timelines and keep people on track.” In managing the logistics, a host decreases stress and frees the participants to enjoy and get the most out of a gathering. Depending on the context, this can look a variety of ways. 

For Crawford, managing the logistics includes building a comfort zone for the group. “I never jump to the agenda right away,” she says, explaining that she instead takes time to facilitate introductions and to assure her group that she is watching the clock so they don’t need to be worried about ending on time. In a similar vein, Crawford moderates the questions and discussions to keep the group focused. She also makes the goals of her gatherings explicit at the beginning of an event and, if needed, as time goes on.

In a parish setting, managing the logistics can include everything from double-checking the stock of paper products before a potluck to making sure everyone has a name tag to deciding ahead of time (and then enforcing) how long a meeting should last. 

Remember that much of hosting is not logistical

In The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters (Riverhead Books), Priya Parker laments the tendency of hosts to spend vast amounts of time, attention, and money preparing the tangible elements of an event—invitations, decorations, food—and spending little or no focused attention on the details that will enable the people gathered to “collectively think, dream, argue, heal, envision, trust, and connect for a specific larger purpose.” Her book responds to this propensity and shares suggestions for facilitating transformational gatherings.

Parker’s tips range from practical to relational to creative. For instance, in her chapter “Never Start a Funeral with Logistics,” she writes about how openings and closings are often treated as an afterthought, a time to tell people where the bathroom is or to remind them of upcoming events. But because studies show that audiences disproportionately remember the first and last five minutes of a program, she suggests always opening an event in a way that grabs, awes, or honors guests.

One of my favorite stories of Parker’s is that of an Oxford professor’s birthday celebration where each guest was tasked with having a one-on-one conversation with a stranger and given a “conversation menu” that led the pairs through six “courses” of talk, including questions such as “How have your priorities changed over the years?” and “What are the limits of your compassion?”

The ideas and issuances that fill Parker’s how-to are easily translated to parish functions. 

See every gathering as an opportunity to build community

For Claire Ramsbottom, executive director of the Colleges of the Fenway, a nonprofit that fosters collaboration among the administration, faculty, and students of five Boston-area colleges, every gathering is an opportunity to build community, whether it’s an annual awards celebration or a weekly staff meeting. No matter how big or how small, “we try to have a celebratory aspect at meetings,” Ramsbottom says. Each meeting has food, a welcome, and time for introductions. “Creating an opportunity to share a little bit of personal information really helps coalesce a group and build a sense of community,” she says. 

In a parish, coffee hour, potlucks, cookouts, and other social events promote building community, but the opportunity to foster new relationships extends beyond social events to include everything from parent orientation for religious education to finance committee meetings to volunteer safety training sessions. Chances are that the people attending these gatherings are doing so at least in part because they want to get to know other people, and the opportunity should be given to them to do so. Always make time for introductions and some sort of personal connection at any parish function. 

A gathering’s ending should prompt us forward.

End well

The Catholic liturgy concludes with words of commission, reminding us that although our time together is ended, we are meant to go forth changed and equipped to love and serve God and one another. Likewise, a gathering’s ending should prompt us forward. As an event winds down, help guests pause to take stock of what they’ve learned or gained in the time they have spent together. Then inspire them, in one way or another, to carry forth what they’ve gained during the gathering into the world. A gathering is officially over once the last car has left the parking lot. But if it was done well, the shut-off lights are just the beginning of deeper relationships and a greater sense of community. 

This article also appears in the August issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 8, pages 12-13). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash

About the author

Teresa Coda

Teresa Coda works in parish faith formation and hospital chaplaincy. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

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