God has so ordained things that we grow in faith only through the frail instrumentality of one another. John of the Cross
There are two activities that make up the routine “common life” of most parishioners—Sunday Eucharist and coffee hour. They are also the standard entry points for new members.
So let’s do coffee hour well. It doesn’t have to be five stars, four will do. Three stars is unacceptable but sadly the norm in many parishes.
Here are the basics:
1. Coffee hour needs to meet two broad needs—life in community for members and an entry point for new members.
Both elements are important. The support and occasional challenge offered by others is of our sacramental life; experiences of grace. Making space for those who are now strangers is about hospitality but more importantly it is about offering life in Christ, as lived in this tradition, to others.
Some clergy have gotten in the habit of judging members because they focus their attention on being with existing parish friends. It’s usually driven by some mix of obsession about growth combined with an underlying annoyance with members (for oh so many reasons).
Other clergy have given up on asking members to do anything that stretches them beyond themselves.
The clergy need to play their appropriate oversight role if these two broad needs are to be adequately addressed.
2. Coffee hour needs to be easy on the visitor.
There are two easy ways to accomplish this.
First, invite members to wear nametags.[i] This makes it easy for the visitor or newer member to include themselves. Second, find those in the parish with a gift for greeting and allow them to take on the task on behalf of the whole parish.[ii]
3. Coffee hour needs to happen every week.
It needs to be reliable; be part of the stability of parish life. If it isn’t members will never develop the habit of attending and visitors will experience the parish as having erratic patterns.
Caution: it isn’t really happening every week if the vestry has meetings on Sunday[iii] that begin soon after coffee hour has started or if there is a forum[iv], or is there are dozens of side conversations that are all about parish business of one sort or another.[v]
4. Coffee hour needs to be easy to maintain.
Easy to maintain and manage while also providing good coffee, real half-and-half and milk, and a small snack.
Having a special coffee hour three or four times a year is a wonderful thing to do. But if that happens too often it will undercut the entry of new people and set the bar too high which will cause some to avoid sharing responsibility.
5. Coffee hour needs to be in a space that is reasonably attractive.
Attractive doesn’t mean spending a lot of money. It does mean clean, uncluttered with items that should be in storage or tucked away, and walls clear or with attractive artwork.[vi]
6. Coffee hour needs to allow for those who want to mill and those wanting to sit.
With a tilt toward those who want to mill. It’s more inviting for most visitors and creates a climate of positive energy.
If we’re going to do better we need to understand that coffee hour is bound up with spiritual life. It is important. We also need to be willing to experiment as we find better ways to accomplish these six elements. Try something, see how it works, adapt if necessary.
It may also help to remember that there are always reasons for dysfunctional and unproductive behavior. We are good at coming up with “reasons”—there are five bulletin boards because someone, at some time, wanted to keep everyone informed of what they think is important. Or there's a lack of storage space. Or the powdered creamer was good enough for 40 years. Or paper nametags will mean destroying the forest.
There are always reasons.
We are one, after all, you and I. Together we suffer, together exist, and forever will recreate each other. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Three resources on the parish as “community.” Coffee hour is one activity that needs to be seen within a broader context.
Chapter Five “Participating in Community,” In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today's Christian Life, Michelle Heyne
A healthy parish community will provide both opportunities to deepen and enjoy our existing relationships, and opportunities to welcome the stranger. Michelle Heyne
Chapter Five “Participating in Community,” In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practice, Robert Gallagher
At coffee hour you’ll see people hugging, patting a back, reaching across a table to grasp a hand. Robert Gallagher
[i] Invite, don’t pressure. But keep inviting. Use paper nametags that need to be created each week. It reinforces the voluntary nature of wearing the nametag and it avoids the sense of exclusion generated by all the plastic tags for members sitting on a table or attached to a board gathering dust and showing the visitor how many people are missing.
[ii] This approach takes Saint Paul seriously, relives the clergy of hounding people about loving the visitor, and lets the community have that essential element of community life, time together talking and eating.
[iii] Sunday vestry meetings as a routine undercut the primary work of the parish of forming people in Christ. They contribute to a hurried and crowded environment.
[iv] Usually goes hand in hand with a mental model that “formation” is primarily about education. So we undercut the truly significant instruments of formation on Sunday, Eucharist and social time together, with what are usually poorly done adult forums (Can I see that slideshow on your trip to the Holy Land again?)
[v] I was in one parish where lay leaders agreed the behavior was a problem but they didn’t know how to stop themselves. We came up with an agreement that there was to be no parish business discussed at coffee hour for 15 minutes. Time for listening to, and supporting, one another was increased. After the 15 minutes a bell was rung—the bell “said” if you really must, go ahead and do some business. This was in a parish in which almost all parish business was conducted in 5 – 10 minute stand up, face-to-face meetings at coffee hour, with only one vestry meeting per year and three meetings of the parish community. Members valued this self-managing, team, quick, approach to parish management. They also valued time with one another about the joys and concerns of daily life. This was their solution to doing both.
[vi] Some parishes are doing themselves damage by allowing the place of coffee hour and community to be cluttered with unused stacked chairs, too many tables, too many bulletin boards that few people ever look at, and materials from the parish office and church school to take over the space.