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Open churches toolkit: Giving your welcome a human face

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Having members of the community associated with you church on hand to welcome visitors can make a lasting impression and help to forge a living bond with it. Someone knowledgeable who can make the building come alive will help them to get much more out of the experience.

With someone on duty appointed to keep an eye on things you can open with confidence that it will be secure. Start by recruiting volunteers to form an open church team. They don’t necessarily have to be members of the congregation – this can be a good way of engaging people outside it with an interest in the building, such as members of a local history societies or amenity groups.

What you call them – welcomers, guides, churchwatchers – depends on exactly how you envision the role, but there are some general points that it’s worth bearing in mind.

Get them to organise a rota and appoint someone to be responsible for it. Review the rota on a regular basis – say, every four months – so that volunteers don’t feel like they have to make a commitment that could end up being a burden when they sign up. For the same reason, keep the length of the slots relatively short.

You might want to formalise your relationship with your volunteers by getting to them to sign up to a volunteer agreement which should make clear what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. You can find guidance on managing your volunteers on the website of Volunteering England.

Carry out a risk assessment to identify all the exits, entrances and viewing points so that the volunteers can be stationed in a place where people entering the building are easily visible and can leave it quickly in the event of an emergency.

You might want to have your volunteers working in pairs for extra safety. Sound them out, gauge demand and recruit for the rota accordingly if need be. Alternatively or additionally, you could issue them with panic alarms.

It’s good to have an induction session, taking your volunteers through the procedure of opening up and locking up, managing keys and so on. Make it clear that they should think about their own safety first. They’re not professional security guards – the fabric of the building and its contents are the responsibility of the vicar and PCC.

Include in the induction session some training and guidance so your volunteers feel confident about their role. They need to make their presence felt but not to intimidate visitors by being too clingy or making them feel like they’re viewed as a potential threat and have to be chaperoned. Observing visitors’ body language will usually help to judge whether they’ve come to find a quiet space and need to be left alone or are there to look around. It’s also important not to make prior assumptions about what they know or understand. Pick a few points of interest to flag up to visitors if they ask what to see, especially things that are easily overlooked. You might want to think about issuing your volunteers with name badges so that visitors find them easier to identify and approach.

Make sure your volunteers are properly briefed about looking after the building, whom to contact in the event of an emergency and so on, but don’t expect people to commit important information to memory: put together a brief handbook or ready reference sheet for them, with all the important information clearly displayed.

Your volunteers will also need guidance on how to deal with questions about faith and what to do if someone in distress needs support. They don’t have to have all the answers, but they do need to be able to direct people appropriately. Is there a trained counsellor or member of the clergy who’d be willing to have their contact details included in the information sheet? Are any of your volunteers first-aiders? If not, could you organise training?

Homeless people often visit churches for support and shelter. It’s good to decide a set policy on the help you offer to people in need. The watchers of the Friends of City Churches, for instance, have contact details for local agencies, shelters and other places of support.

Above all, make sure your volunteers feel comfortable and valued! Thank them regularly – you could organise social events for them – and make sure they are well provided with refreshments while they’re on duty.

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Open churches toolkit