People of God at St. Stephen,

God has given this congregation many hard workers.  The ministry of St. Stephen is made strong by many people who willingly invest hours every month mowing the lawn, keeping the books, tackling new projects, cleaning up after communion, making visits.  The list of people and tasks is too long to note here, but we can plainly see the fruit of their labor—and, even more valuable, the depth of their humble dedication.  And what we overlook or take for granted, God sees.  St. Stephen is a congregation of hard workers.

These days, God has set before this congregation a different kind of work.  Work to strengthen relationships.  God is gathering people into St. Stephen—newcomers and visitors come regularly worship.  So our work is not to go get them, but to welcome them and make friends with them once they are here.

We know firsthand that hosting a church picnic or preparing for a council meeting is not automatic.  Neither is nurturing relationships between us.  It takes work.  Members of St. Peter automatically became members of St. Stephen.  But we have not automatically become a single community.  Visitors do not automatically feel warmly welcomed simply because the rest of us have warm relationships with each other.  Time, attention, and caring presence are necessary to maintain even the closest relationships.  This is to say nothing of the special nurture new friendships require.

All the same, working on new relationships often takes a backseat to both accomplishing tasks and enjoying old friends—even at St. Stephen. Visitors can see this better than we can, because they come knowing no one in advance.  One recent visitor to St. Stephen emailed me, saying:

“To be honest I almost didn’t come back after my second Sunday.  Not a soul welcomed me, until I said good bye to you at the door.  God put it in my heart to come back.  So I did and again not a soul welcomed me, but you.  So I came back again with determination and yet not one person once again welcomed me.  However on my 4th Sunday in your church I was greeted by the couple who was working as the greeters. They were the first to ask my name.  Your church is a tough group to become part of…”

I had mixed emotions after reading these words.  On the one hand, how can we deny God is at work at St. Stephen?  Despite us, God was truly calling this person to worship here.  On the other hand, it took a whole month, worshiping every week, before someone other than the pastor asked, “What is your name?”

We may want to dismiss this.  After all, it was only one person’s experience.  But, even so, it was one person’s experience.  We say in our Purpose and Principles statement that we believe, “Welcoming all and helping others center us on God.”  If we were who we say we are, if we lived what we say we believe, then no one would have this kind of experience at St. Stephen.

In this visitor’s words, there is at least one piece of hard truth: We have a problem with names. I have heard us say as much.  “There are people in worship whose names I don’t know, but I’m embarrassed to ask because I know I should know it!”  “I’m afraid to introduce myself to people I don’t know because maybe they’ve been here for 10 years!”  “I don’t want to put too much pressure on visitors.”  To address this problem with names, you have suggested nametags, not just on special occasions but all the time.  But I think there is a simpler, more effective, and down-right more loving solution: Ask.

I am naturally a shy person and have a bad memory for names.  So if I can do it, you can do it.  This is what I say.  “I’m Pastor Clark.  What’s your name?”  Or, “I’m Pastor Clark.  Remind me of your name.”  There’s only one trick to learning names well: being willing to ask over and over.

I learned the hard way that the brief embarrassment of asking is a far lighter burden to bear than even another week’s shame of not knowing.  I learned that people appreciate effort, interest, and honesty more than a perfect memory.  I also learned that introducing myself to children is as important as introducing myself to adults.

So I encourage you: Learn one name a week.  Not by looking in the parish directory.  Not by asking a friend to whisper a name in your ear.  Instead, learn one name a week by looking someone in the eye and asking, “What is your name?”

And, consider going the extra mile: After you ask their name, ask, “May I sit with you in worship?”  They can say no, so it adds no undo pressure.  And if they say yes, you have the whole service to learn about them, answer their questions, and guide them in worship when they need help.

Relationships take work.  Asking a person’s name is just the beginning.  But thanks be to God: God has given this congregation many hard workers.

Pastor Clark Olson-Smith