How Is Your Meeting Handling Newcomers?
How is your meeting handling newcomers? Bringing in new people can be a source of energy and excitement in the district. Having a discussion of what your group could do to make new people comfortable and the meeting interesting to them can infuse energy and freshness into the whole district. In one district the leaders asked newcomers what made them feel comfortable when they first came to a meeting. Here are some of their ideas.
Have A Warm Welcome
A newcomer should never be left alone to wonder what is going on. When a new person first arrives, they’d like to have someone is designated to welcome them, make sure their coat is taken to the guest room, see to it they have a liturgy book and a chair next to someone who will help them with gongyo.
Everything is So Strange and New
All newcomers are dealing with some of the same issues. You will want to be aware of these and do whatever you can to get them over the hurdles. First the practice is going to be quite foreign to them. They are going to hear people chanting in a different language. The Gohonzon is going to look strange. They may be dealing with former religious training, Some may have mixed feelings about coming to a meeting that is a religious practice.
They may be a little nervous about coming to a strange place. If the person who introduced them can be there, or even better bring them, this can help a good deal with their level of comfort. There is a familiar face and they don’t have to walk into the meeting alone.
Sometimes having a discussion where members can share how they felt when they were first introduced to the practice can make everyone more aware of how new people can feel.
Orient The Newcomer To The Practice
One newcomer appreciatively thanked a member because the district had oriented them to the practice. Before gongyo started a member had given an orientation to the practice which included a brief history of Buddhism, when this practice developed, a short explanation of daimoku, gongyo, the Gohonzon and the items on the altar.
Let Them Know The Agenda
In the spirit of not letting a newcomer wonder what is going to happen, the Master of Ceremonies can announce the agenda for the meeting, and when the meeting will end. In this manner the new person is grounded as to the practice and what is going to happen during the meeting.
Making Meeting Topics Newcomer Friendly
One new person commented that if she had come to a meeting where everyone was talking over her head, she would never come back. So what do you do when you have a meeting plan and a new person arrives? The following was an interesting response from one district.
The district members had discussed this issue and decided that when a new person came, their arrival meant a shift in the meeting plan to discuss topics which are important for new people to hear, such as what Nam Myoho Renge Kyo means, how to set a goal, and the 90 day challenge. If a more advanced topic was planned members had learned how bring in elements that were relevant to a beginner. This gave district members the chance to practice their explanation of basic topics. They also knew that sharing experiences about how they started and how they used the practice to handle challenges would interest a newcomer.
If the person running the meeting is informed in advance by the sponsor that a newcomer is expected and what kinds of topics have been discussed with them, it will help to focus the discussion and include items that would be relevant to that person.
Ways to Help The Newcomer Feel Part of the Group
One newcomer said that they had gone to a meeting where everyone focused on them. They wanted to run. Some of these ideas could help to make a newcomer more comfortable. Form a circle around the room and do introductions everyone giving their first name. This allows the newcomer to feel a part of the group, not singled out.
During the discussion members should look around the room at one another when they speak so that the newcomer does not feel put on the spot. Don’t pressure the newcomer to say anything or to respond. Some people like to just watch and absorb the new experience for a number of meetings. Define Japanese words like kosen-rufu so the newcomer doesn’t feel left out. Create a handout of terms and basic Buddhist concepts to give to a new person.
Talk Informally After the Meeting
Everyone is welcome to stay and talk informally after the meeting. This is a good time for the new person to get to meet some of the members and begin to establish relationships. Sometimes people forget and just talk to the people they know. A newcomer could feel unwelcome and uncomfortable if this happens. Remember to make a point of including newcomers so the post meeting informality can became something that everyone looks forward to and enjoys.
Newcomers are more likely to come back when they feel comfortable in the meeting and are included in the group from the beginning.
“Making Meetings Comfortable For New People”, (C) Margaret Blaine, The Practical Buddhist