St Thomas is a gloomy looking Victorian church in the depths of Southeast London. You’d be unlikely to walk past it unless you were heading directly there. Close by are estates of social housing, terraces of Victorian houses and if you know the area, a gem of a park through which, with a detour through an industrial estate, you can reach an un-glorious stretch of the River Thames. There are a handful in the congregation, now mostly elderly.
Appearances can be deceptive. St Thomas along with six other churches in the Borough hosts the Greenwich Night Shelter. Once a week, for the four coldest months of the year, it transforms its church hall into a welcoming space for fifteen guests.
When I deliver clean washing on a dark Friday afternoon, it is a hive of activity. The church warden is on the floor surrounded by tools, wrestling with a new industrial dishwasher. Thankfully, he is a plumber and, even more thankfully, the local council have paid for the machine. Beds are being made up. Fresh fruit and vegetables have arrived from a local grocer. Soon an artisan baker will deliver fresh bread. Both give what they can. A small table is piled with cheese cakes and biscuits – donations.
Later, a well-oiled machine of volunteers will lay the tables with cloths and flowers and invite guests to dinner, serve and save some for those who come late. Local publicans offered to cook the weekly dinner. When they retired they continued the job. During the evening, there’ll be a chance to talk, relax, watch telly, shower or exchange worn out clothes. Tomorrow, another team will arrive to cook breakfast and prepare packed lunches. Within an hour, the hall will be back to normal, ready for the Brownies, or Youth Group.
Father Bennet Spong, says “This is a community that cares”. I say it’s a community that manages on a wing and a prayer, love and sensitivity.
And there’s something telling in the way the volunteers speak about those who arrive for the evening. People are “guests”, not users. “Welcome” is important. The attention to detail and the focus on kindness, reminds me of the care I take when family come to stay. The gluten-free bread pudding made especially for one guest; the offer of a new coat, kept aside because it will be just the right size, to another; the fresh flowers, all speak of respect, thoughtfulness and personal touch. Bennet says, “We all know what it’s like to fall on hard times”.
This is hosting.
I find myself discussing hosting with a woman who is fearful about running meetings. It is something I have done for years in the training room as a way of not just establishing myself as the facilitator but also creating a psychologically safe space for people to explore and have dialogue.
We practice setting up the room so that she feels at her most comfortable. Where does she want to sit? How does she want the room to look? Are there things to be moved, added, thrown, to make the room a welcoming space and to make it her very own? I suggest she gets there first and greets people as they arrive. She reflects on how she can do that graciously, with ease, rather than clumsy affectation.
We talk about preparation. What does she send out and how? Who does she invite? What requests will she make? How is the agenda expressed? Does it increase the sense of welcome before people even arrive or is it dry and business like?
She practices the sticky bits. What if people are quiet? What if they are too loud? What if intimidatingly senior? What if she freezes? She imagines a dinner party in her own home. The bland boardroom style room becomes her kitchen table. She prepares a wonderful meal. The conversation flows and she invites people into conversation. No one person side-tracks or dominates the rest. She is the host. They are the guests. She attends attentively, orchestrating and directing with a soft touch, as if she was dancing in slippers.
The shift in confidence as she visualises is compelling. Now when she thinks about a meeting that is on the horizon, it’s purpose and outcomes, she imagines running it according to her own rules, with clarity. The fear is dissipating, it no longer seems unmanageable and she starts trusting her own ability.
She’s hosting others with purpose, kindness and respect. She’s hosting herself with gentleness, compassion and patience.
This is hosting.
And how about the man who realises that he has unconsciously been treating his clients with so much more patience and respect than he does his team? He decides to flip things on their head. What if he were to treat his team as his clients? Would he then take the time to sit and listen, find out what makes them tick and adapt his style to meet what they need? Would he deal with mistakes with more compassion and patience? Would he be resolute in what he needs to feedback so that together they can reach the best solution?
This is hosting.
You might like to have a look at this TED Talk by Jan Gunnarsson. He’s been thinking about hosting too and what organisational life might be like if we all altered out mindset and began to host.