FORT WORTH, Texas - Zeb Ivan Smith got his start as a greeter six decades ago when he worked the graveyard shift as a railroad ticket agent in Muleshoe, Texas.
“I’d greet anyone getting on or off — the few who would catch the train at that hour,” said Smith, 83, chuckling. Smith, known as “Z.I.,” still greets. But these days, his station is First United Methodist Church of Bedford, where there are lots more folks to welcome. Greeters play a huge role for visitors and regulars at places of worship. Sixty-seven percent of people who returned to a church three or more times did so because of a warm welcome, according to a 2004 survey of 2,652 visitors at 312 churches. The survey was cited in the book “Widening the Welcome of Your Church: Biblical Hospitality and the Vital Congregation,” by Fred Bernhard and Steve Clapp. “People pretty much decide before the sermon ever starts whether they’ll come back,” said Scott Hamm, a minister who trains greeters at North Davis Church of Christ in Arlington, Texas. “When they come through the door, they have the opportunity to really see what you are instead of just hear what you are.” Smith, of Hurst, Texas, a “greeter and seater” at Texas churches since his early 20s, has served at the Bedford church for 13 years. He is diminutive — 5 feet 1 inch tall — and dapper, each week donning a suit, lapel pin and bow tie. “That was my instruction growing up. You look your very nicest when you go worship,” Smith said. His wife, MaryBeth Smith, teases him about the hugs he sometimes gives with his greetings. “You get a feeling right away where a person is huggable or not,” Z.I. Smith said. “If not, you keep your distance.” At Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington, greeters wish worshippers “Shabbat Shalom,” a peaceful Sabbath, and hand out prayer books Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. “If they’re new, we find someone they can buddy with during the service so they don’t feel alone,” said Janet Aaronson, the synagogue’s executive director. At Hamm’s church, he trains teams of 12 to 15 and rotates them monthly. “Having new teams keeps it fresh for them and members,” he said. “Greeting can be a family ministry. There’s nothing like a child handing another child a bulletin.” Too many greeters “can seem contrived,” Hamm said. “You don’t want your greeters to be so energetic and smiling and have had so much coffee that they pounce on you. “It’s really about learning how to read people.” GREETER RULES - Be pleasant and interested in people, but do not pry. - Ask a worshipper’s preference about where to sit. - Wear a name tag. - Enlist other greeters of varying ages and both genders.