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Sandy Coughlin

BIO

Sandy Coughlin loves hospitality, cooking, and opening her home to others with her husband and three growing teenagers. She's the author of THE RELUCTANT ENTERTAINER and co-author (with her husband Paul) of MARRIED...BUT NOT ENGAGED. She's been featured on numerous media outlets including Moody's Midday Connection, Focus on the Family, “The 700 Club” and Library Journal. You can find Sandy's blog about simple but savvy entertaining, as well as the benefits to imperfect living, at ReluctantEntertainer.com.

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INTERVIEW

September 2010

Sandy Coughlin is a blogger and busy mother of three whose recently published book, THE RELUCTANT ENTERTAINER, has helped countless women conquer feelings of inadequacy, unrealistic expectations and, above all, the fear of failure, inspiring them to open their hearts and homes to others. In this interview with FaithfulReader.com’s Marcia Ford, Coughlin reflects on the experiences that motivated her to write a how-to guide to hospitality, elaborating on the relationship between grace and acceptance and the virtues that can be gained by entertaining others. She also speculates on why women are plagued by the desire to be the perfect hostess, shares a few of her “10 Commandments of Hospitality,” and offers tips to avoid being a “joy-buster.”

FaithfulReader.com: What prompted you to write THE RELUCTANT ENTERTAINER?

Sandy Coughlin: Years ago, I noticed in my conversations with other women how few people knew how to entertain and how many feared it. That's when I started my blog, ReluctantEntertainer.com. I started writing four years ago about the lost art of hospitality, practical ways to entertain and save money, and how to come up with easy menus. What really resonated with readers was when I wrote about perfectionism. About two years later, Bethany House asked if I wanted to turn my blog into a book, THE RELUCTANT ENTERTAINER.

FR: Why do you place so much importance on entertaining others?

SC: Hospitality is the spark of friendships, of soul-satisfying experiences with others, eventually resulting in deeper connections as we take the time and make the effort to reach beyond surface appearances. When we give our lives away, we get back something in return. I have a chapter in my book called “Deeper Connections,” where I explore various ways to practice hospitality and the importance of establishing and creating deeper friendships. With my own children, I believe one of the greatest gifts my husband and I have given them is to show them how to entertain, how to open our home to others. And what a beautiful gift we receive in return. They are teenagers now, and all three of them have experienced this.

FR: What are some of the main reasons some women are reluctant to entertain people in their homes?

SC: They worry that their house isn't clean enough, or decorated just right, or that they are a horrible cook. Maybe their husband doesn't like to entertain, or they think it's just too hard with young children. Many women never get beyond the thought of entertaining because of their anxieties and fears.

FR: Please describe the kind of hospitality you witnessed as a child.

SC: I was fortunate to have parents who taught me the value of hospitality as a young girl. Because of that gift being handed down to me, I've been able to pass the torch on to my three children, who are now teenagers. My mom did not entertain perfectly, but she entertained beautifully, meaning that she was a great cook, set a pretty table, and always had a smile when she greeted her guests at the front door. She showed genuine love to many --- something that I will never forget. But I want to say that there is hope for the person who perhaps didn't receive the same gift that I did. Find a role model, someone who you really respect and can learn from, and ask if she'd be willing to mentor you.

FR: You cite perfectionism as a major stumbling block to gracious entertaining. How can women overcome the pressure they feel to be the perfect hostess?

SC: A good question to ask ourselves is, "Am I having people into my home to impress them or to bless them?" One of the main reasons we remain reluctant and isolated is that we have bought into the thinking that "perfection" is required in order to be hospitable. We're saturated with media, TV, magazines and blogs where everything just looks too perfect. Women feel defeated before they even begin. Some may even have had painful experiences while growing up, where their mothers tried to be the perfect hostess --- a June Cleaver or a Mary Tyler Moore style of entertaining, which really does not exist. I wrote a list of "10 Commandments" that are simple hospitality helpers, the first being the core of my book: hospitality is not about you. It's about making others feel warm and welcome.

FR: Church life, with its many potlucks and other food-focused activities, can pose its own set of problems for reluctant entertainers --- especially in churches that teach that everyone has the spiritual gift of hospitality. What specific advice can you give to women in that situation?

SC: Start thinking in new ways that free you from comparing yourself to others. Everyone has to eat, so figure out what style of entertaining or hospitality works for you. If you don't like to cook, utilize local grocery stores or markets where you can buy specialized or pre-cooked foods. Bring it home, put it in a nice serving bowl, and bring it to the potluck. Take the pressure off of yourself that food has to be "homemade," and focus on your friends and your relationships with others. Or maybe even make new friends.

American women need to come back to the reality of what hospitality is. It's not a potluck meal, and we don't all have to be a Martha! Hospitality is the simple art of making people feel welcome and at home. People in America are hurting right now, and we need each other, which may include coming together for a simple meal.

FR: Describe two or three of your "10 Commandments of Hospitality."

SC: Never apologize for a mistake. Apologizing only sheds light on our mistakes! If it's something really big, you could mention it, adding a bit of humor. But you really need to evaluate whether it matters or not. Why bring attention to something negative, when guests are probably engaging and having a good time? Be creative, use what you have, and keep it simple. Don't overwhelm yourself with a huge dinner party at first. Come up with a simple menu, delegate part of it, snip some flowers from your yard and add a few votive candles. Simple can still be classy! The best way to impress others in your home is through genuine care and authenticity --- something that no killer centerpiece or gourmet meal will ever do.

FR: You write about "joy-busters" --- things that hostesses unwittingly do that suck the life out of a party, or even the idea of entertaining. What are some of the most common joy-busters?

SC: One of the most common excuses I hear is: “I am just too busy.” Most Americans are in the same boat --- we’re all too busy. Garage doors open and close, and many don't even know their neighbors. My advice is to invite someone over, get a date on the calendar and keep the meal simple --- you can even delegate half of it to your guests! Free yourself from the pressure of making things “perfect" and go with the flow. Enjoy the night, the fellowship, the conversation --- enjoy the connection. Don't buy into being "too busy," or it will never happen.

Another joy buster is being fearful. Embracing your fears can help you get to the soul of hospitality. Years ago we taught our kids the acronym for fear: False Evidence Appearing Real. We all have some fear of rejection. We might be worried about how the food will turn out, about what to say to our guests, or what they will think of our home. Imaginations go wild, and we're held back by a fear of something that never happens. Fear is a certain joy-buster.

FR: What can you say that would help a young mother who wants to entertain, but lives in a small house with her husband and three small children?

SC: You just described me about 20 years ago! We lived in a house with less than 1,000 square feet, and we still learned the value of entertaining. Again, divide up the meal to keep it simple. Feed the kids first and put them in a room with a movie, or just some toys. Throw on a tablecloth, light some candles, serve your guests and enjoy adult-time while you can get it. It's not always easy to have "perfect" dinner parties with little kids, but you glean what you can, when you can. Some of my greatest memories are from years ago, sitting around the table talking while eight munchkins ran around the house. I wouldn't trade those memories for anything.

FR: Fear of not knowing what to say or how to keep a conversation going is often a hindrance to women who would otherwise be okay with sharing a meal with others. What are some tips on becoming a better conversationalist?

SC: If you are married, talk this over with your spouse ahead of time. Come up with some questions you can ask your guests to keep the conversation flowing. If you are not married, invite a friend or two and ask them ahead of time to "lead" the conversation. Or pre-plan the seating of your guests, and put a more vibrant person by a quieter person. There are some creative ways to stimulate conversation so that everyone can have a great time. One question that works for all ages is this: name a person who builds you up or encourages you.

FR: You write a lot about grace. Please define what grace means to you as it applies to hospitality.

SC: As a hostess, grace to me portrays contentment, which leads to a great attitude toward life. Being gracious is one of the most beautiful traits a person can have, and I'm always striving to be more gracious myself. It's accepting how our life is today --- perfect house, perfect family, gourmet chef, probably not. But whether you have little or much, grace is a gift that we both give and receive. Fortunately for many, we extend grace around the dinner table as we break bread together. It paves the way for what many of us are looking for today: a path from isolation to connection to deeper friendships.

FR: In addition to writing your blog, www.reluctantentertainer.com, what other writing projects do you have in the works, if any?

SC: I just wrote my first e-book, called BALCONY GIRLS. Readers can visit my site for more information, but it is basically eight life lessons that a mom or leader can teach a group of girls. Each lesson includes a virtue to be studied in relation to friendship. Games and role-playing ideas, crafts and snack ideas are included with each lesson. The book gives information on how to start a group and how to keep it going. The motto is "To build up and not tear down."

I'm very excited about this project, as there will be more BALCONY GIRLS e-books to come!

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