From Visitor to a Full Spectrum of Member Engagement

by Jerry Carter

I just finished taking this online class on member engagement. It was not my first experience in taking a course on line, but it was my first online course in “things UU.”

The course was about that journey we all take from our first UU experience to becoming deeply involved. Perhaps some of you, reared up in the UU tradition, can’t recall that first UU experience. Some, like me, do recall our first time in a UU church, our first service, and when we joined, and then somehow got “involved.” The focus of this course was on that path, and how can we assist others to make that journey in the most comfortable way.

But first: what is the value, if any, of “growth” and what does that mean? Some consider membership a metric, but the goal is larger. It is not only who ‘belongs’, but whom do we impact? How are we impacting and transforming lives, and how do we get better at doing that? This returns us to the idea that “membership” is a ministry. Looking back, many say they come to the congregation to have their lives transformed. There is also the value of a larger pool of talent in the congregation, a growing pool of volunteers, and the benefit of a stable budget. Growing the congregations gives us more strength to do the good we are already doing. When we welcome newcomers, this is also OUR opportunity to connect and make friends.

Most church-goers would say the process is: “visit, attend a membership class, make a pledge, become a member.” But belonging includes more than membership. That difference between belonging and membership is different for each of us, and different for each congregation. But one place to begin to understand that is in a congregation’s mission statement. Here at Chalice that is:

Open hearts, open minds, open doors, nurturing spirits; seeking justice within the wider world.

Note that “open” is here 3 times. We reach out. For much of us our personal ministry is to reach out to others, to be ‘open’. So considering that we reach out to more than visitors and members, how do we see the full spectrum of Faithful Relationship?

The course covered many of the ways we at Chalice can make that path easier. Here are some easy things to do or to consider:

  • Think of the congregation’s work as missionary work.
  • Remember that our visitors come to us “pre-qualified,” meaning they have checked us out online. How do we look, virtually? Sure, we put facts on our web page: events, times and dates. But today, we need to do better than just facts. How do we share our values in our online presence? Will what newcomers see in person match what we presented online?
  • The job of the “Greeter” is our first line. Do we recruit, train, support, follow and have on going training? Do we schedule to be sure our greeters are truly available to “greet”? Do we have greeters for other than Sunday, ready for off site events, or for events through the week? Another good win/win for greeting our guests is to have some youth greeters, and some greeters who are involved in our religious education program.
  • How do we go beyond the traditional greeter role to include many of us in the welcoming process? We need to look for ways to create a welcoming culture throughout the congregation, like writing newsletter articles about welcome as a spiritual practice. (Hey! I think this is one.)
  • Today, no one likes to appear the rookie, the new kid, the newbie. And congregations often offer newcomers a blue cup during social hour? Awkward! What if we help our guests blend in, and we identify some “old hands” around here? If you know the ropes, would you choose a coffee cup with “ASK ME” printed on it? Or a big green tag on your badge to announce “ASK ME” to our guests? Then with your “ASK ME” label in place, you could keep an eye open for new faces and temporary name tags.
  • Sometimes we welcome newcomers OUTSIDE of Sunday Morning. There can be multiple entry points to begin the path from visitor to involvement. They may attend something other than a Sunday service.

The course covered many more topics and gave plans and suggestions to assess people at all steps along the path to belonging in community. For me, the three key areas from the course were: there is a lot to be learned from the UU Leadership Institute, and even lay people can benefit. Second, the way people make informed decisions is ever changing based on lifestyle and technology. If you don’t keep up, your outreach becomes obsolete and ineffective. Finally, congregations, just like any large group will have members who are no longer there for any number of reasons. Effective outreach to bring in new people is important not only to grow, but just to maintain membership levels.

Go out there and bring them in. And help make the path to belonging easier.

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