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1004 UUU - Repelling Fewer Visitors

Prepared for by Chris Sealy, reporter; edited by Margy Levine Young

Sponsor: Young Religious UUs

Speakers: Rev. Peter Morales, Membership Coordinator Annie Hedberg, Volunteer Coordinator Dea Brayden of Jefferson Unitarian Church, Golden, Colorado

Rev. Peter Morales doesn't mince words about how he thinks visitors at Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches should be treated. "To ignore the church visitor is the moral equivalent of not sheltering the homeless or feeding the hungry."

In the UU University workshop "Repelling Fewer Visitors," Morales said the growth in UU membership nationally is pitiful. Morales has been senior minister at Jefferson Unitarian Church  in Golden, CO, for five of the last seven years. Those other two years were spent as director for district services for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

The way Morales looks at the numbers, Unitarian Universalism is a declining part of the American religious landscape. Since the 1970s, UU membership has been growing at about one percent a year, considerably less than the growth of the general population. With a handful of churches accounting for most of the movement's growth, and many churches actually declining in membership, the average growth comes out to one person per congregation per year. "At a time when the world really needs the kind of liberal religious message that we offer, that's unacceptable and dangerous," Morales insists, "and also unnecessary."

After two decades stuck at a membership of four hundred, Jefferson Unitarian Church (JUC) has grown to more than seven hundred members in the last few years. It wasn't by marketing, Morales says, or by magic. It was, instead, by actively paying attention to the many visitors who come seeking a religious community instead of ignoring them and turning them away. Morales says it wasn't a matter of deciding to grow, but a matter of the leadership, and then the congregation, deciding to open their doors to the religiously homeless.

What do they do at Jefferson Unitarian Church? Morales, Volunteer Coordinator Dea Brayden, and Membership Coordinator Annie Hedberg all say they started by putting themselves in the place of the person visiting for the first time. "Are these my people?" "Can I have a relationship with these people?" "Can this be my home?"

Morales, Hedberg, and Brayden described some of the things JUC does to greet its visitors. The goal is to warmly welcome a visitor three times in the first fifteen minutes. On all but the coldest days, the minister stands outside the front doors to greet everyone who comes up the walk. "I may be an introvert," Morales confesses, "but it's important to model hospitality, and I actually enjoy it." Right inside the entry is a welcome table with welcoming people. Hedberg, an admitted unabashed hugger, says it's critical that greeters be smiling and friendly souls. "The welcome table," she laughs, "is not for curmudgeons."

During Sunday services at JUC, board members begin with a welcome statement and then invite visitors to introduce themselves and where they're from. After announcements, the entire congregation is asked to "greet their neighbor," where more hugging and handshaking ensues. And as another nod to visitors, when the offertory is announced, the minister suggests that first and second-time visitors let the basket pass, as their presence is a gift to the congregation. Morales is quick to point out that this symbol of hospitality has not hurt JUC's plate collection.

To help workshop attendees visualize these efforts, Morales and company showed the first segment of a DVD called Ideas for Growth: A Video Workshop. The UUA provided a copy of the DVD to everyone registered at Unitarian Universalist University, and will soon have more copies available for churches to use in working on their own welcoming membership activities.

Above all, Morales says, "don't grow by deciding to grow. Grow by deciding to be a better church and by serving people better."

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Last updated on Friday, July 20, 2012.

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