November 1, 2004
Visitors must be greeted and talked with at coffee hour if you want them to come back. Some congregations designate certain people to be greeters and give them nametag ribbons that indicate their role. But I like the idea of "phantom greeters." They walk up to someone and start conversing just as if they were a "regular" member of the congregation, but in fact they've been trained to look for and converse with visitors. This has the benefit of helping visitors to feel someone isn't just talking to them because it's their "job."
Greeting works best if all members think to do it, not just those "trained" for it. Have all members spend the first ten minutes of coffee hour seeking out and talking to visitors before they turn to their friends and take up church business and socializing. The members of the governing board should set the example.
Get the visitor's name the first time he/she visits. The second time have a nametag ready with the visitor's name. They'll be pleased and impressed. You'll end up throwing some away, but it's worth the waste. It's also important to call visitors (and their children) by name on subsequent visits which means someone has to remember that they've been here before.
Doing Membership well means going beyond the Membership Committee. It means having close coordination with other committees, including Publicity, Sunday Services, Facilities, and the Caring Committee, among others.
Subscribe to the UUA's free electronic discussion group on membership issues. If you don't like lots of e-mail you can receive this and other UUA lists in DIGEST form, getting groups of messages every few days rather than having them trickle in one at a time.
Ask visitors to use colored coffee mugs, (or colored name tags) then make sure you talk to them.
Make sure your physical facility is ready to meet visitors. Is it clean and inviting inside and out? Or do the bathrooms smell and are there cobwebs in the corner? Make sure your religious education facilities are especially clean and safe, including the playground. Look at your facilities as a visitor does.
Ditto with your Sunday morning services. Are there some programs you'd be embarrassed to have a visitor witness? Get with the Worship/Sunday Services committee and make sure that all Sunday services meet a certain standard.
In the Order of Service and during oral announcements eliminate acronyms and abbreviations, such as "RE" (Religious Education) that might confuse visitors. No inside jokes or other references that exclude visitors. Just because you know how something is done doesn't mean everyone does. Make sure references are inclusive to single people, also. That is, don't announce, "Dinner for Eight is looking for another couple." Rather, "Dinner for Eight has room for two more people..."
Prepare a fifteen minute audio cassette tape to give to visitors to listen to on the way home. It will answer the questions they didn't think to ask and it will set your congregation apart. (InterConnections, Vol. III, May/June '98)
Designate several parking spaces as "Visitor Parking." Think about stationing a greeter in the parking lot.
Before you give new members a job, get them involved in the social life of the congregation. When you do give them a job make it a one-time thing, like ushering or helping with the annual service auction. Make it something where they can work with other people, rather than alone, so they'll get to know someone better.
One of the very best ways to get a friend or neighbor interested in your congregation is to invite them to a social function, adult education class, or other small group rather than a Sunday morning service. They can become familiar with the congregation without the expectation they're going to join.
Assign a mentor or buddy to a visitor when they seem serious about joining. The mentor talks to the visitor occasionally, finding out what he/she is looking for from the congregation and helping them find ways to be involved and answering questions. The mentor also explains the annual canvass at the appropriate time and other events that might need elaboration.
Postcard Pal—Designate someone to send postcards or notes to members whose work goes largely unheralded. This should not appear to be an orchestrated effort, but rather a spontaneous gesture. (Sometimes we have to work at spontaneity!) People work and feel better when they know someone notices and appreciates. Having received a few of these in a previous congregation, I know it works. This should be done by someone who most people know and who notices things. It takes very little time but the rewards can be great.
Make the visitors' table in the lobby an inviting focal point with flowers, a tablecloth, brochures, and attractive signs. Look at it through a visitor's eyes.
The very best and most effective way to get new members is to invite a friend, neighbor, or coworker. Yellow Pages is next best. Then a congregational website. If someone is willing to set up a website it costs you nothing except time and there are more and more stories of people who found our congregations through our website. Make sure it's attractive and easy to use. If you don't have someone to maintain it, keep it simple. At the least it should include a photo of the church, a map, times of services, religious education information and a description of our general principles. Also indicate on the website what type of clothing is appropriate on Sunday mornings. That's been shown to be a key concern of first-time visitors. Also mention a bit about the style of service (Protestant in style, with a sermon, hymns, etc.)
Newspaper advertising is expensive. Radio is more economical—think about public radio stations—their audiences parallel ours. Make sure your speakers and programs get sent in to your local paper's religion calendar. Do the free stuff first. Put attractive notices on bulletin boards at indoor playgrounds, groceries and other places where parents go. And remember, there's a study that says 86 percent of people joined a church because someone they know invited them. The personal touch is always best, but it also doesn't hurt to have gotten your name out into the community with a variety of advertising.
Social action projects are a great way to get your congregation noticed in the community. Besides being a worthwhile thing to do and a way to build your own community, it's often worth some free publicity and it makes a statement that your congregation stands for something. Actions speak louder than words.
Make sure the phone message in the congregational office gives directions to the church and that the voice on the message is warm and inviting, rather than hurried and harried. Put the directions on the website also.
Tell visitors how to find the UUA website, where they can learn about the denominational programs, read other ministers' sermons, see what other Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations are doing, and learn about UU theology and philosophy.
Don't wait until September to put your house in order for visitors. Many come in August. Make sure that not only is your physical facility ready for them, but that your Sunday programs have quality. If you have a minister, s/he should be leading the services by mid-August.
Have a plan in place to track new visitors. If they stop coming find out why. Do exit interviews whenever possible. Some small to medium-sized congregations actually have someone who takes attendance—quietly, of course. In this way it's possible to keep track of the visitors (and regular members) who stop coming and someone can then call and check on them.
Keep a database of information about visitors so you can track how often they come, what their involvement is, etc.
When doing advertising, whether in the newspaper, on radio, or in flyers, include something that indicates that UUism has a long history. Something like, "Unitarian Universalism, a liberal religious tradition in (city) since 1870." Many people confuse us with newer religions like the Unification Church or the Universal Life Church and this helps set us apart.
A phrase that resonated with listeners when the UUA did spots on National Public Radio included a quote from Unitarian minister/historian Earl Morse Wilbur: "The essence of Unitarianism is the constant struggle for freedom, reason, and tolerance."
If you're short on funds and volunteers for Membership responsibilities, put your energy into greeting visitors. Visitors may overlook other deficiencies if they're greeted well.
For more information contact interconnections @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Wednesday, September 14, 2011.
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