Small Congregations: How to Make the Welcoming Congregation Program Work for You!
So many Unitarian Universalist congregations think that going through a Welcoming Congregation Program is beyond their grasp, because of their small size. Not true!
The Welcoming Congregation Program is not one-size-fits-all. It is specifically meant to be adapted to fit the needs of your congregation. The idea is for your congregation to engage in the deepest way possible with the question of how to more intentionally welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals, families, and communities. There are a lot of ways to answer that question.
A couple of obvious difficulties that small congregations encounter in doing the work have presented themselves time and again over the years. Often there is a concern that there isn’t enough people power or time to do the work. Often people say there are more important priorities like making sure the basics happen. Occasionally a congregation reports that one or two people are against the work, and in congregations where “everybody knows your name” there may be fear of people not getting along and creating a rift in the congregation.
Let’s look at some of these and other myths and concerns about doing the Welcoming Congregation Program:
1. We’re too small.
The Universalist Society of West Burke, VT, is a congregation of 8, and became officially recognized as a Welcoming Congregation in 2003. If you are smaller than they are, then you might be able to say you’re too small. Otherwise, it’s more a matter of figuring out how to create a process that works for you.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Lakes in Elkhorn, WI, is a 27-member fellowship that was recognized as a Welcoming Congregation in 2011. Read about how they did it! You can also read about other congregations' Welcoming Congregation journeys.
50% of U.S. Unitarian Universalist congregations with 150 members or less are recognized as Welcoming Congregations, and this number continues to climb.
2. The program is too much for us given our person-power.
Here it is time to get a little creative or at least contact LGBT Ministries for a conversation. Limited time and human power are often realities of smaller congregations. We continually encourage people to adapt the program to their culture and population. And congregations do.
One of the first things to do is look at the Welcoming Congregation Guidelines and Action Steps and see which of the Action Steps you are already doing. You may be surprised. Often congregations that have been worried about how to do a Welcoming Congregation Program discover they are already doing many of the actions and the rest of the tasks are not as daunting as they seemed. You also don’t have to do every step. The real goal is to do work around educating yourselves, institutionalizing Welcoming Congregation practices in the congregation, and making connections with your local community and the wider world.
Congregations have done education through worship services, forums before and after services, and panel or round table discussions. They’ve done weekend retreats, held public forums, and built relationships with LGBT groups and organizations nearby through volunteering, offering meeting space, or attending events. Every congregation has done it in their own way, and so can you. Check out our How to Run the Program page for more ideas.
3. Why do we need to do this? We already welcome everyone.
You probably do already do it, to some degree. The Welcoming Congregation Program allows you to examine how welcoming you are and ways in which you can widen that welcome. Often congregations that believed they were welcoming found ways in which they were less welcoming than they thought (e.g., what questions they asked newcomers) and ways to be more welcoming. Most of the ways in which LGBT people experience exclusion or lack of welcome are subtle and unintentional. Our unconscious biases often surprise us, and taking time to examine them and deal with them is not only a justice issue but it is spiritual work as well.
4. Why are we only welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people?
Churches (and fellowships perceived as churches and religious bodies) have more often than not excluded LGBT people historically. Doing this work is about changing the way in which religion is perceived by many. We have the opportunity to live our values and make a difference in the wider world by doing this. We also may find ways to be more welcoming of all people by specifically focusing on one group of people. Read more about this issue.
5. Will we become a gay church?
It hasn’t happened yet. The real question is: Will we be a place where all the people who would be Unitarian Universalists could be Unitarian Universalists? And there are a lot of people out there who aren’t lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender who want to go to a congregation like this.
6. Can we get help?
LGBT Ministries is here to help you and support your work however we can! Email lgbt [at] uua [dot] org with questions, to brainstorm how to best bring the Welcoming Congregation Program to your congregation, or to share stories from your journey. We look forward to hearing from you.
The office of Congregational Life is also here to support you and has lots of web pages and resources specifically for small congregations. Check out their Resources for Small Congregations (be sure to look at the additional links on the left side of the page).