Growing in New England? Yes, We Can!
General Assembly 2009 Event 2008
Speakers: Rev. Nathan Detering, Maureen Gormley, Rev. Polly Leland-Mayer, Pat Manley.
“Raise the bar for yourselves,” said the Rev. Nathan Detering, minister of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Area Church at First Parish in Sherborn, MA. “This church had a lot of low expectations across the board for itself. If you give folks a reason to be there on Sunday morning and you give folks a reason to pledge from their hearts, the rest follows after.”
This session gave an excellent snapshot of what worked for First Parish in making their church an intentional community that would attract new people and better support the individual growth of existing members. In existence since 1685, they had remained a family-sized church focused on maintaining the historic building. Then, in 2002, the board president challenged them by saying, “We can either be a Building Preservation Society or we can focus on what goes on inside our walls. If we focus inside, what goes on outside will take care of itself.” While most congregations in the denomination don’t have 300-year-old buildings to preserve, the lessons learned at First Parish have universal appeal.
The first lesson was “Be welcoming!” They held a sort of Welcoming 101 class complete with role play. They walked around the building as if seeing it for the first time. Is it clear what goes on here? Are the offices and classrooms well-marked? Do parents know where to go when they come in with their kids and do they feel comfortable leaving them in the Sunday school?
Rev. Detering and other members of the staff and leadership of First Parish shared “good practices” that made a difference in the life of this church and helped to remind people of why they were there:
- Include lay leaders in the service—have a good reader do the welcome. This reminds people that this is their gathering place; it doesn’t just belong to the clergy.
- Make sure the music is integrated and collaborative. Include one hymn the congregation doesn’t need a hymnal for, or invite them to sing along with the choir. Have diverse music Sundays—theirs have ranged from “Godspell” to Mozart.
- Have a part of the worship that spans the generations. First Parish credits their DRE, Kate Holland, with making the kids’ story-telling time during the service a time that everyone looks forward to because her stories operate on so many different levels.
- The Joys and Concerns portion of the service is very important, but must be kept under control and not political.
- All elements of the service should be connected to a single theme.
- Be inclusive of newcomers by not using acronyms or “inside” terms.
- Provide leadership training for lay leaders and teacher training for RE teachers.
- Maintain good records on adult membership as well as RE registration and attendance. This is the only way you can know how well you are meeting your goals and can follow up on adults or children who have stopped attending.
Maureen Gormley has the responsibilities of Communication and Membership at First Parish. She was hired on a grant and has been one of the transforming factors for this church. She talked about their organized events with prospective members and new members, such as education about the denomination and the local church history and an open house where they are asked: “What did you come looking for? What have you found?” She has put together “new visitor” bags that include a CD with the church history and answers to Frequently Asked Questions. Very important, she says, is the followup that she does with visitors and new members. The key is to plug them in quickly to the community and each other.
- First Parish Website
UUA Resources for Growth:
Reported by Dee Ray; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.