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Volunteers, Physical Spaces Create Vitality

By Donald E. Skinner

Sue Parilla, Jefferson Unitarian Church’s (JUC; Golden, CO) volunteer coordinator, helps people find places to connect within the church. “I ask them, ‘What’s missing in your life? What would you like to do here? You came here for a reason. What is it?’”

She keeps profiles on each new member—on paper. “I tried doing it in a database but it’s harder to share that way and takes more time. Doing it on paper I can share information with other people more easily.” And she encourages every committee to have entry level jobs so that new people can easily join in.

Prospective members are asked to fill out a new member profile and to make a financial pledge before signing the membership book. They are also asked to sign up to volunteer once a quarter as a greeter, nursery or coffee attendant, or usher through the Foundations of Fellowship program, a program to get new folks involved in the church, says membership coordinator Annie Hedberg. Details of the Foundations of Fellowship program are listed under “Quick Links” on JUC’s website.

Acknowledging the joys and sorrows in the lives of friends and members as well as recognizing their volunteer acts also helps create a strong church community at JUC. When a prospective member participated in the New York City Marathon, Parilla and a minister both contacted her. “She says it felt good that people at JUC noticed what she did,” says Parilla, who works 20 hours a week.

When fourth-grader Jack Dale and founding member Bob Drew inflated balloons for a church event last year they both got thank you notes.

With 770 members, organization is important at JUC, even down to the nametags. The nametag system is carefully designed to track guests. Nametags for returning guests are kept in a flat cabinet with doors. Guests can pick their nametags out of the cabinet before a service. After the service they drop their nametags into a basket. A volunteer puts the tags away while recording which guests were at church that week. Members and friends pick their nametags off a three-panel rotating kiosk and return them there.

The right physical layout can be an asset in stimulating growth and vitality. At JUC, the church’s front door opens into a wide entrance hall. At the end of the short hall is the welcome table where visitors get a friendly welcome and a temporary nametag.

Turn left from the welcome table and the sanctuary is right there. Walk straight ahead and you find yourself in a large open foyer and commons area. The foyer/commons, where coffee hour is held, is approximately 3,000 square feet and can hold several hundred people. It enables Parilla and membership coordinator Annie Hedberg to easily move around and talk with people. There is no claustrophobic “cattle chute” at JUC.

“It’s hard to overestimate the value of our foyer in growing the church,” says Hedberg. The space immediately outside the sanctuary doors is reserved for new people. All others are encouraged to move deeper into the commons for their conversations.

JUC’s most recent capital improvement was the addition of a religious education wing and a chapel in 2005, plus the remodeling of offices. Before that, a large commons area and patio were added in 1982.

Each capital project has brought in more new members. “Our new RE rooms showed people we were serious about religious education and we were soon full,” says Hedberg. To relieve overcrowding in the sanctuary, JUC went to three morning services for 14 months, at 8:30, 10, and 11:30. Fewer came to the early and late services and in November JUC went back to two services, at 9:15 and 11. “It was hard to get staff and volunteers for three services,” says Hedberg.

Going back to two services was possible because JUC removed its seating, which consisted of two- and three-person pews and replaced them with chairs. “We found people will sit closer together on chairs than they would in our pews,” says Hedberg.

For the past six months, average attendance on Sunday morning has been more than 630 people, including worship and youth and adult RE.

The congregation’s next challenge is how to respond to even more growth. Services are running 75 percent full. Many RE rooms are full or nearly so. There is no room on the site for another expansion. Parking is limited. The site has 143 spaces plus access to a parking lot at a city park a half block away.

Future possibilities for JUC include starting a new congregation or helping an existing one realize its growth potential in the metro area. “There are an endless number of people looking for this religion here. We’re convinced of that,” says Hedberg. LeeAnne Dale drives 20 miles one way to attend JUC with her son Jack. She first sought it out when Jack’s classmates began to raise questions about religion. The first time she attended, in 2006, “I knew right away this was where I should be,” she says. “I walked in the door and ushers greeted me and I met Annie (Hedberg) right away. And I loved the sermons.” Some months later, when she was laid off from her job, it helped that people at church noticed that change in her life, she says. “They still check on me and I appreciate that.”

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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