Fun and Food Make Work Parties Popular

By Donald E. Skinner

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
—Thomas Edison

Monthly work parties are an institution for most Unitarian Universalists (UU) congregations, necessary to keep the grass cut, the buildings painted, and the bathrooms shined up . But getting workers to turn out isn't easy. Most congregations can sympathize with Kathy Jens-Rochow, president of UU Church of Fort Lauderdale, FL (171 members). "Work days at our church," she says, "have become a day of fewer and fewer people working like crazy to keep our building and grounds presentable."

But other UUs have found ways to get lots of people to turn out for work parties. Their methods include a liberal dose of humor, the personal touch, and above all, food.

Don Mayo has been putting successful—and popular—work parties together for several years at Mount Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek, CA (357). "To start with, I call them parties, not work parties," he says. "I tell people we're going to have fun."

He relies heavily on the personal touch. He stands up in church and invites everyone. Then he telephones prospective workers several days in advance. And he feeds them every month—bagels or muffins, sometimes even barbecue. "The food is very important," Mayo says. "That's our social time." About fifteen to twenty-five people show up each month.

Hard workers on Mount Diablo workdays also get a crowning touch—baseball caps with the church name and a crossed hammer and saw. Mayo makes a special point of inviting Mount Diablo's youth, letting them know they're valued and needed. He also makes sure that workers who give up a Saturday, when they could be working in their own yards, get thanked in the newsletter. Once a year he recognizes them at a church service.

Here are other tips from UU congregations for getting out the work brigade:

  •  Limit monthly work parties to three to four hours. People are more likely to show up if they know they're not expected to spend all day. Post a list of prioritized jobs and let people pick. Make it the same Saturday each month and put it on the congregational calendar.
  • Twice a year do a major all-day work party to do the big jobs and catch up on seasonal maintenance. Hold a potluck at noon. Those who can't come can contribute food. Make the day a social occasion. Plan a swimming party or other recreational event afterward at the home of a member. One congregation also does an annual camping trip for members of the building and grounds committee.
  • Don't call everyone every month. Give people an occasional break. Keep a list of people who like to do particular jobs and call them for those jobs. Give everyone a break from work parties during August and December.
  • Put a notice in the newsletter before each work party and mail out special invitations to those who are likely to come.
  • Let workers know they're appreciated. Send handwritten thank-you notes afterward. Light a candle or the chalice on Sunday morning for those who showed up the day before (as well as those who meant to show up, but didn't). Or do some promotion and light a candle the week BEFORE for those who WILL show up.
  • Be prepared. Have tools and materials on hand to do the jobs or tell people what to bring. Nothing drives people away faster than showing up and having nothing to do or not having the right tools to do the job. Have indoor jobs lined up in case of rain.

"The important thing is to have fun," says Mayo. "If they have fun they'll come back next month."

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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