Helping Members Find a Comfortable Place

When visitors come through our doors most of us are pretty good about making them a nametag, introducing them around, and making sure they know where coffee hour is held.

But once they become members, sometimes we're a little less sure of how to relate to them. Should we put them on committees right away and invite them to work parties or should there be a honeymoon period when nothing is asked or expected?

There are problems with both courses. If we rush at newcomers with too many things to do they may flee from our "Church of Perpetual Responsibility." But if we ignore them they may feel, well, ignored.

Here's how Judy Welles and Duane Fickeisen resolved that dilemma. When they became extension coministers to a new congregation, Unitarian Universalists (UU) of the Cumberland Valley in Carlisle, PA, a year ago, they did two things to ensure that members felt like a part of the congregation. The first was to put the results of personal interest surveys of members into a computer database so that members could organize around gardening, hiking, social action, etc.

The second thing they did was to meet with all parishioners in groups of about six in members' homes. They asked them to tell their life stories in five to seven minutes and talk about their current concerns and what they hoped to gain from their relationship with the church.

As a result of these meetings, Welles said, they learned what people were interested in and what skills and experiences they had that would be useful in a church setting. Equally important, each group of six members got to know each other well. She noted, "We learned things that never would have come out in a coffee hour conversation."

She added, "People join because they are in search of comfort, of community, of a place where they can put their ideals to work, of a place to continue their spiritual journeys. If you're going to assimilate new members meaningfully you have to know them, their interests, hobbies, what issues they are facing in their personal lives."

"As we think about bringing new members fully into the life of the church," she observed, "let's keep a wide vision of what that would look like and not just how to get them onto committees."

Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Moderator Denise Davidoff recommends ushering as a good entry point for new members. "It doesn't take extra time, and it's easy to do well. One-time projects are good, such as serving at the church potluck or being a teller at the annual meeting. My overall view, however, is that a congregation needs to have an intentional system for embracing newcomers socially before drafting them successfully into volunteer work. Use circle suppers, theater parties, whatever it takes to hasten a feeling of knowing folks and being known to make the newcomer comfortable within the congregation. And the biggest barrier is not having someone to talk to at coffee hour."

Edele Panessidi, a member of the Unitarian Church of Sharon, MA (117), urges plain talk for new members and visitors. Don't use initials for programs like religious education or assume everyone knows the group's routines. She says, "Part of the reason newcomers feel out of the loop is that people forget not everyone knows how things are done."

About the Author

  • 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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