Social Justice Programs Help Congregations Grow

By Donald E. Skinner

Congregations that want to grow might think that advertising is the only way to attract members. But there's another option for UUs who are willing to put their principles to work.

Social action can help build your membership, even as it boosts your local community. It's also much less expensive than advertising, although it does require time and commitment. Of course, social action should be done because it's the right thing to do, not because it might attract visitors.

First Parish, Brewster, Mass., grew from 225 members in 1982 to 700 by having a dynamic minister, the Rev. James Robinson, but also by becoming deeply involved with social issues such as the Central American sanctuary movement, bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender rights, and the homeless. The arrest of several church members at a Thanksgiving rally at Plymouth Rock last year gave the church added visibility in the news media.

Steve Shick, former director of U.S. programs for the UU Service Committee and now minister at the UU Church, Haverhill, Mass. (102 members), notes, "For many congregations one of the key themes in how they've grown is their visibility in the community. If a congregation is serious about being an active participant in its community then it will attract people who are interested in the ethical dimensions of religion."

Says the Rev. Melvin A. Hoover, director of the UUA's Faith in Action department, "An activist church invites people who care about justice and equality and the interdependent web, to see Unitarian Universalism as a place where they might be comfortable. Where there's an intentional effort to balance worship life, the nurturing of members and social justice, many congregations have had very successful and rapid growth. They have a faith that lives itself out."

Other ways for a congregation to enhance its social justice program is to affiliate with a UU community minister or join with other local UU congregations to do combined projects.

A community minister can draw a congregation into the larger community, says the Rev. Jody Shipley, who will become a consultant next spring with the Pacific Central District Community Ministry Council. "A parish minister often has limited time to spend in the community. But a community minister can take people from that congregation out into the larger community and bring the community into the congregation."

Eight years ago the Allegheny UU Church, Pittsburgh, Penn. (65), called a former Catholic priest, Art McDonald, to help it do a public ministry in the inner city neighborhoods around the church. McDonald said the congregation had only 12 to 15 members when he came and that many who came later were attracted by the church's community involvement.

The congregation is now involved with a food pantry, homeless shelter and in doing lobbying and advocacy work for a living wage and preservation of low-income housing. It has also sponsored a day care and summer camp in its building.

"There was nothing complicated about what we did," McDonald said. "We went into the neighborhoods and let folks know we cared about their issues. We made our building available to the community. As I interpret UU history a major aspect of it is social witness. The early Unitarians were involved in issues like slavery and womens' rights. It's central to who we are historically. Our principles should lead us in this direction. If we're not doing social action we should ask ourselves why not?"


The Prophetic Imperative, revised 1998, by the Rev. Richard S. Gilbert, $15. First published in 1980, this book, by one of the UUA's activists in social justice, explores justice-making in congregations. It is available from the UUA Bookstore

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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