Knowing Your Visitors a Key Growth Factor

What does our congregation need to do to grow? Should we be more welcoming, or is it a matter of adding more ways to integrate folks? Or should we really be focusing on outreach?

It can be hard to know what to do if you're part of a membership committee. How should you spend your time and resources to achieve the best possible results?

"Start by knowing your visitors," says Linda Laskowski. She has helped the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley (UUCB), CA, and other congregations focus their membership energies by developing a process to let them know more about their visitors, including how they found the church and why they came. Read UUCB story.

"Know how many visitors you have," she says. "If you have enough visitors to grow then it's probably not necessary to spend your money on bringing more in. Instead, tighten up your welcoming and conversion processes. And if people are leaving, find out why."

Laskowski's process, which she has presented at district gatherings and at General Assembly this year in Portland, starts with collecting data. Visitors at UUCB are encouraged to fill out a visitors card, listing not only their contact information, but how they found the church. She also created an exit interview questionnaire to find out why people leave the church. There is also an annual survey of visitors.

Her system is not complicated, but it requires constant attention to visitors and consistent record keeping. Two people staff a visitor table each Sunday morning, encouraging visitors to fill out a card, and making mental notes on returning visitors. A third person enters the new data in a spreadsheet, which helps the committee see what steps it should take to grow.

"The challenge for UUCB and other congregations is to attract enough visitors to grow," she says. "I've read that if a church wants to grow it needs to have at least the number of first time visitors annually as it has members. The five hundred member UUCB gets about three hundred visitors annually, so it's working on bringing more in."

A question on the annual survey asks new people if they felt welcome when they first attended UUCB. An overwhelming majority did. "We get scores of about 2.7 on a three-point scale for being welcoming," says Laskowski. So rather than implement more ways to welcome people, they chose to focus on outreach to bring in more visitors.

The church sends three mailings to people who move into the area. In a recent year the first mailing was a seed packet, "a gift for your new home," with church information printed on it. The second mailing was a flyer about summer social justice forums. The third mailing was a postcard with Christmas Eve and other holiday activities. "About 5 percent of the households that we mail to do visit," said Laskowski. "The mailings pay for themselves."

Laskowski says UUCB's visitor tracking program works well with The Membership Journey (PDF), a guide helping congregations formulate effective membership strategies. "Once congregations have their own membership numbers and have a sense of where they could make the most improvement, they can go directly to that part of The Membership Journey to get ideas for things they can do." Some of UUCB's membership tracking tools will be on soon.

"In essence we are putting more energy into converting visitors into members," she says. The ratio of visitors becoming members has improved slightly since these steps were taken, going from 1-to-6 to almost 1-to-5.

Laskowski cautions, "These tools by themselves will not increase growth. They will tell you where to put your energies to most effectively grow. Most of the articles I see on fixing the membership process are about doing things right. This is about doing the right things based on what your congregation needs."

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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