Closing the Back Door

By Donald E. Skinner

Most of us have the front door pretty well covered on Sunday morning. We have our greeter teams in place, we make our visitors use red coffee cups or special nametags, we introduce them to our friends, and we make sure they know where the bathrooms are.

We always call them after their first visit, and then when they come back and show more interest we hook them up with a small group or a volunteer opportunity. It's a routine that we know how to do.

What we're not as good at is closing the back door. In many congregations, for every visitor who comes and stays, an earlier member seems to leave. Our congregations become revolving doors, and we lose as many members as we gain.

Why do members leave and what can we do about it? There's no single reason, of course, but it often has to do with a lack of connection. People who once felt enthusiastic and motivated lose their reason for belonging. Our religious community is no longer important in their lives.

St. John's Unitarian Church in Cincinnati, OH had that problem. Then three years ago it did something about it and grew from 250 to 301 members. Rev. Annie Foerster attributes the growth to several factors: meaningful worship, good organization, committed religious education leaders, and lots of small groups.

Examples: No one at St. John's can lead a worship service without first taking a class on how to use the microphone and put together a service. Everyone who joins the church must take a New Unitarian Universalist (UU) class and have an interview with the minister. Prospective board members are asked to take a class on what it means to be a board member.

Foerster's worship service class includes such basics as how to find information in the hymnal. "A lot of people just don't know what a gold mine we have and how it's organized," she says, adding, "Sunday morning is an important experience for us. Our members expect wonderful music and good preaching. They simply won't tolerate a poor service." About two-thirds of members show up each Sunday. Foerster teaches another class on how to write a sermon "because our members do appreciate a variety of voices from the pulpit."

"Special-interest groups are important as connection points to attract and keep members," says Foerster. "When people come to me asking for a small group, I ask them, "Are you willing to do anything about (forming this group)? Then I tell them, 'Talk to Mary. She's also interested in that.' "

The Eno River UU Church in Durham, NC (738), has been one of the fastest-growing UU churches in recent years, in part because of surrounding high-tech and retirement centers and a longtime minister, Rev. Arvid Straub, but also because the church actively nurtures its members.

"We spend a lot of time and energy supporting small groups," says church administrator Holly McKinney. The congregation also has a new full-time coordinator of shared ministry who helps develop classes that enable members to develop deeper commitments and find connections.

Becoming a member at Eno River has taken on more meaning. Prospective members used to gather once a month to hear a twenty minute membership presentation before signing the book. Now there are two classes: UU101, for those new to Unitarian Universalism, and UU201, on being a committed member. The latter includes presentations by the finance and other committee chairs and board members. "We wanted people to think very carefully about signing the book," says McKinney, "so that they might take membership more seriously."

Church volunteers at Eno River are occasionally awarded free dinners or profiled in the newsletter. Other ideas for keeping members involved:

Designate a coordinator of lay volunteers to interview new and old members about their gifts, talents, and interests.

  • Hold a yearly event to celebrate and invite volunteerism.
  • To retain members, it's important to let them hear from you at times other than when the church needs money or is trying to round up help.
  • Many congregations make sure that volunteers get reminders that someone knows and cares about what they've done, such as notes of appreciation and occasional phone calls.

"Pay attention to the times in members' lives when they need a little extra care," says Dottie Petrullo, membership chair at the UU Church of Arlington, VA (870). The church's Caring Connection has divided the membership by zip code and responds quickly to illness, death, or other family crises.

Petrullo also recommends exit interviews with lapsed members and visitors who don't return. The interviews can help identify problem areas that might not be apparent to church leaders.

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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