Could your bathrooms pass the sniff test?
How you answer that and related questions can make all the difference when visitors decide whether your church is worth a second look.
When Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations think about attracting visitors the very next thought is often of advertising—to draw church shoppers in with big dramatic ads on radio and in the newspaper.
But there are things to do before placing that first ad, cautions Debbie Weiner, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Director of Public Relations, Marketing and Information.
"When people call asking about advertising I ask them to first think about some other things," Weiner says. "Like what the bathroom smells like. And whether there's any place to park. And if anyone will say hello to visitors when they get there.
"Very few visitors stay simply because of advertising," Weiner says. "If you don't have a system to welcome them once they get there then you should save your money."
Before advertising, a congregation should look at its premises as a visitor would, she says. "I even suggest that members go visit another church and then come back and look at their own. Can they tell where to go? Are there cobwebs in the corner? Would they want to leave their toddler in the nursery?"
Weiner recommends that congregations do a physical audit of their facilities before spending money on advertising. A Facilities Audit form is available below.
A congregation should also scrutinize its programs, she says. In the Order of Service spell out any abbreviations or acronyms that would be confusing to visitors. Eliminate inside jokes and references that might appear exclusive to singles such as: "Two more couples are needed for Dinner for Eight Thursday night . . ." And she recommends that congregations provide free child care for all events.
When the UU Community Church, Danville, IN (37 members), bought a former Presbyterian church, president Judi Hansen was thrilled, especially with the new RE space, but then she took a second look. "I overheard a couple of mothers talking and I realized it needed some work. We immediately went through it and threw away outdated toys, painted tables and chairs in bright colors, and then carpeted the floor. Everyone noticed the changes."
A book by Denver architect Robert A. Lee, First Impressions—How to Present an Inviting Church Facility, helps congregations make improvements. He suggests:
- Draw attention to the exterior in summer with mass plantings of inexpensive plants like petunias around the church sign or entryway.
- Designate reserved parking spaces for visitors.
- Create an inviting hospitality table.
When the UU Church, Ellsworth, ME (109), found its parking lot overflowing, it expanded it by half a few years ago and now it's full again, said Sally Bell, membership chair. "I think it is attitude that makes the real difference here. Our board makes a conscious decision to greet visitors and that sets a tone for everyone else."
At Cedar Lane UU Church, Bethesda, MD (865), a new illuminated sign is bringing in "all kinds of people," said the Rev. Alida M. DeCoster, associate minister. "We also have a website and a lot of visitors come because of that. Also, we created a visitor center and when we set it up it makes a very obvious and attractive place for visitors. These things have all been very productive for us."
- First Impressions, book by Robert A. Lee
- The Inviting Church, book by Roy Oswald
Both books are available from the UUA Bookstore, (800) 215-9076
Facilities Audit Sheet
How do the following elements help or hinder the experience of visitors? How accessible are all spaces? What are your recommendations for improvements? Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone new to this space when making your observations.
Religious Education Area