Departed Visitors Help Us Learn Our Flaws

Every congregation has lots of visitors who come once, twice, even sign up for the newsletter, but never return. We wonder if we did something wrong, if no one spoke to them, or the coffee was bad.

If we have our act together we have someone from the membership committee call all visitors within three days of their first visit. We invite them back and answer any questions they have. Studies have shown this is the best way to get them back, even better than sending a personal note.

But what if we didn't have our act together? What if it's been two to six months and we still haven't contacted them? At that point it may be too late to get them back, but it's still possible to learn from them.

Lyle Schaller, in 44 Questions for Congregational Self-Appraisal (Abingdon Press, 1998), suggests we call gone-away visitors with these questions:

  • What motivated you to come and worship with our congregation?
  • What was the reception you experienced on that first visit?
  • Have you found a church home yet? Which one?
  • What could we have done to be more effective in responding to your needs?
  • Do you have any advice on how we could be more effective as a church?

Charles Gaines, a Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister who has done health assessments of congregations, recommends that congregations concerned with why people leave should call at least fifteen of them. "That's enough to generate a trend," he says, to determine if a congregation has problems it ought to remedy.

Some congregations use email to get feedback. Add a place on your New Visitor form for email addresses then follow up occasionally, asking visitors about their experience. To some, email is less invasive than a phone call, and they may be more likely to give helpful answers.

Gila Jones, of the membership committee at UU Church of South County in Mission Viejo, CA (93 members), believes there are three visitor types. "The first visits once and never comes back. Many never intended to return in the first place. They visit so they can tell their mothers they did. The second type visits, comes back again and again, and eventually becomes active.

"The third type visits about three times over a three-month period, then you never see them again. Why? In my opinion they're interested in UUism but your congregation doesn't work for them. A friend of mine calls this 'right religion, wrong church.' These visitors are important. These are people who WANT to be involved, and would be assets. Pay attention to them. If you have a lot of them, you have a problem of some kind."

Martha Osgood, former membership co-coordinator at the UU Church in Eugene, OR (219), had a practice of calling dropouts. "I was amazed at how pleasant the conversations were and how much I learned. Several sent good-sized checks with a note about it being long past time for them to put their money and memberships where their mouths were. Mostly, folks said they didn't attend anymore due to their own lives taking a different turn (illness, family crisis, new job, adopting a child, etc.).

"True, this could also be translated as: the church did not make a sufficient impression upon them to create the stronger need to attend, but at least I learned that we had not actually insulted them or actively driven them off."

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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