Putting Heart and Soul Into Newcomer Classes

When visitors come through our doors on Sunday morning most of us know what to do. We greet them warmly, talk to them during coffee hour and invite them back. What happens next is more challenging.

If they become interested in us, then we are expected to teach them about our faith. There are as many ways to do this as there are congregations. And how we do it has a lot to do with whether these folks stick around or drift away.

We often underestimate our visitors, says Laurel Hallman, minister at the First Unitarian Church, Dallas, TX (747 members). "They don't come to us because they want to serve on a committee. They come looking for a place that has meaning and that will help them with their lives. And they want the church to demand something of them as human beings."

Hallman asks prospective members to attend four Thursday night sessions of ninety minutes each. She focuses on what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist (UU), what the church is about, commitment, and how to get involved in meaningful ways.

Money is also part of it. She asks the newcomers for a half-tithe (five percent) and talks with them about any money anxiety. "When you ask people for a commitment it should raise their anxiety levels," she says. The average pledge at Dallas is $1,300, in part, Hallman says, because new members are asked to pledge responsibly.

All Souls Unitarian Church, Tulsa, OK, the largest UU congregation, with more than 1,500 members, has no membership rules, just customs, says associate minister Suzanne Meyer. Prospective members are encouraged to attend four consecutive evening "Roots" sessions. "If they say they don't have time," says Meyer, "we ask them how they can have time to be a church member.

"We make the classes convenient. We offer child care. I offer the classes six times a year. Our goal is that you're not a newcomer for more than six weeks before a class comes open. Frequency is important."

The Roots sessions are minister led. "At the last session we talk very seriously about obligations of membership. Individuals are encouraged to fill out a membership card. Participants are told they are expected to support the church with their time, talent and money. It's not an option. We have no minimum pledge. This is not a country club. But I am honest with them about what I pledge."

New All Souls members are exempt from committee work for a year, Meyer says.

"We tell them to spend their first year studying. We encourage them to take adult education classes Sunday mornings or Wednesday evenings or get involved in our small study groups. They need to learn who we are, about the free church and their roles in it. It requires study. We don't attempt to assimilate members by putting them to work. If they don't know diddly about our religion, how are they supposed to teach the kids?

"We tell them the ministers run the church. The members do the ministry. They visit the sick, teach, do social justice. That's what people crave to do. They may not know it but that's what they're seeking. They have a deep spiritual longing to serve, to minister to a hurting world."

The Woodinville, WA, UU Church (134), invites newcomers to three one-hour evening sessions or one five-hour Saturday afternoon session. The classes enable participants to bond with Rev. Alan Taylor and each other. Taylor prefers the five-hour class because "people are more likely to be there for all of it." Child care for that session is arranged in members' homes.

The course, offered in October, January, March-April and June, covers UU history, theology, and polity. Participants pair up to talk about the UU Principles. Some learn the church is not the right place for them, says Taylor. "Some want a church centered on Jesus. Some have a hard time when they learn how active we are in gay and lesbian issues. Most people here support gay marriage and are prochoice on abortion. We have some good discussions. This is the main opportunity newcomers have to ask questions of the minister."

If a prospective member cannot attend a session, Taylor meets with him or her. "If I meet with them for an hour and a half and I know that they know what the church is about, they can join." The same applies to those who have attended for several years without joining. Taylor partly attributes the average pledge of $1,600 at Woodinville to the practice of educating newcomers.

At the Unitarian Church, Barnstable, MA (299), attendance at three classes, held on successive Sundays from noon to 2:00 p.m., and including lunch, is required for membership. The classes are held three times a year. If someone misses one of the classes, they may still join. If they miss two, they are encouraged to attend the next series before joining.

Children are included in the first session, to send the message that Barnstable is a family church. During another session the children have their own class, making chalices of modeling clay while learning the story of the flaming chalice. Then they come back to the adult session and share the story with their parents.

"In the classes, we stress the commitment which membership entails," says the Rev. Russ Savage. "In addition to UU history and the history of our church, we discuss church activities, social action, and the openness and inclusiveness of our theology. We stress the commitment of time and money by church members, which makes our church successful. Several members talk about their own involvement and why they do what they do."

A representative of the canvass or finance committees talks about money, including the range of pledges and average pledge. Savage discusses giving as a spiritual exercise. At the close of the last class, participants are invited to sign the membership book. Most do.

At the First Unitarian Church, Albuquerque, NM (499), Rev. Christine Robinson holds three two-hour newcomer classes on consecutive Wednesday evenings or Sunday evenings. The first class session starts by sharing religious pasts. "It gives people a chance to say this is where I have been and now I'm starting something new," says Robinson. She encourages participants to share 'What's good about your religious past?' as well as 'What's one thing you don't believe any more?' "We also ask, 'What brought you to us at this time in your life?'"


The InterConnections Membership Resources has a new collection of Membership Committee documents and templates, including several examples of new UU class outlines.

Ten Congregations Join To Share Resources

The ten Unitarian congregations in British Columbia have organized a council that expects to meet regularly, not as another level of bureaucracy, but to permit its congregations to share resources and ideas.

The British Columbia Council met earlier this year for a growth workshop, at which it asked members to bring their own ideas rather than come to hear lectures "from the experts," says Frances Deverell, of the Beacon Unitarian Church, Coquitlam, BC (99 members). Topics included marketing, developing lay leadership, and increasing congregational commitment.

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.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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