Mentoring and Friendship Programs Aid New Members
When you first joined a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation, were there questions you wanted to ask, but no one to ask them of? Were you reluctant to bother the church staff with something you were sure they had heard a hundred times before? Were you afraid of asking a stupid question about a local UU custom that every but you seemed to know about?
Some congregations make it easy for new members to get answers to their questions and to feel comfortable in their new church communities. They provide them with mentors or "special friends."
At the Saltwater UU Church in Des Moines, WA (150 members), the name of each new person who joins is passed on to a member who is part of the "Befriender" program. Each Befriender does the following:
- Welcomes the new member with a note or by phone.
- Meets him or her at a Sunday service as soon as possible.
- Finds out what the new member is seeking.
- Tells him about small groups, committees and individuals within the church who share his interests.
- Introduces her to the minister, staff and elected leaders
- Personally invites the person to church events
- Makes herself available to explain church finance to the new member during the annual canvass.
The program works, says Jean Sundborg, membership chair at Saltwater. "Because of this mentoring effort and other smaller efforts at welcoming guests and newcomers, our church has been complimented for its friendliness."
Larry Palmieri Peers, the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) Director of Education and Research, encourages mentoring programs. "It allows a person to be guided through, to have someone to connect with throughout the process of becoming a member."
He cautions that the process has to be tailored to each new member. "Some people need more time to observe, without feeling pressured. The person doing the mentoring needs to be sensitive to that."
At the Horizon UU Church, Carrollton, TX, which grew from 165 to 325 in the past three years, members come from all across the northwest Dallas metropolitan area. Fearing the growth would make the church too impersonal, the congregation divided itself into neighborhood groups of twenty to twenty-five members each.
Every new member is assigned to one of the groups, says coordinator Marty Robinson, creating an instant church family which, in addition to participating in church-wide activities, organizes its own "family" social events within the group, helping the new member become familiar and comfortable within the smaller group and also the church. (For more on this program see the article on P. 7 in this issue on creating intergenerational communities.)
Make a connection another way with a new member by simply involving him in an activity where he may find members with similar passions. When Roland Rhoades joined the UU Church, Sanford, ME (87), he expressed an interest in and was invited into the book discussion group where he found several people who became his mentors. "They kept me around long enough to get hooked on the church," he said. "Sometimes the best thing you can do (for new members) is just promote activities that bring like-minded people together."
And keep in mind that not all new members want to be mentored. The UU Church of Arlington, VA (832), tried mentoring and dropped it, said membership coordinator Leticia Haworth, because even though many members volunteered to be mentors, few new members expressed a need for it.
The Inviting Church, A Study of New Member Assimilation, 1987, Roy M. Oswald and Speed B. Leas.