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Helping Newcomers Find Ways to Get Involved

When visitors decide to join the congregation, we celebrate in a number of ways—with ceremonies, by taking them to lunch, by giving them books, with a hearty handshake.

Then comes the hard part. How do we integrate these new folks into our religious communities?

And not only how, but when? The last thing we want to do is rush new people before they're ready. But if we wait too long they're liable to think we don't want them or there's no place for them to be of use, and we'll lose them. It takes a fine touch to effectively help new friends and members become full participants in the life of the congregation.

Here's how one congregation does it: The Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, CO (450 members), has a new-member coordinator whose responsibility it is to make sure all new members are finding connections, says member Sue Parilla. The coordinator tracks down information for them and attends all new-member and visitor functions. Her conversations with visitors and new members help her determine how to involve them—and to identify areas of congregational life that need improvement.

For the first year new members are protected from committee recruitment unless they express a specific interest, says Parilla. They are asked to participate in a Foundations of Fellowship program, volunteering at least four times in that first year to usher, be a greeter, make coffee, help with the younger children in religious education, or participate in work parties. They are encouraged to attend classes and events that interest them and to participate in other small groups. Any who choose to teach are paired with experienced teachers.

Don't automatically assume that new members don't want to go right to work, says Roland Rhoades, membership chair of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church in Sanford, ME (87). It's true that trying to recruit them to committees can chase them away, yet sometimes that is what they want but they're not sure they qualify until someone asks them.

Treat each person individually and be prepared for surprises, says Rhoades. Three years ago someone introduced at the new member ceremony announced that she was available for committee work.

Rhoades said that when he first came to the congregation the minister steered him into the book group. It was just the right place. A few months later he joined and then became chair of the membership committee and is on the governing board.

Cilla Raughley, a member of the UU Church of Palo Alto, CA (460), notes that for her, becoming part of the community was made easier by joining a committee. She says, "I really have a hard time making light conversation with people I don't know... having a task to do is a much easier context for me to develop relationships. I was lucky when I first joined. I received an invitation to join a group looking at our church structure within just a few weeks." The Palo Alto church has an article on its website describing ways newcomers can get involved.

The article encourages them to sign up for adult education courses, participate in social events, talk to people at coffee hour, sign up for circle suppers, engage in social justice work, teach children, and join committees. It also lists the various opportunities for learning about UUism, including the New UU class.

Offer visitors and new members something they want first and then, later, ask them to serve, says Rev. Bob Hill, district executive for the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) Southwest District. He encourages congregations to organize some small relational groups designed to serve the needs of newcomers. These groups, of six to twelve people each, who meet every two to four weeks, can be organized around specific topics or activities or can be more general in nature. For information go to the UU Small Group Ministry network

Learning about their new faith also helps newcomers feel at home. At Emerson UU Church in Canoga Park, CA (154), Rev. Gail Geisenhainer presented a series of seven sermons, one per month,  each based on a chapter in the "UU Pocket Guide," says Membership Trustee Gail Ringer. After each sermon a discussion group was held, facilitated by the minister, to deepen personal understanding of the topic. Visitors, new members, and veterans took part, says Ringer.

Use the Internet, says Parilla, at Golden. "We have found that more and more new people come to us by way of the Internet," she says. "Our senior minister posts his sermons on our church web site. In the past six months, most of the people attending our orientation classes have read at least one sermon off the website. We also have a supply of paper copies at our welcome table and we collect past issues of UU World magazine and give them to people."

Other tips:

  • A few times a year mail newcomers copies of sermons, essays, or other documents that help explain our faith. Such documents, arriving individually, are more likely to be read because they're not part of a larger packet of information. They might also be read by nonparticipating spouses or partners who then might become interested enough to attend. Such mailings also provide a non-intrusive way to stay in touch with folks who attend only sporadically and let them know you're thinking of them. It's also nice to have occasional contact with members without asking them to do something.
  • Make sure your congregation's website includes a good explanation of Unitarian Universalism, including its history, principles, and stories which make it come alive for newcomers.
  • Insert articles in your congregation's newsletter explaining aspects of Unitarian Universalism.

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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For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.