High Expectations Help Create Committed Members

When people join our congregations, how much do we ask of them? Are we so grateful they've chosen us—and so fearful they might leave—that we ask little? Do we create the impression that our congregation is a place where they will be served without having to do much?

That may be true for some congregations, but others have learned that having high expectations of new members leads them into becoming more committed members.

Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Pasadena, CA (627 members), is a high-expectation congregation. It starts, says Senior Minister Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, with Neighborhood's mission statement, "to serve the spirit as each individual understands it, to serve the educational and pastoral needs of our community and to serve the larger world through actions that further social justice."

The key word is serve, says Barker. "When someone joins they learn that service is the only reason to be here. We tell people they will find their own identity by reaching out to others."

Prospective members at Neighborhood are strongly encouraged to participate in four two-hour sessions of a "bridging group" before joining. The sessions, offered three times a year, include information on five responsibilities of membership: attending worship services, personal transformation, social justice work, and giving time and money to support the church.

Personal transformation happens through worship attendance, participants are told. They are also regularly invited to adult education courses. They are asked to help with the work of the church not by filling committee slots, but by helping with short-term projects.

"And we work with people right from the beginning about what it means to be in a community," says Barker. "They may be looking for community, but it doesn't mean they know what community is. We find most people come not because they want to know someone else, but because they want to be known by somebody else."

In the final session of the bridging group Barker talks to participants about pledging, then gives them a pledge card to fill out. They are asked to consider a pledge of up to 5 percent of their income, keeping in mind two things: their individual circumstances and how important their religious and spiritual life is to them.

The median pledge (half above, half below) is $720. The average is $1,390. Barker estimates that 20 percent of the congregation's 477 pledging units pledge at 5 percent or more. He said questions from prospective members about pledging are mostly about how, not whether, to do it.

"We find that people really want to know what's expected of them," says Barker. "And when they ask, 'What if I can't give that much?' we explain that everyone comes with different gifts." Barker says 5 percent is an expectation, not a requirement. Bylaws require a simple "contribution of record" for membership.

So how is Neighborhood made better because it has high expectations? "I think people notice it by the quality of the total experience," says Barker. "There is a sensitivity to detail and to excellence—from worship to maintenance of buildings to the scope of our vision."

The River of Grass UU Congregation, Weston, FL (116), is a five-year-old congregation with high expectations. Prospective members attend a four-session Introduction to Unitarian Universalism course, offered quarterly. One session focuses on the meaning of membership. "A lot of our people have never been members of a church before," says Membership Chair Deborah Greene. "They want to know what is expected of them, how much they'll be asked to pledge." Half the congregation has taken the course.

During the introductory course the canvass chair explains that River of Grass asks for 3 percent of income. Pledge packets are handed out and discussed. "We don't want anyone to feel blindsided later," says Greene. Those who decide to join have a meeting with the minister. The night before the new member ceremony there's a potluck with new members, committee chairs, and board members. New members are canvassed that night for a pledge. The average pledge is $1,600. Three-fourths of new people do pledge that night.

Like Neighborhood, River of Grass has found that committees aren't the best way to integrate newcomers. "We stress in the third introductory class that making relationships is really what church is all about," Green says. "We also explain shared ministry, that every member is sharing in the ministry of the church, not just the minister, and that all of us are responsible for the ministry at River of Grass."

New members are invited to a potluck gathering three months after they join and again after eight months to make sure they are getting connected and to learn if there's any additional way they'd like to get involved.

When River of Grass was forming it sent two people to a Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) New Congregation training. "They brought back incredible information, mainly that we need to be intentional about everything we do," Green says. "That was one of the best lessons we ever learned.

"Everything we publish and produce looks good. We wanted a look that says we are very serious about what we are doing. People are encouraged to dress for church. Worship is worshipful. We didn't want to be a church where you weren't sure you were in church."

One person does all the announcements every week at River of Grass. For Remembrances and Reflections (Joys and Concerns) people light candles at a side table before church and leave a message for the minister who organizes and reads them during the service. Youth are often worship attendants. "We tell people we expect to see them on Sundays on a regular basis and if we don't we'll call them," says Greene. "We know church is not all about Sunday morning, but that's where it starts. That's where we get to know each other."

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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