After Being Welcomed, Will They Come Back?

Being welcoming to visitors is the easy part. When someone visits your congregation it’s not a stretch of the imagination to greet them warmly at the door, give them a packet of information, talk with them at coffee hour, and invite them back again.

But if they do come back again—and again, then what? For many congregations it’s easier to welcome new folks than it is to integrate them. If visitors have difficulty becoming connected it can contribute to the revolving door syndrome that afflicts some congregations. “To them the congregation feels like a closed group,” said Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA’s) Director of Congregational Services, “and they don’t see a way to be part of it in a meaningful way.”

Both congregations also have comprehensive adult education offerings. “We’ve found that adult education classes are one of the very best ways to take visitors beyond being just a visitor,” said Sara Sautter, Shawnee Mission’s religious education director. “It helps them connect with a small group of people and they learn something about Unitarian Universalism in the process. And participating in a class can be less threatening than attending a Sunday service.”

Shawnee Mission also:

  • Personally invites visitors to Unitarian Universalist (UU) orientation sessions;
  • Has several members who invite return visitors to lunch on Sundays. The lunches help a visitor get to know people and more about the church.
  • Makes a point of inviting visitors to its two men’s groups, a Friday night movie group, a women’s social group, the choir, and other gatherings.
  • Invites regular visitors and new members to take on a small task with the congregation. “We got over our fear that if we asked someone to do something too soon they’d run the other way,” said Shawnee Mission’s Vickie Trott, co-chair of the membership committee. “When many people come to a church it’s because they want to be involved. They’re looking for a place where they can contribute. To not give them that opportunity sends the message that we don’t want or need their help.”

The Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence, KS (137), began holding Sunday evening orientation sessions for newcomers. Just before the media campaign, Lawrence developed a long-range plan and as a result had added a second Sunday service that appealed to families with children. Lawrence also raised its Director of Religious Education, Sherry Warren, to half-time. “We’re really seeing results from that,” said Stuart Boley, the congregation’s media campaign coordinator. “We’re much more welcoming now to young families.”

All Souls invites visitors to a church-wide dinner each Wednesday night and to the monthly Dinner for Eight potluck. It also has a special newcomer integration program. Selected members are asked to invite newer members to three events at church and introduce them to others. “It works well,” said Chloe Mason Seagrove, All Souls membership coordinator. “It’s also a time when the more established members can ask the newer ones about questions they might have and help them learn about the church. It’s been very successful.”

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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