Helping to People to Be of Use is Key to Creating Members

There was a time when visitors to Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado, were afraid to take a red visitor’s cup, says Pat Emery, the church’s volunteer coordinator. “I think it was about ten years ago when one of us overheard one visitor tell another, ‘Don’t take the red cup, it’s the kiss of death. No one will talk to you.’”

The cups are gone now, but visitors don’t get ignored any more. Jefferson, which has grown from 350 to 547 members in the past decade, has learned how to be welcoming to visitors. In fact, its accomplishments were featured in a workshop at General Assembly this past June.

Part of the credit goes to Emery, Jefferson’s 12-hour-a-week staff volunteer coordinator. She, in turn, credits now-retired minister, the Rev. Robert Latham, who served Golden for nine years until 1997.

“He helped us take a hard look at ourselves. Our three worst points were lack of clarity in our mission, organization, and an inability to witness to our faith. So we developed a mission covenant statement. And we started doing simple things like making nametags for visitors and consciously welcoming them. It started with the Board of Trustees and the Membership Committee, and then the whole congregation caught on to how much fun it is to talk with new people. It was a cultural change.” Emery, who resigned at the end of September, said a key to turning visitors into members is getting them involved at the right time and with the right opportunity.

Jefferson has a three-part program to welcome and integrate people. Here’s how it works.

  • Foundations of Fellowship—Everyone is asked to serve four times a year at a basic one-time volunteer task. “People like this system because they know they won’t be called again and again,” says Emery. “People volunteer who had never volunteered before. And our new members like it because they can immediately feel useful.” Tasks include ushering, making coffee, and greeting visitors. When people join they mark a sheet indicating their preferences. A fourth of them volunteer to serve 8 or 12 times a year. Committee chairs may not approach new people immediately. “We think it’s important for them to have a chance to look at the church’s various ministries and see what part turns them on.”
  • Satisfying Service—The second level of involvement includes committee work where people can indulge their passion for youth, music, social justice, etc. Most people pick a committee by the end of their first year, said Emery. “And they know there’s a general expectation that they will want to get involved. We mention that in everything, newsletter articles, pamphlets, and our Path to Membership class, etc.”
  • Leadership in Liberal Religion—Four one-and-a-half-hour leadership training sessions about to be inagurated include how to run the copier, submit expense forms, and get people to work together.

Emery acknowledges that administering the program requires a fair amount of work and might be best done by a staff member. But committed volunteers could do it also, she believes.

“If you want to have happy, integrated volunteers it starts the first time someone walks in the door,” she said. “Their first and second impressions, the whole series of expectations they pick up on, those are very important.

“There’s never a visitor standing alone in coffee hour now. We treat people like we want them.”


Information on Jefferson’s method of welcoming visitors and getting people involved, including the forms it uses, is on the Jefferson Unitarian website.

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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