Late Summer and early Fall are high season for congregation shopping. Congregations need to be ready. It is a basic rule of thumb for congregational life that, when you begin to see advertisements for back to school supplies, you are already late. There is bad news and good in this.
The bad news is that some of the challenge of preparing to welcome visitors requires basic cultural change and takes a long time. Many of our UU congregations have been working on this cultural change inspired in part by the book, Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love by Lonni Pratt Collins and Daniel Homan (available at the UUA bookstore https://secure.uua.org/bookstore). For those who want a flavor of how we UUs are using these perspectives a search of the internet on the subject of “radical hospitality” and “Unitarian” will give a flavor (see, for example: www.uu.corvallis.uua.org/sermons/04_0919--Radical%20Hospitality.htm and www.uufairhaven.org/2006/Ser2006Oct8.htm). The best UU resources for working on this level of basic cultural change see The Membership Journey (www.uua.org/documents/congservices/membershipjourney.pdf).
The good news is that any congregation with a modicum of effort can quickly and dramatically improve the experience of visitors. There is a pretty good literature on this but all the advice comes down to this: (1) think through step-by-step a visitor’s experience and ask how each element can be improved and (2) create a system for learning from the experience of visitors and new members.
Luckily, to help you get started with this process, there is a wealth of practical, free resources. The best UU resources on this subject are the past articles from the wonderful UU resource periodical, Interconnections. These are a little hard to find at the moment on the UUA website (www.UUA.org). The editor, Don Skinner, was helpful in providing me a links to the most relevant articles. As Michael Feldman would say on What’ Ya Know this is the mother lode of UU resources on the subject:
Don Skinner also mentioned that he is in the midst of an article about anonymous visitor programs that are developing in a number of Districts including Pacific Central and Joseph Priestly. Look for that in the September issue of Interconnections. Interdenominationally these are quite popular, often called mystery visitor or mystery guest programs (http://www.churchexecutive.com/Page.cfm/PageID/3262). Clara Barton District has a description of their program on the web (http://bcduua.org/contents/mysteryVisitor-description.html).
Harlan Limpert reminds me also of the Ideas for Growth DVD that was mailed to every congregation. See especially the segment about Jefferson Unitarian Church. They have an excellent collection of materials online (http://www.jeffersonunitarian.org/programs/volunteers/documentation.html). Our district office has some extra copies of the Ideas for Growth DVD. Also, this DVD can be easily copied should anyone wish more copies (that is, easily copied by any teenager!). The Congregational Handbook (http://www.uua.org/leaders/leaderslibrary/congregationalhandbook/index.shtml,) contains some good material, especially in the facilities section. Susanna Whitman and Tracey Robinson Harris of the UUA Congregational Services Office offer that the resources from the UUA Uncommon Denomination campaign include a great number of media resources (http://archive.uua.org/programs/congservices/uncommon/).
For doing a bit of quick review of your procedures in advance of the Fall visitor season, I like the check-list style of resource. The UU version of this in the Uncommon Denomination materials contains some good suggestions about how a group might use the checklist
For those wishing for getting themselves ready for visitors this season, the do-it-yourself hospitality assessment may be more useful. The UU Congregations in the San Francisco Bay area have collected some nice materials including a hospitality assessment form (http://www.uucpa.org/hospitality/Hospitality%20Assessment%20PCD.pdf.).
Other religious traditions also have a lot of good material that can be easily adapted for UU use. I find particularly useful the checklist style resource produced by many denominations. These may require some translation. Yet looking at a few examples, should provide good guidance about questions we should ask ourselves: Lutheran (www.elca.org/evangelism/assessments/hospitality.html) , Episcopalian(www.episcopalchurch.org/adcollaborative_56908_ENG_HTM.htm), and Mennonite (www.mennoniteusa.org/pdf/missional_letter/Aug2005.pdf).
In the future, be sure to return to the UUA Leader’s Library page. New materials will continue to appear there. Susanna Whitman, the UUA’s Growth Services Administrator, mentions that later this month they will, for example, be posting what she calls “a cool new resource,” courtesy of Linda Laskowski, a talented PCD lay leader. I have not yet seen this material, though some of you may have. Linda Laskowski gave a workshop in June at General Assembly, “Congregations Count: Evaluating Your Membership Process” (http://www.uua.org/leaders/leaderslibrary/leaderslibrary/ga2007/30779.shtml). Remember that CDs of this and all other General Assembly workshops are available.
One thing these resources do not mention prominently is websites. For many UU congregations, websites are a primary way new people hear about the congregation. Part of preparing for the visiting season is to prepare the website. While redesigning the entire website may be too much to do before Labor Day, a number of congregations have put up great—and simple—descriptions of what visitors should expect (www.allenavenueuu.org/visitor_info.html).
Also, these resources do not emphasize as strongly as I might that welcome must be the work of the entire leadership. In the first ten minutes in the building, a visitor may well step on the turf of many groups—Membership, Building and Groups, Religious Education, Worship, and Administration. Many groups in a congregation must work together to improve the full experience of visitors. And all leaders must think of themselves as part of the welcoming committee, meeting visitors after the service and before doing other business.
PS—This Fall our national UUA is asking all congregations to celebrate Association Sunday (http://www.uua.org/giving/associationsunday/index.shtml). Money raised will go in part to a national marketing campaign. This campaign will work best in synergy with the efforts of individual congregations to improve outreach and welcome.
PPS—This resource article has focused on web resources. I thank everyone who has given me book suggestions. I hope to post a list of these later on my blog.