Focus on engagement, and the numbers will take care of themselves.
Members and friends visit after the Sunday morning service at Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont, California. (© Niall David)
Have even a brief conversation with one of the membership professionals who work at a Unitarian Universalist church and they’ll tell you there’s one thing they don’t like to talk about: membership.
“Curiously enough, I don’t like the word,” said Corie Jason, president of the UU Association of Membership Professionals (UUAMP). She changed her title at the UU Church of Greater Lansing, Michigan, a few years ago from membership coordinator to connections coordinator “because the end goal is not membership,” Jason said. “Building connections to the people inside our doors, the greater community itself, and the larger UU world are the things we know work.”
Indeed, as Jason noted, a person who walks into her church for the first time in their life is not looking to become a member of anything, but they are looking for something—and it is important to learn as quickly as possible what that is. Even then, that is just the beginning.
Marie Blohowiak, congregational life coordinator at Fox Valley UU Fellowship in Appleton, Wisconsin, and vice president of UUAMP, doesn’t have the word membership in her title either. She believes that membership acquisition and retention aren’t something that end when a book somewhere gets signed but are an ongoing process.
Blohowiak points to three groups that anybody involved in membership at a UU congregation must focus on.
The first is newcomers. “In that case,” she said, “you do have to look closely at your hospitality and welcome.” Jason and Blohowiak agreed there are plenty of questions to ask yourself about the kind of first impression you’re making on a newcomer: Is your signage clear? Is there a way for them to easily access information? Are there social events beyond the Sunday service that they can view as a one-time opportunity to learn more about your church’s atmosphere?
But it doesn’t end there. The second group to pay attention to is the “newer, but yet committed,” as Blohowiak calls them, those who have come to church regularly for two or three years “and are ready to take another step and really get engaged.”
That’s when one-on-one conversations are important, as you help them find the path to long-term engagement and maybe a leadership role.
Then there’s a third group, long-term members with changing needs. “Maybe way back when, they came because of their kids,” Blohowiak said. “Now the kids have bridged, are on their own, and they’re there for a different reason.”
“We need to ask them what they came for, why they are here now, and how we can make it happen,” she said.
Jason said, “Follow-up is always important, but not necessarily membership.” Focus on engagement, she said, and the numbers will take care of themselves. “It’s about integrating and connecting with people who walk in our doors. That often leads to membership growth, but it’s a deeper spiritual process.”
The Unitarian Universalist Association of Membership Professionals is an organization of paid congregational staff members, UUA regional staff members, and non-paid volunteers devoted to enhancing membership in UU congregations. Along with a number of programs involving mentoring, credentialing, continuing education, and networking opportunities, it offers materials concerning membership at no charge to anybody who is interested at uuamp.org.
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Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who is also a member of First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles.
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