UU membership professionals form own organization

UU membership professionals form own organization

Group to help membership professionals grow Unitarian Universalism.


UUA President Peter Morales, elected at the 2009 UUA General Assembly in June, has called growth in UU congregations “a moral and religious imperative.” UU congregations are surrounded by the spiritually hungry and religiously homeless, he said during his campaign, and increasing membership is “the moral equivalent of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless.”

Those are encouraging words for church membership directors: staff members whose jobs are focused on attracting and retaining members. A group of membership professionals has recently formed an association to provide support, networking opportunities, and a forum for the exchange of ideas.

The UU Membership Professionals Group met this past June at General Assembly in Salt Lake City. Twenty-seven people gathered at the event to share ideas and stories and to brainstorm about increasing membership. “It is timely,” said Susan Eckert, who helped organize the group and is the membership coordinator at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, Md. “We’re very excited about having Peter as president because one of his goals is to grow Unitarian Universalism.”

Eckert has been working to put the group together since 2003. Though they met at GA in 2003 and in 2007, there was never enough energy to carry them through the entire year. That seems to have changed. The group has 30 members, all paid staff of UU churches who focus on membership, volunteer coordination, and/or welcoming. The group has established an email discussion group called Memb-Pros and an organizational home, under the auspices of the Association of UU Administrators.

The group’s meeting at GA explored the “Ministry of Membership.” The Rev. Ben Bortin, the membership and volunteer coordinator at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, N.Y., and a former parish minister, opened the meeting with a worship service. Morales and the Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman, the two candidates for UUA president, addressed the group, sharing their ideas for membership growth and fielding questions. Small group discussions followed, and participants addressed organizational issues for moving the fledgling group ahead.

Bortin said that a membership professionals’ organization is important. “We need to develop an ideas reservoir and exchange suggestions,” he said. “We need to find out what has worked well for people, where people are struggling, and what might be suggested to address our common concerns about maximizing hospitality and integrating people into congregations.”

In addition to discussing best practices, Eckert foresees the group discussing salary issues, reporting structures, and job definitions. Eckert has been in her job at the Annapolis church for nine years but only recently got a job description. It’s an important detail for membership professionals, who often find that their work ranges from greeting newcomers to visiting longtime members in the hospital. “I often do what I call ministry to people,” Eckert said. “When someone is having an issue or a crisis, they may come to me before they go to a minister. They’re intimidated by going to a minister, but they find I’m approachable.”

Prior to becoming UUA president, Morales was minister at the Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colo. Under his leadership, the church membership nearly doubled, growing from 400 members to 775. The church has become a model for how to attract and retain new members.

A UUA DVD called “Ideas for Growth” walks viewers through the approach that the Jefferson church followed. And Morales wrote the UUA pamphlet “Religious Hospitality: A Spiritual Practice for Congregations.”

“We have strong support in our endeavors from the top leadership of the denomination,” said Bortin, adding that he does not mean to diminish the accomplishments of Hallman, whose Dallas congregation also experienced extraordinary membership growth. “Morales identified a problem and a need that is so basic in our movement and one that is so soluble,” he said.

Bortin said it should be easy to extend simple greetings to people at the front door of the church and to express a congenial interest in what a person might be looking for in the congregation. “That simple extending of friendliness and hospitality is where we’ve been falling short,” he said.

In addition to reaching out to new members in their own churches, members of the group are trying to reach out to other membership staff at UU churches. “One of our first tasks is identifying who the membership professionals are,” said Bortin. Neither he nor Eckert know of any existing database of how many churches have these kinds of staff members.

Chance Hunter, director of Welcome Ministries at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, and Eric Kaminetzky, assistant minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, N.C., are both helping with the recruitment effort. Hunter and Eckert manage the Memb-Pros email group. (see below for a link.)

Memb-Pros has been seeing steady traffic, even over the summer months, as people discuss evergreen issues, such as what to say to a new member after you say hello. Another topic that has generated discussion is how to acknowledge church volunteers in an appropriate and public way.

“We’re all passionate about this work,” said Eckert. “We agree that it’s important to grow our faith. There are lots of ways to do that and having someone in the role of membership coordinator is a good way.” And a good way to support those people, she believes, is the membership group. Networking and exchanging ideas is central to that support. Also helpful, Bortin believes, are concrete resources they can share. To that end, they are hoping to develop a library of materials, both electronic and printed, that address issues of hospitality and membership growth.

They’re also beginning to hammer out bylaws and organizational issues. The group is planning its next meeting at the 2010 GA in Minneapolis.

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