Things UU Churches Do Right, January 19, 2012

Fellowship members Melissa and David McKee share some thoughts on things that have worked in various UU congregations they have been a part of around the country.   Highlights of their commentary were printed in the February 2012 edition of The UUFM Voice.   Melissa and David’s full text appears here:

We aren’t quite lifetime UU’s, but we’re close.  Melissa’s family joined The First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Antonio (FUUSA) when she was in preschool; David’s family joined the same church when he was a teen.  Over the last fifteen years the demands of grad school and post-doctoral appointments have kept us moving. As such we bring considerable experience with UU churches across the country.  We want to talk about things that some of these churches do well. We are drawing these thoughts from the UU churches, fellowships, congregations and societies that we’ve attended at least a few times.  We count eight in that list.

Some of these are things that UUFM already does well, some are things that we could probably do better, and some may not be a good fit for our community: this isn’t intended as some kind of checklist of Things That Must Be Done.  This is just a chat about things that keep Melissa’s first question about a possible new job being how close is the UU congregation.

Our thoughts can be grouped into things that make a UU group welcoming to visitors and newcomers; things that give our services a feeling of continuity and our facilities and worship a feeling of sanctity; and things which encourage the growth of our denomination and congregations and help us to manage the slightly different culture of larger congregations without losing the closeness of our community.

Lets face it:  we’re a minority denomination everywhere and not well understood. We need to make a good impression on newcomers–those new to UUism and those migrant UUs who are coming from a very different congregation.  Our very first chance to do this is when someone comes in the door.

At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa (UUCT) they did a particularly good job of greeting visitors, making sure they were introduced to a member who would show them around and introduce them to the minister and the DRE.  This is especially important if the visitor has kids.  Letting them know that there is a Sunday school and which rooms their children will be in can really help someone feel at home.  In Melissa’s childhood experience knowing where she was going and who she was going with helped the first time her parents took her to Church.  Even with a good greeting crew we may not catch everyone–especially when we have many doors–so we want visitors to find it easy to come into the service without being made self conscience.  This means leaving some accessible chairs at the back and along the aisles, no small matter when many members do not find it easy to schootch in.

Something we do very well and really does help as a visitor or a new member are our use of name tags.  Almost everyone wears theirs and this means that a visitor doesn’t have to try and remember all of the names of people they’ve met.  It’s very uncomfortable to know that the person your talking to introduced themselves a few minutes ago, but for the life of you the name is gone and how do you introduce your significant other to them without embarrassment?  Another thing that helps those unfamiliar with us is when someone speaks in service to have the speaker always introduce themselves and of course use the microphone to include all and get your statement into the recording of the service.

Another thing that is important to have is good literature explaining who and what we are.  The Principles and Purposes cards that we have are a great place to start.  We might also do well to emulate Comal County Unitarian Universalist Society’s (CCUUS) brochure-length explanation of the history and Principle and Purposes UUism.

A big difference between many of the UU congregation we’ve attended and more traditional churches is a lack of sense of sanctity in the sanctuary.  The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula (UUFP) in Newport News, Virginia was a big exception here. Keeping the morning meet and greet out of the sanctuary preserved the sanctuary for quiet meditation and gave a sense of occasion upon entering.  The sense of reverence extended  to the area around the fire pit in deference to their extensive Pagan group.

David in particular likes a sense of ritual in the service without expecting or desiring a high degree of uniformity (as if…) or a “High Church” feel.  Several of the churches we’ve been part of have succeed in framing the service with a few fairly reliable touch points.  Frequently these touch points are the chalice lighting, the offering and the extinguishing of the flame.  Michael’s endless variations on the theme of welcoming are one of the most effective tools we’ve seen in this regard.  Other churches we’ve been to made good use of receiving the offering: the baskets came back to the front where they were formally received  with thanks (“We give thanks for these offering that are weaving a tapestry we call community”).  Also, UUFP and UUCT had candles available in the sanctuary for people to light if they wanted before or after the service to just commune with and have a moment of ritual.

The UUA has been leaning on churches for a long time to respected a few regular celebrations. Usually David couldn’t care less for what he calls “synthetic holidays,” but these rituals (different in each place though they may be) do provide a degree of continuity for nomadic UUs.  One that Melissa has really enjoyed across several congregations is the in-gathering water ceremony.

If we are truly successful in reaching out to new comers, our churches will grow and that is in itself a challenge (the UUA has a little to say on the matter, so there are resources).  We haven’t been part of a really big UU church since our parents broke with FUUSA so we have only a little to say about this.  To make a big church work it must be built of smaller units without becoming cliquish.  Lots of activities–like dinners for eight (circle suppers)–which bring church members together in smaller groups (and not always the same ones) are needed.  In a big enough group it is even harder to learn who everyone is, so we come back to name tags and introductions.

Friendliness to financially distressed members takes many forms.  Just pledging enough to cover UUA and regional dues can be a burden for some.  Out of respect for this UUFP accepted in-kind pledges from some members.  A lot of community building in a church happens outside of the building. Community Unitarian Universalist Church (CUUC) had a custom of going out to lunch after service, but in deference to the varied financial conditions of the members went to food court at a local mall (one with luxury vendors possible because San Antonio’s a big city).  UUFP has a different approach; several groups go to places at different points on the cost scale.

The audio recording efforts here and at the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalist (WUU) church in Virginia are very helpful.  Williamsburg went a step further for technologically challenged people: you could request a CD of a whole service or just one part.  Rev Michael Thompson at UUCT made his homilies available in printed form for a nominal donation.  This ties in to welcoming newcomers as it allows us to provide samples of the variety of programs available on any given Sunday.

As nomads the last several years we have always looked for a UU church to help provide people who will accept us for who we are; a place were we know we are welcome; and an immediate home and connection in our new community.  We would like all who come to this congregation to have the same feeling of welcome and place that we know and found here.

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