Friday, November 30, 2007

Is Unitarian Universalism a Religion? [short and to the point]

Over at another blog-site, Dr Rieux asks:
Is Unitarian Universalism a Religion? [warning; long!] Tried to post a comment there, but found the registration process so tedious that I decided to post here and link instead.

Not to make light of everything that has been written here, but you are really asking all the wrong questions. Notwithstanding Sinkford's loose-lipped efforts to keep reverence afloat, and the rather depressing fact that "Unitarian-Universalism" is now a registered trademark, it seems to me that what really matters is figuring out whether "Our Liberal Movement in Theology" is best understood as:

1) An historically liberal Protestant Christian denomination and successor organization to two other historically liberal Protestant Christian denominations;

2) A post-Christian Protestant heresy open to the wisdom and inspiration of all the world's great religious traditions;

3) Its own "New Religion," with rather grandiose aspirations of eventually supplanting all of the world's more traditional religions;

4) Secularism in "religious clothing"...or as someone once put it (maybe me), "the Progressive Wing of the Democratic Party at...if not prayer, then some superficial imitation of same."

I'm not going to weigh in with my opinion (if it isn't obvious already which way my sentiments run), mostly because I think the REAL answer is "all of the above." But I'm not so sure that's the BEST answer. And that's what really concerns me about the future of our so-called "living" faith/religious tradition....

Friday, November 23, 2007

Monday, November 12, 2007

Congregations Count (Part Two)

Inspired by Linda Laskowski's discovery and comment on my earlier post summarizing her excellent GA workshop last summer, here are a few of the tools we've developed here at First Parish to assist us in our Membership Outreach process.

VISITORS LETTER: [this goes out from me personally to every first-time visitor to First Parish within 48 hours of their visit, and always concludes with a handwritten postscript. I'm not entirely satisfied with the letter itself (even though I wrote it); the tone has a little too much "sizzle," and not quite enough specific information for my taste. But since we are still evolving our other processes around Newcomers Conversations, the New UU Class and the like, it wasn't possible to be any more specific]

City State Zip

Dear Name:

Welcome to the First Parish in Portland! I’m so pleased that you decided to worship with us Sunday, and hope that you will find here the kind of active, liberal, free-thinking faith community you’ve been searching for. As minister of this congregation, I’m especially interested in seeing to it that your experience here is a warm and welcoming one, as you decide in your own way and at your own speed whether or not First Parish is for you. Many of us looked long and hard before we found a place we could comfortably call our spiritual home. Perhaps at First Parish, you will discover yours as well.

Some people think of a church merely as a building: a physical structure of granite and mortar, glass and plaster, standing tall in the center of the city as a visible landmark in the landscape of the larger community.

Others think of church principally as a religious institution: an organization with principles and purposes, policies and by-laws, and charged with the mission of doing God’s work in the world.

Theologians sometimes speak of “the Church” as a mystical body of believers: a spiritual community of faith, memory and hope, which transcends the boundaries of time or space.

But when I think of church, I think of people. Real people, like you and me, who inhabit the building, who embody the spirit, who are profoundly committed to doing God’s good works with their own two hands.

The First Parish in Portland is a spiritual community of real people walking together in covenantal relationship one with another, and devoted to important values and principles larger than ourselves. It takes each and every one of us working side by side to make our faith community everything it should be. If your experience of organized religion in the past hasn’t quite lived up to your expectations, I invite you to join with us in creating something worthy of your hopes and dreams and aspirations. It may well be that the only thing missing from this CH_RCH is U.

Faithfully Yours,

Tim W. Jensen, Parish Minister

[PATHWAY TO MEMBERSHIP - this is the "roadmap" which our Membership committee is using to help track, guide, and support newcomers through their journey to formal membership in our congregation]

The Path to Membership at First Parish

OVERVIEW: Often when churches begin discussing ways to “grow” their membership, they allow themselves to be distracted by the numbers, and forget that numbers are merely a marker for measuring how successfully we are performing our core mission, which is transforming people’s lives for the better.

Perhaps a better way to think of growth is as an expression of our “ministry of hospitality.” Our church is like a feast, a banquet, a party to which everyone is invited, and it’s our responsibility as hosts to make certain that everybody feels safe and welcome, and that they are getting fed, meeting the other guests, can find what they need, and are basically having a good time.

Research shows that first-time visitors to a church typically follow a predictable “path” to eventual membership, and that growing churches tend to be aware of that path, and take steps to help newcomers move along it smoothly as they decide for themselves whether or not a participation in the life and community of a particular congregation is going to be part of their own spiritual journey. The world may well beat a path to our door in search of a better mousetrap, but it helps if there are at least signposts pointing the way, so that they don’t accidentally become lost in the woods.

Step One: Attraction (Invitation & Recruitment) - “Come on in, the water’s fine!”

• This is typically the most difficult element to control, and the most expensive to influence significantly. But there are a variety of ways in which we can work to raise our profile and enhance our reputation in the wider community, and this goal should be pursued in an intentional manner.

• Our central location is also a valuable asset that contributes significantly to our public visibility. Small things like the Wayside Pulpit and our Reader Board can do a lot to attract people’s attention and invite them through the front door.

• Our Website is likewise a very important vehicle for encouraging “seekers” to visit our church in person. A “FAQ for Visitors” is being developed, and will be added to our homepage as soon as it is ready.

• Far and away the most effective method for attracting newcomers to our church is “word of mouth” combined with a personal invitation from someone they know. Thus much of our work in “recruitment” is actually creating the kind of environment where people feel comfortable inviting their friends, and creating the kind of institutional culture where that sort of invitation becomes normal.

Step Two: First Impressions - “Getting Your Feet Wet”

• This is VERY IMPORTANT! Although First Parish feels like a second home to many of us, visiting an unfamiliar church for the first time can be a very intimidating experience. Likewise, most first-time visitors to a church make up their minds within five minutes whether or not they will return a second time.

• Visitors and Members alike are warmly welcomed by a Greeter from the Membership Committee as they arrive in the Vestibule. Current Members are reminded to wear their name tags; visitors are invited to make a nametag, and also to sign our guest register or fill out a visitors card at the Greeters Table. The Ushers continue to distribute Orders of Service and the Sunday Bulletin (which now contains information specifically of interest to newcomers) as they have in the past.

• Visitors are explicitly welcomed to our church by the Worship Leader, and invited to coffee hour following the service. In the coffee hour, a “Newcomers/Welcome Table” containing information about First Parish and Unitarian Universalism is staffed by representatives of the Membership Committee. “Gold Cup Greeters” circulate through the coffee hour, introducing themselves to people they don’t recognize (something as simple as “Hi! I don’t think we’ve met before”), and personally welcoming them to the church.

• Follow -up postcards from the Greeters-on-duty are addressed and sent that same day to each first-time visitor. The names of these visitors are also reported to the office for inclusion in our “Prospective New Members” database.

Step Three: Returning to Explore - “Wading Right In”

• In addition to the postcard, a Welcoming Letter from the Minister is sent to each first time visitor, once again welcoming them to the church and inviting them to participate as they choose in a variety of activities designed specifically for newcomers (see below).

• If the visitor has indicated specific areas of interest on their visitors card, these are followed up separately by the appropriate volunteer in charge of that activity.

• “Permanent” nametags are made for each visitor, in order that we might more easily track those who return for a second time, and also so that each second time visitor finds something “belonging” to them waiting for them if and when they return.

• Approximately one Sunday per month there is a “Welcoming Conversation with the Minister,” where Newcomers have an opportunity to ask their questions about UU & FP in a semi-structured environment.

• As needed, a three-session “New UU” class is offered for individuals who are specifically interested in becoming members of the church.

Step Four: Commitment - “Taking the Plunge” (formally becoming an “Official” Member of First Parish).

• Following completion of the New UU class, individuals are personally invited to become members of First Parish.

• Those who wish to become members sign the membership book, and are formally welcomed into Membership at a brief ceremony during the Sunday Morning worship service

• It’s important to recognize that the decision to become a member of a church is a very personal thing, and that some individuals will choose NOT to affiliate officially with the church, but will still participate actively in many of our programs and ministries. This is OK.

• SHORT CUT FOR “EXPERIENCED” UUs. Some individuals will arrive at First Parish already familiar with Unitarian Universalism, and perhaps having already been a member of another UU congregation. These individuals will be told that they are welcome to participate in the classes if they like, but may also simply join the church by privately signing the book after a conversation with the minister.

Step Five: Discipleship - “Going Deeper” (Making Your Membership Work for You)

• As part of their New Member orientation, each new member will be encouraged to find both some sort of program, activity, or “fellowship circle” which enhances their own spiritual life, and also to find some sort of volunteer opportunity which supports the larger mission and ministry of the church (see below). “One hand for the boat, and one hand for yourself.”

• It is important that a “catalog” of potential activities be visible and accessible to new members. Potential Fellowship Circles include participation in a covenant group or other Small Group Ministry, membership in the choir, enrollment in a life-long learning class, or participation in any one of the dozens of activities which take place here every year.

• The underlying goal here is not only to deepen and enrich the quality of each new member’s faith experience. We are also attempting to integrate them into our larger community in a meaningful and fulfilling way. A good benchmark for this process is the formula “Six friends in Six months.”

Step Six: Vocation - “Being Sent” by finding Meaningful Work that supports the larger Mission and Ministry of the Church.

• Often there is a great deal of overlap between “Going Deeper” and “Being Sent.” But it would be a mistake to assume that every committee is a “fellowship circle,” or that volunteer work alone is enough to deepen someone’s faith experience in a meaningful way

• At the same time, it is important that new members (and long time members as well) recognize that their contributions large or small are important and appreciated, and that they are (to continue the nautical metaphor) valued members of the crew and not just passengers along for the ride.

• A membership/volunteer coordinator should work with the nominating committee to try to find a meaningful job for every person in the church. It can be large or small, it should be self-selected if possible, it needs to contribute in a recognizable way to the work of the church as a whole, and it needs to be recognized and publicly acknowledged as well. Simply committing to attend services regularly (and, of course, to greet the people sitting around you and sing the hymns enthusiastically) qualifies as a “meaningful job,” provided it is done in a meaningful and committed way.

SO, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? [this is a little brochure which we use as literature targeted specifically at return visitors, which basically outlines the Path to Membership from the perspective of someone who is on it.]

If you’re still relatively new to First Parish, and trying to figure out how best to navigate the currents and eddys of our shared congregational life, here are a few handy tips to help you get right into the swim of things!

Get Your Feet Wet. Keep attending Sunday Services, and be sure to make time afterwards to join us for conversation and refreshments in the Parish House parlour. Fill out a Visitors Card, so that you can begin receiving and reading our monthly newsletter, “Stone Soup.” Stop by the Welcome Table in the Parish House and talk with the friendly people there. Take home some of our literature, or Google “Unitarian Universalism” on the internet. Attend a “Conversation with the Minister” (generally held right after church on the first Sunday of each month), and ask the most challenging questions you can think of. We may not have all the answers, but at least we can try to point you in the right direction!

Wade Right In. Sign up for our “Explorer Series” of Orientation Classes (starting in January), or enroll in one of our many other Lifelong Learning offerings. Participate in a Faith in Action event. Try out for the Choir. Join a Covenant Group, or one of our other Small Group Ministries. Come to a potluck, or a Circle Supper. Sign up to be a greeter, an usher, a helper in the Sunday School. Light a candle during “Joys & Sorrows.” Or just keep sitting in your favorite seat there on the aisle near the back of the Meeting House week after week until folks start to think that the pew belongs to you. Do as much or as little as you like; it’s all up to you.

Take the Plunge! Formal membership in a faith community means different things to different people. But if you should decide that you want to “sign the book” and become an official member of the Congregational Society at First Parish, we would hope that you would at least feel comfortable with all or most of the following:

• Be familiar with the basic programs and activities at First Parish, and feel at home thinking and speaking of this church as “your” church.

• Within the natural constraints of your particular lifestyle and whatever other personal obligations you may have, attend Sunday Worship as regularly as you can.

• Appropriate to your personal situation and financial means, generously support the work and ministry of this congregation.

• Find and join some sort of “Fellowship Circle,” so that you might enrich your own spiritual journey by sharing it with others, and forming durable and significant relationships of mutual accountability and support. A Fellowship Circle might be a Covenant Group, or one of our other Small Group Ministries; it could be an on-going class, a regular social group, the Choir, or even a working committee. The main thing is that your Circle consist of people you know and trust and see on a regular basis, and with whom you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings about “matters of ultimate concern.”

• Identify some sort of job, task, role or responsibility that feeds your soul and which you can think of as your “ministry.” Remember the old sailing rule, “One hand for the boat; One hand for yourself” – we want you to feel like you are one of the crew, and not just a passenger along for the ride. The ministry you choose doesn’t have to be forever. In fact, we encourage you to change and grow your particular ministry as you yourself change and grow.

• Become conversant with the basic history and principles of the Unitarian and Universalist faith traditions, and reasonably comfortable talking with others about what your experience at First Parish means to you.

• Meet six new and interesting people here at First Parish who you didn’t know before you came here, and become friends. And if you think your current friends might like what we do here as much as you do, invite them to visit us, so that we might get to know them too. This is how communities grow, one relationship at a time.

• Have Fun! It’s the sine qua non of life at First Parish. (If you’re not really sure what that means yet, don’t worry. Learning obscure stuff like this is half the fun anyway!)

[These are just some random thoughts I sent to my leadership team regarding our advertising/public relations strategy, and how I felt we might most effectively target those resources]


A lot of people have been expressing to me a desire to see First Parish do something more effective in the way of advertising, in order to attract more people to our congregation. But in my experience, effectively advertising a church can be a tricky business, where if you don’t know what you’re doing it is easy to spend an awful lot of money without much positive result (and in some cases, even a negative one). So here are some of my reflections on the subject, as we start to think about moving forward in this area.

• The notion that we can simply purchase more and better advertising and that more (and better) people will begin attending church on Sunday mornings as a result is deceptively na├»ve. We need to be very specific, targeted, focused and intentional about what we hope to accomplish in “marketing” First Parish, and how best to go about achieving those objectives in an effective and economical way.

• One specific starting place might be to examine more closely what we are already doing in the way of “static” advertising (our exterior and interior signage, our pamphlets and literature, our Yellow Pages ads, our Saturday newspaper ad, and especially our newsletter and website), in order to determine whether or not we are portraying a consistent identity (or “brand”), and how we might better use these tools to reinforce the identity we would like to portray.

• Likewise, rather than presuming that the purpose of a Public Relations campaign is simply to attract more newcomers through the front doors (who may or may not return and eventually join First Parish), we might frame our objectives in both a broader and a more nuanced manner, by asking:

--what might we specifically do to improve the image, reinforce the identity, and raise the visibility of First Parish in the larger community? [i.e. to increase our “brand recognition”]

--what can we do to promote specific events of interest to the larger community other than Sunday Services that are taking place here at First Parish? [i.e. to create and promote alternative entry points]

--what can we do to inspire our current members to become more deeply involved at First Parish, and to encourage them to invite their friends?

Finally, I just want to make it clear that advertising alone is not going to grow the church all by itself. It’s just not enough merely to get people through the front door; we also need to welcome them warmly, anticipate their needs and desires, and effectively satisfy those expectations so that they will return and bring their friends. If we FAIL to do these things, we are probably better off NOT advertising, since newcomers who are disappointed by their experience here will probably tell their friends as well….