More pursue ways to spread the UU word
by Donald E. Skinner
We Unitarian Universalists aren't the least bit hesitant to express our opinions about social issues or politics. We have strong convictions and we're proud to share them. But when it comes to the subject of our religion, we're often a tad bit shy. Yet if our congregations are to be strong and the public voice of UU values is to be heard, we need to find ways to reach out to the larger community. And, more and more, congregations are finding ways.
When Marilyn Sewell became senior minister at First UU Church, Portland, Oregon, in 1992, one of the first things she did was to introduce herself to local reporters. "I called them up, I took them to lunch," she says. "I let them know that our church was media-friendly."
That same year the church took a public stand on a state gay rights issue for which it received lots of publicity. The church grew by several hundred members that year. Sewell credits two factors: being open and available to the news media and engaging in social justice activities that affect the community.
In 1999 another growth spurt came from positive publicity when First Portland sent more than 100 people to the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle. It happened again when 300 members attended a WTO teach-in in Portland. The church, currently with more than 800 certified members and 2,000 congregants, got positive publicity for both events.
Sewell took to heart something she learned at an Alban Institute conference: the best way to increase membership is to become a strong, clear presence in the community. "This visibility will let people know who you are and what you stand for," Sewell says.
And there are other ways to spread the word. Several years ago the Rev. Michael Young at the First Unitarian Church in Honolulu, Hawaii, wrote a sermon on Unitarian Universalism that began, "Have you outgrown the religious tradition you were raised in? Are your children being told they're going to hell by the neighbors because they don't have the right beliefs or attend the correct church? . . . You may be interested in a church that respects human dignity, freedom and diversity, that thinks the human adventure is too important for canned answers."
The sermon became a pamphlet that parishioners were encouraged to disperse in dentist's offices, public bathrooms, etc. At least two new families found the church through this means and stayed.
Young also made 60 large lapel buttons with various conversation starters such as "A rational faith? Well, . . . Yes!" "In the Beginning was the Big Bang!" and "To Question is the Answer." The buttons were $2 each. Young offered them free to anyone who promised to wear one for a week, or $1 to anyone willing to wear it in public at all. "No one took the free option, but we sold almost all of them," he said.
Many congregations are coming up with ways of reaching out into their communities, says Hillary Goodridge, director of the Unitarian Universalist Funding Program, which makes grants to congregations for purposes including outreach and social justice.
"We're definitely seeing an increase in outreach requests," she said. "Congregations are asking for money to reach diverse racial, cultural, and economic populations as well as youth. They're putting together community forums and creating more visible UU profiles through advertising on radio, television, and in print."
Three congregations, the First Unitarian churches of Baltimore, Maryland, and San Jose, California, and the First UU Society of Burlington, Vermont, have gotten grants for funding ministries to the deaf. Others are doing programs in Spanish.
The 100-member UU Community of the Mountains, Grass Valley, California, videotapes its weekly services and hands them over to a local community access cable TV station, which shows them four times each week. "Frequently people from all walks of life come to the Grass Valley services saying, 'I learned about you on TV,'" says John Church, an organizer of the video program. "Sometimes they say, 'I have been looking for a church that I could attend and feel intellectually honest and your TV program showed me that yours is that kind of place;' or 'I saw the choir having so much fun and I wanted to join them' or 'I saw your handicapped ramp in the background of your video of a service, so I knew I could manage attending.'"
In Southern California, the six-congregation San Diego Cluster has just created an "outreach and inreach plan" to attract new people. Outreach includes a media coordinator, spiffing up the cluster Web site, www.uusdc.org, and creating a "branding package" that will include a cluster logo and a 20-second sound bite identifiable to outsiders.
"We believe that every potential UU in San Diego County should know who we are and how much our faith has to offer," says Martin Kruming, leader of the outreach-inreach committee.
"However, while outreach is important, we also know that we must create welcoming, engaging communities. If we don't, then visitors may simply show up and head out the revolving door. We can't let this happen."
For that reason, the inreach part of the program will include strengthening hospitality, membership, and assimilation functions at each congregation and designing attractive welcome brochures and visitor packets. "We're also talking about such things as just sprucing up the bathrooms," says Kruming, a member of 824-member First UU Church, San Diego, the largest congregation in the cluster. Other congregations are Chalice UU Congregation, Coronado UU, Palo-mar UU Fellowship, Summit UUF, and UUF of San Dieguito.
The plan will be implemented this fall. Each congregation will make a financial contribution based on the number of members. Print ads will begin appearing in 2003.
Lawrence Hess, also with the outreach/inreach committee, says, it was necessary to educate local UUs about the difference between evangelism and proselytism. "Evangelism is getting out the UU good news to those who are unchurched, many of whom are UUs and do not know it. Proselytism in this context is trying to convert someone from their religion to yours. That's a crucial distinction."
Joy Overstreet of the Michael Servetus UU Church, Vancouver, Washington, takes her church to the street with a personalized UU4ME license plate in a Unitarian Universalist frame. "It's started several conversations," she said. She also practices "conversational maneuvering," she says. "When it's appropriate I'll bring up something from a recent sermon or I'll say, 'Well, the Unitarian Universalist take on this topic is a little different . . .'"
Outreach is personal for Lyssa Andersson of the UU Church of Greater Lynn, Massachusetts. "My husband and I live in our daily lives the principles and purposes of our denomination," she says. "In a world that tends toward the cynical and grabby, we stand out. Those around us notice how much our church does for us and how much we do for our church. On a regular basis, one of us is asked by a friend or co-worker, 'What church do you go to?' or 'Your church deals with that issue?' It isn't about marketing your religion, it's about living in a way that makes you a magnet for those seeking spiritual authenticity."
Donald E. Skinner is a contributing editor to UU World and editor of the UUA's InterConnections newsletter for lay leaders.