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Ads spread message of Unitarian Universalism

R.I. campaign targets ‘people who are UUs but don’t know it.’
By Donald E. Skinner
5.9.11

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A bus stop ad created by First Unitarian Church of Providence, R.I.

A bus stop ad created by First Unitarian Church of Providence, R.I., beckons people who are “looking for a church where children learn values without guilt.” (First Unitarian Church, Providence)

Getting a religious message out into the larger community where it can be seen by people who might become Unitarian Universalists if they only knew that such a faith existed takes work.

But it’s worth it to reach the people who need to find us, says John Dooley, a former ad man who helped his congregation, First Unitarian Church of Providence, R.I., develop a number of simple, but intriguing, messages that have appeared this year on cable TV, bus shelters, a magazine for LGBT people, Facebook, and vehicle bumpers.

“So many people who make it to our church say, `This is the way I’ve always thought religion should be. I never knew it existed,’ ” said Dooley. “We decided we should make it easier for them to find us.”

Dooley, chair of First Unitarian’s Outreach Committee, and a few other members created some ads and then surveyed the congregation as to which ones resonated with them. He said the ads generally ask questions designed to appeal to people already thinking about religion. For example, the ads state, “If you seek a church that values open minds, helping hands, and loving hearts . . .” Or, “If you’re looking for a church where children learn values without guilt . . .”

All of the ads refer people to a church-created website, www.areyouuu.org, where they can watch brief video messages that explain Unitarian Universalism, read about various aspects of congregational life, and click into the church’s own website as well.

“We try to reach people who are UUs but don’t know it with questions they can relate to,” said Dooley. “It’s a systematic change in our church culture. We’ve recognized the importance of sharing our light, and we’re out in the community letting everyone know that we are here.”

Dooley said people who see the ads and then visit the church have generally already visited one or both websites by the time they come and have a familiarity with what Unitarian Universalism is all about. “We don’t need to convert anyone. We just need to welcome them,” he said.

The bus shelter ads cost $175 to print, then $250 to post for four weeks. Facebook ads are around $1.50 for each person who clicks on the ad and then goes to the AreYouUU website. Options, the LGBT magazine, is $125 per month. The church budgeted $6,000 for the campaign. The campaign will be continued next year as well. “This is not a one-day sale for us on Unitarian Universalism. This is a systematic change in our church culture,” said Dooley.

Bumper stickers with the www.areyouuu.org web address were also passed out to members, along with wallet cards with the same address. “We don’t ask our people to memorize an elevator speech,” Dooley said. “We just ask them to say what they like about the church. And give the questioner a card with the web address on it.”

He said the various ad media are designed to work together. “Ultimately word of mouth is the best advertising. With all of these elements—the bus stop, TV, and magazine ads and the bumper stickers—we increase the chances that someone will see our message. And we get more mouths talking about it.”

Before the campaign the congregation worked on being welcoming. “It doesn’t do any good to bring in prospective members if the congregation is not ready to welcome them,” said Dooly. “Our greeters now all have rainbow scarves, and we set aside a room as our ‘Newcomer Café’, where they don’t have to wait in line for coffee and where there are always greeters.” Guests who want to be approached are asked to use blue coffee mugs.

Dooley said the response to the ad campaign by the congregation has been very positive. “We had been talking for a while about the need to get our message of love and acceptance out into the community. Many members have expressed to me how proud they are of what we are doing. And we do talk about it as outreach rather than advertising.”

He said the congregation was involved from the start. “We started by talking at congregational meetings and leadership retreats about the need to get our message out. Then as the Outreach Committee started putting together our marketing plan, we polled members about why they came to church as well as what media they use. We engaged members at every step of the way and also used some of their suggestions.”

Dooley said it’s difficult to quantify the impact of the outreach program, but he believes it is successful and has led to many new visitors.

The Rev. James Ford, minister at First Unitarian, said, “I would add that while we haven't seen a significant increase in attendance, or so it seems, we are also not experiencing the dip that usually begins about this time of year. We are definitely seeing younger people coming and, it seems, staying. We feel very good about the sense of it all.”

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