What Do Visitors Need?

by Robin Pugh, Director, Lifespan Faith Engagement

This church year, I’ve taken on some of the responsibilities of the Congregational Life staff position because we are not having our usual children’s program at church. (Our children continue to learn. During the pandemic, Kim and I are assisting parents in their role as “resident theologians” by providing monthly tools for bringing Unitarian Universalism into daily life in the home. Junior youth group and High School Owl meet virtually.)

My main focus in congregational life has been on our visitors and frequent attendees. How do I help them get to know Unitarian Universalism and UUCWC when we are virtual? Unlike other churches, UUCWC has a steady stream of visitors from all over the United States on Sundays. We’ve had 139 people visit us since August. But how do we make them feel welcome?

What I’ve learned is that frequent visitors need to be nurtured like a seed. Remember the first time you walked in to UUCWC? It can be a tender time for a person. They are often searching for something deep and nameless. Yet at the same time they are cautious that a church may be the answer. They have many questions. They like what they hear about Unitarian Universalism, and wonder why they’ve never heard of it before if it is so good. Thankfully a visitor can see that our virtual Sunday services offer meaning and inspiration and that our congregants are friendly and care deeply for each other and the state of the world. AND that is not enough.

Visitors need more personal attention than our virtual Sunday services offer to know that UUCWC is a place for them. They need to know that someone cares about their story and how Unitarian Universalism can make a difference in their life. They need to be connected to other church members and to find their place at UUCWC. To meet these needs, I try to move interested visitors down a path. After attending services, they are invited to an intentional small group that is designed for visitors (Faith Forward and Kim’s membership class) and from there, they are invited to join a small group with congregants. This gives them a chance to know our members better and experience what it means to try to live in covenant with one another. Once members, they will be invited to serve in ways that match their talents to their interests. Down the road, they will join the leadership path that is being developed by the Leadership Task Force.

This all sounds straight forward but the path to becoming an assimilated member is not a straight line. People walk it at different speeds and need information and nurturing all along the way. Keeping track of how frequently visitors attend and knowing the details about why they come, what they are looking for, how familiar they are with Unitarian Universalism and who would be good to connect them with, is a ministry. I have a deeper appreciation for all the nurturing our membership team members have been asked to do over the years.

To give you a snapshot of what attending to a new visitor looks like, here is what I’ve been doing since August:

I connect with each visitor to our Sunday service, during the service in the chat, afterwards in the main zoom room or by email. Fortunately, I know everyone in the congregation, so I recognize all the visitors. I want to know what brings them to UUCWC. Each person has a different answer. After a few visits, I sense the folks who want to dive right in to UUCWC and who want to get to know the congregation slowly. I integrate their comfort level into my approach. I know the visitors who have experience with Unitarian Universalism (and I find out how much they know) and those that do not. Again, I tailor my emails to contain the information they need. They are not form letters. I invite visitors to engage with UUCWC in a small group that is for visitors (either to Kim’s membership class or faith forward). Once they’ve attended these classes, I invite them to meet members of our community by joining a chalice circle or another group that meets their interests. The goal is to expand their circle of connection with people. I tell them to try to meet people now, so they have someone to sit with when we return to live services or so they see familiar faces on their zoom screen.

We’ve had 139 visitors since August. Of those visitors, 49 have come to services at least 4 times. These are people who like what they see. 26 have taken the first step toward knowing UUCWC better and are “participants” (regular attenders of worship who engage in an additional offering at UUCWC). Keep in mind, most of these people have never been in our building!

Kim is having a new member Sunday on Feb 28th where we will meet our new members. I can’t wait for you to meet these wonderful people.

When we return to services at UUCWC, it will not be the same world as we left last March. We plan to offer a hybrid service: both online and in person. We hope most of our offerings will be hybrid too. Connecting with visitors who are both in person and virtual and integrating them into a congregation that is both in person and virtual calls for new approaches to the way we’ve been doing things. I believe UUCWC will need a staff person in the future to oversee visitor assimilation, membership, member engagement, small groups, and leadership.