Partnership across the River

Augusta Bridge Reflections by Gene Bowker
Augusta Bridge Reflections by Gene Bowker

The sister Unitarian Universalist congregations of Augusta, Georgia and Aiken, South Carolina straddle either side of the Savannah River. But the fact that they are in different states hasn’t stopped the spirit of collaboration that has existed since they were formed within months of each other in the early 1950s. The Aiken Unitarian Fellowship was formed first in 1953, and after Unitarians in Augusta decided to start their own fellowship in July of 1954 they carpooled their children to Aiken (18 miles away) for Sunday School until 1956; in 1958 Aiken children began to travel to Augusta for Sunday School.

All the while there was joint participation in cluster and district events, and Liberal Religious Youth retreats; but in 1974 the Aiken Fellowship disbanded and the deed to its property was given to Augusta. The funds were used as collateral to obtain a building loan for the Augusta campus to expand.

In the early 2000s the Rev. Dan King, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta, supported UUs in Aiken in reestablishing their own congregation. The Augusta board facilitated financial arrangements until the Aiken congregation could handle them.

Several years later, the Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church decided to pursue the goal of becoming a minister-led congregation. As a lay leader of the Augusta congregation, I occasionally spoke at Sunday services in Aiken. I then had the honor of serving as a half-time minister of the Aiken church during my internship years. I was ordained by both congregations before being contracted by the Augusta congregation as its full-time Developmental Minister in 2013. My Minister’s Study is in the office block built with the funds donated by the Aiken Fellowship. The 60-plus years of collaboration between Aiken and Augusta has made me the minister I am today.

The Aiken congregation is in its second year without a minister; its leadership felt it needed to do something to further its mission and maintain its energy and credibility in the community. So last year the Aiken board proposed to the Augusta board that the two congregations (Augusta has 150 members, Aiken 60) explore ways to work together in partnership to our mutual benefit and to the benefit of the larger Augusta-Aiken area. Going forward, we have agreed to assist each other internally within our congregations, and to promote our shared values in our communities. Our liaison team met for the first time in July, and our boards had a joint potluck and consultation with our Southern Region Congregational Life Staff member, the Rev. Carlton Elliott-Smith, in September. He challenged us to ask what we can do together that we can’t do separately…and that has opened up lots of possibilities!

In addition to training Worship Associates for both churches, swapping occasional speakers (and me) for Sunday services, and both social justice committees staffing a joint stall at the Augusta Pride festival, we are stepping up collaboration in the coming year to include a joint women’s croning ceremony in December and a new Coffeehouse series, which will be organized by a joint committee and held at the Augusta campus. We also will be off to The Mountain Learning and Retreat Center for a joint congregational retreat in April 2016.

The attitude of respect and the potential for partnership we now share were summed up by a statement both boards composed at the end of their September gathering:

Increasing our level of cooperation, we commit to:

Communicate openly and often through our liaison team;

Identify what we can do together;

Charge the boards to turn those opportunities into action.



gayeRev. Gaye Ortiz, a native of Augusta, Georgia, serves as Developmental Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta. She adores her five grandchildren and great-grandson Oliver, and she believes that the Atlanta Braves will one day again win the World Series.

Multi-Site Ministries: contrasts merging, moving forward together

Partnerships sometimes emerge in strange but exciting ways.     The Partnership of the UU congregations in Binghamton NY and Cortland NY is a mix of contrasting sizes, ages and histories.  But these contrasts bring strength to the relationship.


The very small,  historic UU Church of Cortland and the mid-sized UU Congregation of Binghamton, founded in the mid-20th century,  are forming a Partnership of shared preaching, teaching, ministry and social justice work.   And they are seeking funding from FAITHIFY donors to help them get things off the ground this year.


The Cortland church is over 200 years old.  In its long history, the church has hosted great figures like Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Starr King, Theodore Parker, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Luther King Jr.    The Binghamton church is a thriving mid-sized congregation with a vision of becoming a beacon in the larger community and demonstrating UU values and principles in action.   Their mission is to Explore, Encourage and Act.


When the Leadership of the two congregations met in person to start to create their Covenant of Partnership,  it was uncertain if they could find common ground to work together.  But during discussions, each group developed a deep appreciation of the gifts that the other congregation had to offer.   Binghamton was drawn to the historic depth and sense of community rootedness found in the Cortland church.  And the Cortland leaders were thrilled by the energy for ministry in the Binghamton congregation and it sense of mission.


Both congregations found they shared a deep call to reach out to their larger communities to share the good news of Unitarian Universalism.  And they are now moving forward together in new ways.


And they need help from the larger UU community to help jump start this important new work and realize their joint potential.   Please consider giving to their efforts through Faithify.




joansmallRev. Joan Van Becelaere is the Central East Regional Lead and lives in “partnership” in Columbus Ohio with her spouse, Jerry, and three cats – all named after different Hebrew Bible prophets.


Deepening Faith: How Can We Reverse The Trend?

This past year, we’ve been busy looking at ways that youth engage with their congregations, Unitarian Universalism and new trends in youth ministry. We surveyed over 350 youth about their favorite parts of church and how their congregations could better serve them. At General Assembly, our Youth Media Volunteers interviewed their fellow youth. This is what we’ve learned:


Youth want to connect with their congregations

Our survey showed that youth want greater ways to connect with their congregation. We know that one of the major markers of future religious participation is increased connections between adults and youth. The National Study of Youth and Religion tells us that 81% of youth have never shared a personal problem with a member of their ministry team. Anecdotes from Unitarian Universalism lead us to believe that the vast majority of pastoral care for youth in our congregations is provided by other youth.


Youth invest in their congregations

At General Assembly, our Youth Media Volunteers asked their peers to share their personal UU history. Almost every response began with some form of “I have been a member of my church since I was two” or, “My family has been members since before I was born.” For those who grow up in a congregation, who grow up in Unitarian Universalism, they are innately invested in their congregation. A large number of our youth go through intensive UU identity curricula like Coming of Age and Our Whole Lives. They claim membership because they are invested deeply in their congregation.


Youth want their congregations to invest in them

From Almost Christian, “The more available religiously grounded relationships, activities, programs, opportunities, and challenges are for teenagers, the more likely they will be religiously engaged and invested…Stated negatively, churches that do not invest in their youth find that youth are unlikely to invest in them” (203). From our survey, youth want “more opportunity for youth leadership” and “[more] teen-based sermons.” Youth are members of your congregation just like any other and they have needs that need to be met as well. If you invest in your youth and their leadership, there will be an exponential growth in volunteer capacity.


Youth want their congregation visible in the world

For a large majority of our youth, when they tell someone they are UU they get this look. A great way to break that trend is for your congregation to show up in your community. Your youth will join you on the frontlines because challenging racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and ableism is important to them. They and/or their friends face oppression every single day. Already doing justice work in your community? A service trip is a great way to deepen youth’s faith.


Next steps:

Read: Five Ways to Support Youth In Your Congregation

Check out: Youth Ministry at its Best

Share: Our more in-depth Youth Ministry Survey with the youth in your congregation! This time, we are more interested in how youth connect with UU theology and values.



Bart FrostBart Frost serves as the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries at the UUA. As a raised UU, Bart’s passion is creating opportunities for younger leaders in our faith to share their skills with the world. When not at 24 Farnworth St working for the UUA, he is usually in New Orleans (where his partner Amelia resides) snuggling his two cats (and being harassed by the third) while watching hockey.

What if membership was a spectrum?

Created by Carey McDonald, UUA Outreach Director, Lori Emison Clair, Consultant, and Marie Blohowiak, Congregational Life Coordinator and UUAMP Vice President
Created by Carey McDonald, UUA Outreach Director, Lori Emison Clair, Consultant, and Marie Blohowiak, Congregational Life Coordinator and UUAMP Vice President


As Unitarian Universalists, we have a traditionally operated under a model of church that doesn’t acknowledge the changing social norms about religion. Historically, we’ve only kept track of one aspect of involvement in church life, “membership”, which typically means signing a congregation’s membership book and making an annual pledge. But in reality, people interact with faith communities in dozens of different ways beyond the traditional notion of membership, often deepening and stepping back over the course of their lives. If we truly believe that everyone in our faith movement matters, whether they are official members or not, it is clear we need to re-conceive what it means to be connected to Unitarian Universalism.

We created a spectrum to help congregations see that there are distinct levels of belonging to our faith communities. Together, as leaders in the UU Association of Membership Professionals and as UUA staff working on outreach, we offered a workshop at 2015 General Assembly about how to engage the whole spectrum.


Curious Individual

These are the people who know us and are in sync with our values, but not involved in our programs or ministries. Some examples would include those who participate in community activities related to a UU group, follow UUs on social media, share UU content, read UU books, see and/or support UU social justice actions.

Welcomed Visitor

Those who are involved with UU programs or ministries at a basic or fluid level, and may or may not identify as UU, are at this stage. They may attend events hosted by UU congregations, go to Sunday services occasionally or participate in UU community-oriented ministries and programs (e.g. day care, lecture series). Sometimes they have a friend or family member who serves as a tie to the congregation.

Succeeding in the first two stages (outreach)
  • Pay attention to how you show up virtually (website, social media, Yelp/Google/search functions, news media), so you look as beautiful from the outside as you do from the inside.
  • Create multiple entry points that don’t revolve around Sunday morning (get creative! Get passionate!) AND pay attention to visitor experience at all of these entry points.
  • One transition between welcomed visitor and connected friend is the traditional “pathway to membership,” but support is needed for all transitions.
Connected Friend

After attending services several times, those who attend a one time or low commitment activity outside of services have become a connected individual. This gives them better opportunities to meet people and start building relationships. Having several easy opportunities, like a Circle Dinner, one time small group, helping set up at an event or serving coffee give new folks a way to meet others without making a big commitment.

Engaged Individual

When a person gets involved in a regular activity, such as an affinity group, small group ministry, religious education teacher or serving on a committee, they have engaged with the community. All of these programs require ownership in one way or another, an expectations of regular participation and, in many cases, opportunities to share spiritual journeys with each other.

Integrated Leader

At the final stage in the spectrum, individuals emerge as leaders. We have found that as someone steps into the role of a leader they are more than simply engaged with a community, but they are also integrated. And by being integrated they are changing the community. They put their own personal twist on the programs they lead and that is a deeper level in involvement then just showing up, even on a regular basis. You become an integrated leader when you are willing to put your efforts into making the community better. Some examples would be a committee chair, small group leader or religious professional.

Succeeding along the spectrum (welcoming and membership development)
  • Make sure facilitators and leaders of groups know how to welcome newcomers at each stage as people enter the spectrum at different points.
  • Have training in place for leaders to ensure they have healthy boundaries and motives consistent with the mission of your congregation.
  • Have a tracking system in place to know where people fall on the spectrum. This will be an invaluable resource for recruiting for programs and volunteer opportunities, discovering emerging leaders, as well as those who need assistance in connecting.
  • We need to understand that there will be people who move both directions on the spectrum, and even leave our path. We want to support them in their journey and leave room for them to comfortably return should their path bring them back.


Looking at these stages calls us to pay attention to how we help people move from one stage to another. Again, most of us will move up and down the spectrum over time, but transitions between stages will always be important for religious leaders to support (the transition of “bridging” from youth to young adulthood is a great example). We hope this model will inspire UUs to think differently about their faith, from outreach to curious individuals all the way to spiritual enrichment for our integrated leaders. It can even include non-congregational groups, conferences or ministries. Embrace the full spectrum!

Additional Resources

Notes from 2015 General Assembly Workshop

Unitarian Universalist Association of Membership Professionals


Created by Carey McDonald, UUA Outreach Director, Lori Emison Clair, Consultant, and Marie Blohowiak, Congregational Life Coordinator and UUAMP Vice President

It Starts And Ends In Love

The following post by Rev. Cynthia Cain was first featured by Standing on the Side of Love.


Dedication of Black Lives Matter sign on August 23, 2015. Sign was defaced 10 days later.
Dedication of Black Lives Matter sign on August 23, 2015. Sign was defaced 10 days later.

Not long after I returned from the events in Selma, marking the 50th anniversary of the historic march it became clear to me, even though I was an interim pastor at the UU Congregation of the South Jersey Shore, that there was a compelling need at this time for a renewed civil rights movement, and for liberal congregations like ours to speak out and stand up, and we could no longer stand by in silence. Most important among the narratives and images that I brought back from Selma were the words of Mark Morrison-Reed, when he told us that it all begins with relationships; the powerful teachings of Opal Tometi, one of the founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement; and the warmth, affection, and tenderness expressed by the families of James Reeb, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Clark Olsen, and Orloff Miller.

This great love, a love for humanity, for justice, for goodness, a genuine faith and a passion for what is best in humanity permeated the time we spent together. Walking toward that bridge amidst a throng of thousands, holding the hand of my adopted boy Seth, a child who lives with autism, I felt that day part of a great sacrament. I felt that a promise was made, to carry that spirit of love back to every town and city from which we had come.

Walking toward Edmund Pettus Bridge during Selma 50th Anniversary march
Walking toward Edmund Pettus Bridge during Selma 50th Anniversary march

Soon, we formed an Anti-Racism Task Force. We talked about what we might do: study, have forums, outreach, a partnership with a mostly Black congregation. I knew that other UU congregations had put up banners saying, “Black Lives Matter,” so I threw out the query, almost as a kind of provocative idea: Would you suggest we post a sign? How about protesting by the road if there were an incident in this community? It was a surprise, then, when the team members, unanimously, said, by all means. And since this team consisted of some of the founders and most highly respected members of the congregation, we stepped out, with Love. It wasn’t just an idea, but something I felt deeply embodied in these ten or twelve people: they meant it.

I was out of town when the Board unanimously approved the sign. I was at General Assembly when the task force planned and held a beautiful vigil for the victims of the massacre at the AME Church in Charleston the Sunday after the shooting. But I had returned by August 23rd when we had an afternoon ceremony, attended by new allies and friends in the community, to dedicate our sign. The relationships we had begun to build already showed.

The entire afternoon was about love: for me, the image that captured my heart was that of a young, African-American boy from the neighboring AME congregation to which we had sent flowers after the shootings holding hands with an elderly Black gentleman, the father of one of our members, as we sang, “We Shall Overcome.”

I believe that we lived into our best selves that day.


Children from St. Paul AME & UU Congregation at Sign Dedication
Children from St. Paul AME & UU Congregation at Sign Dedication

Yes, we have been viciously attacked on Facebook and threatened. Yes, the sign was defaced, scrawled over with white paint by vandals. Yes. We hung it back up after we found it could not be cleaned. Each decision we have made has been to respond with love, not fear. If your congregation has, or is interested in, putting up a banner check out this resource page on The Power of the Black Lives Matter Banner.

I refuse to listen to the messages of hate and scorn. I refuse to listen to the rhetoric that calls “Black Lives Matter” a hate-filled, cop-hating movement. For us, they are three words that send a signal to the world: we care, immensely, and we intend to live into these words with actions that show it. Indeed, our task force has worked diligently to build relationships with law enforcement, and to learn more about their challenges as well.

Task Force members & Rev. Cain with Atlantic City officers on weekly walks through the neighborhoods of AC. We have joined the ACPD & community organizers all summer.
Task Force members & Rev. Cain with Atlantic City officers on weekly walks through the neighborhoods of AC. We have joined the ACPD & community organizers all summer.

I sincerely believe that it is the nefarious design of institutional racism in this land, in which all white people are complicit, that has kept many of us from deep and genuine encounters with people of color. And it is only through proximity, and through building relationships, in which we listen, and open our hearts to love, that this will begin to be reversed.

I have learned this: as you build genuine relationships, you will stand up. As you make a stand, and take a stand, genuine relationships will follow. But you have to show up, and show up, and show up. This isn’t a flirtation, or a whim. White people, even liberals, have deceived, let down, and disappointed People of Color, and Black people specifically, in organizing for racial justice throughout history.

Don’t go in unless you intend to stay in relationship. And once you know, really know, the truth, you will never be complacent again, until all are free.

I feel so blessed to be a part of Unitarian Universalism in this time, when we are awakening to the new Civil Rights movement, and when we can be the people who show up, and stand, and move, with Love.


Our sign (two sides) on Pomona Road across from the entrance to Stockton University. We replaced the sign with damage after it could not be cleaned, feeling that was a “teachable moment” and people needed to see how far some were willing to go to shut down this conversation. We are currently planning forums with a primarily Black Methodist congregation in AC.


Improving your User Experience (UX), online and in person (Part 3)

In this day and age, peoples’ experience with our UU congregations and groups typically begins online. They engage with our websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds, and the feelings and conclusions they develop will lead them towards, or away from, engaging in our communities. I blogged here this summer about the rising field of User Experience (UX): how it can reveal to us the unintentional signals we send to newcomers and how we can learn a lot from our new users.

If we’re going to do effective outreach online, we some insight into the experience of the large and slightly mysterious pool of people we call prospective visitors. Who are they? What do they want? And how do we design our websites for their positive UX?

Creating personas can help. It’s an imaginative exercise, one that helps us “insiders” see things from a different viewpoint.

For a General Assembly 2015 workshop on websites, I developed two personas and “looked” at two congregations’ websites through their lenses (with their blessing, of course!)

First persona: James from East Tennessee. James is a white male high school student, age 17, who identifies as gay. He’s been raised without religion, yet he has had some profound spiritual experiences he wants to talk about with peers. His ideas about the sacred don’t fit neatly into any box. He calls himself agnostic.

from Flickr ©Jasn/CC BY-NC 2.0
“James” the persona

James has some questions. He goes to the nearest UU congregation’s website, in this case Oak Ridge UU Congregation, and tries to find out:

  • Is this a place where I can talk about my spirituality?
  • Will they accept me as a gay person?
  • What is there for high school youth?
  • What are the other teens like?

I encourage you to click through Are you able to find answers to his questions? How hard, or how easy? It’s a beautiful website. You might notice that right away, the website speaks to his spiritual question. Yes! You might also notice that it doesn’t say it’s an LGBTQ welcoming congregation, though the FAQ indicates that there are transgender-welcoming bathrooms. And where does he know to look for information on the high school youth program? Under “Get Inspired?” “Grow in Faith?” “Be Involved?” He doesn’t really know what any of those three sections are. He’s kind of confused. Even though this is an extravagantly welcoming congregation for a gay teen like himself, he doesn’t know that. Looking at the website he is getting some really positive answers to some of his questions, and is not quite sure about the answers to some others.

from Flickr ©Jennifer Borget/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
“Tricia” and her family

Another persona is Tricia. She is 37 years old, an atheist, a teacher, multiracial, and a mom of two. Her husband is white and believes in God. Their daughter is asking them big questions, and Tricia is looking for a place where their whole family can explore meaning together. She lives in Eastern Massachusetts, and she Googles First Parish in Cambridge to find their website. She explores it with these questions in mind:

  • Is this a place that includes people of multiple ethnicities and cultures?
  • What do they believe? Will everyone in my atheist/God-believing family be respected?
  • What do they teach the kids about God and the supernatural?
  • Will the kids like it?

She explores and immediately sees text and images that tell her this is an intentionally multicultural congregation. She is thrilled to learn this and thinks this bodes well. She loves what they affirm on their homepage: “You are loved… You are free… Your are called…” She wants to know more about what they believe. Where does she look? The navigation bar says “Home, Welcome, Get Connected, Worship, Children/Youth, Justice and Transformation, Y2Y, Pastoral Care, Giving, and Contact Us.” Hmm. No obvious place to click to learn about beliefs. So instead, she clicks on Children/Youth to learn more about the kids programs. She finds this great page called “What We Are Learning.” “Yes!” She says. She reads about “Spirit Play” and “Moral Tales,” which are both focused on the kinds of questions her daughter is asking: “Where did people come from? What are we doing here? What happens when we die?” She really likes this, and the programs sound like things her kids would love to do. She still doesn’t have the detailed answer she seeks about beliefs, but she’s willing to give the congregation a try.

Using these personas, we are able to imagine the experience of a user, and change our design accordingly. For James, we’d make our inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities much more obvious, with words, photos, and images. For Tricia, we’d create clearer path to find out what UUs believe. For both personas on both websites, we’d do some re-organization and re-titling of the sites’ sections, to ensure our navigation headings are clear, and help our users find what they need to find.

Do you see what James and Tricia helped us see? As makes clear, personas help us write for the appropriate audience, focus our content decisions, test and prioritize, evaluate new content and features, and more. They help us improve our users’ overall experience, by expanding our frames of reference beyond those that have become habitual.

Who do you as a congregation want to make sure you’re reaching? Try creating some personas, some real-seeming people with real needs that might be served by your congregation. You might develop five or six personas, or even more, and look at your website with the questions and concerns of people who are:

  • Different theologies/spiritual orientations
  • Different ethnicities/races
  • Different social classes
  • Different ages
  • In interfaith families
  • Parents of young children
  • Single
  • Going through rough times and needing support
  • Not experienced participants in any religious community

Two cautions in using personas: one, beware of stereotypes and pigeonholing. Just because you changed your site to work well for your persona who’s a lesbian in an interfaith family, it doesn’t mean that all lesbians in interfaith families are going to like what they see on your website! Every person is unique. Two, don’t use personas heavy-handedly. For example, let your atheist persona help you find places in the site that are unconsciously marginalizing people who don’t believe in God. But don’t let your atheist persona demand removal of references to the sacred in order to be welcoming to her! We want our personas to help us clearly communicate who we are: an inclusive and spiritually-diverse movement that is seeking to grow our love and broaden our welcome.

In addition, real people come with a range of abilities, disabilities, and educational levels. Some users may be having a very difficult experience of the site because of the color contrast, the reliance on un-transcribed video content, or the highfalutin language. The UUA’s Web Team offers guidance and tools for building accessible sites. You don’t even need personas to work on making your site work for people of all abilities.

May personas prove to be a fun, creative way to build a more effective web presence for Unitarian Universalism. I would love to hear your stories of what you learn!



SarahRev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, the UUA’s Outreach Associate for Digital Ministries, will be blogging regularly on Growing Unitarian Universalism about the connections between outreach, growth, websites, and social media.

Join our “cause,” not our “club”

CauseWe know that religion is changing in America, but in those changes there’s a hidden trend. Did you know that what attracts people to a congregation or religious community and what keeps them there are different things? What attracts people is the opportunity for meaning-making, and what retains them as members is the community and friendships they build. People don’t come because they are in search of friends or a community, per se, they come looking for spiritual deepening for themselves and their family and only then may they find a community which enriches the meaning-based experience and makes them want to come back.

This is clearly demonstrated through research. In his book “American Grace,” sociologist Robert Putnam digs through mountains of data to identify some key trends in American religious practice. Here’s a quote from his book: “Americans may select their congregations primarily because of theology and worship, but the social investment made within that congregation appears to be what keeps them there.” (pg 174).

You can see this dynamic at play within Unitarian Universalism, most recently in the multicultural ministries Sharing Project. This survey of UUs from marginalized groups (gender identity, race, ability, etc.) asked why respondents first decided to attend their congregation and then why they continued to attend. The top response for the decision to attend was “I wanted to deepen my spiritual life,” and the top response for staying was “I love the community of people”(page 15, or the 23rd page of the PDF).

Ok, you say, fascinating point, but what am I supposed to do about it? Simple: when you talk about what your congregation offers, think “join our cause” instead of “join our club.” Show what your congregation does, how it helps people live better lives and make a better world, instead of only talking about what a great community you offer. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a congregation say “all are welcome” (including UU, UCC, Catholic, even conservative evangelical!), well, I’d have a lot of dollars but no idea what I would be welcome to spend them on. It’s great that you’re not turning people away, but what are you actually offering them? Seriously, “all are welcome” at the movie theater, but I’m still not going to the movies unless I know what’s playing.

The key to successful outreach amid the changing religious landscape, particularly with the unaffiliated or Spiritual But Not Religious sets, will likely be to speak to why people would want to show up in the first place, not just what can keep them there year after year. Describe what we offer for learning, yearning and working for our values. We can’t assume people are already looking for a church on Sunday mornings, because in fact we’re competing for their time and attention against sleeping in, talking a walk, soccer practice, Facebook and brunch. We have to focus on what we DO as UUs, not just who we are.

To help you think “cause” over “club,” check out the values of the UU brand identity – boldness, compassion, reverence – that are geared towards the most active and authentic spiritual elements of our faith. They’re a departure from the pastoral, supportive, caring community connection values that we’ve often described in the past, but they’re well-positioned to help you get to the heart of our faith movement’s drive to advance our values in the world.



cmcdonald_headshotCarey McDonald is the UUA Director of Outreach, total data geek and trend-spotter, as seen in his presentation Future of Faith.

Improving your User Experience (UX), online and in person (Part 2)

UU faces taken during registration and other times
UU faces taken during registration and other times, Photo credit © Nancy Pierce/UUA

In part 1 I began to explore how the principles of User Experience (UX) Design can improve people’s experience of our congregations. Attention to the emotional and informational transactions of the “user” has become deeply important to me: not just because I’m a minister, not just because I’m in the UUA’s Outreach staff, but also because I’ve recently been new in a congregation.


I spent months last year exploring websites and visiting congregations with my toddler before I settled on the one I attend now. The incredible friendliness of that congregation made a difference. It wasn’t accidental: the congregation had put work in to their welcome.


The first time I visited, no one knew I was a minister, just a mom with a two year old. People greeted me warmly even before we’d crossed the street, and someone offered to carry the stroller that my child was refusing to ride in. At the door, a trained greeter met us, helped us create nametags, gave us a mini-tour, and helped my child find and feel comfortable in the nursery. The nursery was staffed by a paid professional, someone who exuded warmth and confidence. The worship was excellent too – but I was already deciding this was a good place to be before I even set foot in the sanctuary. I had a good user experience.


“User Experience design… is about giving people a delightful and meaningful experience. A good design is pleasurable, thoughtfully crafted, makes you happy, and gets you immersed.” (From

Let’s get new people immersed in Unitarian Universalism! But how do we know what will delight them? What they’ll find meaningful?


When we’re trying to attract new “users,” we can try to get there by thinking about what we like, but we are often not good judges of what a new user is looking for. Especially since many of the things that members like are things that come with time (like community, or ministry through life changes.) In order to design for new users, we need to talk with some of our relatively new users. While we get curious about who they are and we get to know them, we can also get curious about their experience, asking questions like:

  • How did you learn about our congregation? Why did you decide to interact with/visit us?
  • What were your goals when you started interacting with us (online or in person)? Did our congregation meet your expectations related to these goals?
  • What are the most frequent tasks you do on our website? (For example, finding out what’s happening this week.) Is it easy or difficult to accomplish those tasks?
  • What are the most frequent tasks you do when you attend? (For example, get a cup of coffee after the service.) Are there frequent tasks that don’t feel easy to accomplish? If so, why? (For example, having to wait in line for a long time for coffee.)
  • When you are interacting with us online, do you find anything frustrating that you wish was easier/different?
  • When you are interacting with us in person, do you find anything frustrating that you wish was easier/different?
  • What else would you like to tell us about your experience getting involved?
    (The first six bullets are from, adapted for congregational use.)


What we learn from their answers can help us improve the experience of people who interact with us in the future.


We can also do some of this work without talking with new users: we can just try to see things with new eyes, as my old congregation did with the parking lot entrance in Improving Your User Experience (Part I). And we can do through the use of personas – another powerful methodology from web development that helps us design for particular audiences. I’ll discuss those in the third part of this series.


Even though we can’t control every element of a new user’s experience with a congregation, there is much we can learn, and much we can change, when we make the effort to understand the emotions we’re evoking in the people we’re hoping to serve. A “delightful and meaningful experience” at the front end can lead users to a faith that changes their lives profoundly. Let’s not let a clunky website or confusing signage get in the way. Unitarian Universalism saves lives: may a positive user experience make it so, all the more.



SarahRev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, the UUA’s Outreach Associate for Digital Ministries, will be blogging regularly on Growing Unitarian Universalism about the connections between outreach, growth, websites, and social media.

Improving your User Experience (UX), online and in person (Part 1)

Photo by Curtis Cronn, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the spring, I blogged here about our websites being our front doors. Our websites, our social media presence, and our events that involve the broad community are all important entry-points for prospective Unitarian Universalists. This season, as many congregations return to full all-ages programs and worship, we would do well to think about our actual front doors, as part of our consideration of the overall user experience (UX) of the congregation.

User Experience is a new way of looking at online development: one that has incredible relevance to congregations, online and in person. It’s a holistic way of examining and evaluating the process of getting to know a congregation. The user – in this case, the person who’s exploring your congregation – is going to make decisions about participation based on their experience. That may seem obvious – of course they would. But UX offers tools for analyzing that experience, and becoming more intentional about “curating” that experience.

A user experience occurs in touch points. Every time a user interacts with (or touches) your organization, an emotional or information-based transaction is taking place that can positively or negatively impact the user (the person you’re trying to reach). (Josh Neuroth from “Curating Your User’s Experience.”)

What are the touch points the typical user has when they experience your congregation? They may not be obvious to you. Regular participants get used to the way the congregation is and stop noticing what they noticed the first time they walked in the door.

In my first year as a congregation’s minister, we hired a Membership Consultant. She evaluated the experience of a newcomer outside the hundred-year-old building – a building that had an awkward relationship to its parking lot, which was behind the church. She took notes and pictures, and presented these interesting observations to the Newcomers Committee:

  • Someone arrives in the parking lot. They see four doors to the church.
  • One, up a steep cement staircase with only one handrail, looks official but unused. Probably an emergency exit. That must not be the way in.
  • Another, at the end of a long wing of classrooms, is friendly and attractive—but its sign says it’s a preschool. That must not be the way in, either.
  • When you get close to another door, you see it leads to the trash area. Definitely not the way in.
  • Another door, the one that actually works to go in to the building, is a plain gray painted door, hidden in a corner, with no sign.
  • Someone finally makes it through that plain gray painted door, and the first thing they see upon entering are two refrigerators, one with a sign on it saying it’s out of order.
  • Then they find themselves in a rather dark hallway, which is actually just below the sanctuary where worship is about to happen, but that may not be obvious.

What kind of emotional and informational transactions were taking place there? All sorts of frustrating, confusing experiences – before they ever got in the door or heard a single word.

Let that sink in: before even meeting anyone, or hearing the welcome and announcements when we proclaimed “whoever you are, wherever you come from, we welcome you,” people were having a frustrating and confusing time with us. Our newcomers didn’t know how to get where they wanted to be!

The congregation was a great place for people of all ages, with meaningful worship and vibrant programs. But everyone who participated regularly had figured out the ins and outs of that hundred-year-old building. Their user experience was no longer the same as a newcomer’s – they couldn’t see what a newcomer saw.

In response, members and staff set about creating better signage, moving those old refrigerators, developing a small welcoming area where the refrigerators had been, brightening up the dark hallway, and stationing friendly greeters there every Sunday morning. The newcomers’ user experience immediately improved.

We often focus so much on the messages we deliver from the pulpit, the values we embody in the youth group lesson, the stories we tell in the children’s workshop. But those intentional messages are only one part of the user’s experience of our congregations.

The early parts of the user experience are formative. The old adages about first impressions are true: they really stick, and you never get a second chance to make one.

How can you become more intentional about your new users’ experience? We’ll explore this question as our series continues in coming weeks.



SarahRev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, the UUA’s Outreach Associate for Digital Ministries, will be blogging regularly on Growing Unitarian Universalism about the connections between outreach, growth, websites, and social media.



Skinner House Update

Life never stops sending new spiritual challenges our way. How do we, as individuals and communities, find the path forward on crossing cultural borders, grappling with grief and loss, navigating growth and change, striving for justice and action, or questioning conscience and belief? Unafraid to tackle the thorniest issues, we bring you insightful writing for every age and stage. As an imprint of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), we sit at the intersection of your progressive values and life’s biggest questions.

Spiritual, practical, engaged—We are Skinner House Books.

Skinner House

Skinner House Books are available from UUA Bookstore and wherever books are sold. Follow Skinner House Books on FaceBookTumblr Scribd and Twitter


New Titles


BecomingBecoming: A Spiritual Guide for Navigating AdulthoodKayla

Edited by Kayla Parker


This elegant volume offers itself as a spiritual companion for young adults and all who live amid transitions and tensions. Dozens of carefully selected readings address themes that are prominent for people in their twenties and early thirties. The topics include: passion and purpose, identity, community, losing and finding, and justice and creation. Each section features reflections from Unitarian Universalist young adults, as well as poems, prayers, and opening and closing words from contemporary and ancient peoples. This treasury of uplifting and thought-provoking meditations can serve as a guide and provide comfort on our never-ending journey of becoming.




Justice pamphletUU Justice Partnerships

Susan Leslie (Unitarian Universalist Association)

An introduction to the dynamic new wave of interfaith and community partnerships that UU congregations are joining for social justice. Includes information on congregation-based community organizations and the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. Plus a helpful list of best practices for successful congregational justice ministries.

Susan Leslie is Congregational Advo­cacy & Witness Director for the UUA. She has worked in the UUA’s national social jus­tice and multicultural staff teams since 1991. Prior to her service at the UUA’s national office, she worked as a research associate for the New England Municipal Center, a community organizer with the New Hampshire People’s Alliance, and as a Boston-based freelance organizer.



family prayersFamily Prayers (redesigned)

Edited by Irene Praeger (Unitarian Universalist Association)

A lovely collection of multigenerational chalice lightings, graces, and prayers for the home. Contributors include Eva M. Ceskava, Mary Ann Moore, Betsy Darr, Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, David Herndon, Gary Kowalski, John S. Mackey, Joyce Poley, Richard Fewkes, Rikkity, Percival Chubb, Edwin C. Lynn, and Susan Maginn and Peter Campbell.


Irene Praeger serves as the director of religious education at First Parish in Needham, Massachusetts.



Recent News and Reviews


We’re pleased to announce a newly created web page for the inSpirit series, formerly known as the meditation manual series. Visit the page for a complete list of the titles in the series, some historical background, and links to purchase your favorite inSpirit books. We hope that the series continues to enrich your lives!


Check out this great review of Landscapes of Aging and Spirituality in Spirituality & Practice.








Trending in the UUA Bookstore

The following have been particularly popular in the month of July: