Newcomers to First Unitarian Church of Dallas arrive at our doors seeking a path. The Unitarian Universalist tendency to tell people they can believe whatever they want and get involved in whatever they want is both overwhelming and insufficient. Visitors from other religious traditions as well as the unchurched want to know how to become part of the congregation, both as members and as leaders. This led us to examine the state of our existing adult membership and ask these questions:
- Can our adult membership explain what it means to be a church member?
- Do they have a deep understanding of our church and its role in the community?
- Are they involved, connected, and excited about church leadership and service?
We learned that we had work to do on how we integrate new people into our church community, and how we develop and deepen the connection of our existing members.
To address this need, we developed the Inquirers Series, 8 rotating sessions about our church and Unitarian Universalist history and practices. Designed for visitors and newcomers looking for a general introduction, these sessions are also appealing to current members who just want to learn more about our church.
Inquirers participants also build connections with each other. They learn that they are not alone in their questions, and many are moved with the realization of all that Unitarian Universalism embodies. It is the first small group a visitor encounters, and serves as a bridge to deeper small-group involvement later. Sharon Thompson, our Director of Membership & Hospitality, says: “I have seen the time between first visit and joining decrease, and our new members are more firmly grounded in the faith, in their convictions and in their support. Prior to Inquirers, we would have 30+ individuals that had indicated they wanted to join, remaining on the list of declared members for over a year without completing the process and joining. Now the membership process is generally complete in 30-60 days.”
Growth in numbers isn’t everything, however, and “signing the book” is not the end of the membership process. We’ve seen these new members connect more quickly and easily at church, becoming engaged within our walls and in the wider community. They understand what it means to be a member of a community. And many find their first service opportunity as a greeter, offering a friendly face for other newcomers.
Yet we found that once people completed the 8 sessions, they wanted more. “What’s next?” they asked. Our answer is “Faith Forward: From Visitor to Leader.” Faith Forward is a comprehensive program for member integration, faith development, and leadership development which helps congregants strengthen their Unitarian Universalist identity, deepen commitment to the church, encourages spiritual growth, and develops church leaders. It is not adult religious education, nor is it a curriculum. It is a path of modular sessions designed for faith development and connection-building and is facilitated by lay leaders with staff support.
One facilitator, church member Rev. Lyssa Jenkens, says: “Faith Forward provides a very intentional and well-developed process of faith development for any member or friend. It fills a yawning gap in UU adult religious education where we often provide a beautiful buffet of classes and activities with little or no guidance regarding what constitutes a healthy meal as opposed to one that is tasty but has rather limited spiritual-nutritional value.”
In addition to the Inquirers Series, we now offer:
- Inquirers Series (8 weeks)
- Roots (1 class)
- Beyond Inquirers (5 weeks)
- Spiritual Practice (13 weeks)
- UU History 101 (5 weeks)
- UU Theology 101 (5 weeks)
- UU Elevator Speech (3 weeks)
More sessions will be developed around UU history and theology, leadership, polity, and evangelism (sharing the good news of our faith!).
Do these issues around adult faith development and connection sound familiar? At the same time that our members were looking for more, other congregations began contacting us about sharing our membership process, so we decided to pilot the program with a few of them during the 2015-2016 church year. We look forward to learning how Faith Forward works in other Unitarian Universalist congregations, and adapting it for wider use in the coming years.
If you’d like to receive updates about Faith Forward—to find out what we learn from the pilot, gather tips on faith development and hospitality, and stay updated on how to get program materials for your congregation—visit this site, where you can share your interest and contact information.
Rev. Beth Dana is the Minister of Congregational Life at First Unitarian Church of Dallas, TX, where she works with a great team of ministers, staff and lay leaders on this exciting new path for adult faith development and membership. She is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, originally from Albany, NY. After bouncing from coast to coast, she landed in the middle! She has crossed the thresholds of many UU congregations over the years, learning lots about welcome and hospitality in the process.