Xmas CTA: Engaging visitors during the holidays

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It’s hard to believe it’s already December, after what’s been a grueling November for many of us.  And yet, time marches on.  The holiday season calls to us, asking us to lean in and integrate our current circumstances with the joy and abundance that usually highlight this season.  Your congregation will also see an increase in visitors, especially for special holiday services that appeal our neighbors who aren’t regular churchgoers.  They come to you because you help them bridge the gap between tradition, cultural expectations, and a liberal worldview.

An outreach mindset asks us to open ourselves to the experience of meeting people where they are.  Especially now as people are looking for groups which will uphold hope and love for diversity in beliefs, culture, and identities, we as Unitarian Universalists can meet that need.  But an outreach mindset also asks us to risk our own comfort, to show that we’re interested in their welfare beyond just a holiday encounter.  We have to invite them into a mutually transformative relationship.  That’s where an XMAS CTA comes into action!

Use this and other UUA-branded backgrounds for your messaging and event announcements. Click the picture to download from Google Drive.

A Call to Action (CTA) is anything that invites someone to deepen their engagement and relationship with you.  And they’re essential for you to plan thoughtfully ahead of time.  When someone’s looking for a faith community to celebrate the holidays with, we want them to have an open and clear invitation to your congregation.  When they’ve come to visit, you want them to walk away knowing a little bit about who you are and what you offer that fits their ongoing needs.  After they visited, they need to know that you’re looking forward to seeing them again – that they’re wanted and welcome.



  • Social Media Engagement.  Whether people decide to attend a holiday service, you can engage your members, their friends, and your wider community through your congregation’s social media presence.  Being a strong voice for liberal values in your community this December will help sow goodwill and merriment in your community, while also building awareness about your congregation.  You can use these ideas and adapt them to other holidays or specific to the types of services or events your congregation has planned.
  • Schedule Your Posts.  Make a Facebook event.  Use our free holiday graphics to post a visually appealing invitation to your service or event with clear information.  Schedule them or make sure to post several times… a few weeks, a week, and the day before.  Engage your members and ask for commitments from some of them to share and invite their friends on social media or personally.


  • Have a Specific Ask or Invitation.  Don’t overwhelm your guests with a lot of announcements or tell them all about your committees.  Decide with greeters, staff, and other lay leaders to make one specific call to action.  If it’s relevant, you can highlight any new sermon series or themes you’ll be exploring in January.  Be consistent in your messaging.  Fewer choices often help people feel comfortable with a clear path to engagement.
  • Plan a Specific Event for Holiday Visitors.  If you can, plan an entry point event in the near future that will meet the needs of your holiday visitors.  Although inviting them to a specific church function is better than nothing, you want your visitors to feel that you’re there for them.  The more barriers they feel in learning the UU lingo or having to get comfortable in a sea of strangers, the less likely they are to come back.  Think about if you were visiting your congregation for the first time during the holidays, what would you be most inclined to come back for?  Your congregation may already be engaging in post-election actions for justice, so that’s a great place to start. Or what about a newcomers or Intro to UU group starting in January?  A coffee  and tea gathering with the minister?  A new parent group with childcare?  Find where your unique offerings and ministry can provide, and match it with the people you’re most likely to meet during the holidays.
  • Invitation to Reflect and Connect.  Perhaps during the service, or through visitor cards, ask people what their needs are.  Acknowledge that the holidays sometimes ask a lot of us, and that we’re here to listen and find ways to meet those needs.  During the December holidays, many people are looking for warmth.  If you’re providing a New Year’s related service, you may also have them reflect on their skills and strengths, and how they want to contribute to the world around them.  In January, people are often ready to be transformed and develop healthy and life-giving habits.


  • Offer a Gift.  Buy or ask volunteers to donate some baked goods, candies, cards, UU CDs, books, or any other small, inexpensive gift.  The Principles and Sources bookmark or the new UU World Seeker Issue may be good choices if you don’t have something available locally.  Attach a card with your congregation’s service times or invitation to a specific event for visitors.  This lets people know that you consider it a privilege that they chose your congregation to visit.  It’s a way to thank them for sharing themselves with you, even for a short visit.
  • Follow Up.  Setting up a series of 2 or 3 short automated email follow-ups lets visitors know that you’re still thinking of them and would like to connect again.  It’s also helpful for staff, who may be taking time off for the holidays and won’t be able to follow up until January.  Include a specific invitation in these emails, as well.


As always, practice empathy and make adjustments based on a visitor’s individual needs.  Understand that you’re holding space for complex needs.  Some are there to celebrate.  Some are hopeful.  Some are weary, tired, or at wit’s end.  And most are likely holding some combination of these at once.  We’re here to walk alongside, listen, and work toward a dream of what we want our lives and communities to look like in the future.  Next year, you’ll have an even better idea of who your congregation attracts during the holidays.

Spiritual, But Not Religious, My Hindquarters!

blog pictBoston, we have a problem. We UU’s are part of a religious movement that can’t seem to embrace religious ritual.


Yeah, we execute events and programs like Coming of Age, and Bridging, and the occasional holiday service, but when it comes to spiritual practice, we have some serious deficiencies. Don’t believe me? Well, here’s the proof:


Last December, I organized and presented a webinar for religious professionals called “Sunday Morning Best Practices.” In preparation for this webinar, I interviewed eight demographically different congregations from around the country, from Alaska to NY to Florida and places in between, to identify the hallmark attributes of thriving congregational youth programs. Through these interviews, I was able to pinpoint nine positive characteristics of healthy youth programs in a UU context. Aspects like topical flexibility, a commitment to faith in action work, and a youth program woven into the larger ministry of the church were identified and reported in the webinar.


But, sadly—and it broke my heart of hearts, there was also one glaring absence. None of the eight congregations regularly engaged in spiritual practice when their youth gathered. Not one.


Let me be clear, when I refer to spiritual practice, I am referring to exercises which help us connect with the holy, go deeper, and / or provide us with a reflective experience that transcends the ordinary. Meditation, prayer, mantra, yoga, lectio divina, examen, etc. are examples of practices of this sort.


And you may be wondering, “So what? Why should we commit to endeavors of this sort?”


For starters, religious ritual and related spiritual practices, are the only offerings that our religious institutions have to contribute that the wider world cannot. Though worthy and worthwhile, philos-political discussions and forays into social action, which are each enterprises that are heavily emphasized in our congregations, are both activities that can be regularly and easily accessed through secular channels.


Secondly, when youth exit our religious education programs, will they be equipped with the much needed skills and tools to navigate a complex, and arduous life? Where will their spirit go when they lose a loved one? How will they cope with the losses that life inevitably serves up? What internal space(s) will they access when they experience a transcendent moment? With what methods will they express deep remorse, or gratitude?


Ever wondered why so many of our youth don’t return to Unitarian Universalism after bridging? Why we are in constant triage mode in regards to our young adults? I believe firmly that it is because they leave our churches lacking these most critical tools, and also without the religious identity that they indelibly impart upon the user. Spiritual practice is an expression of salvation in this life, and it calls us home.


And let’s be clear. Our youth groups are exceptional microcosms of the larger congregation within which they reside. If the congregation is squeamish about spiritual practice, or religious language, or (insert characteristic here), you better believe the youth group will very accurately personify those very qualities. This holds true for positive attributes, too, like commitment to justice, an emphasis on inclusivity, and upholding the search for meaning.


So where do we go from here? I recommend that we begin a conversation about how we might intentionally incorporate and embrace spiritual practice in each and every space that UU’s gather. Whether it is a Sunday service, or a meeting of the Board, there should be a purposeful element that reminds us, as Parker Palmer asserts, “That spirit is at the center.” These are religious undertakings, and we are called to be our highest, best selves throughout their span.


In my work and to this end, I have put together a multigenerational event this September 23-25th in Portland, Oregon, called the Youth Ministry Revival with the theme of “Engaging Spiritual Practice.” About 80-100 youth and adult teams from congregations around the country will explore how we may more deeply connect to the divine—internally, interpersonally, and community wide, through the art of practice. These teams will be charged with bringing back new tools, skills, and learning, not just to their youth groups, but to their entire congregation. Perhaps you will join us?




Bliss photoEric Bliss is the Youth Ministry Specialist and Congregational Life Staff of the Pacific Western Region of the UUA. Aside from his Youth Ministry Specialist duties, Eric is currently a member of the Fahs Collaborative Guiding Team and is on the UUA Youth Ministry Roundtable.  He is the loving father of two beautiful boys, named Hollis and Ozwell, is an avid soccer fan and coach, loves skateboarding, playing guitar, and exploring the outdoors.


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.