Welcoming new congregants, one at a time
by Donald E. Skinner
Lina Scanlan grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. She left it for many years and then returned during a personal crisis a divorce. But on returning she felt disconnected. "The whole Catholic mentality was geared toward families," she remembers. "Being single, I really felt out of place."
Then, three years ago, she discovered Unitarian Universalism at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee. "Not only was the theology just what I was looking for," she says, "but it has been the most welcoming of congregations for single people. Just the opposite of my earlier experience."
She was welcomed into an after-church lunch group composed largely of single people, where she made many of the connections that kept her coming back to church. "It was very welcoming," she says. And she in turn has made a practice of welcoming other single people, seeking them out on Sunday morning.
But things do not work so well in all congregations.
Jean, a middle-aged Unitarian Universalist from the Midwest, hosted a dinner party last year that she'd sold at her fellowship's fund-raising auction. Four couples came. All had children about the same age, and they shared other interests. "They had a lot in common, and they told me the next day they had a fabulous time," she says. "But you know, I felt excluded. I was the only single person there. They were all sitting next to each other, and I was at the end of the table by myself and even though I was in my own home, I felt excluded.
"It might have just been me, but our church congregation is largely made up of people who are couples, and it made me question whether other single people have had experiences like mine."
Another woman remembers that in her first Unitarian Universalist church she immediately connected with the theology but felt set apart from the membership. Because she came to church alone, she says, "I came to feel there that my presence somehow wasn't enough." Are people who come to church alone overlooked and excluded? Do we treat them differently? Do we tend to favor people who attend as couples?
If we do, it's to our detriment. The American Association of Single People reports that nearly half of all households in the nation are headed by unmarried individuals. It is believed that the average man and woman between the ages of 15 and 85 will experience more years being unmarried than married. Which means that if we want to live up to our religious principles and to bring Unitarian Universalism to as many people as possible, including single people is important. So what do we do?
At the First Universalist Society in Wakefield, Massachusetts, it starts with circle suppers. President Wendy Dennis says the bimonthly dinner program encourages hosts to invite an odd number of guests to ensure that singles will be included.
In addition, the 71-member congregation's adult programming is a drawing card. Says Dennis: "We have a video/discussion series, three small group ministry groups, a monthly lunch with the minister, and many social, educational, volunteer, and social action opportunities, so everyone can find a way to be involved. We also do a lot to help kids and adults mix so they know each other and so that people without kids don't feel left out. We have something for everyone."
The Rev. Jim Robinson, senior minister at the 750-member First Parish, Brewster, Massachusetts, says the congregation attracts and keeps single adults of all ages in two basic ways: "One, a good quality Sunday service; and two, lots of small groups to choose from men's groups, women's groups, covenant groups, senior groups, spiritual study groups, poetry groups, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender groups, social justice groups, etc. If the single adult has children, a good children's program is an essential component as well."
Robinson finds that Sunday services and small groups are both important in keeping people connected to the church. "If a single person enjoys the Sunday service, but does not find a smaller group to belong to, they tend to drift away," he says. "If they find a small group to belong to, but never attend Sunday service, they tend to not identify with the church."
One of the best ways to welcome and include young single adults is to let other young adults do the work, says David Concepción of First and Second Church in Boston. "Most UU churches are good at attracting and keeping families, so much so that it seems that's where the focus lies more often than not. When a single young adult enters the picture there often isn't much to offer them." What does work, he says, is to form a young adult group and let that group reach out. "Young adult groups are great at creating a safe space to meet people and a great social atmosphere," he says.
Other ways of being welcoming to single people include intentionally including them in conversations and sitting by them in church. If you have two theater tickets to give away, consider giving them to a single person rather than a couple. When inviting people to an event like a Thanksgiving dinner, rather than saying "All families are welcome," say "Everyone is welcome."
Another way single people are made to feel welcome is when there are many other single people in the congregation. When Anne Heller, now district executive of the Pacific Northwest District, was a co-minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, the Minnesota Monthly magazine ran an article listing the society as one of the ten best places in the Twin Cities to meet men. "Boy, did that bring people in the door," says Heller. "I would say that half of the 300 new members we gathered during that time were single, mostly between 25 and 45."
And, of course, single people themselves can make a big difference. Getting involved always helps. No church would dare overlook someone who volunteers to help. Scanlan, in Nashville, volunteered to help facilitate a class and made further church connections. "For a relationship to be established it takes two people," she observed.
Amy Owen, of Madison, Wisconsin, had attended services at some churches without even being greeted. But when she walked into the James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Madison one Sunday morning for the first time, "Within ten seconds two people introduced themselves to me and invited me to worship. If I could tell churches how to attract single people it's that same old bottom line of just being aware of visitors, paying attention to people, and respecting their comfort level with being greeted."
Donald E. Skinner is a contributing editor to UU World and editor of the UUA's InterConnections newsletter for lay leaders.