Monday, July 12, 2010

Facebook: An Argument for Friending Your Congregation's Members

As ministers, we all know too easily the arguments to not "friend" members of our congregation on Facebook and other social networking sites.  It blurs the professional boundary we try so hard to establish.  It leaves you open to people seeing something you don't want them to see if a friend tags you with an embarrassing photo or video or comment.  And people will assume you know things they've posted there and forget to tell you.  It's definitely a valid decision to not friend, particularly if the privacy controls overwhelm you.  All of this is true.

But if you're comfortable playing with the security parameters, most of these concerns can be mitigated.  So here's some of the other side from someone who does friend congregation members.

Pastoral Care:  I don't see everything that members post, but occasionally I do see pastoral care needs on Facebook that I'm better equipped to respond to for having been a Facebook friend.   For example, when a member was dying a while back, I routinely checked in on her family's posts just to see how they were doing, and it kept me in touch with the situation in an extra way.

Denominational Connections: In my little church, as with many, it's very rare for members to attend General Assembly.  It's rare that they even attend District Assembly.  They're not on the UUA's e-mail lists for different topics, either.  The UU World is practically their only connection, other than me, to the larger UU Association.  But a huge number of them are on Facebook.  And so recently I went to the Standing on the Side of Love Facebook page, and clicked on "suggest to friends" and then looked at my church friends group.  Only about 6-7 of them were already fans of the SSL page.  So I sent all the rest a Page Suggestion.  Now 45 members this group (some of which are members of the church, and some of which are friends) are followers of the SSL Facebook page.  That's a population equivalent to half my church that's now connected to this important social justice arm of our association.  Some time ago I did similarly with the Michigan UU Social Justice Network, and many members responded.  It's an easy way to get your members so that they're seeing some of what is going on in our movement regionally and nationally.  It's definitely not this easy to send out a page suggestion for a page that you don't run if you're not friends with the people you want to invite.  It might be possible, but I think you'd have to do it one person at a time.

Communication: Once your members are your Facebook friends, it's easy to get pretty instant feedback on new ideas, by posting a discussion topic for them to comment on, or to communicate with groups quickly and easily.  Some members are much easier to contact on Facebook than by e-mail.  You can use Facebook's message system, or just sometimes post a note on their wall. 
Evangelism:  Facebook is a great soft-shoe evangelism tool.  Your friends can be promoting things you're doing without even doing anything, because if they make comments it can come up in their friends' newsfeed, or your page or person can be suggested to their friends just because they've connected to you.  This particularly is an important way your message can spread through your church's Facebook page, but it can also be done through your personal account.  But imagine that you post an article that you wrote about something interesting to your personal account.  A friend can then "share" that note, if you've left it unlocked for sharing, with their friends, who then will see the things that you're saying.  If your note then connects back to the church in some way, then their friends have learned a little something about Unitarian Universalism and its beliefs.  And nobody had to go knock on their neighbor's door and say, "Let me tell you about Unitarian Universalism."  And maybe, just maybe, we can stop being the "best-kept secret in town."

Monday, July 5, 2010

Should UU Be More Like the Y to attract YAs?

In thinking about the issues of attracting and then tracking Young Adult (YA) members from a church's perspective, I was thinking that maybe churches should have a membership program that works more like your local YMCA and less like, well, churches.  Here's what I've been thinking about this...

First: Income/Pledges.  Now, every UU church I know of, even if they have a minimum expected pledge, will waive that pledge for financial hardship, but it's often awkward to ask for or to have to explain, and many people fell put-out by being asked for money in churches.  There's a big issue around pledging in churches, because people have negative experiences from other churches sometimes, as well.  At the Y, on the other hand, they have a very set guidelines of what membership costs, and you pay it, and if you don't you're not a member.  They also have a philosophy that everyone should be able to be a member, and therefore they will work on a sliding scale.  This could work particularly well for young adults, to have a specific "young adult rate" annually for membership, that could be waived in case of need.   It could come with certain additional perks, like if you have a thriving adult RE program but you charge for your adult RE classes, the young adult membership could come with three free RE programs. 

Second: Transience.  I think a lot of churches think, secretly, that having young adult members is a negative because not only do they not get as much income as they pay out in dues sometimes, they also have trouble tracking the young adults because they're transient.  Churches often don't have a good way of noticing if a member has moved away and neglected to resign his or her membership.  At the Y, on the other hand, membership is for a set period for which you've paid your membership fees.  If you neglect to pay your membership fees, your membership lapses.  If you want to become a member again, you pay your fees again.  This could be a great way for young adults to become members where the church would know that they wouldn't have to go tracking the young adults down later to see if they want to retain membership or not.  In some ways, I think this would be a great way for the church to deal with all members.  Just like you renew your gym membership, you renew your church membership. 

Obviously this is quite a bit different from the way we think about church.  But maybe the reasons that membership at churches is done the way it is are no longer valid.  People move around a lot more today than they used to.  We no longer have, in most UU churches, a way we transfer membership from church to church or denomination to denomination.  You can join more than one church if you want. 

So should UU be more like the Y?

You tell me.  I'm interested in knowing what you think.  This is just a wild tangent I've been on, so I'm not wedded to the idea, by any means!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

What Makes a Unitarian Universalist?

I have eight relatives who at one time or another attended a Unitarian Universalist church and who are on Facebook.  A quick polling of what their info pages say about their "religious views" gives the following answers:

2 list Unitarian Universalist (or some combination of those two words).
2 have the field blank or not viewable to me, which would be understandable given that I do things like this.
1 says "atheistic jew."
1 says "loving kindness."
1 says "Peace and Social Justice."
1 says "Aid to and support of the widows, the children, and the outcast."

Of these eight, I think two are members of Unitarian Universalist churches--one who lists UU and one who doesn't.  Most of the others attend from time to time, but not regularly enough to consider themselves members, and mostly when visiting a relative who is church-going.  So this shows that not everyone who calls themselves a Unitarian Universalist is a member of a church, and, conversely, not everyone who is a member of a church labels themselves Unitarian Universalist. 

Of course, we've long known this sort of dynamic as a denomination.  The Wikipedia article on Unitarian Universalism, for example, says that in the 2001 Census report, 629,000 people listed themselves as Unitarian Universalist, but in 2002 the UUA listed 214, 738 members.  Obviously there are a lot of people who call themselves Unitarian Universalist but don't belong to a church.

Can you be a Unitarian Universalist without belonging to a church?  I've heard it argued very eloquently that you can't.  There's a certain logic to this.  Since we're non-creedal, you don't become a Unitarian Universalist by subscribing to a set of beliefs.  How do you become a Unitarian Universalist?  By attending a church, by covenanting with us, by engaging in our dynamic living tradition.  If you're not actively engaged with Unitarian Universalism as a religion through some relationship with one of our institutions, what makes you call yourself a Unitarian Universalist?  Obviously those words mean something to those other 400,000 people, however, that goes beyond membership to a sense of their religious identity.

As a religious professional, obviously I choose to be a Unitarian Universalist who is a member of a church.  However, I did go through four years of college wherein I didn't attend church but still very much called myself a Unitarian Universalist.  So I know something about where that comes from.  However, I guess I'm getting old now, because I have trouble remembering that perspective.

Obviously we don't want those 400,000 people, including at least one of my relatives, to stop calling themselves Unitarian Universalist.  What we want is to know how to bring them back into membership in our churches, where obviously they at one point held some sort of connection that is still meaningful to them today. 

I admit to being at something of a loss as to how to draw them back. 

The workshop I attended at GA on recent trends in religious life, based on a Pew Forum study, pointed to some trends that help explain this.  It's worth noting that of those eight relatives of mine, five are Generation X or Millennials, and none of those list Unitarian Universalism, even though one attends church.  Of the Boomer Generation, two of the three list Unitarian Universalism, even though one does not attend church.  This fits very much with what I'm learning about trends, wherein for Xers and Millennials, denominational identity is not only not as important, it's really a negative.  Some of our trendier young-adult-focused churches, like Micah's Porch and Wellsprings reflect this, with a lack of denominational branding.  So does our Standing on the Side of Love campaign.  You have to look deep into these three webpages to find UU in the small print.  And this kind of approach does seem to be working with young adults who despite their lack of interest in institutions, have a growing need for connection, community, and spirituality.  They're the growing "Spiritual but not Religious" group, and we have something that can really address this, if we can leave some of our branding aside.

I'm a GenXer, so I understand a lot of these recent trends: the increased focus on parenting, the increased use of technology, the larger percentage of non-believers/atheists/agnostics, the more progressive view of LGBT issues.  But I also am a joiner, and believe in creating and belonging to institutions that support my values.  There's a real challenge before us in Unitarian Universalism on how to adapt to this new landscape.  I'm looking for ideas.