First Rungs on the Ladder of Engagement.

Most UU Congregations, and the UUA, are feeble when it comes to engaging the people who are "unaware" of or "observing" UUism.

One reason is that the "unawares" and "observers" are younger, and therefore, best reachable through social media, and UU's are less experienced with that form of communication.

But the biggest reason is that we have not thought through how we would want to engage them, and why? How is making the effort to engage them ministry?

Ethical engagement comes from establishing a relationship with people in which you work with them to achieve their goals or meet their needs. This is true whether you are working in person on the local level, or through social media on a national, or even a global scale. You may be providing a direct service, but more often ministry means creating opportunities for people to participate in doing something they see as worthwhile. An appropriate goal is make a connection, and to get enough information for you to continue the relationship.

Most of us are on the receiving side of this engagement everyday. I am offered opportunities to express myself through signing petitions, contributing money, or sharing information with the people I know. I am offered opportunities that I don't take up because I don't share the goal, or the issue is not important to me. But I know that when I do participate, I am entering into a relationship with an organization somewhere. They get some contact information from me. We are engaged with each other.

Unitarian Universalists and Unitarian Universalist organizations are not unified about what our public theology and public ministry is. I like to use the concepts "humanizing the culture" or "promoting the virtues of liberality". "Standing on the Side of Love" (SSL)  is the most widely used expression of our public ministry.

So using SSL as an example: our task would be to offer to the Unawares and Observers opportunities to act, or express themselves, in ways that are consistent with our work to create a social force that 'stands on the side of love' and to create a relationship with them in the process.

What could be a concrete example on the level of a local congregation?

Where I attend, the congregation supports a house for homeless families, with meals, volunteers and supplies. Periodically, we split the plate with them. We could extend that work by asking our members to set up peer-to-peer fundraising pages for the program. A peer-to-peer fundraiser is a page in which I, for example, would ask people I know to contribute money for a cause. Through social media, email, postcards, personal requests, I would invite people to come to my page and make a donation.
(To be ethical, I have to be completely transparent about why I am doing it, where the money donated goes, where the info goes and what it will be used for in the purpose. A statement to the effect, that 100% of the money goes to the program, that the program and the congregation will get their contact information, and it will be used to let them know about future opportunities to address the needs of homeless families, and that I am doing this as a part of a coordinated effort through my faith community.)
What have I done: I have given my friends an opportunity to help the homeless, something that might have wanted to do. And I have done it in a way that creates two relationships: one between my friend and the agency and one between my friend and my congregation.

Just work with the math: if a hundred members of the congregation each asked a hundred people, that's peer-to-peer 10,000 appeals. More money would be raised than what is raised by splitting the plate one Sunday. And several hundred new relationships would have been formed, on the basis that helping homeless families is a good thing to do.

For those of you who are hung up on the supposed difference between encouraging spiritual development and public ministry, just change the content to something more in line with your understanding of what we should be encouraging. Create a meet-up to discuss a book, or see a movie. Establish a prayer chain where people can invite their friends into the chain. Invite people to come to a one-time small group session.

If each UU congregation put forward in their community 5 or 6 opportunities (to attend a public meeting, to sign a petition, to send an email to a public official, to share some information, to volunteer) every year to do something about something worthwhile, and created relationships between themselves and people previously unaware or just observing the congregation, it would make a huge difference. And if the UUA did the same thing across the USA, and shared the results with local congregations, it would multiply that difference.

Work like that is establishing the lowest rungs on the ladder of engagement. Those relationships could be nurtured and grown, or they can be abused; there are skills and ethics involved in every form of ministry. But be clear, this is the same whether it is in-person neighborhood level work (let's make a community garden on that vacant lot) or newspaper ads, or social media. Find a way for people to act on what they need, want, or believe that is consistent with our needs, wants, or beliefs. Create relationships and nurture those relationships over time.

So what's the difference between this and Move On, or any of the other hundreds of charity and non-profits doing the same thing?  Let's take Move On as an example.  After all, Move On and the UUA do share some goals, as defined by our General Assembly Resolution process. Marriage Equality and Immigration Reform are examples.

Move On has a huge email list. But their problem is that they have no place to take people after they sign the petition, or make a contribution. All you can do is wait for the next email appeal.

On the other hand, we have over 1000 active, functioning local communities, many with attractive facilities, most with active children's programming. UU's deploy thousands of religious professionals, ministers, educators, musicians, who want to know new people as persons. We have many people at the top rungs of engagement in the form of the ten thousands of UU's who are very committed advocates for our way of spiritual life. We have communities for people who are looking for community. Move On's problem is that they have no upper rungs; while we have no lower rungs.

I think our problem is easier to fix.

But I don't think we can do it without new systems and structures, which will be very difficult to implement.

But I am not here to tell you what is possible; I am here to tell you what is necessary.


  1. I love this, particularly as my reading of it coincides with a mandate to present a plan for bringing the ministry/mission of the congregation to the unawares and observers. So happy I got around to joining as an email follower.


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