13 Unitarians from seven congregations gathered at Unitarian New Meeting Church on a sunny Autumn Saturday, to discover how Unitarian congregations in three different settings minister to their communities.
The first speaker was Diane Rutter, Lay Assistant of Kingswood, who summed up her talk in her first sentence: “ministering to our community one cup of tea and one piece of cake at a time.” Diane, whose job title is ‘Lay Assistant’ sees her role as building bridges with the local community. She attends everything in the village at least once, including other church’s coffee mornings. Some of her hints and tips included the following:
• look at the age demographic of the people who use the building (not just those who come to worship on a Sunday).
• check out the facilities available in your community, and then gap-fill.
• running a group is quite a commitment. If you are running it, you have to be there, every time. You do it with a good grace, or not at all. Hours have to be flexible.
• It’s about meeting people where they are.
• monitor your hours and look after yourself. Remember that going out and about is work.
• Pastoral visiting – people often prefer to be taken out somewhere rather than visited at home. Most people want two hours. Pastoral visits are draining – you need to take an hour or so to recover afterwards.
• Carry ‘lunch money’ envelopes around for whenever people want to give you money.
• Allow time to move things on / turn them around / repair them. Give something at least a year to decide whether it works. BUT never become so invested in something that you aren’t prepared to knock it on the head if it’s not working.
• Pinch other people’s ideas and adapt them.
• Be aware that as people get older, events will have to move from evenings to lunchtimes, as older people won’t come out at night, especially in the winter.
The second speaker was Rev. Nicky Jenkins, minister of Chorlton Unitarians. Chorlton is a leafy suburb of Manchester, which in recent years has become “an area accepting of alternative lifestyles.” Many other groups use the building. Like Diane, she emphasised the importance of knowing the people in your area, and of getting out into the neighbourhood. Some of Nicky’s hints and tips were as follows:
• download A3 posters from UCCN and General Assembly websites and laminate for outdoor use (also on walls of church / chapel).
• Put out Unitarian leaflets etc when other groups are using the building.
• use Meet Up to publicise your events – you have to subscribe to it. This means that you can categorise your events, using lots of search terms. Then information about your events is e-mailed to Meet Up users according to the interests they have flagged up.
• If members of your congregation are involved in different groups in the community, try to build on that.
• A friendly welcome is of central importance.
But the main focus of Nicky’s presentation was Café Church, an informal gathering every 5th Sunday. It was started three years ago with the idea of providing an alternative to a regular church service. The theme is something very general, the room is set up with small tables plus four chairs around each table. Quote slips about the (very broad) theme are put on each table as an icebreaker, and folk are encouraged to mix themselves up
Good tea and coffee is essential, preferably fair traded. Food is brought by members.
The format of the “service” is very informal and not “churchy”. A typical session might include: opening words / music / discussion starter / poetry / time of stillness and reflection / poetry / music / final discussion. Food is available throughout, and people can leave before the end.
The final speaker was Kate McKenna, who spoke about the Octagon Chapel Norwich’s growing engagement with the LGBT community in Norwich. She explained how the Chapel’s involvement with Norwich Pride had evolved from the first one in 2011, which was attended by a few Unitarians as private individuals. The following year, the 365 metre balcony of the Town Hall was swathed in a rainbow flag made of thousands of knitted squares made by various religious communities in the city. This was also the year that the Chapel hosted the post-Pride worship service.
In 2013, there was a more visible Unitarian presence – they painted their own banner and were part of the campaign for equal marriage. A tradition has grown up of providing an LGBT appropriate background (e.g. a rainbow) against which anyone can be photographed.
In 2014, they gave out blank posters with “I believe” written at the top, and invited people to complete them in their own words. Hundreds of people did, and had photos taken.
In 2015, they were instrumental in setting up Faith in Pride, a collaborative venture with Quakers, Goddess worshippers, three Anglican churches, Buddhists and Liberal Jews.
All in all, it was a fascinating day, with much food for thought. Those present took many notes, and I am sure that some of the ideas talked about will be happening in the Unitarian communities of the people who attended.