helps small congregation build community

Guest post written by Rev. Amanda Aikman, consulting minister at Skagit Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Mount Vernon, WA. Her congregation’s Meetup Group can be found at

When considering an online solution to communicating with the members of our UU fellowship, we decided to use

Our congregation is small (sixty-five members), semi-rural, and far-flung. We wanted to create more community-building activities, classes, etc., both at the church and in the communities where members live. But it is hard to get people together for anything besides Sunday morning activities. Also, we wanted to empower all members to suggest and initiate activities without having to wait for leadership to come up with them! Another factor was the digital divide; many older members were not active online.

Many people recommended Facebook to us, but we wanted to explore other solutions that would help us with community-building and that would not require a lot of maintenance. (We do expect to add Facebook at some point.)

Meetup has turned out to be a very good solution for us.

Because Meetup is designed specifically to get people together in person, there is a minimum of chat and a maximum of planning.

It is extremely easy for any person designated as a Meetup “Assistant Organizer” to announce an activity and get a reading of how many people are interested and likely to attend. I have made every Meetup member who is also a member or friend of the congregation an Assistant Organizer. Activities can be planned far in the future or on the spur of the moment.

The Organizer has total gatekeeping power. In our case, the organizer is the minister (me), but this job could be shared between several people. We decided to set up our Meetup group so that anyone from the public can see what’s going on, but only people who are known can join the group.

Because Meetup is geared toward improving the quality of events, attendees can rate the events afterwards, make comments and suggestions, and post photos.

Because Meetup has no ads, our Meetup Group costs $15 a month. This has been well worth it for us.

It’s easy for members to set their email preferences and the like.

It was extremely easy to set our Group up and it looks quite nice.

A small but real bonus is outreach. If someone is looking at Meetup for activities in their neighborhood, or looking for Unitarians, they will easily find our church. To try it out, browse to “” and enter “Mount Vernon, WA” and “Unitarian.” Or just browse Meetup Groups near Mount Vernon. You will find Skagit Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

There are some potential disadvantages to using Meetup:

1.  Cost.

2. The fact that the recent redesign by Meetup took away several desirable features, most notably a format that showed the discussions in a column beside the Meetup announcements. (Grrrr.)

3. The fact that it takes some cheerleading and education to get people to join.

We now have a critical mass (a little over half of our church membership is on Meetup). Activities generated via Meetup are then put on the church calendar, announced on Sundays and in the newsletter, etc., so that everyone – whether they are internet-savvy or not – benefits from the Meetup activities.

I would be more than happy to discuss or explain Meetup to anyone who is interested.  It has been a real boon to our congregation – almost like having an extra staff person!

Q: What permissions are needed for photography or videography at congregational events?

With photos and video serving a popular means of promoting congregations through social media, congregational leaders often ask about obtaining permissions for photography and videography at congregational events. Here are some of the tips that I usually give (with the caveat that I’m not a lawyer and can’t offer legal advice!)

If children are going to be photographed or videotaped, written permission must be obtained from a parent or legal guardian of each child. When the photographs or videotapes are published, consider leaving out the names of the children. Some congregations only film children from the back, so that their faces are not visible.

On the UU Growth Blog, Peter Bowden has posted a collection of sample release forms for photographs of children. The forms are all from Unitarian Universalist congregations.

If adults are going to be photographed or videotaped, advertise this fact on all promotion materials for the event at which the photography or videotaping will take place. For example, if your congregation is recording the installation of a new minister, note on the fliers and e-mails about the installation that it will be videotaped. You may even want to make a brief announcement before the ceremony begins (at the same time that you would say “please turn off your cell phones”).

In his interview with Don Skinner for InterConnections, Peter Bowden offers excellent advice on how to secure implicit permission for videorecording and photographing at events:

“When filming crowds at public performances and other large events we generally post signs at entrances to the event notifying those attending that we are filming,” [Bowden] says. “By entering the event they are thereby giving consent. When we do this we take pictures of the signs to document they were posted.”

In short, make a good faith effort to notify event attendees through all possible channels in advance.

If it is feasible, you may also wish to demarcate a seating area that will not be visible on camera, for those who want to attend the event but do not want to be seen in the video.

For events at which people may normally have an expectation of privacy, or events with which people may run some risk by being publicly identified, take the extra step of obtaining written permission from each person in advance of that person being videotaped or photographed. Such events, depending on your community, may include support groups, BGLT dances, or other congregational events.

If your congregation receives a request from someone featured in a photograph or video segment to have that photograph or video segment removed from a congregational website, Facebook Page, etc., do your best to honor that request.

When asking permission, ask for blanket permission to publish and distribute photographs and video. Don’t ask for permission to publish the photographs or video in only one place (i.e. just in the congregational newsletter, just on the congregational website, etc.).

There are two reasons to ask for broad permission:

1. Communication technologies are constantly evolving. Even if right now, your congregation only has a website, in a few months, you might have a blog too, and want to share photographs there!

2. Once a photograph is published, especially online, you can’t completely control where it will be shared. People can very easily take a photograph that they see on a congregation’s website and post it to their Facebook profile, even if doing so violates copyright. You cannot ensure that a photograph posted on your congregation’s website will remain only there.

If you are recording a worship service or other presentation that may include copyrighted material, respect copyright laws. Read “Copyright Issues Related to Worship” for more information.

Have fun with photographs and videos! These media offer a wonderful way to share the story of your congregation with members, newcomers, and the general public.

Q: Where can I find a sample Facebook policy from a Unitarian Universalist congregation?

A: Right here! This sample Facebook Policy from the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church (PDF) is an excellent starting point for congregations looking to develop their own Facebook Page policies.

Other resources that may be useful to your congregation as you establish or reexamine your Facebook Page are:

All of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s social media resources are available on the Top Picks for Social Media section of

If you have a sample social media policy from a Unitarian Universalist congregation that you would like to share (and have permission to), please post a link to the policy in the comments or e-mail me at