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- The Ethical Society seeks to fulfill the social, inspirational, and organizational role that religions traditionally have in America, but from a Humanist, naturalistic perspective.
- They have more than 100 years’ experience building Humanist communities.
- For ideas on how to grow your Humanist community, check out the congregational growth literature.
- Make sure you provide space and mechanisms for people to develop real relationships with other members – newcomer dinners, small group meetings, and potlucks, for example.
Greetings. My name is Kate Lovelady and I’ve been leading the Ethical Society of St. Louis (ESSL) since 2005. ESSL strives to be “A welcoming home for humanists”—we were founded in 1886 as a nontheistic religious congregation, meaning that we’re organized as a religion and we seek to fulfill the social, inspirational, and organizational role that religions traditionally have in America, but from a humanist, naturalistic perspective. We have weekly meetings with music and (hopefully) inspiring talks about ethical living, and a Sunday School and Youth groups that explore humanist values and teach good community habits; we provide life ceremonies such as weddings and commitments and memorials; we promote science and social justice through classes, talks, and projects. We do a lot of stuff. You can read more about us and our activities and history if you’re interested here. Our community numbers around 400 adults and 75 children and youth, and although our Sunday School has shrunk over the years as average family size has shrunk, overall our size has been mostly stable throughout our history.
I would love to see flourishing humanist communities like ours in every city in America. I wasn’t around over 130 years ago when ESSL started, but for this first post, I can share two basic pieces of advice that are relevant for groups of all ages and sizes. First, whether your community is organized as a secular or religious institution, read congregational growth literature (a good source is the Alban Institute). Believe it or not, it really doesn’t matter that most of it is written by Christians for Christian groups. It turns out that groups of people coming together in community have the same basic needs and tend to act the same basics ways whether they’re Christians or Buddhists or humanists or atheists. Skip over or translate the god language and you can find vital information in congregational development literature about how to organize people, how to find and reach out to prospective members, and most important, how to help people in your group make meaningful connections with each other.
Which leads me to my second piece of advice. Humanist groups sometimes over-emphasize ideas and under-emphasize relationship-building in their groups. But most people, whether they even realize it or not, want to join a group because they want to make meaningful friendships with like-minded people. Yes, ideas are important, but these days it’s easy to stay home and read humanist books and watch humanist videos and even discuss and debate online with other humanists. People seek out communities because they’re looking to make friends, and they stay if they make friends. If they don’t make friends, odds are they won’t stay. (Yes, there’s tons of stuff about this in congregational growth literature.) So make sure there are easy ways for people to get to know each other at your meetings or events–especially mechanisms for introverts and shy people–and ways for people to become friends and to share about their lives and their feelings, not just about their thoughts on the latest Richard Dawkins book. Some things we do here at ESSL include newcomer dinners at people’s homes, potlucks, and small groups we call Ethical Circles in which 8-10 folks meet monthly to reflect on a general life topic such as “friendship” or “family.” –If you’re starting a humanist community and topics like that make you gag, that’s okay, just find a helper who likes organizing relationship-building events. Different people have different strengths. Just remember that humanists, being human, have both heads and hearts and building a community requires appealing to both.
I look forward to responding to questions on this blog about starting, leading, or growing humanist communities. In my six years leading this Ethical Society full time, I’ve even learned to be comfortable asking for money, so no question is out-of-bounds.