congregational life

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

Clusters maximize resources, fellowship

by Donald E. Skinner

It can be lonely in s cottsbluff, Nebraska for religious liberals. No one knows that better than the twenty-five members of the North Platte Valley Fellowship.

When the North Platte UUs need advice, they have a couple of options. They can reach out to the nearest UU congregation, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, more than 100 miles away. They can also contact the Mountain Desert District Office in Denver, but the staff, responsible for a district that extends from El Paso, Texas, to Kalispell, Montana, may well be on the road.

And now they have a third option. Because of its size, the district has created regional clusters of congregations whose leaders get together to share information and socialize. The North Platte UU group is in a cluster with six other congregations from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Casper, Wyoming.

Byron Peterson of the North Platte group has been to several cluster gatherings. "It's been wonderful," he said, "to have the opportunity to sit down with representatives from the other UU congregations in our area. That's been a rich resource for us. People share their energy, inspiration, and enthusiasm."

The North Platte group recently bought its first building and needed advice. "We had a question about how other congregations used their buildings during the week," Peterson said. "We brought that question to a cluster meeting and went home with lots of suggestions, including providing space to nonprofits."

When congregations in western Colorado discovered they'd missed a growth and outreach program that was presented in Denver, they arranged for it to be brought over the mountains to them, says Ardis Westwood, a coordinator of the Mountain Cluster. And the congregations in that cluster have found another way to use their new connections. The congregations at Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, and Frisco all contribute recreational outing items to each other's annual auctions and then spend weekends together during the year enjoying those items and getting to know one another.

Clusters are essential to getting work done in the Mountain Desert District, said District Executive Ellen Germann-Melosh. "Getting people to attend district events other than the annual meeting is difficult. It is particularly hard for weekend events because of the distances."

Another issue is cultural, she said. "The folks in Utah and eastern Idaho deal with different cultural issues than those in El Paso and Missoula. By working in clusters, the issues--high Mormon or Hispanic populations, rural towns, large metropolitan cities, and mountain resort communities--can be woven into the conversations and efforts of the congregations in their respective clusters.

Other clusters of UU congregations include five in Florida, two in the Washington, D.C., area and others in Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Diego, and Cincinnati, as well as other places.

Steve Jens-Rochow is vice president of the Florida District's Southeast UU Cluster, which encompasses ten congregations from Key West to north of Palm Beach. Formed twenty-five years ago, it's one of the oldest UU clusters.

In October the cluster partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union in putting on a conference focused on rights for same-sex couples, including marriage and adoption. Cluster congregations have also worked together on the UUA's current social action issue of prison reform and are working with the ACLU on a project to restore rights to ex-felons. It also organizes camp-outs and annual meetings, and hopes to plan youth activities.

"The cluster has helped us look beyond our local congregation," said Jens-Rochow. "We're benefiting from programming that none of us could do alone. There are real benefits, for example, in the advertising and children's programming that we're doing as a cluster. And we benefit just from getting to know other folks socially. For example, the UU Fellowship of Boca Raton has a very active Interweave person. Getting to know him has helped to inspire me." He said thirty-five to sixty people attend cluster meetings.

Six San Diego area congregations held a worship service in 1999, marking the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego's 125th anniversary. From that event grew the San Diego Cluster of UU Congregations. The cluster, through its subgroup, Cluster Inreach and Outreach (CIAO), is aggressively involved in marketing, social justice, and membership/hospitality projects throughout San Diego County.

The centerpiece of the program is a $300,000 "I Believe" marketing campaign designed to raise the visibility of Unitarian Universalism in San Diego County and to ensure that congregations are ready to welcome and engage visitors when they arrive.

For the past three years CIAO has put on cluster workshops that address specific needs of the congregations, including hospitality, membership, fundraising, media relations, and human resources. "We knew that our individual congregations were strong, but working together we're even stronger," says Martin Kruming, CIAO administrator. "We're strengthening our position as a liberal, progressive faith in San Diego County."

The Heartland District, which covers primarily Michigan, Indiana, and Kentucky, has active cluster organizations for ministers and directors of religious education and is now organizing youth programming to cut down on travel by youth and youth advisors. A social justice cluster, the UU Social Justice Network of Southeast Michigan, brought a dozen Michigan congregations together last fall to work on voter registration and turnout and same-sex marriage issues.

The Long Island Area Council (LIAC) was formed in the sixties to help UU congregations on the island connect with each other. "We're so congested here, it's not always possible for all of us to get to Metro New York District events," says Joanne Hammer, president of LIAC, and a former president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook. LIAC primarily has had programs for children and youth, including Our Whole Lives, Coming of Age, a youth camp, and a youth group. It has also been active in social justice, and has begun a communications program to raise awareness of Unitarian Universalism and UU congregations on Long Island.

"The programs have helped youth from the various congregations get to know each other and some of them have maintained those ties into adulthood," said Hammer. "The congregations themselves have benefited from the enthusiasm in the cluster. Coming together regularly helps us to remind ourselves that our faith is very important."

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
UU World : Page 16-17

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