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Congregations helping other congregations

Aiding another congregation gives 'sense of supporting a larger vision of Unitarian Universalism.'
By Donald E. Skinner
Summer 2008 5.15.08

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When a member of the Carbondale, Illinois, Unitarian Fellowship grew tired of driving sixty miles to services, he did something about it. He bought a building in the town of Mount Vernon, Illinois, where he lived. Then he asked for help.

Thus began an enduring relationship between the Carbondale fellowship and a group of Unitarian Universalists in a town where there had been no UU presence before. For three years the Carbondale fellowship has supported the Mt. Vernon Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, now with twenty members, in various ways—holding the initial organizational meetings, helping it obtain start-up funds, and providing occasional Sunday morning programming.

“We’re very grateful to Carbondale,” said Mt. Vernon member Shannon Green. “They’ve been very supportive. We can call on them for anything.” The congregation is less reliant on Carbondale now, but still appreciates the relationship. “We hope the time will come when we can give back to them,” Green said.

Helping one congregation might be within the call of duty, but Carbondale is also helping a second group start up, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, fifty miles away. The Cape Girardeau UU Fellowship has twenty-eight members.

Across the country, there are similar stories of congregational cooperation. First Unitarian Church in Oklahoma City is mentoring a new group in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Appleton, Wisconsin, which was itself nurtured by the First Unitarian Society in Madison, Wisconsin, has lent a hand to Carbondale and other congregations.

Carbondale and Fox Valley are both in the UUA’s Central Midwest District. The Rev. Ian Evison, district executive, said there is more congregational support going on than meets the eye. “One thing that I discovered when I started this work,” he said, “was that this district is crisscrossed by chains of helpfulness. First Madison helped Fox Valley, who in turn helped Carbondale, who in turn is helping two emerging congregations.”

Evison estimated that a fourth of his work is making connections among congregations so they can help each other. That process, he said, includes identifying ways to bring congregations together to share information: connecting a minister who has led a congregation through a growth transition with a minister facing that transition, for instance, or connecting a congregation that needs help with conflict resolution with a congregation that has worked through its own conflict.

First Unitarian Church in Oklahoma City is mentoring a new congregation, the Peace Congregation, Unitarian Universalist, of Shawnee, Oklahoma. First Unitarian supports the group by hosting a web page on First Unitarian’s website, handling the congregation’s bookkeeping, and sending an occasional speaker to Shawnee. The Rev. Mark Christian paid for some advertising out of his discretionary fund. “We do the things that are easy for us, but hard for a new group,” he said.

Thirty people came to the first meeting in Shawnee. Now five to ten gather weekly. “We couldn’t have done it without First Unitarian,” said Shawnee resident Sandra Merchant, who approached Christian and First Unitarian’s other minister, the Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, four years ago, when she grew tired of driving forty-five miles to Oklahoma City for services.

“The demographic potential is there for a congregation,” said Christian. “By doing this we’ve gotten a sense of supporting a larger vision of Unitarian Universalism. It can be difficult to be a religious liberal here. There’s a lot of pride in my congregation about doing this.”

Not all congregation-to-congregation help has to be in person. When Jeremy SasserCollins, president of the Magic Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Twin Falls, Idaho, was struggling with how to proceed after his congregation’s rented meeting place was sold, he put a query on the Pacific Northwest District’s email discussion group for presidents. He had questions including whether to consider an afternoon service time and whether there should be a vote of the membership on a new location. About a dozen presidents of small congregations like his responded.

He said, “I needed advice from others and that was exactly what I got. They sent very thoughtful and lengthy responses that really helped me and influenced our decisions.”

Not every mentoring opportunity works. Two ministers related that they tried to lead their congregations—one midsized, one small—into such a relationship, but the smaller congregation resisted. The minister of that congregation said congregants did not see the experience of the larger congregation as being transferable to them and they were also reluctant to spend time on standard growth practices such as creating mission and vision statements. The minister said, “It would have worked better if the church had been truly committed to growth and not so wary of the relational processes for facilitating it.”

The Rev. Dr. William Sasso, minister at Carbondale, said that his conversations over a number of years with Fox Valley’s minister, the Rev. Roger Bertschausen, have been especially helpful to him. “It’s a minister-to-minister relationship, mainly about our congregations’ trajectories of growth. I think of Fox Valley as being five to ten years ahead of us, so they’ve experienced much of what we’re growing into.” Fox Valley has 575 members; Carbondale has 187.

He added, “We know from our own experience what a difference the presence of a Unitarian Universalist congregation can make in this area—not only the powerful difference it can make in the lives of its own members, but the impact that it can have on the community and the region. When we saw these groups working to develop UU fellowships nearby, how could we not want to help?”

The UUA is working on ways to be more supportive to congregations, including fledgling ones. The UUA board organized A Congregations Come First initiative in 2006 to determine how to allocate the Association’s resources more equitably to congregations. The most recent CCF report was issued in January and is available at UUA.org.

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