Circle of Life

Innovative Learning Circle logoOnce a month for the last several months, six ministers and one lay leader from the states of Tennessee, New Jersey, Illinois, New York and Wisconsin have been meeting to talk about congregational collaborations. They meet virtually, of course, as part of the Multi-site Innovative Learning Circle initiative. Each participant has shared a challenge story related to their work with other congregations and listened as their colleagues offered wise and gentle thoughts and suggestions in response. The conversations have been enlightening, informative and instructional, both to the person who shared the challenge story and the people who responded. In the process, these seven Unitarian Universalist leaders from different parts of the country have bonded and formed a loving and supported community.

 

Rev. Emilie Boggis, Minister of Congregational Life at the Unitarian Church in Summit, NJ, spoke for all the participants when she wrote, “I really look forward to our time together, to hearing your stories, and grappling with the issues. And I am amazed (I don’t know why) at how much movement there is in my own “project” from hearing your stories and coming to a deeper understanding of what we are trying to do. I’m very, very grateful for you all.”

 

Are you involved in multi-site work or even just thinking about it? Sign up for the next round of Innovative Learning Circles and join us. For more information, contact Tandi Rogers, trogers@uua.org.

___________________

mark bernsteinMark Bernstein is a member of the Congregational Life Staff of the Central East Region of the UUA. He is also a member of the Multi-Site Midwife Team and had the honor of facilitating the Innovative Learning Circle that he wrote about.

Your Website is Your Front Door

When I was a minister in a vibrant, busy congregation there was always something more caring and time-sensitive to do than sit down and write for the congregation’s website. Because the website had no clear deadline (like sermons and newsletters and pastoral care) it stayed at the bottom of my to-do list for years.

 

What I didn’t realize then, and what I know now, is that our websites must be high priority. And it’s not enough to simply keep them functional and up to date. They are where we tell the world who we are, what we do, and why it matters.

 

People’s experience of our websites form indelible first impressions. In the minds of online visitors:

  • If our websites are wordy and sparse on people, we are wordy and sparse on people.
  • If it’s hard to find what you need on our websites, it’s hard to find what you need from us.
  • If our websites are full of insider language and graduate-level language, we are too.

It can take a lot to undo those first impressions.

 

Instead, let’s show how our congregations are welcoming, warm, and accessible. Let’s show that by looking at our site with “outreach glasses” – using the lenses of the people we want to reach. Wearing those glasses involves thinking about what the people are looking for when they come to our sites. Each comes for a reason, whether they’re seeking emotional information or technical information.

 

Here are some congregations that are doing a great job answering the kinds of questions that website visitors bring:

 

Who are Unitarian Universalists? What do they stand for?

 

Sacred Path: A Unitarian Universalist Church, a small congregation in Indianapolis has a very engaging, highly visual way of answering these questions. Explore their About section to see what I mean.

 

First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY, a large congregation, has a wonderful explanation of Unitarian Universalist beliefs and values, with their original words and theology. It’s a story a visitor wants to be part of.

 

What are the people like? Could they be my people?

 

Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church, a small congregation in Pittsburgh, shows their personality and values throughout the site, presenting themselves as engaged, warm, friendly, bold, and edgy.

 

How can I get involved in something meaningful right away?

 

First Parish Unitarian Universalist, a midsize congregation in Needham, MA, has three columns of highly accessible and attractive information on their homepage. Site visitors get a quick sense of what’s going on and how to get involved.

 

Allegheny UU Church’s section What You Can Do for Justice shares accessible ways for newcomers and committed UUs alike to work for change.

 

These are just a few of the excellent websites built by our diverse and dynamic congregations.

 

I invite you to join me in looking at your website with “outreach glasses.” Look with the lenses of someone who’s spiritually progressive, someone whose ideas about the sacred don’t fit neatly into any creed, someone who wants to make a difference in the world – yet is not familiar with Unitarian Universalism. Take a look, and talk about what you see.

 

 

____________________

SarahRev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, the UUA’s Outreach Associate for Digital Ministries, will be blogging regularly on Growing Unitarian Universalism about the connections between outreach, growth, websites, and social media.

The Proof is in the Making of the Pudding

The MLUC Mission Task Force with their Proposed Mission Statement
The MLUC Mission Task Force with their Proposed Mission Statement

Very often, when a congregation takes on the task of creating a new mission, it is the process more than the product that is most valuable. At the Main Line Unitarian Church (MLUC) in Devon, PA, the process proved to be not just valuable, but spectacular.

Several months ago, the congregation began hosting listening groups in which members shared their hopes and dreams for the congregation and the values that were most important to them in being a part of their spiritual community. That information was carefully and lovingly crafted into a proposed mission and accompanying narrative by a Mission Task Force commissioned by the Board of Trustees. On Sunday, March 15th, “Mission Sunday” at MLUC, the proposed mission was unveiled with great fanfare (including a drum roll) at each of the two services. The presentation of the proposed mission was met with sustained applause by those in attendance.

Following the services, approximately 50 members of the congregation stayed to share their reactions to the mission. Meeting in small groups, they responded to “appreciative inquiry” questions intentionally designed to elicit positive responses. And it did just that. Rob Williams, one of the Task Force members, spoke of “the positive reception from our members, and how quickly the inquiry groups jumped in to share their deep emotional reactions and expectations for the church rallying around a new mission.”

The actions of the Mission Task Force and the members of MLUC highlights the importance and the benefits of the mission process, a process that is not just a means to an end, but an end itself. In this case, a very happy ending.

 

________________________

markMark Bernstein is a member of the Congregational Life Staff of the Central East Region of the UUA. He is on a mission to highlight successful mission processes in our UU congregations.

MultiSite Ministries: opening imaginations for all of us

branchOne of the many things I like about our Unitarian Universalist models of MultiSite Ministries is that it opens my imagination of what possible in any congregation.  MultiSite Ministries is simply defined as “one congregation in many locations.”  Sometimes MultiSites come together when multiple congregations start sharing staff and other resources. Sometimes a cluster of congregations will start cooperating on a social justice issue and live into other ways of cooperating, and then before they know it they’ve become one people in many locations.

 

Jonipher

 

In this video (click on the picture), Rev. Jonipher Kupono Kwong of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu explains how the clusters of UU communities in Hawaii have come together to grow deeper and broader in their faith.

 

Where do you see possibilities for your congregation’s collaboration and broader community impact in this story?  Regardless of what your congregation’s path might be, we hope that sparks of what we’re learning about MultiSite Ministries can live in your congregation’s imagination of possibilities.

 

___________________________

Tandi cedar shinglesRev. Tandi Rogers firmly believes that MultiSite Ministries is a significant expression of our congregational polity in the 21st century. Radical interdependence.

 

 

The Real UU Superpower

Pict for Sean's blog

As a young Unitarian Universalist, I am often consigned a secret power that might one day save the church. Two women once approached me at a conference where I spoke about adapting congregations for the twenty-first century. They looked at me with deep expectancy and told me I needed to come back to their church, because there were only old people like them and they needed my ideas.

 

Many other young people in our movement get asked the same question: how is the church going to survive now that everything around us is changing?

 

The question is accompanied by a look of deep and earnest longing that stems from a deep love of our faith and points to a gut-wrenching fear that this may be the last generation in our religious movement.

 

It’s not that I don’t have answers to this question. Believe me, my generation and I have some pretty detailed ones. But when we focus on finding out “THE Answer” from “the RIGHT People,” we completely miss the most faithful way to address the question: “How do our churches enhance and deepen their relevance for our specific time, in our specific neighborhoods and in the lives of those we serve?”

 

The answer can be found in religious communities that consciously live the cycle of practice and learning and embed this cycle into the heart of their culture. The learning leads to experimentation that leads to reflection that leads to deeper learning.

 

Because living this cycle may feel like being in a hurricane, one useful way to keep steady and consider all the moving parts is to remember congregations need to go up, out and in. UP, OUT and IN are touchstones for movements that can build contemporarily astute, contextually adept and spiritually confident faith communities for the twenty-first century.

 

UP

 

Harmony UU, a congregation north of Cincinnati, knew their liberal message would strike a chord in their community. They also knew it was a waste of energy to put on four worship services a month for a community that could – between soccer practice, work and guests – only make an average of two services a month. They responded by creating only two services a month and repeating each service once. Imagine their relief at freeing up valuable leadership and volunteer time for the work of the church!

 

Harmony UU is a perfect example of what it means to go UP: learning from social trends about current phrasings of life’s eternal questions. In their case, becoming contemporarily astute meant learning what structures could provide deep and meaningful engagement about the twenty-first century question “Who can I become?” rather than the twentieth century question, “Who am I?” Congregations must go UP to get the ten thousand foot view of our social landscape so they can answer the deepest spiritual needs of our time.

 

OUT

Many churches would not be missed by their neighborhood if they suddenly disappeared. Not so for New Hope Community Church in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The congregation learned that one of the biggest barriers for residents in this low-income neighborhood was affordable transportation. So the congregation opened a community bike shop and provides quality, affordably priced bikes to their local community.

 

New Hope Community Bikes is an example of a church going OUT: learning from and then adapting to their context. Going OUT means understanding the context of those who live in your church’s neighborhood so that if your congregation suddenly disappeared, your neighbors would feel the absence.

 

IN 

 

Rev. Jen Crow detected a yearning in her congregation. Members told her, “We’ve done Building Your Own Theology and we want the next step, the one before seminary.” So she and her team put together the UU Wellspring Program, a ten-month program of deep faith formation.

 

Going IN means forming deep and grounded spiritual leaders. Inward movement allows members to experience the transforming power of faith grounded in our history, enlivened by our living tradition and held in the trusting hands of religious communities. Faith Formation happens most deeply in relationships of mentorship and accompaniment where we can reframe the everyday realities of our lives within Unitarian Universalist values and traditions.

 

Do you notice what all of these stories have in common? They require deep listening within a unique place. These congregations entered the cycle of practice with open minds, hearts and hands – a cycle of learning, not of searching for a silver bullet, a specific program or people with superpowers. Our true super power – the power that will let our faith continue to bless our world – will be found in living into the cycle of learning remembering these touchstones as we live our faith together boldly.

 

This article was first published in the New England Region newsletter (Feb 2015.) 

 

____________________

SeanNeil-Barron2014Sean Neil-Barron is the Ministerial Intern with the New England Region of our UUA. Sean is a proclaimed covenant nerd and geeks out thinking about the ecosystem of Unitarian Universalism.

Study Guide for UUWorld Article: Lake Country Unitarian Universalist Church (Hartland, WI)

chaliceCongratulations to the Lake Country Unitarian Universalist Church (Hartland, WI), for being the newest UUA Breakthrough Congregation! Each year the UUA’s Congregational Life Office recognizes a handful of congregations that have “broken through” barriers to achieve exemplary goals.

Lake Country Unitarian Universalist Church is highlighted in the current edition of the UUWorld, which will be hitting Unitarian Universalist members’ mailboxes at any moment. The following study guide is intended to accompany the article about the Lawrence congregation. We hope that this enables lively discussions for your congregational leaders.

 

Questions for Discussion and Deeper Study

Rev. Shaw states that at Lake Country you can “walk in on day one and know that is your house too.”

 

Questions for Discussion

  • What are some of the ways in which Lake Country conveys this message?”
  • In what ways does your congregation convey this message?
  • What else can your congregation be doing to state this message loud and clear?

 

The congregation is firmly committed to demonstrating its values to the surrounding community.

 

Questions for Discussion

  • What are some examples of how Lake Country does this?
  • How does your congregation reflect its values in the community beyond your walls?

 

Lake Country prides itself on its diversity, including political diversity.

 

Questions for Discussion

  • How diverse is your congregation politically?
  • In what ways can you make additional space in your congregation for people along the political spectrum?

 

One of the congregation’s charter members points out that “You never arrive. You keep changing.”

 

  • Is your congregation trying to “arrive’? What would that look like?
  • In what ways is your congregation continually changing?

 

__________________________________

Bernstein MarkThis Study Guide creator is Mark Bernstein, Congregational Life Staff with the Central East Regional Group. CERG offers many excellent growth resources. Please check them out! Thank you, Mark, for so generously serving our faith.

House of Cards & My Holy Envy of Sesame Street

House of Cards

“This Emmy-winning original thriller series stars Golden Globe winner Kevin Spacey as ruthless, cunning Congressman Francis Underwood, who will stop at nothing to conquer the halls of power in Washington D.C. His secret weapon: his gorgeous, ambitious, and equally conniving wife Claire (Golden Globe winner Robin Wright).”

I’ll admit it freely, House of Cards is on my calendar.  The third season of House of Cards goes live today on Netflix.   It’s a binge-watcher’s delight.

What delights me even more than this over-the-top-brain-vacation is Sesame Street’s spoof. Click on the picture below to watch it.

Sesame Street House of Bricks

 

Have you seen Sesame Street lately?  I grew up on it. And disclose publicly that I still watch it, and that I would tune in even if I didn’t have a 6 year old. Why? Because it’s one of the most brilliant things on television. Sesame Street is the intersection of up-to-date learning theory and the wider world. (See where my holy envy is creeping in?)Sesame wolf pict

Sesame Street is in such dynamic relationship with current events and pop culture that it is easy to pull me in as an adult and keep me sitting next to my son. We laugh at and are enchanted by the same things, but from our own developmental stage on the spectrum. Sesame Street is multi-generationally dynamic and relevant to our current lives while still feeding our minds and hearts.

Can you imagine congregational life like that? Let’s go there!

_______________________________________

Tandi cedar shinglesRev. Tandi Rogers has been known to binge-watch Sesame Street videos.  Her favorites include:

Magical Mail Month

mailI love mail.  I love writing letters, stumbling across the perfect card or postcard to surprise a friend with, or creating a thoughtful gift or care package.  I love that moment when the mail truck pulls up in front of my house when just for a minute, anything seems possible.  There might be a letter from someone I haven’t heard from in a while.  There could be a picture of a friend’s new baby.  There might be that book that I ordered, or maybe there is a check I didn’t know would be coming.  The mail is in the mailbox for no longer than 10 seconds before I stop whatever it is I am doing to go outside and retrieve it.  It really is one of the highlights of my day.

 

I have fond memories of writing and receiving letters.  From exchanging letters with close friends who moved away, to receiving cards and care packages when I went off to college, to hearing from family and friends when I was serving in the military, the practice of writing letters or sending mail has been near and dear to me for as long as I can remember.

 

Magical Mail Month began in March 2014 as a way to get through the end of a harsh New England winter by using letter writing as a spiritual practice.  It soon turned into a form of ministry that permeated several aspects of my life. Morning coffee became a time to send a note to a distant friend; staff meetings were started by writing thank you notes to volunteers and leaders; grocery shopping was now an opportunity for my kids and I to leave anonymous love letters and notes of encouragement underneath the boxes of cereal or crowns of broccoli.

 

During Magical Mail Month, you might send notes to congregants you haven’t seen in a while just to check in, thank you notes, or invitations to community members to join you in worship or other events.

 

You might look through the newspaper for examples of people/organizations that have stood on the side of love and send them a thank you note.

 

You can write notes with Unitarian Universalist quotes or messages of hope and leave them in library books or in mail2random places while running errands.

 

No matter how you choose to participate, Magical Mail Month has become a way to spread the Love and Grace of Unitarian Universalism out in the world.  You are invited to join the fun from March 1-31, 2015 for the second annual #magicalmailmonth.

 

Here are some resources to get you started:

Love Letters to Strangers, a TED Talk

CLF’s Prison Letter Writing Ministry

The World Needs More Love Letters

 

________________________

ksKimberly Sweeney serves as the Multigenerational Ministry Director for the New England Regional Staff Team of the UUA.  If that doesn’t pan out, she’s pretty sure working for the post office would be a solid plan B.

 

The Caveat of Membership

Mark's churchThree times per year First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City (“The 1UC in OKC” as we like to call ourselves) holds a new member welcome as part of our worship service. These welcomes usually occur early in the service, the Sunday after we hold our “Path to Membership” course—which is offered either as three weekday evenings over three weeks or a half day Saturday,

 

The ceremony acknowledges the covenantal bonds that connect the congregation with new members affirming their intent to stand with the members of the church and existing members acknowledging every new member changes the church. During this ceremony, we also “open” the membership book to others in the congregation who have been attending for a while and think that this is the right time for them to make a commitment.

 

After we have opened the book, welcomed new members and acknowledged our covenantal bonds, we do one more thing that lifts up an important part of church life. We offer the new members, and the existing members, something of a warning. “Churches are not perfect,” we tell them. “Neither are the members who fill its pews, staff its committees or work to bring to life the vision we hold in common.”

 

What does this mean? We tell them that, “If you hang around this church long enough, one of two things—and likely both—will happen to you. Eventually you will disappoint the church or the church will disappoint you.” I used to tell people that eventually the church would “break your heart or you will break the church’s heart” but I softened the
language at the urging of some our longer-term members—but the sentiment remains. It is entirely likely that at some point, the church will fail you or you will fail the church.

 

“A time may come when the church doesn’t do something that you believe is important. We may fail to act on an issue or even act in a manner opposite of what you would desire. At the same time it is possible that you won’t do something that the church asks of you or you will not do it in the way that other church members hope and expect.”

 

This is quite natural, we tell them, and while it is sad, it is part of being imperfect people banding together in an imperfect way to create an imperfect institution. The most important part of this message is what comes after this warning. We tell them, “It isn’t that what happened isn’t important (pardon the double negative). It is, but what is more important is what happens next. If our covenanted community stands for anything, it stands for being together, through our imperfections and working to improve our church and world with every opportunity. If we can live in this kind of community then the church we build together, new and old, is alive.”

 

________________________

MarkThe Reverend Mark W. Christian serves the “1UC in OKC,” aka First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City. When asked how long he has been there, Mark answers “Somewhere between 14 and 57 years.” He returned to lead the church he grew up in back in 2001. Mark has a long list of UU leadership positions serving as a Congregational President (before going to seminary), Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Chapter President, on the SouthWest Unitarian Universalist Conference Board (twice now), on the UUMA Exec as Secretary and as a Ministerial Settlement Representative. He takes great pride in the 1UC’s youth programming and community organizing work.

Grace Under Fire

Sometimes growth occurs in unexpected and not always desirable ways. Take the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mountain Home, Arkansas, for example.

Mountain Home is a quiet little town tucked away in the beautiful Ozark Mountains. With two massive lakes, three rivers and beautiful mountain scenery, it ranks as one of the country’s top vacation and retirement destinations. In fact, Where to Retire magazine named the area an ‘Undiscovered Haven’ and perennially ranks it as a Top 100 Retirement Community in the United States.

Organized in 1981, the UU Fellowship is led by the Rev. Alice Hurley, lay minister. In June of last year, Rev. Hurley published a letter in the local paper letting the community know that they welcome everyone at their church regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. Referring to the pending decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding same-sex marriage, Rev. Hurley wrote in part:

“Once the state ensures everyone is represented equally, then individuals are free to choose, within the bounds of law, whom they befriend and what organizations hold their loyalty or membership. Individuals can be open to learning about different people and cultures, choosing to be inclusive and tolerant of their neighbors in a community, or they can choose to be insular and discriminatory. We at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mountain Home choose not to discriminate. Our Fellowship Hall is open to all truth-seekers, regardless of race or sexual orientation. Please feel free to visit our fellowship and consider becoming part of our family. We respect the right of people to choose their marriage partners for themselves, and are happy to perform, for members or non-members, commitment ceremonies and same-sex marriages, as soon as the state of Arkansas realizes it cannot discriminate and must ensure that all of its citizens are equal under the law.”

In response to this letter, the following note was sent to the President of the congregation, Mr. Bill Rhodes (warning: this letter contains hateful language and violent images):

Grace Under Fire

 

In addition, the church windows were shot out around the same time although Rev. Hurley isn’t sure that the two incidents are related. The church sits by a traffic light, she points out, and teenagers with a BB gun might have “just popped off a few shots.” Regarding the letter, Rev. Hurley thinks it was just somebody blowing off steam. She wished that that writer would get in touch with her. “I’d arrange for him to have five to ten minutes of time to speak at our service Sunday. We’d be happy to listen to him. I won’t say we’d agree with him, but we’ll listen.”

Rev. Hurley told me recently that the benefit of all this was an increase in membership following the publicity associated with the letter and the shooting. As she put it, “On the bright side, after all the fuss died down, we went from an average attendance of 15 to 25! And four of those have signed the membership book. We had been looking for a way to get our group known in the community; this isn’t the way we would have preferred, but it did bring in new members and most of them were young people.”

Growth in our congregations occurs not just in the number of people who fill the chairs on Sunday, but in our commitment to our principles; in exercising grace under fire; in standing up for what one believes in; for being a beacon of love and tolerance in one of the best retirement communities in the United States. Thank you, Rev. Hurley and the good people of the UU Fellowship of Mountain Home, Arkansas, for reminding me why I love this faith so much.

_________________________

markMark Bernstein is a member of the Congregational Life Staff of the Central East Region of the UUA. He hopes someday to retire in Mountain Home, Arkansas.