Multisite Ministry – The Opposable Thumbs of our Evolving Future

Opposable thumbsI was fascinated in my college biology studies by the phenomena of vestigial attributes in animals – traits that have lost all or most of their ancestral function. Naturally the vestigial features of humans such as our appendix, wisdom teeth, tailbone and goose bumps were the most interesting to me. I wondered about the random turns on our evolutionary path that caused these attributes to become functionless, and pondered what natural selection had in store for our future.

 

It’s been with considerable consternation that this concept of vestigial attributes leaped back into my mind in observations of UU congregational life – specifically around practices of our congregational polity. For much of our modern history UUs have allowed the covenantal practice of congregational interdependence to atrophy while nurturing congregational independence as if it were the path to advanced development.

 

Whereas in biology vestigial traits result from chance evolutionary occurrences, conscious or semiconscious choices of church leaders determine which vital attributes of our religious heritage remain essential for a vibrant faith movement and which become historical tokens. For too long we’ve made unwise choices in our preference for the independent agency aspect of our polity, while neglecting the more adaptively sound and life-giving ways of covenantal interdependence. Through our siloed habits of we literally risked taking our faith movement on a path toward an evolutionary dead-end.

 

Fortunately, recent years have seen a renewed appreciation for ways of interconnection among congregations. Most encouraging to me are developments in multisite ministry – formal or permanent types of congregational networks that organize for increased capacity and outreach. On the Unitarian Universalist Multisite website and Multisite UU Facebook page you can read and hear stories of existing and emerging multisites. There are congregations becoming better together around shared staff, shared programs or themes, creating partnerships with emerging groups, merging into multi-campus churches with a common mission, and more. With growing interest in such bold experiments new forms of congregational networks are appearing.

 

For congregations long removed from substantive connection with other congregations, multisite ministry can seem a huge stretch, if not downright threatening to an accustomed way of being church. While formal multisite ministry isn’t meant for all congregations, meaningful covenantal relationship with sister societies is for everyone.

 

What do your congregational leaders know about the initiatives, hopes and concerns of your nearest sister congregations? What do their leaders know about your congregation? What if your boards met to get to know one another and left committed to helping further a hope or address a concern together?

 

What would it take for yours and neighboring congregations to belong to each other?

 

For grins let’s return to analogies from human evolution. I’ve got my holy wager on old habits of isolation becoming vestigial and the ways of robust interdependence like multisite ministry becoming the opposable thumbs and large brains of our faith’s future — adaptations that align our values and resources to raise our capacity to transform lives.

 

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Joe SullivanWhen he’s not idling away his time comparing congregations to animals and rocks, Joe Sullivan serves our Association as a member of the New England Region staff team and a member of the Multisite Support team of UUA field staff.

Military Ministry: Serving Wholeness in Congregations and Beyond

Military_Ministry-300x300I’m writing to you in my role as Endorser of Military and VA Chaplains, to encourage you to take the opportunity of Memorial Day this year to do more than light a candle or lay a wreath in memory of those who have died in service to our nation.  I believe that we as Unitarian Universalists have left out our veterans, service members and their families largely through benign neglect.  Yet our veteran population is hurting, and in need of the kind of transformational religious community we offer.  Our soldiers, airmen, sailors, marines and “coasties” (and their families) are an amazing, diverse, largely young adult population who could benefit from our brand of faith – one that by and large isn’t available behind the barbed wire.

 

The UUA has created a free online curriculum called the Military MinistryToolkit to help create an open and welcoming space for this population. Welcoming military members and veterans is not in conflict with advocating for peace.  In fact, deeply engaging with the moral and spiritual issues related to our collective war-making is arguably only done authentically in relationship with those who have born witness to war.  Many of our veterans have deep religious and theological questions to work through, and our open approach to religion is a potentially life-saving, heart-healing opportunity – if only we would more fully explore the culture, issues, and realities of military experience and life, and be more intentionally welcoming.

 

I ask you to consider attending the workshop Military Ministry: Serving Wholeness in Congregations and Beyond, Thursday 6/25/2015, 1:15PM – 2:30 PM, if you are attending General Assembly, or simply jump in and use the Toolkit in your ministry setting where possible.  If you need support, feel free to reach out directly.  You can also view a recorded webinar on utilizing the Military Toolkit.

 

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sarah lammertSarah Lammert, Director of Ministries and Faith Development and Official Endorser

 

The Theology of Dragon Age

I am a very good assassin. Oh, and mage, archer, and sword-wielder. I can sneak around, plunder booty, plant traps and pounce on enemies with the best of them. As long as I don’t have to go head to head with a quick-reflexed middle-schooler, I stand a chance of kicking some serious hiney.

 

I played Pong, PacMan, Asteroids, and Tetris long before the high-def graphics and complex controllers of modern video games. I’ve made uneasy peace with the blood-spattered, first-person shooter world of today’s games. What I’ve never made peace with is the misogynistic, often outright racist and almost always exploitive storylines of modern games, where women are tiny-waisted, big-busted trophies when we appear at all.

 

But then I happened upon the world of Dragon Age, where women are diplomats, generals, villains, warriors and loyal companions. They are all wearing clothes, all the time. There are also beings with a stunning array of skin color, gender expression, accent, talent, variety of evil, and level of spiritual maturity. There are people with wicked strong bodies hidden under tough armor with short hair and women’s voices.

 

Inquistion

 

It’s no wonder that the latest version of Dragon Age just won special recognition at the GLAAD Media Awards.

 

Bioware, the creators of Dragon Age, have done something all congregational leaders can learn from. They’ve taken a platform which is at best mono-dimensional and at worst offensive and made a thoroughly engaging world of rich diversity. By avoiding assumptions about the kinds of lives players want to create and by not setting technical limits on that imagination, the creators allow players – and our identities – to roam free in the game space. They’ve abandoned the dominant culture of gaming and retooled it to reflect more of who more of us are.

 

As congregational leaders we could think of ourselves as creators of playful platforms where we remove barriers to imagination and participation and give our people lots of ways to experiment and roam freely. People are so hungry to play in worlds that reflect who we want to be and how we want our world to be! Our churches can be those worlds.

 

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Sue's blog postRev. Sue Phillips may or may not have spent an entire weekend doing “research” for this article. She wouldn’t dream of boasting that she is a level 19 rogue with 200-defensive point armor who can crush malevolent spirits with paralyzing spells.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who’s Got the Power?

powerChurch consultant Thom S. Rainer recently published two articles about church bullies. While I appreciated Rainer’s advice about this kind of misbehavior, I struggled with the word “bully.” Such a loaded term.

 

In order to address a problem strategically, it needs to be described in language that feels fair and doesn’t add fuel to the fire. As an alternative to naming bullies in your congregation, I encourage you to consider who has power. A simple definition of “power” is the ability to influence. Power isn’t inherently a bad thing, of course. In fact, much of the time (most of the time, hopefully), it’s a very good thing! In thriving congregations, power is abundant.

 

We all have power. We can use our power well, we can deliberately cultivate it in ourselves, and we can appropriately empower others. (I’d like to think I do a lot of this!) At times, we might misunderstand or misuse our power, hurting the system or damaging relationships in the process. (Been there, done that.) And sometimes we simply fail to utilize our power in the most productive way. (Guilty of this, too.)

 

Here are five types of power found in organizations:

  1. Authority that accompanies one’s role (authority is a right)
  2. Ability to reward or punish
  3. Unique expertise or information
  4. Connection with others in power
  5. Earned trust and respect

The five types of power are neutral. Learn to recognize them in yourself and others, and pay attention to how people use them. Whom do you associate with each type of power in your congregation? When have you witnessed people utilizing their power so that your congregation could live out its best values and fulfill its mission? Which types of power do you hold? Which would you like to hold?

 

Okay, back to the topic of Rainer’s articles. From Nine Traits of Church Bullies, a bully is someone with an agenda who seeks allies (individuals or groups) to help them push it. This congregant will often have an enemy: a person, program, or process that is interfering with their agenda. Maybe you have a picture in your mind of someone like this in your congregation, past or present.

 

Remember, displeased and demanding people only cause chaos and division if they have some form of power in the system. Without power, they don’t gain traction and they’re just a thread in the tapestry of your congregation. If you have a congregant who has an uncomfortably loud voice in congregational matters, who is intimidating others with their intensity or going to lengths to get their way, think about which kind(s) of power they are using. Simply by articulating the nature of someone’s power, you should begin to see your way toward resolving the difficulties they are causing.

 

Keep your own power positive by avoiding inflammatory language. I recommend reframing Rainer’s Nine Ways to Deal with Church Bullies as ways to address a congregant’s misunderstanding or misuse of their power.

 

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JanJan Gartner serves as UUA Professional Development Specialist. Her mission: to liberate and leverage the potential of congregational staff! Jan telecommutes from her home near Rochester, NY. She is a joyful soprano in the choir at First Unitarian Church of Rochester.

Theme Based Ministry

theme

Thanks to a fruitful collaboration between Congregational Life staff and the Faith Development Office, a series of web pages about THEME BASED MINISTRY are now online at uua.org. http://www.uua.org/re/themes

Why do theme based ministry? http://www.uua.org/re/themes/why-do-theme-based-ministry

Who is Doing Theme Based Ministry? http://www.uua.org/re/themes/how-do-we-do-theme-based-ministry

Help with Theme Based Ministry http://www.uua.org/re/themes/help-theme-based-ministry

Testimonials http://www.uua.org/re/themes/congregational-examples

Share YOUR stories – we’re particularly looking for “testimonials from congregants – email themebasedministry@uua.org

Many thanks to all on the Congregational Life team: Scott Tayler, Beth Casebolt, Tera Little, Phil Lund, Kim Sweeney, Karen Bellavance-Grace, Maggie Lovins and Pat Infante and in the Faith Development Office: Jessica York and Pat Kahn.

Multicultural Leadership School

HitchhikingOnce, I hitchhiked to the UU Fellowship of Falmouth. I was 20, living in Woods Hole, MA for a winter where I fell in love with snow-covered beaches in January and I learned that a hankering to go to worship can land you in a stranger’s car, mug of tea balanced on your knees, speeding toward church.

 

When I walk into UU congregations, whether it’s First Parish in Cambridge where I am the Affiliate Community Minister or the UU Fellowship of Falmouth on that random, cold, Sunday morning, I feel instantly at home and also almost as instantly, alone. I’m at home because this is the faith that raised me – I know the hymns and rituals and the rhythms. I know that whether I’m a second grader in floral bike shorts and matching socks or a twenty-something hitchhiker, I am welcome.

 

I also felt alone because I hold identities that are minorities within our movement – I’m a young adult, a millennial and I’m a person of color. When I sit in churches, I feel the gift and weight of those identities – the blessings of my ancestors, the strength and resilience of my heritage, and also the expectation that I might help our faith move be transformed and transformative. It can feel like an honor and a loneliness, a charge and a burden.

 

This year summer, for the fifth year, the UUA will host Multicultural Leadership School, a gathering for UU youth and young adults of color from July 10th-July 14th, 2015 at the Walker Center outside of Boston. MLS is place for UU youth and young adults of African Descent, Caribbean, Native/American Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latina/o and Hispanic, Middle Eastern/Arab, Multiracial and Multiethnic to deepen our faith, lift our spirits, and build critical skills for leadership in the face of our uncertain, broken and beautiful world.

 MCLS

Because we are so often alone, even when we are at home, we must find ways to be together. To grow our vibrant Unitarian Universalist faith, we must carve out communities of support and connection for those of us who so often hold identities alone.

Help spread the word to UU youth and young adults of color in your community! Application deadline is April 15th. Registration is $275 and includes transportation, housing, meals and all materials – no need to hitchhike to this one :)

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ElizabethRev. Elizabeth Nguyen is the UUA Leadership Development Associate for Youth and Young Adults of Color and in this picture her socks match her bike shorts.

Multi-Site Ministries: Community Dinners

I love to cook. For me, it’s an art form, a means of sharing my caring with others, and a meaningful spiritual discipline. My idea of a perfect vacation is traveling the BBQ competition circuit and my all-time favorite book is Supper of the Lamb by Episcopal priest and theological chef, Robert Farrar Capon. So when I read the story about Community Dinners in Seattle, my inner ‘Julia Child’ cheered.

Community DinnersCommunity Dinners is a church in five locations that has not only moved out of its four walls but completely reinvented what it means to do and be ‘church’.

Seven years ago, the Westminister Community Church, like other urban congregations, faced declining attendance and wasn’t sure about its continued survival. They reacted by digging back into their roots and asking themselves: “What would Jesus be doing with his time if he actually lived on the corner of 145th & Greenwood?” (the location of the old church.). They came to the conclusion that they, like Jesus, should be investing their time to help lift the lives of people in their surrounding community in a more meaningful way.

They wondered what might happen if they went back to a first century model and provided a welcoming, open, and free dinner table with warm food, friendship, laughter and inspiring conversation “to encourage the heart of our neighbors.”

What happened is that one dinner gathering each week in one location has now become 5 dinner gatherings each week in five different neighborhoods in the city. Attendance is growing from around 200 on a Sunday morning at the old church to nearly 1000 each week at the different dinner gatherings combined. Their goal is to host 27 different gatherings each week, one in each of Seattle’s 27 neighborhoods. The old church building is now rented to a school.

A typical dinner begins with a reading and a prayer followed by conversation during dinner and more conversation with those who stay afterwards. Local musicians often provide instrumental music during dinner and different visual artists provide color.

Continuing to ask “What would Jesus be doing with his time,” they have added a housing construction component to the food, music and art. They are now engaged in a project to build affordable housing units throughout Seattle.

Community Dinners’ website says: “We are on a mission to bring lift to Seattle neighborhoods by gathering around weekly dinner tables, talking about inspiring topics, building low-income housing, and helping people back to a meaningful and sustainable life.”

Their website also notes: “Community Dinners has changed us. We left our comfortable building and….as our neighbors have become our friends, we have found that many people in our community are struggling to find housing and employment. Our commitment is to transform the most broken pockets of our community through dinner gatherings, housing and job creation solutions.”

Community Dinners asked “What would Jesus be doing with his time” and found an answer. Is it too much for us to ask “What are we Unitarian Universalists doing with ours?”  “What would Love do?”

 

You may also be interested in this May 2013 article about this special congregation.

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joansmallRev. Joan Van Becelaere faithfully serves our Association as the Central East Region Staff Lead

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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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.