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.

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.

 

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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.) 

 

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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.

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.”

 

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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.

Interview with Carey McDonald: the UUA.org launch

Carey in conversatioTandi interview with Carey ADid you know that a fabulous, brand-new website for the UUA is almost here? I sat down (virtually) with UUA Outreach Director Carey McDonald to talk about the project.

 

TR: So, tell us, why is the UUA working on a new website?

 

CM: Well, as anyone who has gone to UUA.org recently can tell you, our site could use a refresher. And UUA.org is really the front page of Unitarian Universalism – it’s the first thing that shows up on Google searches, it gets over 1 million visitors a year and 90% of those visitors are finding our site for the first time. So improving UUA.org is a key part of reaching out to new audiences.

 

UU leaders all over the country also use the site every week for worship resources, religious education curricula, and more. We’re making the site simpler, cleaner, and easier to navigate and better features so that these professional and volunteer leaders can do their jobs better.

 

Overall, we’re creating a stronger foundation for the future of our online work and ministry. Our new site is on a great, open-source platform called Drupal that will make things possible which we never could have imagined on the current site.

 

TR: Wow! Sounds like a lot of work to make it happen.

 

CM: No doubt! Every staff group in the UUA has been updating their pages, and the Web Team in particular has been working all out for months.

 

The project is happening in three phases, with the first phase planned for February with the launch of the new site. We’ll be adding features, retooling menus and other things in the months after launch in Phases II and III.

 

TR: So what can we expect when the new site is launched for Phase I?

 

CM: The first thing you’ll notice is our awesome new design, bringing the UU brand identity to life. There will be a great new homepage featuring people, stories and congregations, and updated info for first time visitors (our “who,” “what” and “where”).

 

We’ve got a new site-wide theme-based tagging system that will help us connect content and resources that have always been limited to their own silos – Worship Web submissions, General Assembly workshops, UU World articles, Tapestry of Faith activities and more.

 

Finally, look for a bunch of great new pieces on Worship Web, which is one of the most heavily-used sections of UUA.org.

 

TR: What’s your favorite part about the new site?

 

CM: It’s so much more visual, so much more personal, it’s telling the story of our faith in a compelling way. Right now, our site is basically an enormous filing cabinet. The new UUA.org has so much possibility for dynamic content, connection and inspiration. It’s really going to make UU’s proud for this to be their homepage.

 

TR: I can’t wait to see it!

 

CM: Well, no IT project is perfect right off the bat, but remember our February launch is only the beginning! We look forward to hearing from our users and continuing to improve their experience as we envision what is possible on the new site. We always talk to congregations about the importance of having a great web presence, so we’re trying to practice what we preach. As soon as we go live, you’ll be the first to know, Tandi!

What Congregations Can Learn From The 12th Man

The following blog post was first published last February 2014.  Minor changes have been made.

 

SeahawksYes, I’ve drunk the electric green and blue Kool-Aid.  I’ve gone belly up to Seahawks mania out here in the Pacific Northwest.  And while the pronoun is not my preferred, I am the Seahawk’s12th Man And while the metaphor is not perfect, I have come to understand that there is so much congregations can learn from the 12th Man.  I want a congregation full of number 12 jerseys standing in the pews. And if Skittles end up all over the sanctuary carpet, so be it.

 

First of all, Seattle didn’t make up the 12th Man.  The concept originated at Texas A&M in 1922. Seattle readily recognize this and the Seahawks will end up paying a breathtaking amount of money to Texas A&M for the use of the title. We made the model ours by adding Seahawk quirk and noise.   We don’t have to be the clever ones to make everything up.  We are fine adapting the best of what works.  Congregations, take note about the adapting other ideas, but don’t get caught up in lawsuits over it.

 

In this metaphor I’m thinking of the 12th Man as the congregational members.  The board of directors and key volunteers are the players on the field.  The head coach is the minister. Specialized coaches are other key staff.  Work with me here.  It’s not perfect, but don’t get hung up on that or you’ll miss the lessons.

 

  • Our job as 12 is to cheer our team on and create a vibrant, buzzy culture where success can flourish.
  • We do not assume we know more about football than the players and coaches who have been practicing and preparing and have special training.
  • We do not jump to the conclusion that because our tax dollars and our ticket fees help play for the coaches and players salaries we should get to vote on the plays.
  • We do not email the players with suggestions on how to play. We are not Armchair Quarterbacks. That is not our job.  We cheer.  We make a joyful, booming noise.
  • We do not pout at the coach’s choice of plays and suggest to the other 12th Men around us that we could do a better job at coaching.
  • We do not run on the field.  Even if we tried out for the team and were not picked this round.
  • If our team is down and the strategies seem unclear from our view in the stands, we do not throw our water bottles on the field.  We do not boo.
  • We do not call our beloved #25 a “thug” because of impassioned outbursts that don’t hurt anybody. We know there is so much more to #25, and we stand by him.
  • Texas A&M’s 12th Man example taught us, we stand for the game, symbolically ready for coach to put us in. We stand ready to serve if called upon. And until that time comes, we cheer until we are hoarse and our face hurts from smiling.  We shout and whoop to make sure our coach and team knows we’re right behind them through thick and thin.

 

I want that culture in our congregations, too.  I don’t even like football, but I’ll wear the #12 and shout for my team, because in the Pacific NW it’s become less about a sport and more about a unified community.  We are all the 12th Man, whether you’re wearing a silk Seahawk tie or your earplugs are neon green or the number 12 is drawn in the mud on your truck.  The 12 is about coming together to cheer on something larger than us.  I want that for our faith tradition.

 

So please pay attention to the 12th Man this Sunday during the Seahawk-Packer Game.  And don’t worry if the Seahawks don’t win the game.  We’ve already won.

 

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Loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium Seahawks-13Rev. Tandi Rogers has enjoyed walking around around Tacoma feeling more connected through the common number 12. Come Sunday afternoon she will be covered in Seahawk bling and making a joyful noise.  On Monday she will be hoarse.  A special thank you to Susan Tusa, former president of Tahoma UU Congregation in Tacoma, WA who helped her write this piece.

Mission in Black and White

Rev. Peter Friedrichs of the UU Church of Delaware County (Media, PA)
Rev. Peter Friedrichs of the UU Church of Delaware County (Media, PA)

Stephen Covey wrote…”your mission statement becomes your constitution, the solid expression of your vision and values. It becomes the criterion by which you measure everything else in your life.” So too in our congregations, a mission statement must be more than a plaque on the wall or an accessory to adorn your website home page. It must be the solid expression of your vision and values, to be lived out in everything you do and aspire to do.

The challenge is finding ways to make the mission statement a living document and to keep it out front so that members of your congregation see it and feel it and experience it all the time. My home congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County in Media, Pennsylvania, has found a unique way to do this.

Our mission statement, Engage in Loving Community, Ignite Personal Growth, Serve with Integrity, forms the outline for the agenda in each Sunday’s Order of Service. We begin by “engaging in loving community” through morning songs, recitation of our covenant, greeting our neighbors, call to worship and chalice lighting, and a brief presentation from a member of the congregation on what engages them about our congregation and our Unitarian Universalist faith.

Next comes “Igniting personal growth” which includes the reading, a personal reflection related to the sermon theme by the worship associate, stones of joy and sorrow, the pastoral prayer, the singing of Spirit of Life, a period of sacred silence, and the sermon.

Finally, we honor “serve with integrity” by asking the congregation to take a few moments to reflect on the questions, “How have I lived out my Unitarian Universalist values and principles this past week? and “What are my intentions for the week ahead?” We then share one open service opportunity and invite the congregation to serve in this capacity. The service ends with the offertory, a closing hymn and a benediction.

Our order of service, then, enables us to live out our mission statement every time we come together to worship. Of course, living our mission requires more than following the order of service every week, but it serves as a wonderful, concrete reminder of who we are and what we stand for.

For more information about our worship service and its relation to our mission statement, please contact the Rev. Peter Friedrichs, Lead Minister, at minister@uucdc.org.

 

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markMark Bernstein is a member of the Congregational Life Staff of the Central East Region of the UUA and has been a loyal and loving member of the UU Church of Delaware County for over 21 years.   He has never met an order of service he didn’t like.

 

 

 

Covenanted Community Life

 

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for
clear-cut answers
to a softer, more permeable aliveness
which is every moment
at the brink of death;
for something new is being born in us
if we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
awaiting that which comes…
daring to be human creatures,
vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.
– We Look with Uncertainty by Anne Hillman

 

Doorway by Vladimer Shioshvili
Doorway by Vladimer Shioshvili

January 1, 2015 ushered in the invitation to cross, yet, another threshold into uncertainty with the hope of something new and more alive with mercy, love, justice, and equity.

Someone shared a reflection piece by Parker Palmer in a Facebook post over the holidays. Palmer, founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal, is a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist.

Parker, inspired by Anne Hillman‘s poem, offered these personal reflection questions to consider as we cross this threshold from 2014 to 2015. He offered the questions as a living practice. I was drawn to the questions and wondered what it might be like to consider these questions in small groups in our congregations.

  • How can I let go of my need for fixed answers in favor of aliveness?
  • What is my next challenge in daring to be human?
  • How can I open myself to the beauty of nature and human nature?
  • Who or what do I need to learn to love next? And next? And next?
  • What is the new creation that wants to be born in and through me?

Unitarian Universalism invites a faith journey of transformation, both personally and collectively when we dare to learn how to love and build Beloved Community. I wondered how we might live into new realities if we were to embrace these questions, together, as a Unitarian Universalist discernment practice this year. Let me know if you take the plunge!

 

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Jeanelyse_192Jeanelyse committed to Unitarian Universalism after exploring world religions, metaphysics, Taoism and reclaiming her Christian roots. She delights in interfaith service and dialogue and is committed to building Beloved Community. A graduate of Starr King School for the Ministry, Jeanelyse is dedicated to personal and social transformation manifested through engaged-faith practices and covenants that inspire missions of love and justice. She serves Unitarian Universalism and liberal religion in the Pacific Central District and the Pacific Western Region. Jeanelyse is an amateur gardener, is awed by nature and is married to Bob Adams, educator and UU lay-leader. Together, they enjoy four adult children, a teenage grandson and a rescue dog named Lady Jane. Jeanelyse may be reached at jadams@uua.org

“So we made a video!”

WESIt’s like a church…but, you know, different. It’s an un-church. The whole thing started in 1876…

Like any non-traditional religious community, the Washington Ethical Society struggled with how to describe ourselves. How could we let seekers out there know who and what we are? We had words to explain our history, to share our statement of purpose, but what we really wanted was for people to see what it felt like to be with us on Sunday morning. To understand what a “vibrant humanistic congregation” felt like, looked like, sounded like.

So we made a video! Actually, we paid just under $250 for a hip, young video editor (Glenn) to film us on a Sunday morning—from greeting people as they walked in to gathering upstairs to Sunday School—and to create a snapshot of the Washington Ethical Society. We’d seen videos he had done before, and knew that his style was organic and home-y feeling, focusing on the little details and catching quiet moments as well as the sense of energy in a room. We asked him to try to capture the diversity of our congregation, both in terms of people and in terms of activities…and we said NO TALKING HEADS!

And that’s what we got. Glenn filmed from about 10:30am through the start of our 11am service, finishing up around 11:30. He uses a hand-held camera only; most people didn’t even notice when he filmed. We did post signs on the entrance doors letting people know they were being filmed, and we offered a “no filming” seating section. We opted not to tell members ahead of time about the filming, because we didn’t want people staying away to avoid being on camera. In retrospect, it might have been a good idea; we did have to edit the video after it was created to remove images of children without photo release forms.

With that minor slow-down, though, the whole process was very quick. We got the video days after filming, and it presented just what we wanted: a glimpse of what it looks and feels like to be at WES on a Sunday morning. My favorite parts are seeing congregants saying hello to each other and laughing together during the greeting time – noticing the energy and excitement our children bring into the space – and the Sunday School poster that the filmmaker captured near the end, which speaks so well to what we’re trying to do here. I was impressed with how Glenn focused, without much instruction, on our most important moments, like the candlelighting and the children’s story, as well as catching the sweetness of a child walking around with his Sunday cup of tea. My hope is that seekers, checking out our website for the first time, will see those moments and get a real sense of who we are—and then come and check us out for themselves!

 

Video
Click on the picture to go to the video!

 

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Amanda-Poppei-webAmanda Poppei is the Senior Leader of the Washington Ethical Society, a 300 member congregation in Washington, DC that is a member of both the American Ethical Union and the Unitarian Universalist Association. Her very favorite part of every week is opening the door on Sunday morning to welcome people in…followed in a close second by joining the children in stealing extra cookies during coffee hour.