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Greetings! I'm writing on behalf of the staff of the Central Midwest District to wish you and your congregation a good year. We thank you for your dedication and willingness to serve.
We want you to know that we are here to give you any support you may need to make this a productive year. Please feel free at any time to phone or email any of us on the staff. My contact information is firstname.lastname@example.org, 773-326-9787 and Dori Davenport Thexton’s is.
At our recent Central Midwest District Assembly I found our Saturday panel of growing congregations absolutely fascinating. Six themes I heard that Saturday morning resonated with things I have heard many other leaders say about what they have found to be key to their growth:
Multi-generational congregations. Emily Gage of Oak Park, IL, Bill Sasso of Carbondale, IL, talked about how children and adults were involved together in social justice work. Thirty years ago when congregations were driven by the devotion and commitment of stay-at-home mothers, church was a place that mothers could go to have some space away from their kids. An entire structure was built around this from the separation of worship and religious education to how we structured the work of the church whether this be social justice or work parties. Today, increasingly, church is a place where parents come to connect with their kids and even their partners in an age of dual careers and endless activities where the role of parent is reduced to chauffeur and cheering section. As one young parent put it: “this place has got to help me be closer with my kids and my partner or I am gone.” It used to mean that a congregation was family friendly if it provided child-care. Now that is less clear: an event with child care is an event which expects children will not be part of the activity. How do we reinvent our religious life together so that it is more about doing things together than doing things apart for adults and children?
Incremental planning. Michael Brown of Peoria, IL, talked about planning as part of the ongoing life of all committees and task forces, not just an exceptional process to be done every few years by a strategic planning committee. In the 1990’s great stress was placed on how important it is for congregations to have strategic plans. While it is important, the overall lesson learned was that planning is most effective it is become part of the overall work of the congregation and of each group within it, rather than a rare and exceptional type of work done by a few.
Proactive about conflict. Roger Bertschausen of the Fox Valley UU Fellowship in Appleton, WI, talked about their Healthy Congregations Team that works to resolve conflict and promote healthy communications. "Often through painful experience our congregations seem to be learning that they need to be more intentional about building healthy community."
Integral social justice work. A number of the congregations spoke about what might be called integral approaches to social justice work. This is social justice work as work of the larger congregations and not primarily work of either a social justice committee or of the minister.
Bite-sized involvement. A number of the congregations also spoke about the need to create more “bite-sized” opportunities for involvement, ways of getting involved in the work of the congregation without first volunteering for a committee and perhaps without ever going to a committee meeting.
Embracing diversity. Khleber Van Zandt of the First Unitarian Church of Alton, IL, talked of the shift in their congregation to embrace a greater range of the diversity of their surrounding community. In particular, Khleber talked about diversity being more than a black-white issue and indeed their challenge and opportunity has been to move to embrace greater diversity of social backgrounds and sexual orientations.
There is no such thing as a formula for growing a congregation. Yet these six things seem to be themes I hear from those who are growing.
Congregational Services Director
Certain necessities of life for me are only available at a farm supply store. For example, to prevent slipping on the ice the very best thing is, in my view, chicken grit, far better than either salt or sand. Thus it was that I was waiting in the check-out line in a farm supply store the other day—where I had gone to purchase chicken grit. The cashier and the customer in front of me were commiserating about the difficulty in finding work. The customer, it appears had been out of work for the better part of a year. She was hopeful, she said, the economy seemed to be picking up. Yet, having been out of work so long, debts had accumulated. She was going to need to find a really good job to have any hope of digging herself out.
Something about this echoes what I have been hearing from you, our congregational leaders. It does seem to you that things are picking up. Some congregations have reported unexpected success in fund-raising and unexpectedly strong payments of pledges. And yet the strain of the past year of recession has built up and continues to build. The prospect of better future income does nothing to pay down the debts that have arrived already.
The same dynamics seem to operate at a metaphorical level. This has been a year of strain. Now we look forward to better times but still are carrying with us the feeling of cumulative strain. It remains hard to find the sources of new energy and possibility even as prospects for new endeavors brighten.
Leading in this time is going to require us a challenging combination of deep empathy for what our people and congregations have been through and also a willingness to challenge our congregations to do new things. Paradoxically, in congregations new energy does not come from letting people rest, but rather from posing the right challenge.
Cooperation within our Midwestern region (Heartland, Central Midwest and Prairie Star Districts) continues to develop with our now monthly online educational events and with the addition of our youth leadership school. Internally, on our district staffs we are working on strengthening our cooperative structure to support and growth this work.
This has included, particularly, more differentiation of roles on our district staffs in such matter as finance, IT, and publicity. It will include a new role of lead staff person for the region, a position in which I will have the honor to serve on an interim basis. We hope that over time strengthening our structure for cooperative work will make some of the business and technical sides of our work less energy consuming thus allowing us to turn more of our energy outward to work with congregations.
Our plan and hope is that these developments be seamless for congregations. The new role of lead regional person is also connected to changes at the national level of our association. For more information about that see: http://www.uuworld.org/news/articles/150302.shtml
This advice might at first seem perverse, given that you who are reading this are UU leaders and I work for our association. And sometimes, just sometimes, I do indeed wish someone might take our advice.
Yet, consider the matter from another angle. One of the big shifts in congregational life is the increasing need for congregations to focus on their specific and unique missions. In the post-World War II era we had one of the biggest booms in congregational church building the world has ever known. In that era what worked was having franchises that specified every detail of the enterprise and following all these details completely. This is pretty much the formula upon which the great franchise operations were built up through the 1980s, whether this be McDonald’s or Howard Johnsons. When you brought the car full of hungry tired kids into the restaurant there was nothing surprising or even interesting about it that could be in the least bit welcome—especially if you found it in the washroom. Uniformity of brand experience was a value that trumped anything else. It was worth sacrificing a lot of other good things about your dining experience—including taste and nutrition--if you knew the kids would get those French fries quickly and that they would eat them without complaint when they arrived.