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Breakthrough Congregation: Pacific Unitarian Church

General Assembly 2008 Event 3064

Presenters: Rev. John Morehouse, Minister, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA; Diane L. Hayden, President Pacific Unitarian Church Board of Trustees

How did a church grow from 200 to 311 members in just five years? The answer to that question was presented in a workshop led by members of the Pacific Unitarian Church (PUC), which has been selected as one of four “Breakthrough Congregations” by the Unitarian Universalist Association's Growth Team. The workshop was divided in three sections: the showing of a DVD created by PUC in connection with their being named a breakthrough congregation; presentations by Rev. John Morehouse, Minister of PUC, and members of his congregation detailing the major points covered in the video; and a question and answer period open to members of the audience.

Following the showing of the DVD, Morehouse began the presentation by describing his friendship with a Pentecostal minister. Morehouse stated: “He taught me how important it was to empower people.” Morehouse described the idea of empowerment by “setting free the ministry in you.” PUC's Addictions and Recovery Ministry, suggested by a member of the congregation who was in recovery, is one way in which this empowerment has taken root. Morehouse indicated that this ministry was foundational to the story of PUC's growth.

Betty Fox, a past president of the congregation, set the stage for the story of PUC's growth. She described how the congregation recovered from a period of conflict and stagnation. Following a period of declining Sunday attendance, trouble recruiting volunteers, unhealthy discourse among members and dwindling membership, the then ministers left the church and were replaced by an experienced interim minister, Rev. Jim Grant. One of the first things Grant did was have the congregation develop a Covenant of Good Relations. The covenant described how members should work with each other, with the staff and with the minister. The process itself of creating this covenant was the beginning of the development of an attitude of trust in the PUC community.

Following Grant's tenure, a search committee was formed to find a new minister, which ended when the current settled minister (Morehouse) was called. The search process itself taught PUC members about trust: trust in the lay leaders, trust in the minister, trust in their district, and trust in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). An example of how this trust was nourished concerned a disagreement about the minister's salary, which was based on compensation guidelines provided by the UUA. An initial reaction from some members of the congregation was suspicion—suspicion that the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) salary and housing compensation guidelines were exaggerated in an attempt to pay themselves more. By educating the membership on the UUA's compensation guidelines, they were able to overcome this distrust, and the lay leaders felt empowered to act. Thus, PUC moved from stagnation and inertia to action and energy. This trust had the added effect of making volunteers want to be part of making things happen.

Church Administrator Craig Block talked about the UUA's media campaign which included direct mail oversized postcards, inserts in major Los Angeles and Orange County newspapers, and National Public Radio radio ads. The campaign brought people to the doors, and the congregation realized that they needed to look at how they presented themselves to newcomers and to make their community intentionally and radically inclusive. One of their initiatives was to reinvigorate their Interweave group whose energy had dwindled.

As their membership increased, they soon realized that they needed to support and encourage their new members. They also recognized that their lay resources were insufficient to accomplish this goal. Morehouse indicated that his previous experience taught him that it was important to have adequate staffing to meet the needs of the congregation, and not to play “catch-up.” Morehouse stated that in his opinion, most Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations address staffing needs much too late, when they are well beyond the period when additional staff is needed.

To avoid volunteer 'burn-out,' PUC developed a strategic plan early on which included adding staff positions for a congregation which, at that point, was reaching 300 members. One critical position included a minister of pastoral care. A person to fill this position was hired using funding from their “Enhancing Our Ministries” fund, a fund specifically established to start new initiatives and separate from their normal pledge drive. The other key position was a membership director who brought a different understanding of retention, developing community and attracting new members.

The importance of growth to the lay leadership was made clear following a visit by the UUA's Marketing and Outreach Director Valerie Holton. Holton told them that 20 percent of the members of UU congregations nationwide are over the age of 70. Having recently completed an analysis of their own membership, they realized that 40 percent of the congregation was over the age of 70, and 60 percent was over the age of 60. These facts made them understand the urgent need for pastoral care ministry as well as attracting new members.

Another PUC member who was the stewardship chair and a past president, indicated that the idea of a stewardship ministry was initially rejected. However, PUC's lay leaders realized there was a need to move away from a corporate or home finance model to a church or service model. The questions they asked themselves were: “Who are we serving? Ourselves? The community?” A book by Michael Durall, Beyond the Collection Plate: Overcoming Obstacles to Faithful Giving, gave them the idea of creating a ministry-based stewardship model, and they began moving their congregation from a philosophy of scarcity to a philosophy of abundance. This represented a huge risk for the leadership who had only recently earned the trust of the congregation.

The lay leaders continued to foster the idea that they should continue to support themselves through the annual fund drive, but all other fund-raising activity would be for the community. They implemented a monthly split-the-plate, giving half of the collection to an outside agency. They also pledged to give away 10 percent of their budget to the community. The goal to accomplish this was realized in only one year, rather than the initial projection of five years. When they started tracking the amount they were giving to the community, they realized it was more than they had thought. They began to celebrate their own generosity, and thus found a way to really embrace the philosophy of abundance.

Morehouse indicated that another critical piece of their stewardship success was brought about by recognizing the accomplishments of their volunteers and lay leaders. They have a yearly volunteer recognition, and also recognize incoming as well as the outgoing lay leaders.

Another important part of their breakthrough was brought about through their religious education (RE) program. Th ey decided to become more intentionally intergenerational in all areas of the church, not just in RE. They wanted to create an atmosphere where anyone coming onto their campus would feel welcome and included regardless of their age. The book by Gary L. McIntosh One Church, Four Generations: Understanding and Reaching All Ages in Your Church, sparked a change in their way of thinking about how they spend their money, making them more aware of the need to address all ages, e.g. buying a foosball table for the youth. To strengthen intergenerational bonds among members, they have an annual all-church retreat, and created a 4 th Friday Fun Night.

To improve communications between the congregation and the Board of Trustees, they started monthly town hall meetings which were preceded by a pot-luck. Although the town hall meetings were initially established to introduce Morehouse to the congregation, the board realized that the feedback they were receiving from the congregation was so invaluable, they decided to continue the meetings. The board president also wrote an article for their newsletter about the previous board meeting. In this way, the congregation was able to really study the information in advance of the town hall meetings and ask good questions. The board also charged themselves with making sure they were available to receive multi-generational input. In summary, they attempted to put the trust back in the word 'trustee.'

PUC's president-elect discussed how they improved financial accountability and governance. They realized that they needed to treat the church's finances in a thoroughly professional manner, and that volunteers selected to manage the church's finances would be held to a higher level of accountability and quality than other volunteers. The congregational “checkbook” had to reconcile at the end of the month if they were to gain the trust of the congregation that their pledge dollars were being well-managed.

They also assessed their organizational structure, reviewed and updated their bylaws, and re-chartered each committee/task force with clear goals and objectives.

A representative from their Social Justice Committee discussed their approach to social justice actions. They have created multiple task forces to address several social justice concerns: a congregational green sanctuary task force; a peace-making passion task force; an immigration task force. The breakthrough for social justice was accomplished by replacing the old mindset of being concerned that there were too many directions to pursue, with having a social justice ministry within which the members' passion could “simply burn.”

Morehouse added that one of their greatest social justice accomplishments was the ability to help a UU church in New Orleans following hurricane Katrina. An unexpected gift of $75,000 was made to PUC. After some negotiations with the congregations, the decision was made to give the money to the church in New Orleans. He emphasized that PUC is not a wealthy congregations, but it was the right thing to do. He said it's about people caring for each other and sharing a better vision of the future, and daring to make a difference in the world.

During the question and answer period that followed, Morehouse emphasized the importance of having a mission, a vision and a strategic plan to get there. PUC's strategic plan is a living document, reviewed yearly by the lay leaders. “If you don't have a strategic plan, you're not going to grow; you're not going to get there if you don't know where you're going.”

Reported by Victor Beaumont; edited by Pat Emery.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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