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Unitarian Church of Summit, New Jersey: Breakthrough Congregation

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[Vanessa Rush Southern, Parish Minister, speaking]

So when I came to Summit about nine years ago, the congregation had a property up the street where there was religious education...that it had bought when the religious education program blossomed forty or fifty years before and it had the church and a little Victorian house.

[Carolyn Lockwood, Office Manager, speaking]

It was almost like there were two churches. There was the church on Sunday where mostly adults gathered in the sanctuary… and then there was Unitarian House where the children had their service and their classrooms and their religious education classes. And the two didn’t always come together. And it began to be divisive, I think.

[Vanessa speaking]

And so after years of wrangling decided to bring the two properties together; selling one, consolidating on another. And when I came they were busy, you know, digging up the foundations of this church and lifting it up and building an extension. And that actually began the first set of changes, where the congregation was together, larger, many ministers in one place, people got the sense of synergy, and immediately there was more programming and more life just by that one risky change. And then one summer the staff sat down and we all talked about what we thought the mission of the community was. We were trying to get aligned about our vision for what we were going to do going forward and what spirit and what came out of it was this unexpected synergy and that if I had to describe it in one phrase would be essentially the church’s job was to equip people for bold living. Bold living of our values…but nonetheless bold living in the world and so everything we did then really began around a conversation of is this doing the work of equipping our people to live their values boldly in the world. And we preached a sermon about the fact that our job was to equip one another to live boldly. And if I had to pick a moment I would say that really set the tone for a whole bunch of conversations and whole framework about what we were doing that was transformative. Asking what is the bold thing to do can be exhausting. Sometimes it’s just nicer to ask what is the good enough thing to do, not what is the bold thing to do. And so it’s a constant challenge. Every so often we have to say in a board meeting or a committee meeting, “Okay that sounds like a reasonable choice but is that the bold one and are we called to the bold decision in this case” and sometimes you don’t want to be there but we are trying to call each other there.

[Tuli Patel, Director of Religious Education, speaking]

The staff had a long extensive discussion about permission granting. People had ideas and they were really looking for us to say “Yes! We support you in your ideas”. Of course that doesn’t mean we say yes to everything, but generally when those ideas were good ideas we wanted to support them and what we said to people was “Great, you’ve got this brilliant idea, we’ll figure out the systems and the strategies to make it happen.”

[Lorraine Franz, President, Board of Trustees, speaking]

They come to this place with things they want to do… with dreams…with hopes and we have to give them a way to do it. And while talking about policies and procedures is a little boring sometimes, it does put in place a way for people who have ideas to come and do things.

Centennial

[Vanessa speaking]

So after a few years of this happening all around us in every aspect of our religious lives it actually came to be our 100th anniversary and so two lay people were chosen as the head of our Centennial Committee and they were basically told “You tell us what it should look like, what do you think it should look like to celebrate our hundredth birthday appropriately?”

[Julia Miller, Co-chair, Centennial Committee speaking]

We thought that after speaking with the leadership in the congregation that raising $100,000 in our 100th year to give away would be appropriate.

[Vanessa speaking]

Lots of congregations use their centennials to raise money. Usually it’s for an endowment or to change something about their building, but their idea was we’re going to give it all away. Every cent.

Joseph Parsons, Former Board President: One of the things that I remember was when the Centennial Committee came to the Board and said you know we want to do all these things. We want to raise $100,000. And the first thing in my mind was… there’s no way. I mean we’ve got to stop this. We’re out there raising money for the church. There are so many other things going on and kind of right in the middle of that thought I said this is insane! I’ve had this group of people who were very enthusiastic about doing this. They’ve got great ideas. They want to raise a lot of money and of course we should encourage them to do it.

[Barbara Goldberg, Co-chair, Centennial Committee, speaking]

But also we asked everyone in our congregation if they could come up with ways to live this service throughout the year and we asked them going along with the idea of the Centennial to perform 100 hours of service throughout the year. Some younger children said they were going to help their mothers, other older people said they were going to deliver food to people ill in the neighborhood. But I think what happened was we started the momentum and we tried to involve as many different people and as many different parts of the church as possible so that everybody was involved and it just kept on rolling and rolling and rolling.

[Julia speaking]

We feel very grateful to the congregation for...for stepping up to the challenge and meeting it in many different ways.

Outreach

[Gary Nissenbaum, Social Action Chair, speaking]

When someone says to you “Here’s a budget, here’s a bunch of people who want to help you, now come up with a vision of what social ill you want to fix.” It’s a dramatically interesting moment because now you have to say okay… well what is important to me and what is achievable and how can I do the best I can with the limited resources we have? And what I came up with, with their help, was to go into a challenged community. The issue was could we find one where we could partner with the mayor? With the actual administration, with the superintendant of schools so that we would not be going in at a level where we would not be able to have an impact. I wanted to bring us in at the highest level of their government to ask them a very important question. How can we help? And they were very receptive to that. And the mayor put us in touch with one school in particular, the Chancellor Avenue School. It’s an elementary school and we made connections with the principal, the vice principal, the PTA, even some of the teachers. You know, they didn’t know what a Unitarian was … we kept being called the Ukrainian Church, but be that as it may, everything sort of coalesced very well. They were very welcoming. We discussed tutoring. Maybe tutoring in reading and math. And just starting and ending with that and seeing how far we could get. We did that for maybe six weeks. It worked extremely well. When that word spread among our congregation we had more and more people in the congregation who wanted to go down and wanted to tutor. We ended up having more volunteers than we could handle. We had more volunteers than there were kids to tutor. From there, we moved into other areas of Irvington. We actually were involved in the beautification of the school itself. There was a day in the spring when they asked us to come down and help them plant things and beautify the place and we had easily thirty congregants go down there and do this and it was just a wonderful, wonderful experience. Irvington has been a 100% positive experience for all of us.

[Emilie Boggis, Youth Minister, speaking]

I think many people in our congregation needed to respond to the war in Iraq in a way that felt meaningful to them. And one of the ways that we in worship were able to do that was to ring our gong and chimes in honor of the American soldiers who had lost their lives there and as well as the Iraqi services and civilians who lost their lives there. And that ritual that we did every Sunday at the end service became very powerful. And it was able to hold both people who were for the war and people who were against the war. A Moving Towards Peace Committee was formed in order to understand how we’re going to take a stand on peace. One of the central things that they did was to make a display on the front of our congregation’s building, from the sanctuary building, that had ribbons, beautiful ribbons in all different colors and on each ribbon was written the names of U.S. soldiers who had lost their lives and each ribbon had a different meaning whether it was a soldier in New Jersey or 10,000 soldiers in Iraq or 100,000 civilians. Each ribbon was beautifully displayed and it transformed our actual building from one that people in the city of Summit overlooked again and again to this place where people knew that something was happening here. And then on Memorial Day the Moving Towards Peace Committee led a service. After that service they read each of the names right in front of this display for anyone to listen to.

[Gary speaking]

We are not the last word on social action in this congregation. There is a huge amount of social action that goes on completely outside of our initiatives, and we love that.

[Tuli speaking]

I think what’s magical is, that’s the first hundred years. This is the beginning of the next hundred years and that’s very exciting to be on the cusp of.

[Julia speaking]

A hundred years from now will they look back on us as a congregation that dreamed big dreams and made those dreams come true? Or would they think we were absolutely crazy, but we lived with big heart, we lived boldly and we tried and some of the things we did succeeded wildly, others succeeded sort of, and some didn’t succeed at all, but at least we were a congregation that was willing to take risks and big chances to make the world a better place which is actually about walkin’ the walk.

[Gary speaking]

In this congregation for whatever reason we have a group of people who are energized and ready to go and all they really need is for the institution to open up and allow it to come down on the side of life.

[Barbara speaking]

We were moving our congregation along in ways that we had never moved before. And now that we’re there I see us continuing.
Lorraine Franz, President, Board of Trustees: If we keep doing what we’re doing, it will touch more and more people and will have a bigger and bigger impact.

[Tuli speaking]

The ideas are so exciting and we are so driven by them because they speak to who we are as Unitarian Universalists. Keep on living out these very bold visionary dreams that we have and that’s why we come here.

[Julia speaking]

That’s what this all seems to be about…is learning to live your principles.

[Vanessa speaking]

I think fundamentally that the reality is life is too short to do anything that’s not bold and exciting and pushing the boundaries of what it means to live our faith in the world full throttle. If we really believe in these values, if we really think they have the… the power to change lives and we’re committed to seeing them institutionalized across…you know… all major pieces of our life, education, political, social support systems…whatever that means…what are we waiting for? We don’t have that much time.

For more information contact growthresources @ uua.org.

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

Last updated on Monday, September 5, 2011.

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