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Multisite Ministry Another Way to Grow and Serve

The traditional way of growing a congregation and spreading the word about Unitarian Universalism is to create compelling worship, dynamic religious education programs, and close-knit community so that people will beat a path to the church door.

But what if that works so well for you that there’s no more room in the church or the parking lot? Or what if you simply know that there are groups of people out there in the far suburbs, or beyond, who would welcome your message if they had access to it? At least three Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations are finding the answer to those questions to be the creation of a “multisite” church.

The best example of this is First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, NM (715 members). Senior Minister the Rev. Christine Robinson came back from sabbatical two years ago having read about the proliferation of multi-site evangelical churches. “I knew there were many places out there with a very small number of UUs, but not enough for a standalone congregation,” she says. “We researched what it would take and decided to reach out to them.”

First Unitarian established two “branch” congregations in the spring of 2007. One is about 70 miles south of Albuquerque at Socorro, where 25 to 30 people gather each week. The other is 30 miles east, at Edgewood, where the East Mountains group draws in 12 to 15 people.

These branches have access to all of First Unitarian’s resources. First Unitarian handles their financial and membership bookkeeping. Leaders from First Unitarian, including Robinson, travel to the branches to lead classes or worship. When one of Socorro’s founding members died last spring, pastoral care was immediately available from Robinson and others.

All funds contributed by the two branches are sent to Albuquerque, but come back to them for hiring speakers, paying rent, and other costs. Both branches have lay leaders who organize all of the elements of their weekly worship services except for the sermon, which comes from Albuquerque.

Here’s how it works: The Socorro group, which meets at 3 p.m. on Sundays, gets the sermon, which was delivered that morning at the 9:30 service in Albuquerque, in video form via the internet. The East Mountains group meets at 10:30 a.m. and uses the sermon from the previous week, sent on a DVD.

Albuquerque member Roger Hartz, coordinator of the branch program, made frequent trips to both sites for the first few months, helping train lay leaders and providing one lay-led service a month, but now the groups create all of their own services, except for the sermon. 

A high quality speaker phone, a Polycom Communicator, lets groups at Albuquerque and the branches talk easily with each other.

Hartz says it is anticipated that Socorro and East Mountains will remain as branches rather than becoming separate congregations. “The advantages to being part of First Unitarian are pretty obvious,” he says.

First Unitarian is looking at two other possible branch locations. One is 250 miles distant, Robinson says. First Unitarian is using a $60,000 grant from the Fund for Unitarian Universalism and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Congregational Services staff group to develop its branches ministry. The branches are generally self-supporting now, but, just as any church program is not judged by whether it pays for itself, neither are the branches, she says. 

“We want more branches because there are more small towns. I think the first branch was the hardest and they are easier after that,” she says.

Richard Sonnenfeld is a lay leader at Socorro. “We’re delighted we could benefit from this,” he says. “Most of us belonged to UU churches at earlier points in our lives, but here there just weren’t enough of us for a separate congregation. This enriches our lives and allows us to enrich our community with our presence.” 

The Tennessee Valley UU Church (TVUUC) in Knoxville, TN (500), opened a second location at Maryville, south of Knoxville, in March 2006, at the request of members who were tired of a 25-minute drive to church. Attendance surprised everyone. At the first service there were 65 people. Now it averages 80 to 85 and often draws more than 100. “Our size took everyone by surprise,” says Owen Rhodes, former program chair at TVUUC, and now a member and coordinator of the Maryville congregation. Maryville keeps 75 percent of its Sunday contributions. TVUUC does its bookkeeping, provides insurance, and answers calls that are sometimes forwarded to Knoxville. The congregation sustained itself financially from day one, says Rhodes.

Rhodes says the new congregation will separate from Tennessee Valley probably by the end of this year and become a standalone congregation. “I’d be fine staying a satellite for a long time,” he says, “but we have a lot of people who want us to have our own identity.”

What made Maryville work? Initial and continuing support from TVUUC, for starters. Plus, it hasn’t hurt that the congregation has been on the front page of the local newspaper three times. Also, “We’ve gone to a lot of pains to make sure we do quality church,” says Rhodes. “And we’ve benefited from the established credibility of TVUUC. That makes us more than just a new start to people here.”

First UU Church in San Diego (774) will inaugurate a satellite location this fall in the fast-growing South Bay area next to the Mexican border. It has more than 100 families in that area and many drive up to 40 minutes to church, says the Rev. Arvid Straube, San Diego’s senior minister.

Straube anticipates the location could draw 150 to 200 people at the start and grow from there. First-year costs are expected to be around $90,000 for marketing, equipment, rent, and compensation for intern minister Carol Layne. Straube believes the congregation will be self-supporting in two years.

Layne says that like Albuquerque’s two branches, the South Bay Sunday service will be created at South Bay except for the sermon, which will be recorded at a new Saturday worship service and delivered to South Bay on DVD. Will South Bay eventually spin off? “We always answer that if they want to spin off we won’t stand in the way, but we hope they will stay a part of First until they are strong enough to thrive on their own,” says Layne.

The Rev. Ken Brown, district executive of the UUA’s Pacific Southwest District, says that more than 1,500 evangelical and mainstream congregations are using a multi-site model. He believes it has potential for UU congregations, especially those with locations where they cannot expand. It also provides a way for congregations to become part of diverse neighborhoods, he says. “I believe this model is one that Unitarian Universalists who are serious about spreading our faith need to explore.” Brown and Angela Merkert, a former UUA district executive and now a congregational consultant, offer a workshop to congregations on multi-site ministries.


Check First Unitarian at Albuquerque’s website to learn more about its branch ministry. The Rev. Christine Robinson presented a forum at the 2008 General Assembly on this topic. A CD recording of it is available online: order event 3060, "Growing Unitarian Universalism with Video."

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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