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Regional Association Sundays Strengthen Church Connections
Association Sunday was begun three years ago to provide an opportunity for individual congregations to think about, celebrate, and support their connections with the larger world of Unitarian Universalism (UU) and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
More than 500 congregations take part each year, holding a Sunday worship service focused on associational ties. But what do you do if you’re a small congregation and your denominational ties simply aren’t as apparent or as numerous as they might be in larger congregations? Or what if you simply want to get to know your UU neighbors better?
For some congregations the answer to those questions has been to gather with each other to create a combined Association Sunday event that is bigger than any of them could manage alone.
Last October more than 500 UUs from seven congregations in central Pennsylvania gathered at a high school in East Lancaster for an Association Sunday service. It included a rock band, a combined choir, and participation by multiple ministers. UU author the Rev. Meg Barnhouse presented the sermon. The coffee hour that followed was huge, with finger foods and information tables set up by groups within the congregations.
“It was a very upbeat, positive celebration,” says the Rev. Robert Renjilian, minister of the 250-member UU Congregation of York. “It could be challenging for some congregations to hold a service every year by themselves about how they are in association with other UUs. But coming together like this helps demonstrate to all of us that we are not alone.”
Congregations that participated in the service last October came from York, Lancaster, Harrisburg, State College, Gettysburg, Boiling Springs, and Reading. A year earlier another combined Association Sunday gathering was held at Harrisburg with UUA Moderator Gini Courter. The congregation at Northumberland participated that year, in addition to the seven previously mentioned. Next November the regional gathering will be in York and the speaker will be UUA president the Rev. Peter Morales.
Some of these congregations had worked together before, joining for social justice advocacy work and leadership training. But the Association Sunday gatherings have allowed more people to have a sense of the larger UU universe, says Renjilian. “Many of us just don’t get a sense of being part of a large Association unless we do something like this.”
The Rev. Howard Dana, at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, organized the first regional event in 2008. “I wanted our congregation to do Association Sunday, and I wanted it to be a big deal, so I thought why not invite other congregations? We spent $1,000 to rent a theater and a piano and for other costs. That wasn’t in any of our budgets. We took a risk because we felt it was important to do this. These services have created more of a sense of cohesiveness among UUs in central Pennsylvania.”
A similar combined Association Sunday event was held in April at the First Church UU in Leominster, Mass. Two hundred and thirty-five people from congregations that all had less than 70 members—at Leominster, Petersham, Ashby, Athol, Fitchburg, Gardner, Hubbardston, Orange, and Winchendon—gathered to hear Kay Montgomery, the UUA’s executive vice president.
The Rev. John Pastor, minister of the 40-member UU Society of Gardner, says the combined service, titled “Coming Together, Working for Change,” grew out of a series of collegial conversations among ministers and congregational presidents about how their congregations could support each other. “We were talking about how much alike we were and that many of us had pretty much the same issues. I suggested that we all get together for a regional Association Sunday service. We started planning and it happened April 11.”
“It was so good to see people come out of their own churches and gather together,” he says. “One of my visions for north central Massachusetts is that we might one day build a regional church. We had a very lively, enthusiastic time and we all want to do it again. I think people really felt more connected. That was our goal.”
The service included bluegrass musicians and, serendipitously, a child dedication. “It had been scheduled previously by the Leominster congregation and we decided to keep it,” says Pastor. “So all of those people really welcomed that baby!”
The Rev. Elizabeth Strong of the First Parish Church UU at Ashby, which has 35 members, coordinated a children’s program featuring UU children’s stories led by Tracey Gambill, director of religious education at Winchendon.
At the Pennsylvania gathering the middle-school youth went to a park for a naturalist’s program and cooperative games led by park staff. Emily Miller, a member of the York congregation, has attended both Pennsylvania gatherings. “I like them because the energy that results from the services carries into the rest of the church year. Musicians get to think about what they might do differently. Congregants make connections and generate ideas and seem to have more energy.”
Both the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts events have had reverberations beyond the initial gatherings. Says Pastor, “We had a combined choir and now that group wants to continue and take it on the road. Also, because of this event I have developed stronger ties with seven of my colleagues in the area.” Some of the congregations will do a combined advertisement this fall, prior to their ingatherings. They may also join in workshops.
Several of the Pennsylvania congregations came together for a Healthy Congregations workshop this year, says Renjilian. “That’s at least in part because they worshipped together and they understand we are all part of a cooperative effort.”
He says he expects the Association Sunday events to continue. “We have a momentum now. Those that have experienced one of these events want to come back.” He notes that these events require close communication among the congregations and it helps to select a speaker a year in advance. “The service needs to be something where everybody feels it is their event, not just an event in someone else’s church.”
Emily Miller, a congregant at York, says she likes regional Association Sunday services because they permit a different kind of worship than each congregation might do alone. “And it helps to connect us beyond our own four walls. I think the energy that results carries into the rest of the church year. Musicians get new ideas and congregants make new connections. For those of us with small children it creates a larger-scale UU event that is manageable without a whole day commitment or long travel.”
Community minister the Rev. Kathy Seitz Bortner, who serves the Unitarian Universalists of Gettysburg congregation as consulting minister, says, “For a new congregation like Gettysburg, the realization we are one among many, in the work with hundreds of others, has energized our leaders.”
In her sermon, Montgomery told the congregants at Leominster, “The idea is that we are better, more effective, stronger, more religious, together than we are separately. The UUA doesn’t exist except in your name. When the Association speaks, it speaks in your name. When your congregations decide to celebrate Association Sunday together, you do it in the name of congregations scattered around the country, thousands of people you will never meet.”
The next Association Sunday is scheduled for October 3, although congregations are free to hold an event on other Sundays as well. Congregations that sign up by the end of the summer will be entered in a contest to win an Association Sunday service with UUA President the Rev. Peter Morales. Find out more about Association Sunday.