Multi-Site Ministries Can Help Small Congregations Flourish
When three Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations in the Houston area decided in 2013 that they were better off together than going it alone, they helped cement a trend toward multi-site ministry.
Other denominations have had multi-site ministries for years, but it’s more of a recent experience for UUs. Among the first was the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, which, for at least six years, has provided support to two branch congregations 30 and 70 miles away. First UU Church in San Diego has had a second location for several years. There are also multi-site UU ministries in Golden, Colo., and Knoxville, Tenn.
Multi-site ministry can be several things. It can be a way to grow a congregation without adding on to a building or increasing parking; it can extend Unitarian Universalism into new areas; and it can be a way to fully support small congregations that lack adequate resources on their own for worship, religious education, and social justice.
In Houston, the Thoreau UU Congregation and the Northwest Community UU Church, with around 70 and 45 members, respectively, were challenged with typical issues faced by small congregations.
The Thoreau congregation had had a building project that didn’t work out, and there had been a relationship with a minister that was less than ideal. “Those things caused us to decline pretty severely in attendance and other ways,” said Betty Johnson, a leader in the congregation which is in the Houston suburb of Stafford. “We wrestled with what to do. We were not big enough to call a fulltime minister, and we did not want to be lay-led.”
The Northwest congregation, started 16 years ago, had plateaued with about 45 people in attendance on Sundays. “We found we were stuck in a loop,” said Bil Cusack, former president. “Without professional leadership we had trouble growing. And without growth we couldn’t support professional leadership. The quality of our services depended on volunteers and they were sometimes good and sometimes not. Then we were faced with having to move out of our location. We were starting to think about how we could work with other congregations and perhaps share a minister and a bookkeeper and other functions.”
At the same time, the Rev. Daniel O’Connell, senior minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, was thinking about how 360-member First UU might establish some “satellite” congregations to better serve the sprawling Houston metro area. The end result was that Northwest joined with First UU in January 2013 and Thoreau came aboard last June. Together they create a congregation of around 480 members—one church in three locations.
Both smaller congregations gave up their charters and their governing boards to become part of First UU but retained their separate locations. First UU meets at its Museum District campus in the urban core. The Northwest congregation gathers in a light industrial district building a half hour away. It has taken the name of its neighborhood, Copperfield. And Thoreau meets a half hour away in another direction, again in an industrial park, in Stafford.
These three sites together support and share four ministers, two fulltime and two part-time. O’Connell is fulltime; the Rev. Kathleen Ellis is three-quarter time at the Museum District location; the Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford serves three-quarter time at Museum District and quarter-time at Copperfield; and the Rev. Bonnie Vegiard is half-time at Thoreau/Stafford.
On the Sundays when a minister is not in the pulpit at Copperfield and Thoreau/Stafford, a minister still comes to them—on a video screen. The video presentation is generally the service which was presented the week before at the Museum District. That means these small congregations have high-quality services every Sunday. In addition, a minister is generally present in person at both congregations every Sunday.
There is an “in-person” sermon once a month at Copperfield and twice a month at Thoreau/Stafford. For Crawford and Vegiard, not having to prepare more sermons than that means that they have time in their schedules to be present at church on the other Sundays as well, even though they’re not preaching. “Joanna is at Copperfield about every week,” said Cusack. “Hers is a consistent face for visitors.”
The consolidation also frees ministers of the smaller congregations of many administrative responsibilities, which are now handled at Museum District. Said O’Connell, “If you don’t have meetings of a board of trustees or a finance committee, which can chew up a huge amount of staff time, you make time for a part-time minister to be present on Sunday mornings.”
O’Connell added, “What we’re doing is a radical departure from the usual scenario where a quarter-time minister is physically present only one Sunday out of four. And beyond that, since there are four professional ministers here, on three campuses, we do a fair amount of pulpit rotation and that adds depth and variety.”
The union has been good for religious education too, he noted. “Religious educators at small congregations are often members of the congregation or someone’s spouse. What if they had the support of our very fulltime, very qualified educator as a mentor and coach? Someone who is invested in their career and their congregation?”
O’Connell said it made sense in many ways to join the three congregations into one. “These are smart, hard-working people in these congregations. They just didn’t have the resources to grow. We pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to develop quality programming at First UU. It’s not that hard to take a sermon and children’s faith development and other resources and share them with other locations.”
This experiment is still finding its way, but already there are changes at Copperfield and Thoreau/Stafford. “There are some new faces in leadership,” said Cusack, at Copperfield. “When we started we’d get around 45 people coming on a Sunday. Now we’re up to 60 to 70.” Johnson, at Thoreau/Stafford, added, “There’s no growth yet, but I think we’ve stabilized. The quality of Sunday services is now very consistent. We’re just waiting for families to find us so we can have a critical mass. We’re a work in progress and it’s very exciting.”
O’Connell noted in a report to First UU’s board of trustees last fall that multi-site ministry is still experimental in UU circles—and that makes First UU’s venture an important learning opportunity. “We happen to be in an innovative laboratory environment for one school of thought for how Unitarian Universalist ministry will be done in the 21st century: multi-site. From the centralization of administration, to the creative team collaboration, to the technological sophistication and content delivery, we are setting a new standard in how we do church.”
InterConnections published an article on the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque’s multi-site ministry in 2008. First Unitarian’s minister, the Rev. Christine Robinson, has also created a “multi-site bibliography” for leaders interested in exploring the world of multi-site ministry. There is also a UUA-sponsored email list, Multi-site-UU.
Also see A Brief Introduction to Multi-Site Congregations for Unitarian Universalists."