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Breakthrough Congregation, 2007: All Souls Kansas City
Since its founding in 1868, All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church has held a solid place in the religious landscape of urban Kansas City, MO. For much of the church's history, its membership has kept steady, somewhere between three hundred and four hundred members.

A few years ago, though, the congregation took a hard look at some of its internal problems and overhauled its membership and education programs. Ever since, the church has seen continual growth. As of June 2007 its membership was 528, with 112 children and youth enrolled in its programs.

All Souls may be best known in the larger community for its social justice program and for its 64-year-old Sunday morning Forum. The Forum, which is sandwiched between two worship services, invites a spectrum of civic leaders and social justice advocates to discuss current issues, often attracting news media attention. But the church discovered it needed to do more to improve its visibility and outreach in the community—as well as it own culture.

All Souls' first breakthrough came in 1994. In the aftermath of an acrimonious dispute over remodeling or moving, the congregation called in two consultants, Prairie Star District executives Nancy Heege and Helen Bishop. They showed the congregation the negative ways that members were behaving toward one another. That led to a series of discussions about topics that some said had been taboo, such as the words God, worship, and prayer. People listened to one another, and the culture began to change.

The next breakthrough came in 2003, when Unitarian Universalist Association chose the Kansas City metro area for its pilot media campaign. The campaign, including billboards, radio, and TV ads, swelled the number of visitors to local congregations.

The increase in visitors forced All Souls to take a closer look at its greeting practices. "We learned that even though we thought we were ready to help nurture and integrate visitors, we were not," membership director Chloe Mason Seagrove says. "Sometimes we barely acknowledged them. So we got busy and developed a formalized greeting program with training and materials to hand out."

The church added Exploring Membership classes and a Small Group Ministry program, giving members and visitors more places to connect deeply within the church. All Souls also added another Sunday service and a Friday night Service for the Soul, which is a meditative, smaller worship experience.

Members can also get to know one another better as they describe their spiritual journeys in the Religious Odyssey program, which is held instead of the Forum on Sunday mornings during the summer. Church Chats are also held regularly on church-related topics.

The church began to ask greeters to serve from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., covering both Sunday services, to ensure no one is missed. Seagrove and membership chair Karen Medhi devised a system to help identify newcomers in danger of dropping out. They track visitors and new members for three years, attaching a numerical rating for their level of involvement.

Children's religious education attendance actually declined following the media campaign. So the congregation revamped the program and called Rev. Judith Cady, a Unity minister, as its minister of lifespan religious development.

The congregation borrowed from its endowment in order to hire two full-time positions—a membership director and a religious education minister—at the same time. "But the move more than paid for itself in the first year by the increase in new families," Seagrove says.

The board of trustees and the congregation worked on sharing leadership. The board has begun a move toward policy governance. Twenty-four members of All Souls have attended the district's Midwest Leadership School.

Worship at All Souls is designed to "enrich, inspire, and sometimes surprise," says senior minister Rev. Jim Eller, who has been at the church since 1999. When a member approached him last fall about presenting the Celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which was part of her heritage, he encouraged her. "We had a whale of a good Sunday," he says. "People are still amazed at what we did."

The congregation recently hoisted a Marriage Equality banner on the side of its building, further raising the church's visibility in the community. It also has joined a congregation-based community organization, the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity, which is working on jobs, transportation and education issues. Once a month the Sunday offering goes to community groups.

Intern ministers have also helped All Souls grow. One focused on young adults, creating a substantial young adult ministry. "When young adults come and see young people on the staff," Eller notes, "they're more likely to come back." The current average age at All Souls is forty-three, down from fifty-five in 1993. The congregation has also used intern ministers to help form and support Unitarian Universalist (UU) groups in smaller communities in Missouri and Kansas.

The next steps for All Souls, says Margaret McCormick, a former All Souls president, are to continue to improve hospitality practices and to "embrace our identity as an urban congregation so that anyone regardless of race can recognize this as their spiritual home by seeing faces that look like theirs."

The board of trustees has created a Racial Diversity Task Force. All Souls has joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to form reading circles, which are discussing over eighteen months the book, Afraid of the Dark: What Whites and Blacks Need to Know about Each Other by Jim Myers. All Souls is also in partnership with two predominantly black churches.

"Two of the most powerful things we did to propel us toward growth," McCormick says, "were to take care of our issues of how we treated one another and to name growth as a goal. There is tremendous power in naming what you want."

Adds current board president Jason Norbury, "Over the past five or six years the board has consistently placed emphasis on growth. We're energized by the new people who come in. It motivates us as a congregation to go out and do more."

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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