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Breakthrough Congregation, 2007: Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship, IL

Carbondale is just about as far south as one can get in Illinois. Home of Southern Illinois University, it's also home to the Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship. The fellowship was founded in the 1950s by university faculty, and for much of its history Sunday services consisted of talks by professors and others, including religious philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman, who was a member. The late philosopher-architect Buckminster Fuller also spoke there.

For most of its history the congregation has had fewer than one hundred members. Today it has 186.

For many years the congregation met in a 1910 building. Maintenance became increasingly difficult, and in 1995 the lay-led congregation voted to move. Some members wanted to build immediately. Speaking to the fellowship that fall, John Buehrens, then Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) president, advised the congregation to take its time and to consider calling a minister first.

The congregation had long talked about hiring a minister. "We had all-day meetings in the 1970s and 80's about how we were going to grow," Jerry Molumby, president of the congregation, remembers. "The question of a minister came up but never went anyplace."

After Buehrens spoke, the congregation began to put away money each year. "We knew from John we were going to have to have both a minister and a building at some point if we wanted to grow," Molumby says. "So we built up a reserve."

The following year, 1996, the congregation hired two financial consultants—Larry Wheeler from the UUA and Rem Stokes from the Central Midwest District—to help the congregation assess its growth possibilities. It held its first canvass, increasing its budget from $27,000 to $46,000.

In 1997, with the guidance of Central Midwest District Executive Helen Bishop, the congregation revisited whether to call a minister before proceeding with a building. Bishop set up a continuum, asking members who wanted a building first to gather at one side of the room and those who wanted a minister first at the other side. "We discussed the issue while we stood there, and people started moving," Molumby says. By the end, very few were left on the side strongly advocating a building first.

In 1999 Rev. William Sasso became the congregation's first minister through the Extension Ministry program, operated at the time by the UUA. At the end of his term he was called by the congregation. Hiring a minister gave the congregation more visibility. "We felt like we had a representative in the community," Molumby says.

Next came a capital campaign in 2002, which raised pledges of $780,000 for a building. Four individuals donated another $100,000 each. In 2004 the congregation moved into its new $1.86 million building.

In all, the congregation held forty-three congregational meetings to discuss a minister and a building. "Through a democratic process the congregation members were engaged and empowered," Molumby says.

After the push for the new building, subsequent canvasses were less successful, and the congregation realized it needed to do a better job integrating visitors. With new leadership and energy, the Membership Committee is now creating a welcoming process. This year a successful stewardship campaign has revitalized the Stewardship Committee as well.

The congregation is continuing to work on leadership issues. Molumby is strongly motivated to turn the Nominating Committee into a Leadership Development Committee. "I've been elected president for five years, and unless we change the system I'll be asked to be president again," he says.

After its initial 1996 canvass the congregation hired a quarter-time director of religious education. The position was soon made half-time, currently filled by Roy Sumner. "We have a beautiful, open, airy wing for Religious Education (RE) and an awful lot of kids in the nursery," Molumby says. "We might have twenty-five to thirty kids on a Sunday. We're still working on integrating younger families."

In 2004 every member was asked to participate in social action in some way. Now the fellowship is in partnership with Southern Illinois Hospice and with a hospice in Zambia. The church has raised more than $20,000, and members have visited Africa with supplies. In the past two years the congregation has also started a prison ministry, writing to inmates and providing supplies for children who come to visit their mothers in prison.

The congregation is also lending a hand to two new congregations, in Mount Vernon, IL, and Cape Girardeau, MO.

For its next phase the congregation has adopted a five-year plan, which culminates in 2011. It calls for growing membership by 5 percent annually, integrating those members, focusing on quality Sunday services, expanding RE teacher recruitment, developing a summer program, increasing social action, and making the larger community more aware of Unitarian Universalism. The 2007–08 budget includes a new office staff position, which the congregation decided was necessary for growth.

Member Cheryl Robinson attributes the congregation's accomplishments to seven shared values:

  • Everyone's voice must be heard.
  • We have been willing to ask for help when we needed it.
  • We have valued the advice we have received.
  • We have believed in the generosity of angels, who have often been anonymous.
  • We value the growth of liberal religion in our area of the heartland.
  • We value social justice locally and globally.
  • We value fun and try not to take ourselves too seriously.

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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