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Breakthrough Congregation, 2007: First UU Church of Portland

If you know anything about the First Unitarian Church of Portland, OR, you know the story of the red ribbon. How in 1992, leading up to Oregon voters' defeat of an anti-gay-rights ballot measure, the church wrapped its whole downtown block in a red ribbon, calling it a hate-free zone.

The church grew 40 percent that year and became known as the church of justice and the place to go for liberal religion. It had just called a new minister, Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell, who became deeply involved in the community and further raised the congregation's visibility.

First Unitarian has grown from 675 members in 1992 to 1,100 today. (First Unitarian counts those who give at least $120 a year as voting members. Other members bring the total to 1,650.) Sewell credits worship that is "alive and high energy," extensive engagement in social justice work, a growing religious education program now serving six hundred children and youth, and dozens of places for people to connect, including musical, covenant, adult education, and men's and women's groups.

Sewell also credits the congregation's willingness to take risks. In 1999 she led one hundred congregants to the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle to protest trade policies. The church lost a few members who thought the church had gone too far. But many more came. "They couldn't believe there was a church that would stand up to corporate domination and greed," says Kate Lore, the congregation's full-time director of social justice.

Communications is also part of the church's success story. It maintains an up-to-date website, Sewell writes a blog, and her sermons are available in book form. The church recently added a half-time director of public witness and communications to promote church activities in the community.

A current challenge is space. A new religious education building opened in June 2007, but the two Sunday morning worship services are full. "We need a third," Sewell says. "But we tried that earlier, for several years. Doing three services wears everybody out. So we're considering what to do."

The new building, which also provides space for social justice activities and community events, is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-Gold certified. (The U.S Green Building Council offers the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certifications to environmentally responsible buildings. LEED-Gold is the second highest of four certification levels.) The building's link to the church's administrative offices now allows wheelchair access to all parts of the church's campus.

Financial stability has improved at First Unitarian. Average giving has increased from about $600 to $1,300 since Sewell became minister. Over the past decade members have pledged $9.5 million for capital projects. "People give because they understand giving as a way of living out their values in the world," associate minister Rev. Tom Disrud says.

Rev. Alan Deale, who was minister before Sewell, pushed the congregation to buy parts of its city block until it owned the whole parcel. "That was not always popular," Disrud says, "but it has helped us tremendously." Parking is still difficult. The congregation rents four or five lots every Sunday, but fewer are available as new high-rises are built downtown.

First Unitarian claims the largest music program in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), with nearly three hundred children, youth, and adults singing, ringing, or playing instruments in 11 musical groups—three adult choirs, two youth choirs, five handbell choirs, and a swing band. Music director Mark Slegers introduces as much music variety as possible into worship. "At the core of our program is excellence––hard work and preparation––blended with the spiritual," he says.

This year the congregation is increasing its budget for leadership training to $10,000, from about $3,000. This budget item covers fees for General Assembly and district registration and the cost of sending leaders to conferences. It also pays for consultants to come to the church, which has proven to be cost effective, Disrud says. "If we send one person to a conference, they come back all fired up, but no one else is," he says. "We prefer to send a team whenever possible or have the consultants come to us." First Unitarian has been particularly appreciative, he says, of Unitarian Universalist (UU) University and the Large Church Conferences offered by the UUA.

The congregation has adopted a form of policy governance. "It took two or three years of study to get to that point," Disrud says. "Now the substantive part of our meetings is about how we are serving our mission." Some conflict around ministerial authority has arisen as the church has gotten larger. "We've done a lot of listening and clarifying of roles," he says.

"Empowered leadership" has been a factor in the church's growth, Sewell says. "The ministers and the board of trustees are in a covenantal relationship, not adversarial. We try to empower each other."

The ministers divide responsibilities. Disrud supervises staff and runs church operations while Sewell spends more time out in the community "being the prophetic voice that draws people in," Disrud says.

Part of the reason for First Unitarian's vitality is "we take ourselves very seriously," he adds. "We're very attentive to excellence in worship and education."

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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