General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Gathering with Congregational Presidents

General Assembly 2008 Event 3007

Speakers: Rev. William G. Sinkford and Gini Courter

Gini Courter, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Moderator, and Rev. William G. Sinkford, UUA President, met in a crowded Broward County Convention Center room with the more than 250 presidents of Unitarian Universalist congregations present at the 2008 General Assembly (GA).

Sinkford and Courter co-convened the gathering—the fifth held since 2004—and fielded questions on a variety of topics, including the UUA's national marketing and outreach campaign, initiatives at the congregational, district, and national level which might be more 'green' and cost-effective, and how to encourage deeper connection among our Association of Congregations.

As Sinkford shared info rmation about the UUA's marketing and outreach campaign this past year, which included ads in Time Magazine and promotion through Google Adwords as well as a number of regional campaigns, questions came up about whether the UUA might advertise in Oprah Magazine and whether advertising is effective in attracting new members to congregations.

Sinkford said that one insertion in Oprah would cost about $60,000, which is prohibitively expensive. He noted that "while the focus of the national advertising campaign is about building awareness, which is harder to measure, the emphasis for the regional campaigns is on driving seekers to our congregations. And this success is quite measurable." In Kansas City, he said, "we have five years of data. And the seven congregations who were involved in that first advertising test have grown by fifty percent in adult membership in those five years [since the ads debuted]."

Courter then moved participants on to another topic, saying, "Gas prices are higher. We have a growing concern for the environment, and increased expenses. Every place costs more to get to. If you live where I live [in rural Michigan] and you drive to work, it costs $25 to go to church each Sunday. It costs to go to district meetings. So within the UUA Board of Trustees, we are talking about how to have fewer meetings of committees. We are having webinars, conference calls, rather than coming in a day early for Board of Trustees meetings. So the idea of what we have had to do as a Board is to have a deep and engaging conversation about what impact environmental concern and energy costs have on what we do."

Sinkford added, "The UUA has about 220 staff, including those serving Beacon Press. We are seriously looking at the costs of travel related to how we do business. How can we deliver consultation to your congregation rather than having to fly someone to you for a half-day meeting, who then has to get on a plane and fly back? In almost all your districts, your District Executive (DE) is saying, 'I will come if you are having a cluster training, but probably not for an individual cluster meting.'"

Courter added, "We have more people out of work. What influence does the economy have on how we operate?" Sinkford said, "If you haven't already, you will see the impact of this on congregational life. There will be people who want to support one thing, and not another. You know how important money is as a manifestation of our faith. The contributions you make allow us to do what we do. But you will be having different conversations about these things."

With that, Courter asked the congregation presidents to gather in small groups. She said, "Please talk about what things are already on your agenda that result from changes in the environment or economy, and that you will need to have your board discuss in the coming year." The participants engaged in animated conversation. When they reported back, they shared these ideas which would be helpful for the Association to nurture:

  • Promote discussions using Skype, free conference calling, and sharing information about free web/phone/technology access.
  • A possible central clearing house to donate frequent flyer miles for district or national events
  • Help with heating/retrofitting older buildings for more efficient heat/energy operation.
  • Guidelines for when electronic communication works best (or doesn't).
  • Managing energy issues: energy audits, green renovations.
  • A centralized map to allow people to car pool to church.
  • Green sanctuary programs, certification of individual congregations.
  • Assistance with the clash around stewardship messages of abundance at local/national levels vs. difficult economic times.
  • A centralized buying resource to help congregations purchase equipment, etc.

Following this feedback, other comments were taken from the presidents on a variety of issues. Comments included these:

  • Some people in our small congregation feel that there is not much relationship between our national organization and leaders of small congregations. We are members of this larger body of congregations….it's not just about what the larger organization can do for us, but about relationship. What do I say when people say, 'we don't get anything'? President Sinkford responded, "There are many things that our Annual Program Fund makes possible. There is religious education curricula which has been produced…and a very long list of other things [some of which were mentioned]," Sinkford continued, "That transactional mentality, 'what do we get for what we pay,' is not what we should be discussing. What does it mean to be an Association of Congregations? What does it mean to raise a liberal religious voice in these times? What does it mean to be in relation with other congregations in your district, with other congregations here? These are the questions we need to be talking about," he said.
  • Where are we with the notion of collecting only one set of dues, rather than UUA and district dues? Courter responded, "That conversation came out of the Congregations Come First task force. We have at least one district doing a unified ask [for funding] this year. I would recommend that you have a conversation about this in your district, since there is one such effort piloted."
  • I have been a member for three years of a small congregation, and our membership has slipped. I am a lifelong UU, and am in the minority in our group. How do you communicate to small congregations, particularly with first-time UUs, given that this might be the first time that someone from that congregation comes to GA? If there were a way to provide us with materials to help leaders like me communicate all the benefits you just discussed…how being part of a larger organization helps a small and struggling congregation…that would be a real help. Gini Courter responded, "It's a question of how such things would be integrated. [First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville Associate Minister] Jason Shelton says, 'we don't have a bible, we have a hymnal, that's what we use.' And there are tools we use in our liturgical life, when we run meetings, and it's important o point those out. Each time you talk about Unitarian Universalism, say, 'The faith that we belong to has over 1,000 congregations. We get tradition, history, future, public witness, pastoral letters that Bill Sinkford writes,' and those things could be on our bulletin boards, or could be read at our service. That's accountability. That's relationship. Show [the UUA DVD] Voices of a Liberal Faith once a month. [And then] people say, 'oh, that's us.' The question is how to get people to understand that us is more than who came in the door that morning."

After a few more concluding observations by participants, Courter and Sinkford concluded the meeting, thanking the congregational presidents for their work within the Association.

Reported by Deborah Weiner.

Bill Sinkford and Gini Courter (speaking) respond to participants in a workshop from their table.
Bill Sinkford, Gini Courter
A woman smiles as she waits to be acknowledged at a microphone during a workshop.