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

Update on the Congregations Come First Initiative

Elyse Reznick speaking; Barb Brown and Roger Comstock sitting on panel (in large version of photo).
Elyse Reznick

General Assembly 2008 Event 2042

Attendees at the 2008 Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) General Assembly interested in discussing the UUA's recent "Congregations Come First" initiative joined UUA Moderator Gini Courter, Northeast District Trustee Roger Comstock, Annual Program Fund (APF) Chair Barb Brown, and outgoing Joseph Priestley District (JPD) President Elyse Reznick in discussing the challenges, joys, and hopes that they have for congregational life and the Association.

Courter began by discussing some of the Association's recent work in supporting congregational life, including financial support for growth initiatives in districts, and support for congregations who settle ministers of color. Courter noted that the districts of the Association have become more effect in making organizational change that would benefit congregations. As an example, she said that the Me tro New York, St. Lawrence (STL), JPD, and Ohio Meadville districts have organized staff to work together—offering joint leadership conferences and backing each other in providing shared services.

Courter said, "At the same time, we're aware that we currently have 160,000 adult members—the same as 46 years ago…which made us wonder how could we more effectively organize ourselves as we move into the future. Would new initiatives lead to systemic change? Are we changing quickly enough given the changes in the larger society?

The program leaders said they had wondered whether, in terms of equity, UUA resources were being distributed fairly in terms of districts. Courter observed that "many congregational leaders/district leaders didn't have a good sense of that…they were only looking at what happened in their district."

She reported that in the fall of 2006 district presidents agreed to share equally the total benefit cost of staff co-employed by the UUA. This was a big change: some districts had many more congregations than others; each district paid benefits for the staff people they were co-employing. "So the commitment to share expenses equally was a huge step," she said. At the same time, she noted, "we did some homework, and found out that the amount the UUA pays to districts to support them ranges hugely," based on a formula from 1983 "that never got changed." This raised the question about what would happen if all congregations had access to resources at an equal rate, and an equal ratio. We wondered, can we imagine a more equitable method to distribute costs between/among the districts? What needed to change to distribute things differently?

The program leaders noted that there were many examples available which demonstrated the ways in which congregations, clusters, districts are working cooperatively to support growth and maximization of budget. Clusters are working together in Texas, Connecticut, and north central Massachusetts. Churches in St. Paul ( Minnesota) have been creating a lay theological education series. New social justice efforts are evident in more than one congregation. The STL and JP districts are collaborating on ways to support the Annual Program Fund (APF), issuing a single request for APF and district support. And, starting in 2004, Courter said, "Increasing numbers of presidents responded to our invitations to come to GA."

At that GA, 2/3 of the more than 300 congregational presidents present said they felt unconnected to neighboring districts, each other, and the UUA. In some cases, congregations made a choice whether to give contributions to districts or the UUA. And in some cases, the decision resulted in large differences in budget for the district and staffing changes.

How can we strengthen connections? Courter asked, "What if we were an Association of Congregations that advanced our common purpose and made sure no congregation was alone in its work? How do we strengthen accountability?"

The CCF team talked about how, depending on the location of a congregation, certain resources…or lack of them, might be evident. Reznick said, "As a former district president, we [in JPD] have more than 65 congregations, many adult UUs, a large district staff. We can share our resources with our congregations. But it's not like that in all districts."

The program leaders then asked the workshop attendees to respond to some questions with comments. They asked:

  • Thinking about your own congregation, how has your congregation changed to reflect changes in the larger society?

Responses included:

  • by offering diversity training
  • focusing on global warming/green issues
  • deploying greater use of technology in worship, in training We do webinar trainings in the JPD, and we've started having congregational presidents' webinars.
  • Increasing accessibility
  • Becoming a welcoming congregation
  • LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification
  • Green sanctuary certification
  • Strengthening/offering services to smaller congregations without ministers

Other questions, posed to the workshop leaders, rose from those in attendance:

  • What is being done to deepen faith in our congregations, particularly in congregations that aren't minister led?
  • What about smaller churches?

Roger Comstock replied: In the Northeast District we have a small church specialist who works with congregations in areas where there isn't a lot of growth potential…but there can be a real ministry in the area where they exist. This specialist is working on those things that can help small congregations be vital. David Friedman, UUA Board of Trustees member from STL added, "There are many conversations on what constitutes a congregation. That's a broad question and there will be much input into finding the answer."

MaryAnn Somerville, from the Council of Unitarian Universalist Camps and Conferences (CU2C2) added, "The question of what constitutes a congregation is important, because our members consider themselves congregations, and we would like to be included in the conversation."
Another workshop participant said, "Our congregation and another were part of a new start program called Chrysalis…to help new groups start a congregation. We got wonderful training over a period of 18 months. We have tried to put a lot of things into the life of our congregation…small group ministry, covenant groups, etc. We give away 20 percent of our money to charities, we have few resources. I want to say that I think the small congregation initiative is very good. We do want numeric growth; we have worked hard on spiritual growth. But the finances of living in the world make our survival difficult. We do not have an endowment…I wish districts could ask the churches that have a large endowment fund if they would help emerging congregations. We are struggling to put together a religious education program for our two children and one youth…we are evangelical, we are out there , and we need help with the basic things…"
A member of the River of Grass ( Florida ) congregation said, "I'm in a district with 44 congregations and not a lot of district staff. How do we get service and support? We have raised our district dues by $4 in two years—a lot. And the district membership has stayed the same for several years. How do we grow?" Roger Comstock, in response, said, "We know that there is inequity, and we are struggling to resolve it. But the answers have to come from you, not from us."

Carol Agate, a member of the Santa Monica (California) congregation and a member of the Open UUA Committee said, "What can be asked [of the UUA] to provide equity? If congregations come first, why do we still have districts? They were designed for a time when we didn't have the kind of communications and transportation and experts we have now. UUA staff are no longer required to live in Boston . So many problems [discussed in this workshop] exist because of districts. You asked for feedback, but you went to three of four groups whose orientation is by district. The right track might be to provide the service directly from the UUA. District Executives are generalists. Devorah Greenstein came to our congregation and advised us on making our sanctuary more hearing accessible. She has a kit of hearing assistance devices. District Executives aren't going to have that."

Elyse Reznick, in response, said, "One of the things we were asked not to do [in the Congregations Come First task force], was talk about governance. We intentionally were trying to stay away from making any recommendation for districts. We wondered about ways the headquarters staff could be placed in areas to do that.

Jess Cullinan, who works with Young Adult ministry for the Los Alamos (New Mexico) congregation asked, "Can you be a UU without being affiliated with a building? I would love to see the Church of the Larger Fellowship's (CLF) resources be exponentially increased to find out that the CLF and the Church of the Younger Fellowship (CYF) were there for them."

As the presentation concluded, Reznick said, "The UUA can't dictate to larger congregations that they help smaller ones. But I invite you to challenge the norms. A congregational president can call another—'Do you need help with board training?' 'Do you need to borrow anything?' Our congregations shouldn't feel isolated." She encouraged those present to think about these questions as the Congregations Come First task force work goes forward, and to be in touch with the CCF participants with their thoughts:

  • If growth of congregations, of every size, in every location, was a priority, what would change, what would look different?
  • What is the role of large congregations in strengthening congregations?
  • What role would you like the Congregations Come First team to play in the future?

Reported by Deborah Weiner.