Gini Courter introduced the Rev. Jim Eller, Lead Minister, of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, the second of our Breakthrough Congregations. Eller said that twenty-seven members of the congregation are present at this General Assembly, and that the congregation strives to be a diverse multigenerational beacon of positive social change.
The congregation's video told the story of this 140 year old congregation. Forty years ago, they had a membership of between 300 and 400 members, they wanted to grow bigger, and they were stuck. But now, they have over 520 members and are still growing.
Every church loses 8% of its membership every year through death, moving and other transitions. In 1983, the average age at All Souls was 45; by 1993 it was 55, and they were a graying congregation. Also in 1993, they were in the midst of renovations, and disagreements and conflict along with animosity and backbiting were frequent. They sat on folding metal chairs, and from other indications like peeling paint in the sanctuary, it was clear they didn't invest in their space. Visitors were often taken aback. The members of the congregation were so busy fighting each other that they were unable to fight for justice.
They realized they needed help, and in 1994 they took a bold move. They engaged a team of behavioral consultants to work with them (Prairie Star District Executive Nancy Heege and then-Central Midwest District Executive Helen Bishop). Heege and Bishop visited three times, and reported to the congregation what they found: the trip wires, how they used emotional blackmail, and other negative behavior. Though they didn't like to hear it, the congregation members knew they had been accurately described. This "searing" report started the change process and was helpful. The consultants didn't offer answers—that was up to the congregation to determine.
One thing that was done was the posting of paper for people to write down the "taboo" subjects at the church. After one day they had a full sheet that included words such as God, spiritual, worship, prayer, humanism. Following up on this, they learned that different perspectives were all right and that they could be in a community and disagree—it's not a confrontation, but a quest for understanding.
Eller said that when he arrived, the congregation was hungry for an increased sense of community. They began involving lay members in serving each other, and created a caring connection. They put their weekly covenant, "Service is the law of this church," into practice. In 2000 they formed a task force on growth that looked not only at numbers, but also at the organic, maturational and incarnational aspects of growth.
They were also fortunate to be the first area for the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) targeted marketing program to be field tested—and it was only when the large inflow of visitors came that they realized they didn't know how to deal with them, and how inadequate their membership integration process was. Now they have a better greeting process, informing and integrating new members into the congregation. They have discovered that 80% of those who attend new member classes and orientations stay integrated, while only 20% of those who are not involved in the intentional classes stay.
The church learned that recognizing the diversity in their midst allows for more meaningful and vibrant worship. The age of the staff makes a difference, too, and they have intentionally brought younger people onto the staff. Intern ministers are taking on areas around their passion, and this has included young adult ministry and ministry to bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender persons.
The leaders of All Souls Church report that they are "in the process of outgrowing their building," and they have catalyzed growth in communities around them. They realize that they are not just responsible to their own congregation, but to serving the broader movement. Their differences make them stronger, and their "unity is emphasized every week as we recite the covenant together that others have been saying since the 1890s."