Universalist Unitarian (UU) Church of Peoria, IL: Breakthrough Congregation
Download the UU Church of Peoria's video (right-click save the file). The video is eight minutes long.
In 2003, our congregation faced a difficult decision. Should we stay in our beautiful, old building that limited growth and consumed resources? Or sell the property to a hospital that needed the land for expansion?
After months of discussion and reflection, we chose to give up a home we dearly loved—in order to build a new, larger home as our gift to the future.
We didn’t just build with steel and bricks and mortar. For the last twenty years, we’ve been building our membership by building ourselves into a welcoming, active, dynamic congregation. We’ve been building with the intent to grow.
Our church had been steadily growing for over a decade before we built our new building. Our new home definitely accelerated our growth, but there were many other factors as well.
- We started a small group ministry program.
- We hired key staff members.
- We changed our governance.
- We opened ourselves to community events and
- we actively worked on covenant, mission, vision and goals.
It was really by putting all these pieces together successfully that we broke through into being a fully engaged program church.
Today we want to focus on three areas that we think played a key role in our growth – our process for welcoming newcomers, our programs for children and adults, and the quality of our spiritual life together. We hope that by sharing our experience, we can help your church grow, too.
We have just had a phenomenal time, especially since we moved to our new building in August of 2005. We’ve had more than a hundred people join our church, so we are so glad that people are finding a home—that they feel welcome, that they feel comfortable socially and that they have a lot of new friends and a chance for spiritual and personal growth.
One of the great things that we do here is to have a dynamic group of welcoming volunteers that take turns each Sunday morning out in the foyer as they welcome visitors who come to us.
One of the things I can do as Membership Coordinator is to be the continuity person, and I can recognize who’s been here before and who might be new and who we might need to ask to sign the guest registry.
One of the innovations we’ve made in the last two years is to have an informational session once a month on a Sunday morning right after church. And we publicize this in our order of service and our newsletter, and I send emails to all the visitors and say you might find this interesting, but there’s no obligation if you do attend. And we provide child care and we provide a light lunch. We have found that a lot more people have a chance to ask questions. They don’t get lost as a visitor, and then I think more people sign the membership book because of those meetings.
We actually start every year—every church year—with a fruit and chocolate communion that the children share and contribute one fruit from each classroom and then that’s all blended together with chocolate, which is the love of our community.
I think that our children’s religious programming has been a key part of our recent growth because we teach our children that they are part of a church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hands. It’s really how we teach them those pieces that has really impacted our growth.
As part of our helping hands piece, we’ve developed a program called “Walking Our Talk”. In this program, the children in each classroom own a project that is an outreach project with a local organization in our community. Our preschoolers make cards for Meals on Wheels.
So, what are you kids doing? Making cards. Making cards, for who? For people. For people? That’s beautiful.
Our kindergartners and first graders make homemade crafts and toys to contribute to a local women and children’s shelter. Our second and third graders make blankets for our Linus Project chapter. Our fourth and fifth graders cook for the homeless once a month, and our junior and senior high groups also are very involved but they choose their own projects.
Our summer camp, which is a week-long summer camp, focuses on our seventh principle every year in a really innovative way where we have workshop classes in art and music and science and nature, and that’s open and free to the entire community. And the kids love it. It’s one of the most wonderful things we do.
It’s not just the newcomers and the kids who are welcomed here. We’re intentional about helping ALL of our members and friends become truly engaged in our programs.
One of the things we’ve done is we’ve invited people to come here and bring their energy into the community, and we’ve tried to say yes to people when they’ve wanted to do things. We’ve tried to welcome people’s passion and encourage people when they had a creative idea.
The result is a broad spectrum of opportunities for creativity and connection. A pagan group...a poetry book,,,a playground designed by the kids...woodland and prairie restoration – all these and more have sprung up because we said “yes” to an idea.
We offer adult religious education classes on a wide range of topics, including single-session classes to accommodate busy schedules. (laughter) We also open our doors to outside groups that need a place to meet. This raises awareness of our congregation and has been a source of new members.
Special events are another creative outlet. We like to have fun together, to share our talents, to laugh and be silly. At the same time, we structure our programming to offer not just variety, but depth. We honor people’s spiritual journeys and create programs that respond to their deepest needs. Our Covenant Circles help members form connections, explore life’s ultimate questions, and be of service to the community. The UU Church of Peoria is truly a place where everyone can find a home and express what’s in their heart.
We want to know who you are. We want to know where you come from and I think that’s the big key for us, being a welcoming congregation with the intent of welcoming new people and ideas.
As we look to the future, we are envisioning ways to more fully live out the mission statement that we adopted in 2010:
Healing Our World.
As long as people continue to be inspired by that mission, we’ll keep building with the intent to grow.
We are Unitarian Universalists. This is the church of the open mind. This is the church of the loving heart. This is the church of the helping hand. This is our church.