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JUC Leaders Support, Empower Congregation

Professional and volunteer leadership has helped Jefferson Unitarian Church (JUC; Golden, CO) make good use of its natural assets—a committed, engaged congregation, a good location, and a presence in the community.

JUC’s 15-person leadership team of coordinators, caretakers, religious educators, and administrative staff includes five ministers: senior minister the Rev. Peter Morales; the Rev. Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, minister of social responsibility; Minister of Music the Rev. Keith Arnold; part-time Minister of Pastoral Care the Rev. Tracey Wilkinson; and the Rev. Dr. Nadine Swahnberg, a community minister and psychotherapist who provides relationship and spiritual counseling as needed. The staff also includes volunteer coordinator Sue Parilla and membership coordinator Annie Hedberg. Another reason for JUC’s vitality is Cyndee Dries, who has been the administrator for 26 years and holds much of the congregation’s institutional memory.

Mountain Desert District executive the Rev. Nancy Bowen says JUC “leads with vision toward its mission. I know that its leaders struggle with the same concerns and fears as other leadership teams, yet they consistently ‘go for it’ by expanding their ministries to members and to the world. The membership is encouraged and empowered to create more goodness in the world. The leadership leads and the membership accepts the opportunities and challenges of an engaged faith. It’s a winning combination.”

Morales is a significant reason for JUC’s ability to thrive and grow, says Hedberg. A newspaper editor before entering the ministry in midlife, this is Morales’ first congregation. He was at JUC from 1999 until 2002 when he left for two years to serve the Unitarian Universalist Association as director of District Services. He returned to JUC in 2004.

Hedberg says Morales inspires people: “He makes them feel better about themselves and about making the world a better place.” Services at JUC sometimes have an element of drama. A service in November on immigration policy featured barbed wire as a prop and faux immigration agents who removed a member of the congregation in the middle of the sermon.

Morales credits exceptional lay leadership, community involvement, good welcoming practices, and “a foundation of good to excellent programming” with JUC’s growth and vitality. He notes that JUC has always had committed leaders, but for 20 years when the church did not grow, that was not enough.

“It was only when we committed ourselves to being more welcoming and to playing a larger role in the wider community that our energy was unleashed,” Morales says.

Morales believes Unitarian Universalist congregations will grow when Sunday morning guests feel at home. “I’d like to see our churches look at their culture,” he says, and notes that the majority of Sunday guests have already checked out a church on the internet before they visit. “The question they are asking is not ‘Do I agree with these people?’ They are asking if they belong here. ‘Do I feel welcome here?’“

How big a factor does he believe he has been in JUC’s growth? “First and most important is that I believed in this congregation and in what we could do together,” Morales says.

He continues: “Organizationally, I believe a key thing that I did was to get out of the way. This church, and the overwhelming majority of our churches, have an enormous amount of idealism, commitment, and talent. I encouraged people to initiate things. I cheered them on. But I did not try to do it for them.”

Morales says he helped the congregations realize its vision of what it wanted to become. Once they started to see results their confidence grew.

“Our growth is the result of our living out our values,” he says. “It is not a matter of technique. It is a matter of religious passion and commitment.”

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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