Best Ways for Congregations to Add Programs
Best Ways for Congregations to Add Programs

When a congregation wants to add a new program, is there an established process to follow? Does it have to have a “champion” before it gets off the ground? How do you put the idea out there to see if people will support it? In short, how should a prospective program be evaluated?

InterConnections asked the Rev. Mark Stringer of the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, Iowa. First Unitarian has been part of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Leap of Faith program for the past two years and is a thriving, growing congregation.

“To begin with, we try to tap into existing energy,” says Stringer. “That way we’re not trying to make something out of nothing, and we’re being responsive to perceived needs. For instance, I met with a group that really wanted a Unitarian Universalist identity curriculum with spiritual deepening. That curriculum didn’t exist in the form we wanted. But we had energy for it."

He says they found a new curriculum, called Wellspring, that another congregation was rolling out and got permission to use it. "In this case I basically piloted a team of people for 10 months who I thought could be potential facilitators," Stringer says. "We ended up with eight people who were very steeped in what it was and could speak about it. They spread the word through the congregation, writing essays, speaking at forums. That built enthusiasm more than if I had said, 'Gosh, I like this curriculum, would you like to do it?' When we rolled it out we had 40 participants.”

A similar thing happened ten years ago when First Unitarian began its Small Group Ministry program, says Stringer. A group of people joined him for three to five months of sessions. They became the public relations team. "After we’d created a buzz around it with testimonials in previous weeks," he says, "we invited people to attend a sample session one weekday evening. We quickly had a hundred people who wanted to do it.”

A third example is Des Moines’s Caring Ministry. “At one time we had six to eight people who would visit shut-ins. But there were a lot of other needs that were not being met,” says Stringer. “So we got people together who had an interest in doing more." They found a model they liked from another congregation and did weekly testimonials. "It started very successfully because we had advocates who promoted it.”

Stringer draws the following lesson from these examples: “Get upfront buy-in from the congregation’s opinion leaders––people who others trust. And include some relatively new people in whatever program you’re starting, because they will see ways of doing things that others may not.”

When a program doesn’t get off to a good start there’s often a reason, Stringer notes. First Unitarian started a Saturday worship service a few years ago, but it never attracted a big following and is now on hiatus. “Looking back, we didn’t do a good job of front-end organizing. We didn’t build a team committed to it. We didn’t follow our own methodology. We’re going to bring it back, and when we do we’ll do it differently.”

Assessing financial support for any program is also important. For example, in this spring’s annual stewardship drive at Des Moines, one of the reasons people will be asked to give is to support a Saturday service. "People give to good ideas," he says. "We’re finding when we get people excited about a new issue they become instantly more generous.”

East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Washington, with 642 members, has a comprehensive procedure for assessing new programs. Its “Foundation for Ministry” program requires that any new initiative meet seven criteria, says the Rev. Joan Montagnes, associate minister.

“First," says Montagnes, "is an easily understood name so that people will know what you’re doing. Second is a purpose. What will your proposed ministry do to improve the state of the world? Third, it needs five people who support it. That squelches something we’re really good at as Unitarian Universalists (UUs), being a lone voice with little connection to the congregation. If there are five who support it then you can be pretty sure that each of those five touch a number of others in the congregation.”

But less than five leads to problems, she believes. “Two people can have a conversation. Three can pull something off for a little while. Four can hold regular meetings, but may not be fully connected to the congregation. But five can represent the broad-base of the community. They can achieve anything if they set their hearts and minds to it.” Smaller congregations might get by with less than five program advocates, she notes.

The fourth thing a ministry at East Shore must have is a theological foundation. “This is where groups have the most difficulty and need the most help,” Montagnes says. “You need theological grounding for the times when recruiting is hard, when funds get cut. It helps team members remember why they’re doing this.”

The fifth thing is “How does this ministry fit into the mission and vision of the church?” Sixth is a timeline. “Is this an ongoing ministry? A one-time event? Will you have monthly meetings? How will you know if you achieve your goals?”

The final requirement is a plan to engage the congregation. “This can’t be five people going off and doing this on their own," Montagnes says. "They have to bring the congregation with them.”

She says East Shore’s most successful ministry teams review their foundational document annually.

The Rev. Ken Brown, district executive for the UUA’s Pacific Southwest District, reminds that new programs should fit into a congregation’s strategic plan and its mission. “The old model was that anything new had to go to a vote of the congregation. The new model is about being transparent about direction, with leadership doing the planning based on mission and a vision of where the congregation is headed.

“The congregation should be informed through the newsletter and other means. For instance, if your strategic plan calls for growth and your Sunday services are full, it is fine for the leadership to go to two services without a vote as long as it is transparent about the steps it takes. As long as you’re clear on mission and vision you should be fairly successful.”

First UU Church in San Diego uses an “Evaluation Logic” process that Associate Minister the Rev. Kathleen Owens brought back from a workshop with the Rev. Susan Beaumont, a senior consultant with the Alban Institute.

Evaluation Logic calls for stakeholders in a project to look at what it means to do a project properly, what resources are required, and what results are expected. On the Alban website Beaumont notes, “You can use this model to evaluate a stand-alone program, an entire ministry area, or to engage a more comprehensive evaluation of all the programs in your congregation. The creation of a logic model can facilitate meaningful dialogue among your leaders about what you are seeking to accomplish and how effectively you are achieving those outcomes.”

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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