Sponsoring Congregation Program Aids Small UU Groups

By Donald E. Skinner

A fundraising campaign that began in 1993 at the First Unitarian Society of Wilmington, DE, now the First Unitarian Church, was supposed to be all about raising money for a new building project. But along the way the campaign came to be about more than just First Unitarian.

Karel Toll, chair of the fundraising campaign, explains what happened: “In one of our congregational meetings about the campaign a member of the congregation stood up and asked why our large church was raising all this money for bricks and mortar and why we were not sharing some of it with some new or small congregation that did not have our resources?”

It seemed like a reasonable question to Toll. He took it to the board of trustees and asked it to set aside one percent of the money that would be raised. The board agreed. As a result, at the end of the three-year campaign, which raised $1.5 million for a new religious education wing, there was a fund with $15,000.

“We weren’t clear what to do with it,” said Toll. “Then we learned from our district growth committee there was a small group in southern Delaware that was anxious to start a new UU congregation. It had the energy, but it needed start-up money. We gave them the whole $15,000.” That group became UUs of Southern Delaware, in Lewes, which gratefully welcomed the help.

And that could have been the end of the story. But it’s not. Motivated by what it did to help one congregation, First Unitarian decided that every year it would set aside one and a half percent of all pledged income and use it to help small congregations that needed a boost.

In the years since, the congregation has invested about $100,000 in six different congregations, three of them new, through its “Grants for Growth” program. The first congregation, UUs of Southern Delaware, now has 120 members and was recently recognized as a “Threshold” congregation. The Threshold Congregations program of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Central East Regional Group, recognizes congregations on the “threshold” of growing into a new stage.

“First Unitarian was very helpful to us,” said Sarah Cooksey, a longtime member of UUs of Southern Delaware. “We used part of the money they gave us to bring in someone who helped us organize. And the visits from people at First Unitarian were helpful as well. It was nice when we were working really hard on getting started to see a friendly face from someone who cared about what we were doing. They came to meetings, gave advice, and helped us through a crisis. They were very instrumental.”

The UU Congregation of the South Jersey Shore in Pomona, NJ, was founded in 2000, and First Unitarian was with it from the start, said longtime South Jersey Shore member Betsy Searight. “They’ve given us many different grants, totaling $25,674 over our 14 years. When I think of their help I think of their frequent visits in those early years. They’d come in a small group, driving an hour and a half to see how we were doing. They were always eager to mentor those of us who had taken leadership roles in whatever ways we asked for.” The Pomona congregation now has 115 members. Searight said Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon, PA, also supported the fledgling congregation with a major grant.

The UUs of Central Delaware, in Dover, also got a boost from First Unitarian. Member Alta Porterfield noted that, “First Unitarian’s Sponsor Congregation program is the reason there’s a UU church in central Delaware. We knew they were there for us not just financially, but with wise consultation. And they were expert listeners. This was a very big comfort for a fledgling congregation.” She said First Unitarian provided her congregation with music programs, visiting ministers, and grants that paid for consultants. “Words cannot express the depth of our gratitude. Hopefully in time our actions will.” The congregation has 50 members.

Toll would love to see other larger congregations (First Unitarian has 420 members) take on the role of supporting smaller congregations. To that end, members of First Unitarian’s Denominational Growth Committee have written two documents, The Role of the Sponsor Church in Support of New and Growing Congregations, and A Guide for Sponsor Congregations: Supporting the Growth of Unitarian Universalism. Both are available on the Joseph Priestley District website, for congregations interested in supporting growth. The documents lay out how established congregations can be most helpful to those that are challenged by a lack of resources or that are simply trying to get started.

A third document, New Congregation Development—A Manual for District & Staff Volunteers, has been developed by the UUA and is also helpful to congregations wanting to support new groups.

Toll notes that while the UUA and its districts play a key role in helping congregations become established and grow, a sponsor congregation can have a great impact on a congregation’s success, primarily because it is close enough to be a consistent presence.

“A sponsoring congregation can provide continuity of support and expertise that the professional staff of the district and the UUA cannot for reasons of geography and time limitations,” he said.

“One of the key things we’d like to pass along to other congregations is how you interact with someone you’re sponsoring. We don’t ask them to come to us. We go to them. We go to their Sunday service and then have lunch together. We participate not by telling them what to do, but by listening and providing help where they say they need it.”

He recommends that congregations interested in helping other congregations create a Denominational Growth Committee. Such a committee helps, he says, in reaching out to other congregations and in staying in touch with the district and the Association, where other growth programs reside. “It helps a congregation look outward. The act of sharing know-how and resources with other congregations builds institutional pride, friends, and cohesiveness.”

Karel notes that other congregations have been slow to respond to the sponsor congregation concept. Although First Unitarian has been promoting its method since 1999, he said no other congregation has expressed an interest in adopting a similar practice. “Clearly it will require time and effort to convince at least some established congregations of the value of a Denominational Growth Committee to the district and to themselves.” He is not perturbed by this lack of interest. “We’ll just keep trying.”

Toll is happy to talk with others interested in supporting new UU groups. He can be reached through the office of First Unitarian Church in Wilmington.

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

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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