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Denominational Affairs Can Spark New Vitality

People join Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations for personal reasons—to find something that is missing in their lives, whether that's a community of like-minded souls or spirituality. They do not join, as it turns out, so they can serve on the denominational affairs committee.

In many congregations, this committee consists of one, or at most two, long-time members who labor diligently to interest others in the work of the district and the denomination. Ask them and they'll tell you how hard it is to find anyone to join the committee and how difficult it can be to interest people in denominational issues.

Yet there are congregations with thriving, dynamic denominational affairs committees. At the First UU Church in Nashville, TN (317 members), the committee is composed of eight to ten people who have created a highly visible presence by doing traditional denominational affairs functions well and by taking on responsibilities that in some congregations might fall to other committees.

Here's what the Nashville committee is doing:

Bringing in outside speakers for an annual human rights lecture.

  • Organizing a well-attended, 3-4 session adult education course on the study/action issues to be considered at General Assembly (GA).
  • Selecting delegates to attend GA.
  • Publicizing district and continental denominational events.

The committee also sponsored a Jubilee World antiracism workshop recently. "The core thing that keeps us going is that we have substantial things that we know are our responsibility," says Anna Belle Leiserson, committee chair. The committee injects a little fun, too. To encourage board members to attend GA, the committee put together a song and dance. "People notice us," she said.

At the UU Church of Berkeley in Kensington, CA (572), Kathy Owens says support from the ministers helps boost denominational affairs. The committee has an annual half-day retreat with ministers to lay plans for the year, and it also does an occasional three-minute talk during Sunday services about denominational topics. The committee also leads an occasional service and introduces its work at new-member teas.

Janis Elliot, moderator at First Unitarian in Portland, OR (1013), favors infusing denominational awareness into other committees, rather than creating a separate committee. "Our approach is to work with each committee to appoint a denominational liaison and assign a board member as the coordinator to help link them. I'm open to more discussion but I do not think giving it to a committee works."

Many congregations in the Pacific Southwest District call their denominational chairs association/district representatives. "The district supports the representatives with regular conferences to keep them in touch with each other," says district president Nancy Loughrey.

The committee puts articles in the newsletter, uses the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) website to keep track of programs and services, shows the video from General Assembly '98, encourages new people to attend GA (with a budget line item that helps pay expenses), and brings denominational leaders to speak at church to help members feel connected.

Having a thriving denominational affairs committee "has increased the congregation's sense of being connected to a larger movement," says  Rev. Lynn Ungar at Second Unitarian Church in Chicago, IL (207). "Even for the majority of folks who never attend a GA or district meeting it makes a real difference to know that we participate in that larger structure, and that we live out our UU values within a wider context."

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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