Dedication Ceremonies Deserve Care, Reflection

When a congregation adds to its space by building or remodeling, it has cause for celebration.

But there are right and wrong ways to perform these ceremonies. Rev. John A. Buehrens, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President, has participated in more than one hundred building dedication services. The most common flaw that he observes? "Too much self-congratulation, not enough spirituality and reflection on what the building is for," he says.

He recommends holding a dinner the night before to properly thank people for their roles in the process.

Seventy-five minutes is the maximum time for a dedication service, in Buehrens's opinion. He says he once participated in a service that began at 10:30 a.m. "It was 12:15 p.m. before we arrived at sermon time. I was tempted to stand up and say, 'Let's eat!'" he reports. "But then I decided that some spiritual food was needed, so I canned the sermon I had written and told a powerful story that seemed relevant—in ten minutes."

He says, "Think of the first half of the service as the time of remembrance and gratitude. The second half, including the sermon and the spoken act of dedication, should serve as reminders of the mission and vision of Unitarian Universalism."

Consider the following:

  • Think about dedicating the offering to a special extension or social justice project or to other building projects in the district.
  • Commission a special piece of music. The Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Bloomington, IN (272 members), engaged a local composer to write music based on a poem by a UU minister, says Susan Swaney, Bloomington music director.
  • Notify the news media. You're generally assured of some publicity. Invite ministers of area congregations, service agencies you work with, and recent visitors.
  • Prepare a history exhibit, including photos of the congregation's previous buildings.

When the UU Church, Columbia, MO (208), dedicated its expanded building a year ago, the dedication service included a symbolic handing over of keys to the building—starting with the building contractor who passed them to the architect who gave them to the chair of the building expansion committee who presented them to the president of the board. Each spoke a few words in turn.

Sue Polgar, at Mt. Diablo UU Church, Walnut Creek, CA (351), recommends that congregations have both a private and a public dedication. At Mt. Diablo the private part occurred over several days and included an all-church dinner and presentation of an original musical play.

The public dedication took place a few weeks later when the congregation held its first regular service in the sanctuary. "Gone was the sense of self-congratulation," says Polgar. "Present was the sense of the sacred."

Don't wait too long for the dedication, says Carolyn Salmon, President-elect of the UU Church of Pensacola, FL (103), noting that momentum can be lost. "Select a speaker and get your date on their calendar well before move-in," she advises.

Don't skip a dedication because of costs. "Probably no congregation which has just completed buying or constructing a new church feels like it has the money for a dedication, but it's important enough to the congregation's life to find a way to pay for it," Salmon says.

Budget at least $250 even if food is being donated, say organizers of such events. If you're paying for travel for a speaker plus food and music costs, plan on $2,000 to $5,000. Don't forget to add in the costs of printing and floral arrangements.

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.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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