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Cross-town Cooperation Boosts Congregations

By Donald E. Skinner

Many of the ten congregations in metropolitan Pittsburgh, PA, have fewer than one hundred members, but together they have nearly 1,000 and in recent years they've found more and more ways to come together and make their numbers count.

For about six years representatives of the congregations have been meeting quarterly to share ideas and to get to know each other. Here's what's come out of it: One congregation bakes pies at Thanksgiving and sells them at the other churches. Another holds a spirituality retreat at which half the participants are from other congregations.

When one of the rural congregations in the Pittsburgh cluster did a program to support services to gays and lesbians, the other congregations promoted and supported it. When one congregation hosted the annual district conference, several others helped. Other cross-congregation initiatives include adult education courses, a Jubilee World antiracism workshop, and Habitat for Humanity projects.

The Pittsburgh cluster is currently raising money to buy radio ads that will promote Unitarian Universalism (UUism) throughout the area. It's also planning to have a cluster-wide website by this fall. It already has a brochure and phone number.

"We've found that the natural thing is to promote our events in each of the ten congregations," says Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland, minister of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of the South Hills, Pittsburgh (180). "We're starting to think of ourselves less as single entities and more as being woven together."

Such cooperative ventures are being encouraged by Fulfilling the Promise, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) initiative that for the last two years has invited congregations to recovenant within themselves—to examine how congregants relate to each other and how the congregation lives out the UUA Principles and Purposes. This year at General Assembly the theme of Fulfulling the Promise moves on to its second phase, asking congregations to covenant with each other.

Possibilities for cooperation at Pittsburgh are infinite, says Loadman-Copeland. "When we look at ourselves as one group with ten different campuses we begin to better realize our collective assets and strengths. "Among the long-range possibilities are sharing employees, including religious educators and administrators. Or sharing ministry to help a congregation that temporarily can't afford professional leadership.

Another idea, says Loadman-Copeland, is that rather than church leaders being experts in everything, local teams could be developed with expertise in areas such as fund-raising, and that expertise could be shared among the congregations.

Part of what is driving this cooperation at Pittsburgh, says Loadman-Copeland, is that the congregations believe that because of their proximity they may be better able to provide for each other than the district or the UUA. "It's proximity that makes this work," he says. "Plus the slow buildup over time of relationships."

There's also cooperation in Ohio, where representatives of six Cincinnati-area congregations meet quarterly as the UU Council of Greater Cincinnati. Their projects have included a combined advertising campaign and a group website. The group's most ambitious effort has been Celebration 2000, a combined Sunday service in March at a downtown auditorium. It included a combined choir, a brass ensemble formed of members of several congregations, and participation by all the ministers and several lay leaders.

James Crocker-Lakness, chair of the council and a member of Heritage UU Church, Cincinnati (131), said the service, and publicity it generated, gave local UUs a boost in enthusiasm and self-esteem. "But the thing we've really accomplished by all of this is to create a sense of cooperation and a combined UU presence in Cincinnati. We're not just individual UU churches anymore. We're beginning to think as a group."

Cooperation among churches helped save the Independent Christian Church of Gloucester, MA, in the 1980s. Down to just a couple dozen members and with its minister retiring, the mother church of Universalism in America, the church where John Murray preached, was considering closing its doors.

Rev. Tim Ashton, district executive of the Massachusetts Bay District, challenged other congregations to help save it. The First Religious Society of Newburyport, MA (310), and UU Church of Greater Lynn, Swampscott, MA. (330), together donated about $4,000. Rev. Bertrand H. Steeves, pastor of the Newburyport church at the time, remembers that he and other ministers preached a number of Sundays at Gloucester and attended board meetings there. The congregations exchanged choirs and other groups. Rev. Wendy Fitting, a newly ordained minister, began serving the church in 1989. In 1993 Gloucester received the Church of the Year award at the district conference, and today it has seventy-three members.

Three Madison, WI congregations come together on some Saturday nights for a “Soulful Sundown” intergenerational service, a combination coffeehouse and worship service, with food, music, and sharing.

Three congregations in the Hartford, CT, area combined efforts to form a singles group when none of the three could support its own. The group of thirty to forty has a monthly potluck and movie nights, says Paul Hansen of the Unitarian Society, Hartford (417).

The Delaware Valley Area Council, a group of representatives of Philadelphia-area congregations, has been meeting since 1977. The group also collaborates on advertisements in the Philadelphia Inquirer and has a toll-free phone number. The most successful project occurred on Martin Luther King Day when more than seventy UUs from several congregations turned out to work at two inner-city sites, cleaning and painting a Boys and Girls Club building and working on an elementary school.

In Chicago, four congregations formed the UU Urban Church Coalition. It's held a conference and two harvest festivals. For the annual Chicago Gay Pride Parade this June, the group will host a brunch for participants.

The group is trying to determine its long-term focus. "Do we continue these annual social get-togethers or do we do more evangelizing type work?" asks Lara Tushla, Unitarian Universalist Council of Christian Churches (UUUCC) chair and a member of Second Unitarian Church, Chicago (204). "The main benefit has been simply for leaders of our congregations to get to know each other," she says. "There's a cross-fertilization of ideas and we support each other's activities."

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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