Reviving a Congregation Takes New Visions, Events

Sometimes, through no deliberate fault, a congregation becomes, well, complacent. It still functions week to week, but there's no fire. Rebuilding that fire can happen several ways. A new minister or lay leader can do it. Sometimes a church event or a new way of doing things can do it.

At Bellingham, WA, the Unitarian Fellowship (182 members) needed a lift in 1993. There had been little growth for years, there were hard feelings about a minister's departure, and a sense that members could be nicer to each other.

Enter Rev. Barbara Cheatham, just out of divinity school. "We really lucked out with Barbara," says Francie Gass, a former board president. "She turned out to be this wise woman who helped us be more civilized to each other. It's not that bad things were happening, but our process wasn't good."

Cheatham helped leaders set boundaries for meetings so they were productive and cordial. Outspoken members were asked to think of others. A man whose behavior was inappropriate toward women was barred from the building. Cheatham introduced rituals—a water ceremony, an Easter communion, and members did "personal reflections" on Sundays. "She stayed five years," says Gass. "It was the longest we'd had a minister for a while. When she left we felt better about ourselves."

The congregation built on those good feelings, says its current minister, Doug Wadkins, who arrived last fall. Much of its new energy goes into the Sunday service, setting a tone for the rest of the week. The choir has doubled in the past year, to forty, partly from a commitment to spend 12 percent of the budget on music, including paying a music director.

"At the end of our services now there really is a buzz in the congregation, an energy that makes people want to come back and be a part of the community beyond Sunday morning," says Wadkins. The congregation is also creating a covenant spelling out how members treat each other, and holds an annual community-building retreat.

Reviving a congregation takes time, says Rev. Lawrence Peers, the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) extension, education, and research director. Don't try to change everything at once, he says. "Focus on one critical area such as worship or education. Ask yourself, 'If this were going well, what would it look like? What stands in the way of it becoming what we'd like it to be?' Pick an area you know you might have some success with. Then whatever you learn you can apply to another area."

When Bill Webster was president of the First Parish, Portland, ME (260), he worried that the congregation was too reliant on the minister. To get people involved and excited, he proposed an "open space" workshop. Members came on a Saturday and talked about their passions. At the end of the day discussion summaries were prepared, then handed out at church, where congregants chose their favorites.

Most of the topics discussed at Portland have been completed or are being addressed, Webster says, including a photo directory, improved accessibility, adding 'fun' to fundraising, an improved way to express joys and concerns, becoming a Welcoming Congregation, and better assimilation of new members.

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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