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Worship Associates Make Services More Meaningful

In the early 1980s, First Unitarian Church of Oakland, CA, was struggling. Once a vibrant congregation, it had lost much of its membership as its urban neighborhood declined.

But when a new minister arrived with a vision that included involving the congregation in planning and leading worship services, the church began to grow again. Leaders created a program that became known as Worship Associates—a corps of members who became directly involved in worship.

Members say the Oakland program has helped members become more committed,  made worship services more consistent and meaningful, and helped the church grow from a few dozen members to close to three hundred now.

The Worship Associates program has been adapted by many other congregations. Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo, CA (242), for example, is in its third year of using worship associates. They meet quarterly with the minister and list ideas for services. The minister is free to choose or decline any topic. She selects an associate to help with each service.

"The associates bring more diversity to the service," says coordinator Jennifer Webb. "It's also not a huge commitment, and it gives people a meaningful way to participate."

In Oakland the worship committee each year invites members of the congregation to apply to be worship associates. The best participants, says Lucia Savage, co-coordinator of the program, are those who know the congregation and are involved in other activities.

Occasionally someone surprises her. "We had a woman who was a welfare mother," she says. "She was coping with psychological problems, and we were concerned with her ability to handle pressure. But she was one of our most successful participants, and she brought wonderful new perspectives about our place in the world."

The worship associates introduce elements of the service such as the meditation, the readings, children's stories, and music. "It's a really wonderful opportunity to achieve understanding between the pulpit and the congregation," says Savage. "People love it. They get to work intimately with the minister."

The term "worship associates" was developed at Oakland. The program was begun by Rev. Robert Eller-Isaacs, who was later joined by his wife Janne in co-ministry. The church formally adopted the program in 1988. Oakland also has pastoral associates for caring committee types of responsibilities and justice associates for social justice work.

"The sharing of power by the clergy and sharing the benefits of participation in the active ministry of the church is the real gift Unitarian Universalism has to offer its people," says Eller-Isaacs, now cominister at Unity Church-Unitarian, St. Paul, MN (770).

Rick Koyle, a consulting minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bainbridge Island and North Kitsap, WA (59), and a former coordinator of the Oakland worship associates program, says, "Being a worship associate helps people learn about their religion. It forces them to learn more about the worship tradition."

Resources

The book All Are Chosen, Stories of Lay Ministry and Leadership, includes a description by Beverly Smrha of the Oakland Worship Associates program. Unitarian Universalist Association Bookstore (800) 215-9076; #7301 $12.

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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