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When Church Life Falters: Rekindling Enthusiasm

There are times in the life of every congregation when despite the best intentions of everyone there are details that don't get tended to. Well-meaning volunteers forget to do something, or take on more than they can do, or a family crisis intervenes. When a ball gets dropped and others have to pick it up, relationships can be strained and church life can have a hole in it.

Is there a way for a congregation to keep up with everything it needs to and still manage to respond to those extra, unanticipated needs that seem to pop up all too frequently? And does the responsibility for picking up dropped balls fall to those in your congregation who are already over-worked, or is there another way?

At Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church in Walnut Creek, CA (369 members), a group called the "Firestarters" has been taking on "overlooked" projects for the past four years. The group of about a dozen people meets monthly. Generally it ties up loose ends and does the extra projects that improve the quality of church life. Thus far it has done the following: created a welcome booklet for visitors, started the church's website, helped create some small groups, and begun regular potluck meals for newcomers. It also helped with some details of the congregation's new sanctuary construction, including creating a place for name tags, says member Sue Polgar.

The Firestarters group, open to anyone, is a place, says Polgar, "where people can bring an idea and not hear 'We tried that already twenty years ago—it won't work.'" Members, most of whom also volunteer other ways in the congregation, take on Firestarter assignments because they believe in the church and want it to thrive, she says. "We vote each year whether we're still having fun. When we're not, the committee will disband. The glue that holds us together is a passionate belief in growth and in retention of members. People join the committee because they want to be able to do something without bureaucratic strings, without muss and fuss. It's a cooperative, upbeat group that enjoys just getting things done."

And what if in your church at the moment no one seems to be in charge and you seem to be drifting from week to week?

That's when it's time to start at ground zero and rebuild enthusiasm, says Linda Gregory of the UU Church of Muncie, IN (240). "Start some small groups," she says, "some after-church lunch groups or before-church discussion groups. Get people together and get them talking to each other. I noticed a real difference in our church when we did that. Changing the culture requires someone who has ideas and is willing to plant the seeds with others."

Taking on a community service project—something that focuses the congregation on something larger than itself—is another good way to get people reinvolved. She says the Muncie church hosts a local sleeping room for the homeless and helps with a community-wide fix-up program and both have helped to re-engage members. "Enthusiasm is contagious, I've found."

First Unitarian Church in Pittsburgh, PA (380) formed its President's Advisory Committee several years ago to help out the board of trustees. Composed of the president, minister, treasurer, and vice presidents for finance, administration, and planning, it meets monthly to sift through prospective board business. It frequently reshapes proposals and may refer them to others in the congregation. "It has no formal executive powers, but it helps determine which items should properly go to the board and which can be dealt with by others," says treasurer Ward Kelsey.

Dean Reschke of the DuPage UU Church of Naperville, IL (252), suggests a day-long, all-church retreat to help rebuild spirit and organization. "Instead of asking a group of a dozen or so to come up with the right programs," he says, "you could ask all the members what they think would constitute a more meaningful church life."

One format for such a gathering could be the "open space" format, where, on a Saturday, the congregation is invited to gather and identify a handful of key areas they would like to talk about. Then they split up into different rooms to discuss the topics that are most meaningful to them. "Members will share what is most important, will generate ideas, will feel as though they are being heard, and will show signs of lifting their commitment and involvement," says Reschke. When the discussion groups reconvene they share ideas with each other and those ideas are often accompanied by enthusiasm for change, he notes.

A more structured format could be to ask members at a retreat to divide into small groups and ponder a number of questions. Information gleaned from these questions could be used to generate new practices and structures in the church. A sample:

"In your life, recall a time when you did something that seemed truly meaningful to you. What was that? What values were uplifted by this action? In what ways does our church provide you with venues and opportunities to live out these values? In what ways can the church offer more?"

Another approach, says John Blevins, a congregational consultant in the Prairie Star District, is to call people together when it appears a program or committee may die for lack of leadership. "Let them know there's a problem. If no one steps up to take it on, then the group's actions suggest that maybe it's not that important. Talk as a group about what it would feel like, and what some of the impacts might be, not to have that program."

When the adult religious education program at First Parish in Portland, ME (260), needed a boost a few years ago, a minister and the religious education chair invited a group of members into a "first steps" group. The group met weekly for six weeks, says member Janet Puistonen. "At the end of the program we had created a truly useful mission statement for adult religious education and a year's worth of programming. From that start, programs and increased involvement at the church have really taken off."

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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