2006 Breakthough Congregation: First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin

Part of Membership

General Assembly 2006 Event 5012


  • Jim Jaeger, past president of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, WI
  • Pat Anderson, new president
  • The Rev. Michael Schuler, Parish Minister
  • Dan Broner, Music Director
  • Laurie Joiner, incoming president
  • The Rev. Scott Prinster, Associate Minister
  • Wendy Cooper, Social Justice Coordinator
  • Alan Knox, outgoing president
  • Susan Koenig, Church Administrator

Prepared for UUA.org by: Bill Lewis, Reporter; Margy Levine Young, Editor.

First Unitarian Society of Madison, WI (FUS), is the largest Unitarian Universalist congregation in North America, with 2,000 members. It has been designated a "Breakthrough Congregation" because it has grown to that size from roughly 400 members over the last 17 years. In this workshop, a panel of professional and lay leaders shared some of the most important methods and reasons that have made this growth possible.

Jim Jaeger, past president of FUS, served as moderator, introducing the other speakers and putting their remarks in context.

Pat Anderson, the new president of the society, read the opening words and lit the chalice, reminding all present that this workshop was part of the religious and spiritual work of the congregation.

The Rev. Michael Schuler, Parish Minister of First Unitarian Society, spoke of the central importance of congregational worship in creating a sense of community that embraces all members. He offered six aspects of the worship experience which he has found to be crucial to fulfilling the needs of congregants.

  • Intentional—thought-out, crafted, reflective of the readings and the needs of the people. Not shallow or superficial.
  • Every Sunday—the worship should be crafted with care, just as it usually is on important Holidays such as Christmas and Easter.
  • All-year—because people have needs all year.
  • Relational—in the sense that it is related to, and involves, the people in the pews. Especially as a congregation grows to a very large size, it is important to include as much lay participation as possible in the service, with lay readers, music that involves the congregation, responsive readings, Joys and Concerns, etc.
  • Provocative—concrete, thought-provoking and energetic.
  • Unpredictable—keeping the familiar unfamiliar, saying things in a new way so that they may be heard as fresh.

Dan Broner, the Music Director, explained that at First Unitarian Society, music is seen as a ministry for all members and the broader community. In addition to the multiple children's and adult choirs, there is a conscious focus on choosing good music for congregational singing, on making the main sanctuary—designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and possessing very good acoustics—available for concerts, and on attracting and offering music from people brought in from outside the church.

Laurie Joiner, the incoming president, spoke of the need to consciously create community, offering members a wide variety of opportunities to connect with others in the congregation. At First Unitarian, small groups (which they call chalice groups rather than covenant groups), choirs and meditation classes are just three examples of the dozens of ways members can become involved. She also pointed that they intentionally light a chalice and have an opening and a closing for every meeting, so that all meetings become spiritually focused and are brought into relationship with all other meetings related to congregational life.

The Rev. Scott Prinster, Associate Minister of First Unitarian, told the attendees that First Unitarian's Religious Education program serves more than 500 students every Sunday! That requires more than 100 teachers to be recruited, trained, and supported on an on-going basis. While there is obviously a great deal of variety offered, the overriding principle of the program is to bring people together in relationships that are meaningful to them.

Wendy Cooper is First Unitarian's Social Justice Coordinator, which is a full-time paid staff position. The important aspects of the social justice program at First Unitarian include investment, in the coordinator's time and in the time of other professional and lay leaders, integration with the ministerial staff; coordination and accountability; and connection by creating relationships for social justice work within the community.

Alan Knox, the outgoing president, told the audience about energizing leadership at FUS. Emerging or potential new leaders are identified and trained by experienced leaders. Much of this work is done by the nominating committee, which works to develop members into candidates for service on the Board of Trustees and as chairs of the six Councils which oversee the life and activity of the congregation. Through all of this, he noted, the emphasis is on identifying, strengthening, and building relationships between the individuals and the leadership roles, and between all of the members including the leaders.

Susan Koenig is the society's full-time, professional administrator. She said that the staff of First Unitarian identifies its two primary professional responsibilities as regularly reviewing the match of church activities to adopted goals, to the people who are implementing them, and to the members; and to work to remain in right relationship with leaders and members, even through disagreements.

In the discussion which followed, Susan Koenig was asked whether First Unitarian had a policy of hiring from within the congregation or not, and whether that had become an issue. She answered that they had hired both from inside and outside, being careful to keep the process professional, and keeping right relationships in mind. Michael Schuler added that the church has hired four staff members, including Susan, from within the congregation, and had also hired about the same number from outside.

Wendy Cooper was asked whether the society's social justice initiatives originated from, or were carried out by, individual committees, small groups, the governing councils, or the society as a whole. One answer was that the Social Justice Council is empowered in the church's bylaws to take public positions. There are also occasions when a committee might develop a position or action on a smaller issue. On larger issues, the Social Justice Council often develops a position but take it to the society as a whole, for ratification and ownership, before presenting it to the public.

Alan Knox responded to a question about the society's form of governance that responsibilities are shared and coordinated between the six councils, the staff, and the congregation's lay leadership, primarily through the Board of Trustees. He added that the society had recently amended its bylaws to elect its Trustees at-large, rather than having the chairs of the councils sit as the Board. This change, he noted, meant that more people were willing to serve on the Board, and divided the responsibilities so that they were less of a burden on a few leaders. The change also meant that the Trustees now had to make a greater effort to keep in touch with the important aspects of day-to-day implementation of decisions, since they were no longer the ones responsible for carrying them out.

The panel was asked to provide more detail on the music programs of the Society. Michael Schuler explained that FUS has three children's and two adult choirs. In addition, they offer a Noon Musicale every Friday at which musicians from the community are booked to perform. Because the Meeting Hall is located in the heart of the community and has such good acoustics, FUS often rents it to musicians for concerts. When they do, they offer a discount to those who will agree to perform as part of a worship service. Many of the musicians accept that offer, he said, and that helps the society enrich the music available during services.

In response to a question about the society's integration of new members, several members of the panel replied. First, the society regularly schedules a New UU course with four sessions. This course includes time for representatives from the different activity areas to orient the new members to what they do. There are also conversations with each new member to determine areas of interest to that member.

The congregation also works to keep itself open to new areas of interest arising within it. Recently, when a new group was being formed to consider green building and other environmental issues on an on-going basis, seven members expressed interest and were welcomed into the group.

In terms of bonding with new members, the parish minister sends a personal letter to each person who fills out a visitor card. That letter includes an invitation for the visitor to attend a New UU class if they are interested. To help retain members, FUS is expanding its database of members to capture information about participation in all aspects of congregational life, including small group involvement. The Connections Council also monitors the congregation's small groups to see when any of them might need some new members.

In conclusion, if you want your congregation to grow as the First Unitarian Society of Madison, WI, has, follow their example and focusing on relationships.