Building Resilience & Spiritual Grounding for Justice Makers
Multi-Site Congregations
Membership Growth & Outreach, UUA Districts & Regions

Guest Presenter: Rev. Christine Robinson, Senior Minister at First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico

Christine made a virtual presentation from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to two locations in Prairie Star: Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Kansas City, Missouri. It is a little longer than what I usually post here (about an hour and forty-five minutes), but it’s well worth the time, especially if you’re interested in the concept of multi-site congregations and would like to know more.

This workshop explored the possibilities for multi-site Unitarian Universalist congregations. Multi-site congregations are those which have members living in two different locations: two or more sites, one church.

  • Large congregations, which are restricted by their buildings or their locations, look at multiple sites as a way to continue growing numerically or to do outreach to people not currently being served.
  • Small congregations which affiliate with larger congregations get services they can’t currently afford to offer their members.

Here’s the complete script of Christine’s presentation, including the handout about the cost of starting a multi-site branch:

Slide 1

I. Introduction

Slide 2 Portraits

Good Morning! What fun to be a part of this innovative conference! Let me tell you a little bit about me…and that may help you understand my passion for multi site.

My parents began attending River Road Unitarian Church in suburban Washington, DC, when I was 8 years old, and I learned the story of how A. Powell Davis, minister of All Souls Downtown, started a necklace of churches in the DC suburbs, initially, by serving the suburban churches with a phone hook up to the Sunday sermon. My parents admired this as an innovative way to serve people in the modern world.

My first church after seminary was a small and then mid-sized church in Columbia, South Carolina. For a year while I was there, I worked with an emerging group in the very small town of Florence, South Carolina, 50 miles away. The group was enthusiastic and dedicated, and I got New Congregation training, but the town was just too small. The group floundered and was dormant for 20 years, it’s handful of religious liberals unserved.

In 1988 I moved to Albuquerque to serve First Church, In 1995, we had 500 members and did a long range plan which included renovating our own building and starting a UU church on the West Side, across the Rio Grande from Albuquerque, a burgeoning suburb with perfect demographics for a booming church. By 1999 they had a minister and a building and about 90 members. Today, First church has 765 members and the West Side church has about 90 members. As I look back, I believe that in our, and their enthusiasm about independence, we let them go too soon. It’s like a parent saying to their middle schooler, “OK, Kid, you’re on your own now! Here’s some cash! Good Luck!” I decided that I didn’t want to try starting new churches again.

In the early 2000’s, I became aware that First Unitarian was becoming a regional church; that we had clusters of members who came occasionally from as far away as Socorro, Gallup, and Roswell, New Mexico. About that time, the church was given video equipment, and during a sabbatical, I discovered the Milti-Site Multi Venue video worship scheme and visited the North Point Evangelical Church near San Diego, one of the Flagship churches of this movement.

Slide 3 (New Mexico Pictures)

New Mexico is a big, mostly rural state. About 1 million people live in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and the other million live in an area about the size of New England. It’s mountains, desert, range land, and small towns. And in lots of those small towns there were a handful of UU’s, former UU’s, and members of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, but mostly….lonely.

New Mexico’s UU demographics looks like this.

Slide 4

New Mexico UU population Map

The Purple county is Santa Fe County, the pink which is attached to it is the County Albuquerque is in. Just North West of Santa Fe is the tiny black square that is Los Alamos County, which is virtually the same as the town of Los Alamos, with it’s Unitarian Church of 150 members. The pink counties in the south contain two lay-led congregations and one mid-sized congregation in Las Cruces.

New Mexico is actually not so different from a lot of other states in the union….

Slide 5 U.S. Population Map

Here is the whole US. You’ll note that the highest concentrations of UU’s occur in New England, and the rare county elsewhere. Purple concentrations in many large cities, Pink in a few other and that most of the nation’s counties have no reported UU’s.

Slide 6 Prairie Star Map

Here’s the Praire Star District…Little bits of pink and purple in a sea of white. But diluted into nearly nothing in that sea of white are a few UU’s, and a few of their liberal-minded neighbors…too few to think of having a church…and lonely. But there’s a UU church within a few hundred miles of every one of them, and that church could reach out in love and service into rural America.

Why are there virtually no UU’s in lightly populated areas? Well, .1% of the population is our typical “pink” area, and that means that a county would have to have 150,000 people to expect 150 UU’s…and it takes about 100 UU’s for a congregation to be able to afford ministry and space. It’s abundantly clear that lay lead congregations are very difficult to maintain in a healthy state and that this form of religious life does not appeal to enough persons under 50 to make a congregation that will be strong in the future. I think that the 20 or 40 or 70 member, lay-lead congregation faces three monumental challenges. The first is doing worship well and finding speakers week after week. The second is staying in touch with UU’ism…its history, theology, and values, without benefit of clergy. The third …let me attempt to be delicate here…is that, in the absence of strong, healthy leadership, less strong and less healthy persons can easily take over a group and make things less healthy, interesting, and forward-looking for everybody.

You may not agree with me on that score, but that’s been my observation. Ministers can have problems and bring problems, but without one, there are nearly always leadership difficulties and worship difficulties. We wanted to find ways to make it possible for people in very small towns to have the blessings of liberal religion and community available to them by supporting good leadership and offering enough help.

II. Questions

Slide 7 Questions

We’ll get to exactly how we do that…for the moment, are there questions about what we’ve covered so far?

III. Multi-Site Primer

Slide 8: Outline of Workshop

  1. What is Multi-Site, Multi Venue?
  2. Why do Multi-Site, Multi Venue?
  3. How to do Multi-Site
  4. Video Capture, Files, and dissemination
  5. Small Worship Services
  6. Non-Worship Considerations
  7. Organizing Branches/Satellites
  8. How to BE a Multi-Site Church

Slide 9 “What is Multi-Site?”

Multi-Site involves one church using video to provide several services on different properties. Each site produces its own worship service…they light a chalice, sing, tell the children’s story, do a meditation and sharing, take an offering, sing some more…and when it comes time to hear the sermon, instead of a live speaker, they turn on the projector or the DVD player and watch the sermon. Then they have a discussion, sing another hymn, have a benediction. The worship leaders in each branch are well-trained and have a lot of resources to put on a good, small group worship service.

You can do Multi-Site to serve remote populations, and also to serve specific populations such as persons living in Senior Housing or on a college campus. You can also have services on the main property; on Sunday afternoon or Wednesday evening, for instance.

Slide 10 Our Branches

First Church has a main campus in Albuquerque, and branches in Socorro, Edgewood, and Carlsbad, New Mexico, 25, 80, and 300 miles away, respectively, and we’re supporting a sort-of branch in Ruidoso, informally.

Slide 11 Why do it?

  • If crowding is an issue, you can offer additional services without putting as much strain on the preacher.
  • If you want to reach out to small towns around you…there’s a real need there.
  • If you want to help people reduce their carbon footprint, you can help them worship together near their homes.
  • If some people want a different kind of music, a more participatory service, a smaller group, you can offer all these things.

Slide 12 Multi Site is

One Church! I really want to emphasize this. We think of our branches like we think of our other programs that have 10-40 people, like our Wednesday night potluck. The people who come to that potluck each week mostly belong to the church and pledge to the church. The costs of maintaining the social hall they use are paid by the church. They put articles in the newsletter. They turn in their money each week to the bookkeeper. They take care of each other, but when someone at the potluck says that they’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, someone lets a minister know. If a very difficult person starts causing trouble, someone asks for help. All of the ministers drop in on the potluck from time to time.

It’s the same with the folks in Socorro and Carlsbad and Edgewood. It’s a little more challenging…most pastoral care is by phone. We ministers try to visit each branch a couple of times a year. Sometimes lay people visit too…from the Stewardship Committee, or the UUSC. And sometimes branch folks make to Albuquerque to visit us.

Slide 13 Multi Site Trends

I sort of got this idea from A. Powell Davis as a kid. But the newly available technology of video and the web has given Multi-site a big life, especially in Evangelical circles. Multi site is the new norm for them. They tend to start their sites with about 300 worshipers and with a staff minister called a campus pastor, who organizes prayer groups, leads the liturgy, and gives pastoral care…in other words, does everything but preach. There’s a website and some books about this phenomena, but they don’t apply very well to our scaled down version yet…although, which I checked in as I was preparing for this workshop, I saw, “Multi-Site” is going rural! So we’ll see.

Slide 14 Questions

On what we’ve done so far

Slide 15 Video Capture (one camera or two?)

Let’s get down to the how-to’s. This way of doing church is dependent on Video.

Someone in my congregation gave me $1,000 to try out this idea, and it was clear that the first thing we had to do was figure out the video part. Lucky for us, the congregation includes a bunch of techie types including one video professional. So I called a meeting. The video professional took over. “The most important thing you have to decide,” he said, is whether to use one camera or two.” He told us that one camera can do a really good job of a talking head, but that trying to capture the whole service would require expensive equipment and trained volunteers and was hard to do well. We decided on one camera. The camera is mounted over the heads of the congregation

Slide 16 Camera

See the camera up there in the left hand corner? It’s not conspicuous…as a matter of fact, we had to post silly pictures behind it so that speakers would remember to look at it regularly! The camera is attached to the mount in a way that makes it hard to steal. It’s just a good, home-quality video camera.

Slide 17 The Booth

The camera is connected to a computer and monitor, and hooked in with our sound board so that we get high-quality sound. One volunteer runs video, joining the sound tech in the booth…which had to be constructed to keep all that equipment safe.

Slide 18 What to do with Video

As soon as the sermon ends, the video tech creates a DVD with the video file. The DVD is used for our alternative, small 11 am service which meets at the same time as our second service. We call it Common Ground, and it’s for people who like sharing and discussion. The DVD is copied on Monday and one copy sent with our intern to a Senior Housing complex which has a lot of very elderly church members, and she does a service/discussion there. The other DVD is mailed to the worship coordinator in Edgewood, for use the next Sunday.

The video tech then uses file conversion software to create a file which is uploaded via. ftp software to our website. Uploading takes a while…longer than downloading. The web is set up that way at the moment; apparently there is talk of changing it . At any rate, the video tech is usually finished by 11:30, and at that point emails the tech in Socorro that it’s ready. The tech in Socorro begins to download the file. In Socorro they have a 3pm service. Even when there are issues, we’ve always gotten them their file on time.

Two more files are made; one a thumbnail sized file for our website, and one for itunes.

Slide 19 Website

These files, as well as audio and text files, are posted to the website by staff on Monday. This part of our website is extremely powerful, by the way, and we believe that our robust representation of young adults is in part because they can learn about the church through their favorite media. (let me mention at this point that we hadn’t been doing this video thing for long before our website host let us know that we were using too much space. We had already upgraded to a faster speed…we had to upgrade to a larger site. This was an expense to consider. )

Slide 20 Video Display

Some people think they are going to hate video sermons, but they are usually plesently surprised. It’s not at all impersonal and most people get quite engaged with the speaker…even answering back at times! The key to vivid video display, our professional told us, is head size. If the head size is at least 110% of what the brain expects, the attention will be grabed. Therefore, you have to pay attention to how you display the video. We started with all projection. However, large screen TV’s have come down in price and are MUCH easier to use these days. And are quite satisfactory for groups of 10-15 people. Light is a big issue for projected video.

Slide 21 Kinds of Video Worship

Let me just stop and remark that usually when people talk about video in worship, they are talking about projection assisted worship; the words to the songs and sometime sermon notes or illustrations…sometimes video illustrations…are all projected.

For our branches, we use video-assisted worship. The service is produced locally, but the sermon is projected.

Of course, you can do both, but that’s has turned out to be tricky, and we don’t.

Slide 22 Subscription Series

Here’s a side note…a way to serve existing small congregations by sharing some of your videos. We got this idea from a district meeting, when we did a workshop to share our ideas about multi site, and we got a lot of flack from tiny congregations, who felt a little threatened , most certainly did not want to be swallowed up by First Unitarian but….they made this very clear….they craved our videos. So we created a program and have about a dozen subscribing congregations…not all in our district.

  • Four video sermons a year offered to Lay-Led Congregations.
  • The package includes a DVD, worship suggestions, readings, and a text of the sermon.
  • The cost is $100 a year.
  • The sermons cover “UU-101” topics.
  • Lay leaders tell us this is very popular and useful to them.
  • They want more congregations to do this.

Slide 23 Questions Again

Slide 24 Quality Small Group Worship

One of the most humbling parts of this exercise for me has been realizing that everything I know about worship for groups of 100 to 1,000 people…and that’s a lot after 30 years… was not enough to help our branches produce quality worship services. I’m not sure that this is something UU’s know a lot about. I should say that a year before we started our first branch, we started a small group worship service in our Social Hall, to relieve crowding during the second service, and that gave us a lot of experience in technical issues and worship. It became quickly clear that formal worship didn’t work very well, and that music was difficult. There’s just not enough infrastructure, in musicians or voices, to make singing easy, so the songs have to be REALLY easy. (handout with the best ones) What small group worship has going for it is informality and personableness. We advocate the sharing of joys and sorrows and a discussion of the sermon. These are things we almost never do in our big services, but they work in the small ones. We take advantage of local musicians. We do the best we can.

Two of our branches meet in churches. The Socorro branch meets in the social hall of a tiny Episcopal church at 3PM and the rent we pay is helpful to that church’s ongoing viability. The Carlsbad church meets in the chapel of a Presbyterian church, and we had to press our money on them, they were so eager to be of help to us. We pay them $100 a month for weekly, 4PM meetings. We’re encouraging the branch members to keep their eyes open for a project which they could be helpful to that, predominately elderly congregation. Our Edgewood branch meets in the classroom of a weaving shop at 10 am on Sunday morning. Since it’s not possible for them to have this week’s worship service, they are always a week behind the main church. I’m wish they had made different choices, and if I could live my life over, we would not have given them this option.

We train our worship leaders a couple of times a year, all together, with our Common Ground worship leaders, on a weekend in August. We combine this with an opportunity for them to worship with us, come to a party hosted by the worship committee, and have an afternoon for whatever they want to do in the big city. Home hospitality is provided.

We train leaders in how to manage the technical aspects of the download and projection, and we train them in how to lead worship services. We point them to resources, we tell them how to ask questions, we let them practice lighting a chalice, introducing and honoring joys and sorrows, and taking and thanking people for their offering. Our aim is to create people who think of themselves as religious leaders. The pride they take in doing this well and adding their creative touches to what they do sees them through the work. They tell us that this is among the most meaningful parts of their lives. They take it very seriously. Sharing the ministry this way and watching people blossom has become one of the most meaningful parts of my ministry.

We tell our branches that we hope that they will offer four kinds of programming: worship, small group ministry, service, and fellowship. The worship is mandatory; we don’t let them “go public” until we and they think they are ready to offer weekly worship services to the public. We’d be happy if they recessed in the Summer; so far, they have not wanted to do that.

Slide 26 Order of Service

Here’s a typical Branch Order of Service. As you can see it is a very simple format. We encourage worship leaders to carefully frame the sharing, and to wrap up the sharing with words that are prayer-like. Encourage using candles or a talking stick and doing this part of the service with care. It’s an interesting balance, in a small group, to be serious without being pompous.

So far, only one of our branches has had enough children for an RE class, but that ended when the mother of three of the children died suddenly, a terrible blow for a young group. We give each branch a kit of materials to engage children during the sermon and find ways they can participate in the rest of the service. We have had branch kids come to our summer camp, and one branch teen went on a service trip with adults to New Orleans

Slide 27 The Rest of the Program

Besides Worship, We hope our branches offer a covenant group, engage in service projects, and have some fun together.

IV. How to Be a Multi-Site Church

Slide 28 Multi-site or Service Center

Here’s an important distinction. A branch is a subset of the congregation, meeting at a distance; a mini-congregation supported and resourced by the main congregation. Most importantly, they have their own worship service.

There are situations in which the need is not for a branch, but for a service center. For instance, when I was growing up, River Road church met at Radnor Elementary school. But the burgeoning Sunday school was too large for one elementary school , and so we older kids met a couple of miles away, at Whittier Woods elementary school. Nobody thought we were a separate entity…we were just meeting in a different place.

A congregation that has plenty of space on Sunday mornings for everybody but where a significant portion of the congregation lives across a dark mountain pass in another small town might not need a branch, because most Sunday mornings, they are happy to travel. But on Wednesday nights in the Winter, they are just not going to go over that pass. In that case, renting a room from a church or homeowners association for weekly potlucks and classes is what is needed. That’s not really a branch because what is offered at a distance is only a small part of what they get from their church membership.

Slide 28

Here is our scheme for developing the three branches we have at First Unitarian. (read slide)

Handout: Money

We figure it takes at least 6 months to get all this done. It also costs money. We have developed our branches using a grant from the Fund for Unitarian Universalism and the UUA. We have spent about $50,000, not only to fund a branch organizer and pay for the development costs of the three groups, but to put together workshops, and to visit small towns in New Mexico to see if we could start branches where we had no, or only a few UU contacts. Just in the three years since we started this, costs have come down significantly.

How much a branch will cost you depends on lots of things. The handout tells you about the major expense categories. We used a lot of donated equipment and talent. We discovered that most things we do have had lots of uses we didn’t anticipate.

Category Items Notes
Video Capture camera donated
computer donated
cables $$
software mostly free
DVD burner $$
Display TV’s all but one donated
Projector Paid for itself!
Speakers and wiring $$
DVD Player worth paying extra
Internet laptop $$$
access upgrade for speed and file capacity
branch start up costs


Organizer travel .47 a mile adds up!
Organizer time It takes at least 3 trips to organize a branch
Worship Supplies (hymnals, chalice, candles) $$$
RE kit $
Storage or carrying boxes
branch ongoing costs Rent $$
  Travel twice yearly visits by minister
staff time


bookkeeping 1 hour/week
ministry 2-3 days/year (each branch)
admin 1 hour/week
RE 2-3 days/year

Slide 29 What works

We discovered some clues as to whether a branch will work or not.

Slide 30 Being a Multi-Site Church

Slide 30 Final Questions

Webinar originally presented November 2009

About the Author

  • The Rev. Christine Robinson is retired after 29 years serving as the senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Previously she served the UU Fellowship of Columbia, SC. She remains active in ministry by guest preaching, consulting, leading board retreats and the...

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