New Year, New Challenges

By Natalie Briscoe

As I write this, I am on the plane home from the Congregational Life Leadership Team meeting in York, Maine.

Two to three times per year, your Congregational Life Leadership Team meets to strategize the work of the Congregational Life Department, known as field staff or Regional Staff, toward fulfilling the UUA’s mission of Supporting Congregations, Training Leaders, and Living our UU Values. We begin by sharing the major needs facing each area of the country, discover commonalities, work together to design responses, and offer resources from staff team to staff team to use all means necessary to meet the needs of the congregations who form the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Your Congregational Life Leadership Team is:

  • Jessica York, Director of Congregational Life
  • Natalie Briscoe, Lead for the Southern Region
  • Rev. Dr. Megan Foley, Lead for the Central East Region
  • Rev. David Pyle, Lead for the MidAmerica Region
  • Woullard Lett, Lead for the New England Region
  • Rev. Carlton Smith, Lead for the Pacific Western Region
  • Christine Purcell, Congregational Life Transitions Program Director
  • Connie Goodbread, Co-Director for Hope for Us Conflict Engagement Team
  • Jacquis Robertson, Co-Director for Hope for Us Conflict Engagement Team
  • Heather Bond, Safe Congregations Manager for the Office of Ethics and Safety
  • Amy Kent, Congregational Life Executive Administrator

This team quickly realized that there are two major challenges facing Unitarian Universalist congregations as we enter a new year. First, many congregations throughout the UUA are beginning a year without the level of professional staffing that they had planned or hoped for. Some congregations were unable to fund or find full-time settled ministry, and some congregations were unable to secure interim ministry for the upcoming year. Some congregations found themselves completing an interim or developmental period and realized they were not yet ready for a settled search, and some congregations were forced to decrease the level of professional ministry from full or three-quarter time to half time contract ministry for a variety of reasons.

In all of these cases, lay leaders are met with the particular challenge of needing to pivot in the roles and responsibilities within the congregation. Perhaps the worship team was not prepared to go another full year of designing worship. Perhaps the board is feeling like they need assistance with navigating the cultural shifts within the congregation caused by the necessary changes to governance that the pandemic brought, and they do not have a ministry partner to help them with these shifts. Perhaps the developmental disruption that the pandemic brought to the congregation is causing a lack of trust, lay leaders are exhausted from the emotional labor of building the relationships back, and now there is no minister to offer pastoral care or to focus the congregation’s efforts toward trust-building. Your regional staff is very aware of the challenges you face in this situation in this upcoming year, and we are working together to provide resources as well as online spaces to gather, learn from one another, and get through this year with gusto. Please stay tuned for announcements regarding these offerings.

Second, families with children and youth have not yet returned to church, leaving professional Religious Educators with many challenges for program planning. Families with children were devastated during the pandemic as they tried to juggle homeschooling or online schooling with work and other duties. It has been an exhausting time, and one thing is very clear: parents do not want to take on volunteer work at this time. They are tired and in desperate need of a break. In addition, children and teens alike have their own developmental interruptions at critical times, and they need more and different kinds of emotional and intellectual support, all of which creates ongoing stress for caregivers.

Religious Education models that relied on large numbers of parent volunteers will not work right now, if they ever did. Leaner budgets mean that buildings once built for large numbers of children and youth become unsustainable, and staffing these programs which look very different now is also a challenge for congregations. Religious Education programs must pivot into serving in a pop-up fashion with a camp-type atmosphere when the more traditional class-type model fails. Again, stay tuned for upcoming resources and opportunities to learn and share together in the upcoming months.

In both cases, congregations must ask themselves a pivotal question: with less professional ministry and less religious education, how will we continue to build and grow Unitarian Universalism and the UU Identity in our congregation? The good news surrounding these challenges is the Good News of Unitarian Universalism: You are not alone. Your Regional Staff and your sibling congregations across the UUA are ready to get to work. There isn’t anything we can’t do when we do it together.