in the congregations
New life for stalled congregation
Faced with a small, static membership and an aging building, the Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship in Illinois did the only thing it could. It decided to grow.
The congregation, founded in 1953, has a storied history. Members were prime movers in helping Carbondale become racially integrated in the 1950s and 1960s. Because of nearby Southern Illinois University, distinguished architect Buckminster Fuller had spoken from the pulpit. Unitarian religious philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman was a member and occasional speaker. And when the congregation wanted a pipe organ, it drew on members with enough skills to build one from used parts.
The congregation, able to draw speakers from its membership, the university, and the community, had not had a called minister. But about ten years ago it began to realize that its building, a former library, had become too small and shabby. The heating plant was in bad condition, and the building could not be made universally accessible. The fellowship of about 100 members, was not attracting new congregants; it wasn't growing.
Things began to change when the congregation received a bequest from one of its founding members and bought four acres on the edge of town. This move led to a decision to bring in a minister. Members had considered a minister before, but now it seemed more important, said the Rev. Dr. John Hayward, a retired professor of theology, longtime member, and author of Through the Rose Window. The Rev. William Sasso was appointed in 1999 as extension minister and two years later accepted the call as settled minister when the congregation started to grow.
With the new land, the congregation proceeded with its plans for a new building, raising close to $1.3 million and borrowing $500,000 more. “That is remarkable for a congregation this size,” said Hayward.
Said Sasso, “We're very excited with what this means in terms of our ability to grow.” The congregation had 142 members in April.
The building, including an octagonal sanctuary seating 175, was completed this spring, and the congregation moved March 21. A farewell service was held in the old building, then many members walked two-and-a-half miles to the new one, carrying the congregation's banner and chalice. Marjorie Earll, a member who had not been able to attend services for several years be-
Hayward said several factors helped the transformation. First was strong congregational leadership and the help of both a fundraiser from another church and a UUA fundraising consultant. “Also,” Hayward said, “we emphasized that sacrificial giving must arise not from the need to fulfill a budget but from the intensity with which we loved our fellowship.”
Fellowship president JoAnna Johnson said Sasso helped the congregation see that a new building was possible. “He helped us focus our energies and gave us more of an identity in the community. He also gave us the courage to go forward.”Hayward added, “We were able to move beyond our original negative reasons and instead found ourselves motivated by a dream so beautiful that we transcended all kinds of personal anxiety or pessimism.”