Just five years ago, things were so bleak at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder, Colorado, that there was a question as to how much longer it would survive.
The congregation went years without paying the mortgage on its building. It hadn’t paid its Fair Share denominational dues to the Unitarian Universalist Association since the 1990s. The building was dilapidated, the minister’s office was hard to find, and the religious education building was unavailable because the church, desperate for income, rented it out to local schools.
Worse, it had the cliquey atmosphere of a social club, so unwelcoming that the church flunked a “secret visitor” evaluation when a UUA Mountain Desert District representative attended a service unannounced. At one point, membership dwindled to eighty, with so much infighting that when longtime member Barbara Richards became congregation president in 1993, friends warned her she would need a sledgehammer to call meetings to order.
“If I had walked in five years ago instead of four, I would not have come back,” said Whitney Wheeless, who joined the church in 2009 and is now president of the five-member board of trustees.
Today when you walk up the sunny pathway to the church on a Sunday morning, you’re met with radical hospitality, as two smiling congregants—one is from the rapidly growing young adult group—greet everyone before they reach the front door. Inside the sanctuary, built in the 1960s in a shape reminiscent of a Pueblo kiva, scores of new members and newly invigorated long-timers occupy nearly every seat.
The service is joyful and energetic and emphasizes the church’s new focus on social justice. On a Sunday in May, nine members of the church’s new Social Change Immigration Ministry described their recent BorderLinks trip to the Arizona-Mexico border. They placed items they’d found in the desert, such as empty water bottles, on a makeshift altar at the front of the church.
At coffee hour, children run about, people discuss the church-wide social change events, and a crowd of twentysomethings laugh as they plan their weekly pub meeting, Spirituality on Tap.
“You step back and you think, ‘Not long ago, this was like the apocalypse,’” said Jennifer Skiendzielewski, who will be board president next year. “There is an amazement that things have changed so dramatically.”
Since 2008, when the Rev. Howell Lind arrived as part of a bold experiment that has evolved into the UUA’s new Developmental Ministry program (see “What Is Developmental Ministry?” page 36), the Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder has more than doubled its certified membership, from 110 to 233, with an unofficial count of 270. It has swept away a $50,000 deficit and raised $170,000 for capital developments, including a beautiful new playground and solar panels. It has become a teaching congregation for student ministers; it has pioneered Mindful Meetings to give a spiritual base to all church business; and it has instituted a Small Group Social Change Ministry model for social justice, with church-wide events that build community.
In what may be the most exciting development, it now includes fifty-five young adult members between 18 and 35—an astonishing fifteen-fold increase in five years—who attend church services on Sundays, meet at least weekly outside church, and are deliberately incorporated into all levels of church leadership. “The environment is just so much more exciting and fun to be a part of,” said Susie Belmont, who was one of only three young adults when she joined the church in 2009.
The church is doing so well that it is mentoring Mission Peak UU Congregation in Fremont, California, as a Leap of Faith congregation.
Each year, the UUA’s Office of Growth Strategies recognizes a handful of congregations that have broken through barriers to achieve exemplary goals. For the Boulder church’s remarkable change of course in such a short time, it has been named a Breakthrough Congregation by the UUA. (See more photos and share a study guide about this story.)
While the members appreciate the outside recognition, they are more delighted that they have rescued their beloved community by choosing to stay at the table rather than giving up and by being open to significant change and experimentation.
“People who’ve come back to the church after having been away ten years or whatever, they find it’s a different place—there’s excitement, enthusiasm, and the noise level [at coffee hour] is unbelievable,” said Lind.
“We’re at a really good place that we weren’t at even a couple of years ago,” said Wheeless with a broad smile.
In the dark days, as members call the recent past, the church was falling apart, both literally and figuratively.
Founded by a young mother in 1947 as the American Unitarian Association’s first fellowship, the church had more recently developed a quitting culture, where disgruntled members would leave rather than staying and working through conflict. By the mid-2000s, with no money in the coffers and a couple of bad matches between ministers and congregation, the church was on life support. “Oh, we were in trouble,” says Skiendzielewski.
But a core group decided they needed to pull themselves together, as Skiendzielewski puts it, and they reached out to Mountain Desert District Executive Nancy Bowen. With the Boulder church about to enter a ministerial search, Bowen suggested an innovative lifeline: decide what they as a congregation needed to do to become functional, then hire a minister who would help them reach those specific goals over a five-year period.
They jumped on it.
“I think we wanted to find a direction that would be successful instead of this constantly rotating door of un-success, so we were willing to try something new,” said Jenny Fitt-Peaster, immediate past-president of the board. After much explanation and lobbying by the board, the congregation voted unanimously to switch to a new kind of search.
“They knew that they were in really bad shape and in some ways on a path to self destruction. It was time for someone to come in from outside,” said the Rev. Keith Kron, director of the UUA’s Transitions Office, which now oversees the Developmental Ministry program.
They began with an interim minister, the Rev. Becky Gunn, now minister at the UU Society of Bangor, Maine, who got them headed in the right direction. In 2007 the board devised a set of goals to get the church back on its feet. The board worked with Bowen and the Rev. John Weston, then-director of Transitions at the UUA, to find a minister whose expertise was on point. They chose Lind, an expert in organizational systems and finances who, in addition to ministering to churches in three states, served fourteen years as district executive of the UUA’s Metropolitan New York District.
“My experience as a field staffer for the UUA helped, in that I’d seen a variety of congregations—those with bad practices and those with good—so I had learned what works,” said Lind, who is married to Bowen. “Ministry to spiritual needs is more than just pastoral; it also means knowing how to build a community. It’s having a sense of how to motivate a congregation to move the way it wants to. I think the Developmental Ministry program is an excellent way to do that.”
It’s important to note that the goals were set by the board, not by Lind, creating shared leadership. And because the minister contracts with the board for five years, it gives them incentive to make the relationship work. “That’s significant, because it means the board is in the game no matter what,” said Wheeless. “It allows some buy-in and commitment [from the board] even if the congregation starts being concerned about changes.”
As soon as Lind arrived, his every step was strategic, to help the congregation reach its goals, including the shedding of its image as a social club.
“The first Sunday Howell stepped into the pulpit, he wore his robe,” recalled Richards. “He wears it every Sunday he’s preaching. It sets the stage—it says that this is a place of worship and that we belong to a larger association than ourselves.”
Lind moved the minister’s office from a secluded area in the back of the building to the front, signaling access, visibility, and transparency. He then persuaded the congregation to fix its run-down building: first, a new front door, then carpet and paint.
“We had let the place get run down because we had no money,” said Fitt-Peaster. “He said our physical structure needed to look good in order for us to feel good about ourselves. He wasn’t afraid of asking for money and he was able to get it, when we hadn’t before. He opened our eyes to the fact we weren’t a poor congregation, and I think that opened doors for other things to happen.”
The board made governance changes and amended bylaws and policies so it could move toward its goals, and most of its members have attended the UUA’s regional Russell Lockwood Leadership School. The changes began to build on themselves. In a controversial move, the board stopped renting out its religious education building so the church could use its own space. As the congregation got healthier, it took on a series of intern ministers, who proved essential to attracting and retaining young adults, and Lind gave them room to be creative.
“There was never any ego in it, in terms of what [Lind] offered to us,” said Richards, a decades-long member and hospitality ministry coordinator.
At the same time, added Skiendzielewski, Lind’s persistence proved invaluable: “His stubbornness allows him not to care that people don’t like everything from the beginning. He doesn’t bend to appeasement.” When Lind encountered criticism to changes, rather than backing down he’d urge the congregation to ride it out with the idea of tweaking things down the road.
A capital campaign raised $65,000 for a new playground, and at least 100 members of the rapidly growing congregation came together over four days to build it, with teens and seniors sawing and hammering next to each other. It was an important community-building event. The church raised $105,000 more for other projects, and it donates $2,000 a month from the weekly offerings to local social justice organizations.
Stung by failing the mystery visitor’s evaluation, the congregation now emphasizes welcoming newcomers. “The big thing that makes us a Breakthrough Congregation is that it’s a very welcoming place now,” said Lind.
The young adult group is especially organized, tight knit, and enthusiastic. The group immediately adds visitors to its email list and invites them to get-togethers at local pubs, where five to twenty people gather each week. Lind seeks the group’s input for Sunday services, and as a result the music is more contemporary, said Belmont. Young adults serve on the board of trustees and on every other committee.
“We worked really hard to incorporate young adults immediately into the leadership,” said Lind. “They want to be taken seriously and they want their vision and values to be heard.” The success of the young adult group in creating community has inspired an over-35 group, Wine and Spirit, and now the church is focusing on attracting and retaining more young families.
The congregation has reached its goals so quickly that it’s now working on a five-year strategic plan that seeks to extend improvements in worship, family development, buildings and grounds, and more. Lind, who has enjoyed the challenge, has agreed to stay on until a settled minister is called; the congregation’s search will begin soon.
“It takes about seven years to change a church culture,” said Lind, who may take on another developmental congregation. “If they choose someone next year, that’ll be seven years, and enough culture change has already happened to get it out of the social club. It doesn’t mean the work is all done, but I think they’re more than stable now, to the point where congregational polity can be returned and they can call a minister.”
He’s leaving them in excellent shape, they say. “When you look at where we were, and where we are,” said Richards, “there’s no comparison.”
“There is something better, and it can be done—that’s the message we can carry forward,” says Fred Cole, a member for forty-seven years. “Change takes work, dedication, commitment—and it takes the whole village.”
This article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of UU World (pages 33–37). See additional photos at UU World's Flickr page.