Robinson returned from a sabbatical two years ago having read about the proliferation of evangelical churches that had multiple worship sites. She believed that would work for her 715-member church, as well. “I knew there were many places out there with a very small number of UUs, but not enough for a stand-alone congregation,” she said. “We researched what it would take and decided to reach out to them.”
That’s how First Unitarian has come to include two branch congregations, one 70 miles south in Socorro and one 30 miles east, over the mountains in Edgewood. Each Sunday several hundred people gather at the church in Albuquerque, 25 to 30 at Socorro and 12 to 15 at Edgewood, also known as the East Mountains group.
The key to making this work is the sermon that Robinson preaches each Sunday morning in Albuquerque. The Socorro group, which meets at 3 p.m. Sundays in an Episcopal Church, gets that same sermon, in video form via the internet, for use in its service. The East Mountains group, which meets only an hour later than the main congregation at Albuquerque, uses the sermon from the week before, sent on a DVD. It meets at a local store.
Lay leaders at the two branch congregations prepare the balance of the service, but it would be a challenge for them to develop a sermon each week.
“The idea that we can download sermons, that’s huge,” said Richard Sonnenfeld, a leader at Socorro. “It wouldn’t work without that. This enriches our lives and allows us to enrich our community with our presence.”
Sonnenfeld noted that most members at Socorro have belonged to other UU churches at earlier points in their lives. “But there just aren’t enough of us here for a separate congregation,” he said.
These branches have access to all of First Unitarian’s resources including its library and help with special worship services. First Unitarian handles their financial and membership bookkeeping. Leaders from First Unitarian, including Robinson, travel to the branches to lead classes or worship. When one of Socorro’s founding members died last spring, pastoral care was available immediately from Robinson and others.
Albuquerque member Roger Hartz, coordinator of the branch program, made frequent trips to both sites for the first few months, helping train lay leaders and providing one lay-led service a month, but now the groups create all of their own services, except for the sermon.
“It’s important that these groups have assertive leadership, Hartz says. “If something needs to be done and the group just sits and looks at each other, then it’s not going to work. People need to jump up and do whatever needs to be done.”
Technology is the other aspect that makes this work. A high-quality speakerphone enables groups at Albuquerque and the branches to easily talk with each other. This past spring it made it possible for the two outlying groups to participate in First Unitarian’s annual meeting at Albuquerque. The device also lets Small Group Ministry leaders at Socorro and East Mountains take part in covenant group leaders’ meetings from Albuquerque.
Hartz said it is anticipated that Socorro and East Mountains will remain as branches, rather than becoming separate congregations. “The advantages to being part of First Unitarian are pretty obvious.”
First Unitarian is looking at two other possible branch locations. One is 250 miles distant, said Robinson. “We want more branches because there are more small towns. I think the first branch was the hardest and they are easier after that.”
First Unitarian is using a $60,000 grant from the Fund for Unitarian Universalism, which is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association. Initially all of Socorro’s money goes to Albuquerque for bookkeeping, but then comes back to them for hiring speakers, paying rent, and other costs.
The UUA’s Congregational Services staff group also provides support. The branches are generally self-supporting now, but that’s not a criteria for continuing, said Robinson, noting that other church programs are not judged by whether they pay for themselves.
The Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, with 500 members, opened a second location at Maryville, south of Knoxville, in March 2006, at the request of members who were tired of a 25-minute drive to church. Attendance surprised everyone. At the first service there were 65 people. Now it averages 80 to 85 and often draws more than 100. “Our size took everyone by surprise,” said Owen Rhodes, former program chair at TVUUC, and now a member and coordinator of the Maryville congregation. Maryville keeps 75 percent of its Sunday contributions. TVUUC does its bookkeeping, provides insurance, and answers calls that are sometimes forwarded to Maryville. The congregation sustained itself financially from day one, said Rhodes.
Rhodes said the new congregation will separate from Tennessee Valley probably by the end of this year and become a standalone congregation. “I’d be fine staying a satellite for a long time, but we have a lot of people who want us to have our own identity,” he said.
The initial and continuing support from TVUUC has made the Maryville site work, according to Rhodes. “We’ve benefited from the established credibility of TVUUC,” he said. “That makes us more than just a new start to people here.”
First UU Church in San Diego, with 775 members, will inaugurate a satellite location this fall in the fast-growing South Bay area next to the Mexican border. It has more than 100 families in that area and many drive up to 40 minutes to church, said the Rev. Arvid Straube, senior minister.
Straube anticipates the location could draw 150 to 200 people at the start and grow from there. Intern minister Carol Layne will help lead the new congregation.
Layne said that like Albuquerque’s two branches, the South Bay Sunday service will be created at South Bay except for the sermon, which will be recorded at a new Saturday worship service at First UU and delivered to South Bay on DVD.
The Rev. Ken Brown, district executive of the UUA’s Pacific Southwest District, says that more than 1,500 evangelical and mainstream congregations are using a multisite model. He believes it has potential for UU congregations, especially those with locations where they cannot expand their physical facilities. It also provides a way for congregations to become part of diverse neighborhoods, he said. “I believe this model is one that Unitarian Universalists who are serious about spreading our faith need to explore.”
- First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, N. Mex. A 715-member congregation supporting two extended church sites. (uuabq.org)
- First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, Calif. A 770-member congregation planning a satellite location in Fall 2008. (firstuusandiego.org)
- Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. A 500-member congregation supporting an extended site in Maryville that will be forming its own congregation. (tvuuc.org)