‘We say ‘yes’ a lot,” says Jody Malloy of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County in Media, Pennsylvania. “We are a congregation that has in its DNA that we take risks—calculated risks—and we say yes.” Malloy is on the church’s executive team, and she and other congregants are certain this “yes” mentality is what has energized and empowered their congregation. Perhaps it is also what has led to the church’s designation as a 2016 Unitarian Universalist Association Breakthrough Congregation.
Since the church moved from the traditional governance structure to policy governance, Malloy says she has seen a shift to where everyone in the congregation feels empowered. Longtime member Mardys Leeper says the congregation is “driven from the base, and people get excited with the ownership” of their programs as well as the life of the whole church.
Patricia Infante, Regional Faith Development consultant for the UUA, says the church is a “great incubator for folks doing important and innovative work in leadership.” She notes that the congregation had a long history of being strong even before the Rev. Peter Friedrichs’s arrival in 2006. “Peter is a multidimensional leader,” Infante says, “who brings a warmth and intellectual depth” to the congregation. With its core of dedicated leaders and a minister who “is open to a shared ministry model,” she says she is not surprised that the UU Church of Delaware County was named a Breakthrough Congregation. “They are a congregation that puts themselves on the edge.”
Growth Through Service
One innovative program that has quickly taken root at the church was started by Malloy and Laurie Cooke, who found themselves posing that oft-asked question: “Why is it that the same people keep volunteering to lead?” Cooke, a member of the congregation since 2006, is executive director at a nonprofit and has extensive experience working with volunteers. She wondered how she might be able to use her skills and background to help change the dynamic of the church’s volunteer base and encourage more people to serve as willingly and joyfully as those already doing so.
She began working with Malloy, who is executive director of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, to design a program that would enhance the spiritual development of individuals by connecting them to the UU values of service, and easily match congregants with volunteer opportunities.
Cooke and Malloy worked for three years with “close collaboration and contribution” from Friedrichs to develop the church’s Growth Through Service program. “We were cultivating a culture of service in the congregation, and realizing we were working to change church culture, we took our time,” says Cooke.
A quick look at the church’s website shows how this program works in the daily life of the congregation. Nearly every page has a listing of “Growth Through Service Opportunities” with links to specific assignments with detailed descriptions of the tasks, the opportunities for learning, and the skills required. Opportunities range from purchasing flowers for Sunday one time to teaching religious education for the church year, as well as opportunities in social justice projects outside the church.
But the program doesn’t stop with clicks on a web page. When they launched the program, the Growth Through Service team took the time to interview every member of the congregation (approximately 270 people) to talk to them about their own goals for spiritual growth. These conversations were documented in a database so that the team could tailor volunteer opportunities for each member. The developers also incorporated a two-year cycle, so that every church member is contacted again two years after the initial interview, allowing for feedback as well as understanding of new opportunities for service.
Opportunities for service are also built into the worship service each week. There are no longer “announcements” during the worship, but a time in the service when projects and activities are lifted up to the entire congregation. Member Donna Harris says it has been a great way to fill the needs of the church. Harris led the recent Service Auction at the church, and when she needed volunteers to help, Friedrichs informed the congregation. “I had thirty-five volunteers in minutes,” she says.
The Growth Through Service initiative provides a pipeline to train and replace team leaders as need arises and also supports church groups in reimagining their roles. Leeper, for example, has been involved with the congregation for decades and has participated in the church’s social justice work for most of that time. She has served as the Justice and Outreach Ministry Team leader for several years and is looking to retire from the role. The Growth Through Service team could use its database and knowledge of congregants’ interests to find a replacement for Leeper, someone to shadow her for a year and then take over, as is the practice with other leadership positions. But Leeper says the time is ripe for the congregation to rethink the structure of the Justice Team, and the congregation’s leadership will be facilitating this process in the coming year. Without the Growth Through Service program, Leeper is not sure this “wisdom council” approach would be happening with this integral part of the church.
Young Families Ministry
A few years ago, Natalie Silver and Chrissy Bushyager were considering the lack of social opportunities for families with pre-K children. They had an idea they took to the executive committee to create a social network for this demographic, and created the church’s Young Families group. They host family-friendly gatherings about four times per year and a potluck dinner one Sunday a month, complete with childcare.
Bushyager says it has worked—and far better than they had hoped. Though her own children are on the verge of aging out of the group, Bushyager says more and more people with young children are coming to the church because it is now a “place where the whole family has community and feels connected.”
The program has been so successful—now with more than twenty families—that Silver says they have begun a small group ministry for the families with young children. “We immediately had enough for two groups,” she says, “but then we realized we needed to form a third group so that should someone else wish to join, there would be room for them.”
Five to Thrive
The congregation’s willingness to be bold is also reflected in the rejuvenation of its annual fund campaign. “We realized that the original number people pledged was just an arbitrary one in the first place,” Friedrichs says. From that discussion came the idea to ask members of the congregation to pledge five percent of their gross household income. Some congregants were already pledging beyond that amount, and he asked them to consider keeping that pledge at that level or beyond. For others, the team knew the five percent would be a stretch, so he asked them to pledge to get to that level in three years.
“People responded positively,” says Friedrichs. There was a significant increase in pledging with an average increase of 22 percent from those who pledged in 2014. The pledge drive was successful, allowing the congregation to meet costs as well as increase funding to some programs. It also allowed the church to share the entire collection plate twice each month, where they had previously shared half the plate once a month.
Friedrichs recently finished teaching another four-session UU101 class, which is a required course for people who wish to formally become members of the church. “The fourth session is where we are very explicit about expectations we have for our members,” he says. “I like to make it as simple and clear as possible.” Those expectations are that members show up for Sunday worship, take their spiritual journey seriously, serve, and participate in stewardship of the church.
“I find that when you set the bar high and are clear and honest about expectations, people rise to meet and exceed them,” Friedrichs says, and this is what is happening at the UU Church of Delaware County right now. “It feels like we are firing on all cylinders,” he adds. “People sense the excitement and energy and want to be a part of it.”
“It’s an upward spiral,” Malloy says. “Where we get stronger from the work we are doing, we capitalize on that strength and we go and do the next bold thing. And that’s what makes us who we are.”
See additional photos of the UU Church of Delaware County by Maura B. McConnell