It’s a Sunday in mid-June, and the Rev. Katie Kandarian-Morris is telling her congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Durango, that it is incumbent on UUs like themselves to extend their message beyond the walls of their southwestern Colorado church. It is important to spread the word, for instance, about the church’s newly installed gender-free restrooms in order to bear witness to their UU values.
In a post-service reflection session, Kandarian-Morris and the congregation’s communications team explain to some less-than-tech-savvy members how to access the fellowship’s website and how to use its Facebook page to reach the larger Durango community.
“The future lies here in this sacred space,” she says, “and beyond its walls.”
A year ago, Kandarian-Morris would not have been able to speak about that “sacred space” in the same way. That’s because it wasn’t until last August that she became the congregation’s developmental minister.
Kandarian-Morris is the first minister the Durango fellowship has had since it was founded in 1967. For some of the 110 members and 60 friends, she is the first minister they have ever known. Making the commitment to hire a minister was a big step for a congregation that had grown and thrived as a lay-led fellowship for more than 40 years.
“Having made the decision to ask a minister to come and join us,” said Board President Bonnie Miller, “has lifted us to another level in the energy and sense of ourselves.”
It is also the culmination of a string of events over a decade and a half that led the UU Fellowship of Durango to be named a “Breakthrough Congregation” by the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Thanks to the UUA’s developmental ministry program, the congregation will have the opportunity over a three-year period to weigh the pluses and minuses of having its own minister after so many years of fending for itself.
Asking Kandarian-Morris to “come and join us,” as Miller put it, was a big decision for the congregation to make, but it was only one of many that led it to this moment.
Like many UU fellowships, it all started with occasional services in members’ living rooms. By the 1990s, the fellowship was renting a room in the Smiley Building, a historic building used by a number of local community groups, offering services twice a month, but never in the summer.
Ken Carpenter, a former UUA Board of Trustees member, and his wife Lois began to visit the area from their Midland, Texas, home in the 1950s. By the late 1990s, they were spending more and more time at their ranch near Durango.
“We said we’d love to come to church here more often,” he remembered, “but we can’t if the doors are closed.”
In 1999, the fellowship, which by then was attracting anywhere from 40 to 60 people to services, took what at the time seemed like a big leap and began holding weekly services. Members with families started its first religious education program.
That big step of taking on the responsibility of weekly services turned out to be a good one as enthusiasm and the congregation’s profile in the Durango area swiftly grew—into its next challenge.
Soon enough, Lois Carpenter said, “There was just no extra space. We had 70 chairs and 73 members.”
In 2003, a committee was formed to find a solution to the space challenge. It wasn’t easy and, just when it looked as if the committee would have to recommend simply moving to one more, albeit bigger, rented space, somebody heard about another local church that was building a larger facility for itself.
That same day, a group headed over to take a look at the building that the Faith Community Church of the Nazarene had just put on the market and, Lois Carpenter said, “Everybody got the vision at the same time.” Ken Carpenter agreed, remembering the children swarming the swing set the other church community had left behind. “All at once, everybody was excited.”
Meanwhile, Ken Carpenter, who was chairman of the UUA Board of Trustees Finance Committee from 1995 to 2000, remembers thinking, “But we haven’t raised a single dime yet.”
Indeed, said longtime member and current Membership Chair K. Redford, “There was a lot of concern about whether we could afford a building.”
And, Redford pointed out, there were people in the congregation who felt it was too big a change to make.
“In many ways, that was a bigger decision for us than the one to ask Katie to join us,” Redford said.
Enthusiasm outweighed the doubts and the congregation quickly raised several hundred thousand dollars for the down payment on a purchase price that was north of $1 million.
The first worship service in the new building on Christmas Eve 2003 drew a crowd of more than 150.
The fellowship has gone through a series of capital campaigns and renovation projects to create a beautiful church with an accompanying fellowship hall. That led to more enthusiasm and, eventually, discussions about whether to take the next step.
“They had grown to close to 100 members, they had a building, and they had become a much more effective presence in Durango,” Pacific Western Region Lead Nancy Bowen said, “but the level of lay ministry required of them to run it all was beginning to be too much.”
Miller said, “We had a great need for pastoral care; sometimes you need a professional who can guide you. And we had interesting speakers, but we recognized we were ready for a deeper spiritual connection.”
Following plenty of discussion and debate, the decision was made in August 2013 to form a ministerial search committee. With Bowen’s help and guidance, the committee made a recommendation in the spring of 2014 and Kandarian-Morris moved to Durango from her longtime home in Hayward, California, where she had been the minister at the Starr King UU Church for the previous fifteen years.
What Kandarian-Morris is careful to call a shared ministry will continue for two more years, at which point the congregation will decide whether it is ready to take one more step and officially call a minister to its pulpit.
It has been an exciting story of growth and spiritual development for the Durango fellowship, and it is a story studded with nuggets of advice for other lay-led fellowships that are somewhere along the path to considering whether to ask a minister to “come and join us.”
First, Durango members said, talk about what you want. Lifespan Religious Education Director Lisa McCorry was part of a survey team a few years ago that conducted one-on-one interviews with members and friends that each took several hours. There were focus group meetings as well where congregation members talked with each other and drew some conclusions about what they thought their future could look like.
“We realized that people had a desire for professional leadership and some unification,” she said.
Second, be open to change and to each other. Bowen said this fellowship, long before the idea of a minister ever came up, had established a culture of dealing well with each other. “There’s a very low incidence of conflict, and they don’t let disagreeing with one another become the conflict.”
Kandarian-Morris said of the congregation, “When there’s something in front of them, they immediately go to ‘How do we make it happen?’ rather than ‘We can’t do that.’”
Third, listen to newcomers. A large number of members of the Durango congregation have been members of UU congregations in other cities. Many, if not most, came with ideas of what it takes to make a healthy, vibrant congregation.
“And the current members of the fellowship have always welcomed them and were willing to hear their stories and learn from them,” Bowen said. “They understood this as an asset and invested in it in very healthy ways.”
Fourth, don’t be afraid to talk about money. “That took some change,” Lois Carpenter said, remembering a time in the rented space when there was simply a collection basket at the back of the room that nobody was eager to mention.
But it did change. When the decision was made to hire a developmental minister, a special capital campaign was established to make sure the fellowship had enough for Kandarian-Morris’s compensation over the next three years. Not only did the campaign exceed its goal, pledges have risen 35 percent in the past year.
“We realized that where you put your financial resources is the expression of your values,” Miller said.
Finally, continue to share the ministry. The congregation was clear even before Kandarian-Morris arrived about the goals they hoped to achieve by her presence. Among them were professional pastoral care, enhanced worship experiences, and a greater presence in the Durango community.
Still, she recognizes that she is now sharing the leadership of a religious community that has led itself for more than forty years. Kandarian-Morris takes responsibility for two Sundays a month while guest speakers or lay members prepare the other two. Even on the Sundays when she preaches, she shares the pulpit with a lay worship leader. When she took a couple of months off beginning in late June, the worship team looked forward to its lay-led summer series of services.
“Katie knows when to step up and when to step back,” McCorry said.
“I’m appreciative of the congregation that exists,” Kandarian-Morris said. “The relationship is ongoing.”
Nevertheless, longtime congregation member Judith Reynolds said, “She’s the right person for us at the right time.”
See a slideshow of photographs of the UU Fellowship of Durango by Jeremy Wade Schockley at flickr.com/uuworld: