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Speakers series boosts Fla. fellowship into public eye

‘Celebrated Speakers’ series pays for huge building, increases congregation’s public visibility.
By Donald E. Skinner
4.27.09

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In one evening in February, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach, Fla., raised $45,000 to help Greg Mortenson, author of the book Three Cups of Tea, build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan through his Central Asia Institute. On the same night the fellowship raised $20,000 to help restore the Florida home of poet Laura Riding Jackson. And it raised $30,000 for itself.

That’s a healthy evening’s work for a 170-member fellowship. How did they do it? It’s all about the building—and a corps of committed volunteers.

Four years ago the congregation took a giant leap of faith, moving from a 6,000-square-foot somewhat secluded building into a 30,000-square-foot building in the heart of Vero Beach.

The congregation was able to make the move because it figured out how to get other people to help pay for the building. The fellowship created a “Celebrated Speakers” lecture series, which brings in four big-name speakers each winter. This past winter, the fellowship hosted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, NPR news analyst Juan Williams, and author David McCullough.

Each speaker gave two presentations, filling the fellowship’s 824-seat sanctuary each time. Tickets from $55 to $65 brought the congregation about $140,000.

To be precise, the series nets the “Emerson Center” that much money. The Emerson Center is the separate entity created by the fellowship to organize and implement the series. The Center uses the money to maintain the building and pay the mortgage on it.

The fellowship itself pays for the other typical expenses of a church––salaries of the minister, religious educator, and other staff, plus supplies and costs of its various ministries. The fellowship pays for everything, in other words, but the maintenance of the building.

The fellowship, which was outgrowing its old building and was trying to decide whether to add to its existing building or move, was able to buy its new home at a good price, $1.64 million, because it was in foreclosure. The congregation raised $500,000 and took out a $1 million mortgage, which it is repaying with proceeds from the speaker series.*

Don Croteau co-chairs the fellowship’s public programs with his wife Susan Grandpierre. Croteau noted that some members were hesitant about committing to the huge building. “This is a big thing for a small congregation to do. There’s a lot of faith here. And we mapped out a ten-year financial plan before we committed ourselves.”


Greg Mortenson was an add-on speaker this year, a fifth speaker brought in by the congregation in an effort to begin to use its new space to support social justice issues.

Croteau said the “Celebrated Speakers” are generally middle-of-the road politically. “We’re not trying to preach to people, we just try to bring in speakers who have something meaningful to say,” he said. The Center also makes clear to supporters that their money is only going to maintain the building, not to support a particular faith.

Through the Emerson Center, the fellowship also hosts a second speakers series, the Florida Humanities Series, for the Florida Humanities Council. Those events, featuring speakers on regional culture and history, are free. “This series is our gift to the community,” said Croteau.

The six humanities speakers this past winter were a Florida storyteller, a documentary filmmaker, a historian, a man who made a film about the Tuskegee Airmen, a philosopher who spoke on “ethical perspectives of the environmental movement,” and an archaeologist.

The two speakers series have given the congregation increased visibility in the community, said the Rev. Dr. Maureen Killoran, the fellowship’s interim minister. “This congregation has accomplished marvelous things by taking a leap into this huge building,” she said. “They are really trying to reach out into the community as a fellowship.” Fellowship President Al Parmentier noted that fellowship members provide much of the volunteer support for the Emerson Center. He serves as the sound engineer. He noted that the presence of the Celebrated Speakers series has created some benefits for Sunday worship as well. “We are well equipped with technology because some of the ‘celebrated’ speakers require that. We can project images onto two walls and we’re talking about having paperless services. And we can use ten or more microphones if we want to.”

The fellowship uses the large Emerson Center auditorium as a sanctuary on Sunday morning. Parmentier said the fellowship’s members are a long way from filling up the huge space, “but we’re starting to get pretty comfortable in it.”


Correction 4.29.09: This article originally but incorrectly reported that the church also operates a for-profit pre-kindergarten school that brings in $100,000 annually. The school is in fact non-denominational and non-profit, but proceeds from it help support the Emerson Center. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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