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Congregations take 'Leap of Faith'

UUA pilot program helps congregations mentor one another.
By Donald E. Skinner
5.16.11

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Members of the Unitarian Church in Summit, N.J., and the First UU Congregation in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Members of the Unitarian Church in Summit, N.J., and the First UU Congregation in Ann Arbor, Mich., tour the new addition of their mentor church, the First Unitarian Church of Dallas. (Andrea Lerner)

The Rev. Mark Stringer, of the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, Iowa, is a big believer in field trips. He spent part of his sabbatical in 2008 visiting other congregations to learn how to guide his own growing church. Another time he and the church’s director of finance took a trip to St. Paul, Minn., to work with Unity Church-Unitarian’s consulting program for congregational leaders.

Both trips led to better ways of “doing church” in Des Moines. And that’s why Stringer was thrilled last fall that his 425-member congregation was included in the pilot Leap of Faith project launched by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Congregational Services staff group.

Leap of Faith paired seven “aspiring congregations” that wanted help in achieving growth, or in simply becoming more vital, with six “mentoring congregations.” These congregations began meeting with each other in October.

Stringer took a group of Des Moines leaders to the 774-member First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque, N.Mex., in January. “We were initially interested in how to engage young adults and how to create branch congregations like Albuquerque had done,” he said in a recent interview.

“But we learned other things as well. As we described our congregation to people at Albuquerque, they made suggestions about areas that we hadn’t even thought about. And we saw things that we wanted to try at Des Moines.”

One of the first things the Des Moines leaders did on returning home was to raise money to hire a 20-hour religious education assistant. “We didn’t go to Albuquerque thinking we needed to improve RE staffing, but being there, being a fly on the wall, showed us what a benefit a RE assistant would be to our program,” Stringer said. Des Moines is also working on improving its Sunday morning audiovisual system, resuming a third service, and improving outdoor signage and parking.

Stringer said that although the formal relationship with First Unitarian is over, he and other Des Moines leaders know they can always tap into that connection if they need to. “We know we have friends in Albuquerque now. This is a relationship we expect will last.”

He said the visit “really energized” those who went. “This is so practical and tangible. People felt it was a really valuable thing to do.”

At the other end of the relationship, the Rev. Angela Herrera, assistant minister at Albuquerque, said her congregation benefited as well. “The conversation . . . touched something in us, inspiring us to embrace our identity as a mentoring congregation with a deeper self-understanding, sense of mission, and intentionality.” Jessica Edlinger, young adult group organizer, added that the visit by the Des Moines leaders “prompted the young adults group to begin a dialogue about covenants within our group and about how we do, want to, and should relate to the church as a whole.”

The other participating congregations in Leap of Faith were:

  • The Unitarian Church in Summit, N.J., (529 members) and the First UU Congregation in Ann Arbor, Mich., (578), mentored by First Unitarian Church of Dallas (1096).
  • First Parish in Milton, Mass., (233) mentored by First UU Church of Richmond, Va. (544).
  • UU Church of Bloomington, Ind. (452), and West Shore UU Church, Rocky River, Ohio (566), mentored by First Unitarian Church, Rochester, N.Y. (955).
  • Emerson UU Church in Houston (472) was paired with Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Md. (873).

The Rev. Nancy Bowen, district executive of the Mountain Desert District, headed a UUA staff team that guided the program. She said the participating congregations have been uniformly enthusiastic about Leap of Faith. “It is fair to say that Leap of Faith was successful in helping participating congregations see themselves in a new light and see their gifts and their challenges with new clarity and more options,” she said.

A final report, and a workshop on the program, will be presented at General Assembly in June. An independent evaluation is also being conducted. Leap of Faith was planned as a two-year experiment. This spring a new set of congregations—24 in all—is being selected and they will meet during the next year. Congregations in the second year must have at least 250 members, be healthy, and be willing to contribute $2,500. All other costs will be paid by the UUA. In the first year the UUA paid most of the costs because congregational recruitment happened after budgets had been set.

This year each of the aspiring congregations is making a DVD about their experience, including talking about what they learned and the changes they expect to make. Those will be shown at GA, Bowen said. She said she expects that some of the aspiring congregations will in time become mentoring congregations.


Seven members of the UU Church of Bloomington loaded into a van and visited the First Unitarian Church of Rochester this winter. “The real value was in getting outside our own system,” said the Rev. Bill Breeden, co-minister at Bloomington. “We looked at religious education and the way Rochester does thematic preaching. Seeing it in person makes a big difference. It’s an opportunity I’d recommend to anyone.”

He said his team got some ideas about a path to membership. “Theirs is more comprehensive than ours.” When Bloomington shared they were struggling with frequent turnover of church administrators, Rochester folks related that they’d had success hiring two people for 10 hours each rather than one half-time person. “That way you don’t lose all of your memory on how to run the office,” noted Breeden. “We tried it this spring and we had more applicants than when the position was halftime. That one idea was worth the trip.”

The van trip itself was valuable, he said. “Each person pointed out things they had observed at Rochester. By the time we got halfway home we had a very concise list of items that was invaluable to us.” He said the timing of Leap of Faith was serendipitous. “We’d already been talking about getting a van and visiting somewhere just because we thought it would be a useful thing to do. Then we got this invitation.”

Nine members of the West Shore UU Church, Rocky River, Ohio, also visited Rochester, taking with them a list of more than a half dozen areas they wanted to learn about. When they returned home they began work on two changes.

One is a process, like Rochester’s, that clearly identifies what social justice issues the congregation will support. The second involves a distillation of First Unitarian’s mission statement into three words: Listen • Open • Serve. “These words are woven through their entire church,” said West Shore co-minister the Rev. Kathleen Rolenz. “This consistent messaging was really attractive to us, and we’re thinking about how we would do something like that.”

She said many other ideas from Rochester are being filed away for future use. “The wisdom of this program is the peer-to-peer learning in an intentional and focused way. This was the shot of adrenaline we needed.”

The Rev. Parisa Parsa, minister of First Parish in Milton, Mass., took a group of leaders to First UU Church, Richmond, Va., in December. They were interested in how First UU carried its mission into the world in terms of social action and evangelism. Parsa said First Parish is seeking ways to connect with less privileged communities that are near its own “comfortable New England suburb.”

They found that Richmond had a clearly identifiable message that it uses on its written materials and as a sort of mantra. First Parish developed its own statement: “We welcome all to grow deep in faith and take bold action.” Parsa said, “We use it both as a tag line on our materials and as a meditation tool—how did I deepen my faith today, or how was I moved to take bold action?”

First Parish was also interested in Richmond’s long-term partnership with an elementary school in a low-income area. “We learned that it started with one volunteer who drew people in over the course of 15 years,” said Parsa. “That led us to consider the places where we were already in partnership and what might be meaningful for us.”

Richmond’s senior minister, the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, visited First Parish this spring and more visits are planned by other leaders through next fall even though the partnership is officially over this spring. One of Richmond’s board members plans to visit Milton this summer or fall to work on governance issues. The two membership coordinators also plan to meet, and a Richmond leader may help First Parish in planning an annual retreat.

“We got a lot out of that one weekend visit to Richmond,” said Parsa.

Pupke said her congregation is interested in how First Parish does multigenerational and thematic worship. “A relationship like this forces you to ask questions from a different point of view,” she noted. “There were things they knew that we needed to know and vice versa. The conversation was different than we thought it would be.”

Bowen noted that simply being selected for Leap of Faith has huge benefits for a congregation. “The single most powerful part of the program has been that each congregation was seen to be healthy, dynamic, vital, and chosen. There’s great power in that, to be told, ‘Your association sees you and wants to help you.’ The whole congregation experiences being chosen, even though only five to seven leaders actually go on the visits.”

Parsa confirmed that. “This was tremendously energizing for our congregation. We’ve just completed a process of redoing our covenant. This program gave us a vehicle to move out into the world. It really created momentum for us.”

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