Laura Wilson grew up in the lay-led Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence, Kansas, but didn’t attend after graduating from high school because Sunday mornings didn’t speak to her. She wanted something more spiritual than the educational forum-type program that had been a standard at the fellowship since it was founded in 1957.
When she came back to the fellowship in 2001, she found the same program—but times were changing. It wasn’t long before others who also wanted something more on Sunday morning started an alternative service that became known as a “spiritual celebration.”
The first service was the week before 9/11. “At that first gathering we had 15 or 20 people in a circle; the next week there were 45,” said Wilson.
That weekly gathering grew into a full-fledged worship service, which inspired other changes. The congregation hired a part-time minister and then called one. It sent people to leadership school, restructured the religious education program, and raised enough money to build a larger building. They also launched a small group ministry program.
All of this change has helped the fellowship’s membership nearly double since 2000, increasing from 115 to 200. And it led to the fellowship being named a Breakthrough Congregation this year by the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The ministry part of the church’s success involved a little serendipity. Just when Lawrence was trying on a worship service, some of the nearby UU congregations in Kansas and Missouri began offering ministerial support to small and emerging congregations. Meghan Conrad, who was finishing up a term as intern minister at All Souls UU Church in Kansas City, began serving as a very part-time consulting minister at Lawrence and other small congregations—a modern circuit rider.
Jacob Kipp, current chair of the fellowship and a member since 1999, remembers how that played out: “She showed what a minister might do for us, but it wasn’t pushed on us. She began the process of educating us about ritual. She also provided pastoral care which we knew we needed, but had never really had.”
After a year Conrad was replaced by Jill Jarvis, a ministerial student from All Souls. When Jarvis completed her degree at Meadville Lombard Theological School she was ordained by Lawrence and All Souls, and was called by the fellowship. She is now in her eighth year at Lawrence and is three-quarter time.
The congregation managed all these achievements by being open to change. “Some of the older members weren’t quite sure about all these developments, but they saw it as an adventure and it just took hold,” said Kipp. “If they had said ‘No, that’s not what we’re about,’ when the younger ones wanted to start that spiritual service, that would have been a disaster.”
For many years, Sunday morning has featured a lay-led presentation and question-and-answer period, called “The Program,” on topics that include history, science, religion, community issues, and social justice.
The Program takes place at 9:30 and the worship service follows at 11. Many members attend both. The Program has drawn an average of 58 people in 2014 and the worship service 77. Barbara Schowen has been attending the fellowship since the late sixties with her husband Dick. She’s especially drawn to The Program presentations. “It’s rare that we look at the schedule and say ‘We could miss that.’” They stay for the worship services as well.
Jarvis said that when she arrived in 2006 the fellowship had a reputation for being “fundamentalist humanist.” She didn’t find that to be true. “Certainly there have been people who have objected to some of the things we’ve tried, but generally they’re willing to consider changes.”
Which is what led Jarvis, a self-described naturalistic humanist, to introduce an Easter communion. “I visited another liberal church where members served communion to each other with upbeat music. I told our leadership team I was going to try it.” Responses from the team were mixed. She stressed that, “To me this was all about our feeding and supporting each other,” and in the end, the service was a success. “Almost everyone was on their feet, kind of dancing; some were in tears,” she said. “I was not expecting that. Nor so much joy and happiness about it. There is a real spiritual maturity here. Change can be hard, but we do it and do it in ways that show we care about each other.”
Change requires leaders. In the past fifteen years the fellowship has sent eighteen members to the MidWest Leadership School offered by the UUA’s MidAmerica Region, even helping pay their way. Nine have served as chairs of the fellowship. One of the first to go was John Brewer, who later served as fellowship chair. “At first I thought leadership school would just be groupspeak, but it was an incredible experience. When we returned home we inspired others.” The fellowship also holds its own annual leadership weekends, which about fifty members have attended. “We don’t pressure them,” said Brewer. “We just tell them ‘We hope that someday you’ll feel like leading.’ The weekends give people a chance to get to know each other in ways you can’t do at coffee hour.”
For much of its history the congregation shied away from money talk. Rather than hold an annual fund drive, or even pass a plate on Sundays, members tucked money into a box at the back of the room to keep the fellowship going.
A few years ago they began taking a collection in the worship service, then decided to give all of that collection away. Now they give $8,000 to $10,000 annually to mostly local groups. “We’re proud of that,” said Jarvis. “It raises awareness and puts our values out in the community.” Former chair Rebecca Gant noted there was some initial resistance to the collection. “It helped when some of us with kids explained that we wanted our kids to see us putting physical money toward helping other people.”
In 2005 the congregation surprised itself, raising $850,000 to build a larger sanctuary next to the two-story rural schoolhouse that has been its home since 1960. “We had been thinking we could only raise $650,000,” said Kipp. The new space made it possible to organize a Wednesday night supper and activity night.
Politically, Lawrence is the bluest spot in a deep red state and members have had plenty of opportunities to represent their values. They show up regularly at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka in their Standing on the Side of Love shirts in support of immigration justice and religious freedom issues.
“We’ve gone from being pretty self-referential to reaching out to the larger community and to the denomination,” Jarvis said.
Every two months the congregation prepares and serves a meal to people in need at a local nutrition kitchen. The fellowship is an active member of Ecumenical Campus Ministries on the University of Kansas campus. Members have served on the UUA Board of Trustees, the General Assembly Planning Committee, and other denominational groups, and the fellowship has been a Fair Share contributor to the UUA’s Annual Program Fund for many years.
The fellowship also restructured its religious education program. When a longtime RE director resigned to go back to school, the fellowship designed a new program and hired Bonnie Blosser as director of lifelong learning. Blosser and Jarvis are on a mission to get children more involved in worship and to get more adults interacting with children. “My goal is to get kids to say, ‘Is it Sunday yet?’ I want them to be excited about coming here and about what they’re learning,” said Blosser. About seventy children and youth are registered with the program.
This is a critical year for the fellowship. A Mission/Vision Task Force will lead the congregation through a strategic planning process, a major piece of which is to clarify the congregation’s identity in the face of all the change it has experienced.
Jarvis explained, “We began as a lay-led humanistic fellowship more dedicated to intellectual inquiry and mutual support, avoiding all things ‘churchy.’ Today we have a great diversity of belief, a lot of interest in spiritual matters, and an increasing connection to the larger UU movement. Going forward together, what does it mean to be a UU religious community?”
Gant is leading the task force. “As we began to think about strategic planning we realized that we, as a congregation, did not have shared assumptions about what our mission was and this makes it hard to plan,” she said. “The process this year will help us uncover our shared identity and shared hopes for the future.”
On the first Sunday in September the congregation held its water communion and ingathering worship. The service began with Jarvis and a gaggle of children proceeding up the aisle with colorful ceramic and glass pitchers of water.
Jarvis asked congregants to decide if their waters were “waters of peace, waters of joy, waters of struggle, or waters of hope.” Then she invited them up in those categories as the congregation sang “I’ve Got Peace Like a River.” At the end of the service the congregation moved outside to a garden shaded by hundred-year-old Osage orange trees, where Jarvis poured the collected water on plants at the base of the fellowship’s peace pole.
Wilson, now a worship associate and choir member, is thrilled with all the changes at the fellowship, especially the worship. “I don’t think I could have imagined what the service has become, how professional and organized, with music and readings that fit an overall theme. I just never thought this would happen here. I feel reinvigorated.”
- UUA Breakthrough Congregations.Find study guides about each Breakthrough Congregation and profiles of previous honorees. (UUA.org)
- See more photos of the Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence, Kansas, by Colin MacMillan, below and at Flickr.com.