Meet the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, Utah.
(© 2012 August Miller)
Look around the sanctuary on a Sunday morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, Utah, and you’ll see children of all ages sitting with their parents. If you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed that they weren’t sung out to religious education classes early in the service. As the Rev. Theresa Novak’s sermon winds down, they’re still there in the pews—more or less attentive.
It goes against conventional wisdom to have children in the full hour of UU worship as a matter of course, but it works at UUCO. And the church’s embrace of multigenerational worship—and religious education for all ages—has drawn attention from across the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Heide Cottam, chair of the church’s Religious Exploration Committee, explains how the practice began. Several years ago, classes were held during worship. “We couldn’t get teachers because they all wanted to attend the services,” she said. “So we polled the congregation about moving RE to after the service. There were no objections.” Thus children sit with parents during worship and, twice a month, attend religious education classes after coffee hour.
It would be wrong to say that children and youth “sit through” a service. They are key participants. Each Sunday a child lights the chalice. Four children, fourth to sixth graders, jump up to pass the collection baskets and then present the offering as the congregation sings, “From you I receive, to you I give.” Two older youth assist as congregants silently light candles for people they are remembering. Other children and youth sing in the “adult” choir.
The church adopted multigenerational worship two years ago. There have been multiple benefits, said Cottam. “More people have been willing to teach and do it for longer periods of time. That gives us more consistency in religious exploration. It also gives us a whole hour, rather than 45 minutes, which is what many congregations have.”
And, Cottam said, “It gave us a natural hour in which to do adult education, while parents wait for their children.” She said many adults do stay for that second hour of church. “We’re small enough that we’re completely connected with each other. We connect at a deep level during worship and it seems natural to continue that in a second hour.”
UUCO’s multigenerational approach to worship and religious education is one of the reasons the 102-member church has been named a Breakthrough Congregation by the Unitarian Universalist Association. Each year the UUA’s Office of Growth Strategies recognizes a handful of congregations that have “broken through” barriers to achieve exemplary goals. (UU World will profile each one.) UUCO has also become a sanctuary for LGBT youth and a community hub for social justice work.
Cottam said she was initially worried her own children would be bored in an hour of worship. However, she found that Nikolas, now 14, “started coming home talking about the sermons.”
Diana Priest, whose family joined the congregation in 2001, has two children, Elijah, 10, and Gabriel, 13. “I think most kids probably drift a little bit in the service, but our hope is that enough of what happens in worship will sink in and they will remain UUs when they become young adults.” Elijah helps take the offering. Gabriel sings in the choir.
Cottam has talked with religious educators at district events about children remaining in worship. “I have not been met with anything but sheer shock,” she said. “They’re sure kids would be a disruption or that attendance would drop. We haven’t had either.” The congregation does have a nursery, she noted.
“I love the services,” said Julianne Cottam, 18, who leaves for college in the fall. “If I had to leave in the middle of a service, I’d feel like I was not a part of the congregation.”
Novak said she thinks about children and youth when she writes her sermons. “I may include a reference to the start of school or some other event they can relate to. I try to use simpler words or a parenthetical phrase when I am talking about something complex. It helps the adults, too, to do that: Not everyone has a college degree. I also use a lot of story and humor. I do not, however, censor anything I might say just because the children are there. Children live in the same world we do. They already know bad things happen. The worship services are for everybody. Another benefit is that the children learn to see me as their pastor, too. They will come to me with their worries and concerns.”
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The church’s willingness to try new things for young people is well-established. Eight years ago, it founded the area’s first drop-in center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in response to a high rate of gay teen suicide. The drop-in center, initially known as outreach Ogden and now just outreach, is still going strong, serving around fifty youth and young adults each week in the church basement.
Roxanne Taylor, a co-founder of outreach and a member of its advisory committee, said, “It’s not necessarily safe to be out in Utah as a gay youth. We recognized there was a need for a place youth could come and be accepted for who they are.”
UUCO members have dedicated hundreds of volunteer hours to keep outreach going since 2004. And now the organization itself has come of age. In 2011 outreach became a separate legal entity, hired its first fulltime executive director, and began looking for a larger space in the community.
Alex Kapitan, of the UUA’s LGBT Ministries office, said outreach has inspired other congregations to start LGBT drop-in centers. “Ogden is a model for how our congregations can make a real difference around the issues faced by queer and transgender youth,” Kapitan said. A template for creating a drop-in center is available at ogdenoutreach.org.
UUCO members also lobbied for a full year with local partners to get a nondiscrimination ordinance passed in Ogden in 2011. The ordinance prohibits discrimination in employment and housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Members have participated recently in a pro-immigrant rally, an immigrant rights forum co-sponsored with the ACLU, an antiwar vigil, a neighborhood cleanup, and a holiday gifts collection for a domestic violence shelter. Last fall, UUCO hosted the Occupy Ogden encampment on its lawn for three months.
The congregation also maintains a small food pantry. Members contribute to it and use it. Quarterly clothing swaps are open to the community. And the church sponsors low-cost Spanish classes. The proceeds will help send UUCO youth to the UUA General Assembly in Phoenix in June.
Word has gotten around that the church is willing to help. When a local health agency received a grant this past winter to provide free flu shots, but needed a location, it contacted the local newspaper where someone referred them to UUCO, which was happy to host the clinic. “Someone at the newspaper I had never heard of mentioned our efforts in the less advantaged areas of Ogden,” said Novak. “It’s a nice reputation to have.”
It’s not hard to find things to do, says Novak. “When your hearts and minds are open then there will always be something for your hands to do. This church doesn’t wonder why we’re here. We know why we’re here.”
A place like Ogden, where about half the 82,825 residents are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, turns out to be a good place to be Unitarian Universalist. When there’s a paucity of alternative viewpoints, the person who has one stands out.
“I get more requests to speak at our local university and other places than I can fulfill,” said Novak, who speaks often on LGBT issues and on religion.
About 40 percent of UUCO congregants are former Mormons. One is membership chair Marilyn Johnson, who joined seven years ago after returning to Utah to care for her parents. “I can’t tell you how much I love this church,” she said. “We sing happy, joyous songs, and we sing them up to tempo. It’s an exciting place on Sunday morning, with a lot of musical talent. There are several people like me that cry a lot; it’s just so joyful.”
Novak said one of the first questions she gets from UUs outside Utah is about how difficult it must be to be a UU here, going up against the “dominant culture.” She responds, “I don’t feel like we are fighting the LDS Church at all. We’re just raising another voice. Rather than argue with people, I prefer to point out that their actions have consequences. A prime example is their rejection of LGBTQ people. I urge them to think carefully about the implications of that: a high suicide rate. I tell them something’s going on here that needs your attention.”
“It is the need that moves us here, not so much fear of the behemoth,” Novak said. “The need is everywhere. Some of our success comes from having a sense that we do have power, that we can make a difference. We believe that we are an awesome church, that we rock, and so we become that.”
Enthusiastic worship is at the heart of life at UUCO. It opens with gathering music, coordinated by music director Beth Dion. “We can draw from a strong jazz and blues scene and our local university, which has a music and theater program,” Dion said. Members are active participants, too. “I’ve tried to impart that everyone has music in them.”
Novak offers several minutes of welcome and announcements from the center aisle rather than the pulpit to be closer to the congregation. Novak says she preaches “with” rather than “to” the congregation, tossing out an occasional “Hallelujah!” or a “Rock on” to keep things lively. Congregants shout out words of enthusiasm as well.
People with joys and sorrows to share pass them to Novak before the service, and she creates a prayer from them. During the offertory, many people line up before two banks of candles on either side of the sanctuary to silently light a candle, drop a stone into a bowl of water, or both. “Lighting a candle is a form of embodied prayer for people,” Novak said. “Doing something physical helps all of us move a heartfelt hope into a reality in the world.”
UUCO was organized in 1992 out of First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City. Some of the founding members of UUCO had been driving the forty miles south every Sunday. For thirteen years the congregation met in rented quarters. Twice it bought land, then sold it, saving the profits for a substantial payment on its current building in the downtown area, purchased in 2006.
Ogden, once a railroad hub, was for much of the twentieth century the state’s second largest city. Eclipsed by rapidly growing suburbs of Salt Lake City and Provo, it now ranks seventh in population.
Bill Hackett, the congregation’s building manager and a former president, said the congregation felt it was important to remain downtown. “I don’t know whether we’re giving up growth to be here. I do know it’s easier for those of us who live out to drive here than it would be for those who live around the church to drive out to a suburban location.”
The acquisition of the 12,000-square-foot building, purchased for $365,000, is a story in itself. The congregation tried to buy it once before, but the church that was moving out decided that UUCO wasn’t Christian enough. It sold to another church instead. When that church found it couldn’t afford the building, it sold to UUCO. The congregation organized a fundraiser and finished paying off the whole amount a few months after moving in.
Built in the 1970s as a Disciples of Christ church, the building includes a soaring A-frame sanctuary and two levels of spacious offices and classrooms. The sanctuary seats 300, and so the congregation—with 80 to 100 on a Sunday morning—rattles around in it a bit. But it has plans to fill it.
A year after the congregation moved into the building, it hired Novak as a consulting minister. The church had an option to call her before her two-year contract was up, which it did in March 2008.
As a lesbian, Novak says she was nervous about moving to Utah from northern California, where she had lived all of her life. “I just decided to be myself and see what happened.” Novak, 62, had a previous career as a manager for the Social Security Administration. She graduated from Starr King School for the Ministry in 2007.
Equality Utah will honor Novak and her partner, Anne Spatola, this fall with its Allies for Equality award for their work on LGBTQ issues.
Hackett said, “A great deal of what we’ve accomplished is because of Theresa. She has a lot of experience in supervision and management and a personality that’s pastoral in nature. She’s a strong leader and a perfect match for the congregation. She backs her decision-making with the willingness to consult with lay leaders.”
Current UUCO President Laura Anderson added, “It’s not that we aren’t good without her, but she inspires us and offers opportunities for us to succeed. With her we are great.”
Novak believes other congregations could also do what UUCO has done. “A lot of it is just having a sense of mission, and a willingness to try different things. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but if you don’t try, nothing will happen.”
“I don’t think there’s anything we’ve done that couldn’t be done elsewhere,” Novak said. “Joyful worship heals our broken hearts, renews our spirits, and gives us the energy to bring more hope and courage into the world.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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