How a small church chose to invest in a more ambitious future.
Congregants greet each other during worship at the Unitarian Church of Sharon, Massachusetts, in November 2012 (© 2012 Ilene Perlman)
The Unitarian Church of Sharon, Massachusetts, has always been a get-it-done kind of place. Lay led for much of the past century, the church once rebuilt its heating system and constructed a classroom wing using volunteer labor, and members provided ministry and taught Sunday school in the absence of professional leadership. That created a small, close-knit community that worked, played, and worshipped together. But there came a point when members started burning out and the already small congregation started to shrink.
Rather than continue down that path, the congregation chose to invest in a more ambitious future. It made room for full-time professional ministry, chose generosity over scarcity, and created a church that is accessible to everyone. For those reasons and others, the Unitarian Church of Sharon has more than doubled its membership over the last twenty years and has been named a Breakthrough Congregation by the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The church’s minister, the Rev. Jim Robinson, said the congregation’s transformation “could be done anywhere. Find a dream you can embrace and take practical steps to realizing it.”
It was not an easy journey for the congregation, which for most of its history has had no more than seventy members. By the 1970s that number had dwindled to forty. Its white clapboard church, built in 1842, needed substantial work. Funds were low.
Beth McGregor remembers the church when she and her husband Rory joined the congregation in the late seventies. “It was a friendly place. But the building needed some work. Flakes of peeling paint fell from the ceiling during worship. A small religious education wing built by members did its job, but it could get a little damp. We had the part-time services of a minister who wasn’t much engaged. The congregation was shrinking.”
Something had to be done. At a meeting someone proposed merging the church with a neighboring congregation. Then someone else asked, “If we left, what would happen to the liberal religious witness in our community?”
That was the start of the way back. The congregation parted ways with its minister and invited UUA staff to conduct a workshop to assess its future. Some members were pessimistic. McGregor remembers a consultant saying, “Maybe you should call yourselves the First Masochist Church. You’re beating yourselves up for the things you’re not, instead of appreciating the wonderful community you are.”
“That was an ‘Aha!’ moment for us,” McGregor said. After that, the congregation engaged a series of part-time ministers, and membership slowly began to climb. It took about fifteen years for the congregation to work its way up to full-time ministry. In 1996 it hired the Rev. Deborah Cayer through the UUA’s now defunct extension ministry program and called her as its settled minister two years later. She served the congregation for thirteen years.
“What I loved from the start is they weren’t afraid to take risks,” said Cayer, now lead minister at Eno River UU Fellowship in Durham, North Carolina. “And they had taken several, including saying no to a part-time minister who wasn’t right for them. They depended on each other, and at the same time they knew they could not do it on their own. They sent out some of their best members to get active with the district and with the UUA. Instead of turning inward they turned outward.”
“With Deborah we began to grow,” McGregor said. When Cayer left, the congregation had 125 members. The Rev. Patricia Brennan served a two-year interim ministry before the church called Robinson, then in his thirty-second year of ministry, in 2010. The church now has 164 members.
The congregation’s decision in the late seventies to support strong, consistent ministerial leadership was its first breakthrough. The seeds for the second breakthrough were planted ten years later, when the congregation began to confront the inaccessibility of its building for people with disabilities. A long flight of steps led to the front doors, shorter flights to other doors. An elevator was proposed, but then abandoned because it would eat up too much space.
The accessibility issue didn’t get traction again until 2004, when it came up during the church’s annual stewardship campaign. Linda Godfrey-Bailey reminded people that accessibility is a social justice issue; she became co-chair of a committee to resurrect the elevator. Gradually, members realized the church needed not just an elevator but also an addition that would adequately serve a growing congregation. Several members returned from a stewardship conference, organized by the UUA’s Ballou Channing District, convinced that the congregation was capable of more than the $70,000 elevator project.
To build the addition the congregation held an “Accessibility and Improvements to the Meetinghouse” drive (AIM), which raised almost $1 million in pledges over three years, significantly more than a consultant had estimated was possible. When still more money was needed, congregants agreed to add a fourth year to their pledges, bringing the total to $1.3 million.
Construction coincided with the economic downturn, significantly lowering the price of some materials. Members did their part: all but about 1 percent of pledged funds came in. The extra money funded the renovation of the basement vestry (used for coffee hour and other group functions) and the adjoining kitchen.
During demolition and construction, the congregation made a concerted effort to hold the community together, said Louise Marcoux, director of religious education. “We devoted significant energy and time to developing programs for the period when we knew there would be a certain amount of chaos.”
“There was dust everywhere and the vestry was half-filled with rolls of carpet,” McGregor recalls. “The whole experience during construction was like camping in the rain. You could either have a miserable experience or you could make jokes and enjoy it.”
The addition, completed in 2010, is almost five times larger than the old wing—and the church is taking advantage of the space. “This used to be a church where everything happened on Sunday,” Robinson said. “Now about half of it does. Now we’re a seven-day-a-week church. We’ve added programs and groups. We’re reaching out into the community. Most people stay because they’ve found a second and a third place to connect. Everyone feels ownership here.”
The congregation is getting used to being larger and will need to think about adding another worship service if it wants to grow further, Robinson said. The sanctuary seats 188 and feels full at 150. He believes Sharon has the potential for 250 members.
The growth at Sharon is the result of attitude shifts, Robinson said. The community’s attitude shifted from “It’s enough to take care of the building and to have a nice friendly, intimate Sunday morning experience with each other,” to “We will grow with wonderful new members and energy as we believe in our mission more deeply.”
When he arrived at Sharon, Robinson visited members and asked, “What will you be passionate about creating?” “Within six months we went from just a few adult groups to ten or fifteen.”
Marcoux said when she and her husband moved to Sharon twelve years ago she knew immediately this congregation was the right one. “I walked in here and children were part of the hum in the congregation.”
Marcoux and religious education teachers work to accommodate different learning styles. A special needs teacher comes and talks with teachers each year. Youth often help with younger children. “Doing something as simple as sitting between two children often works wonders,” she said. “And the children love the youth. They are the rock stars in the room.”
For many years the congregation has had a larger youth group than its adult membership would suggest. (There are thirteen members this year.) It was run by an “excellent volunteer,” said Marcoux, but when that person moved on and the program started to decline, the congregation made the decision to hire a part-time youth coordinator—currently Chris Scheller.
There wasn’t money in the budget for this position, but Marcoux said members whose children had gone through the youth program spoke up at an annual meeting and led a fundraising push, raising $7,500 in a month.
The youth group’s social action projects have included helping at a women’s shelter and buying gifts for children in foster care. They’ve been to Nicaragua twice, working in a school and planting trees.
The congregation prepares one hundred bag lunches monthly and six dinners a year for a homeless shelter, collects food for a food pantry, holds a weekly literacy class, and helps support an immigrant center. Monthly brown-envelope collections support a variety of social causes and raised more than $10,000 in 2011.
Last fall Robinson preached that the central reason for Sharon’s success is that it is a beloved community. “A beloved community is where everyone belongs, everyone is valued, and everyone participates,” he said. “In a beloved community, the children and youth belong to everyone. In a beloved community, it’s not just parents who teach in religious education. In a beloved community, everyone is a member of the social justice committee.”
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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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