A Unitarian Universalist visitor to WellSprings Congregation outside of Philadelphia might not notice anything out of the ordinary at first glance—until they see the rock band front and center, the minister wearing jeans and a sweater, or the screen where song lyrics are projected.
Welcome to WellSprings, the second new congregation founded by the Unitarian Universalist Association in an eight-year church growth initiative.
The 98-member congregation, which completed its second year in December 2008, draws about 150 adults and children on Sunday morning to a rented school building in Chester Springs, west of Philadelphia. Attendance has doubled in the past 18 months, said the Rev. Kenneth Beldon, the congregation’s minister.
Beldon was hired by the UUA to form the congregation in August 2005. That fall he organized focus/visioning groups, meeting with them regularly before starting a Planting Team. In 2006 the team met with a church consultant, Tom Bandy, and then began a process of cultivating its own spiritual practices as a prelude to discerning and articulating the values and beliefs of the congregation. Said Beldon, “Before we can share something we have to own it ourselves.”
Four covenant groups, or “housechurches,” called Springboards, were formed in mid-2006 at WellSprings, and leaders were selected for various ministries within the congregation. Vision and mission statements were created, ministry teams staffed, and a band hired. The first worship services were held in January 2007.
A WellSprings worship service generally starts with three songs followed by a chalice lighting, a welcome to guests, a time of meditation, and then often either a drama or a reading, followed by the offering, another song, then a sermon “message” followed by a prayer, a fifth song, and a benediction.
Most of the songs the congregation uses do not come from UUA hymnals. On one recent Sunday there were two songs by Minnesota folksinger-songwriter Peter Mayer, one by the indie band The Apples in Stereo, and one each by John Lennon and Wilbert Harrison. “Joy Comes Back,” by Boston singer-songwriter Sean Staples, is probably the congregation’s theme song, said Beldon. The congregation does sing versions of “Amazing Grace” and “Jacob’s Ladder” from the UUA’s Singing the Living Tradition hymnal, however.
“Our music is rousing,” he said. “We want people up, moving around in the aisles, clapping, kids dancing on chairs.” One of Beldon’s favorite moments: “A mother and her young son were there for their second or third time. The kid heard a song he recognized. ‘Mom, we’re singing a real song!’”
Words for all of the songs, the chalice lighting, and other parts of the service are projected onto a screen. During the sermon, which is called the “message,” visuals related to the theme are also projected. Some come from wingclips.com, a website that provides movie clips for sermon topics.
At one point early in the service people are asked to rise and greet someone they don’t know very well. A dramatic presentation may illustrate how to be a better parent. Then comes a moment called “Charged-Full Living,” when a member gets up and describes how he or she is living out Unitarian Universalist values through their job, personal life, spiritual practice, or a social justice project. WellSpring’s mission statement is: “A community charged full with the charge of the soul.”
The offering is taken in hats—Santa hats at Christmas, a top hat for President’s Day. All of the offering every week is given away. “It’s a way to model giving for new people without asking them to give to us at a point when they don’t know us yet,” said Beldon.
During the fourth song children are released to their classes. Then comes Beldon’s message. He preaches on all but about six Sundays a year. “I recognize that I am the public face of the congregation,” he said.
He delivers his message from notes, not a manuscript. “If something’s not working I go on to the next thing. And if a bit of inspiration hits me in the middle, I’ll use it.” He works from a music stand rather than a pulpit so he can move about the front of the room. “It allows me to make more of a connection with the congregation,” he said.
He picks contemporary topics. He preached five messages on Randy Pausch and his book The Last Lecture, about Pausch’s impending death from cancer. Beldon preaches on movies in a summer series called “Spiritual Cinema.” “Spiderman 3, for example, is about being consumed by anger, and forgiveness,” he said. “Contemporary topics are also an easy way for members to invite their friends.”
The service ends with a high energy song and a challenge from Beldon: “As we release this flame from its faithful service today, we allow the spark in each of us to burn on, to warm our compassion, to fire our delight, to light our paths, today, tomorrow, and always.” Then the band sounds off with a final coda.
“It’s really exciting to be involved in something that’s growing,” Beldon said, “to hear the joy and gratitude that people express as they describe searching and seeking a religious community. They didn’t want to give up on their spiritual growth, but they were tired of being hit over the head with dogma.”
Beldon, who was ordained in 1998, served as the first called minister of the River of Grass UU Congregation in Plantation, Fla., from 1998 to 2005 before being recruited for WellSprings. He said he was attracted to WellSprings because “it was an opportunity to start something that was well capitalized from the beginning. I could devote all of my professional energies to getting it off the ground without worrying about fundraising right at the start.”
Beldon’s wife, Teresa Nazario, is lead singer for the band that performs at the church.
WellSprings’s growth has come from people inviting friends and family, said Beldon. The first people to come were a few from Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon, Pa. Other UUs also invited their friends who lived in the area. “Only half of our members were UU before,” he said. “We’re not trying to just attract UUs. And if we want to attract those others we have to do things in a different way.”
“We want to take down the boundaries between church time and the rest of our lives,” Beldon said. “Sundays are not about getting religion for one day a week, but motivating, sustaining, and celebrating the religion we have and that we yearn to make stronger.”
For the past two summers the congregation has sponsored films including The Matrix, Groundhog Day, and Babe at an independent movie house. The congregation’s name appears on the marquee and in theater advertising, and Beldon’s message often addresses the film the following Sunday. “People in the community now connect with our name because of the marquee,” Beldon said.
On “First Fridays,” when downtown merchants and community groups in Chester Springs move out onto the sidewalks, the church has a booth. “We advertise our movie connection and then we talk about church,” he said.
WellSprings is the second of two new congregations the UUA planted in response to recommendations in a 2001–2002 New Congregation Task Force, which had urged “the UUA [to] take an active role, in cooperation with districts, in providing funding resources for the creation of new multi-staff large congregations.” The task force had also envisioned planting ten new multi-staff congregations per year over five years.
The first congregation planted by the UUA, the Pathways Church in Southlake, Tex., a suburb of Dallas, was begun in 2003 with the goal of becoming a large congregation within three to five years. After five years, however, Pathways is a small congregation with 94 members.
The Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, the UUA’s director of Congregational Services, said the UUA learned from the Pathways experience and adjusted its approach for WellSprings. Pathways, for example, began with a large complement of staff, including three ministers. WellSprings began with a minister and an administrator, and will add other staff as the congregation grows.
Pathways also purchased land for a permanent home early on, but later sold its property because the congregation did not grow large enough to need it. With WellSprings, the team of local leaders decided to hold off on the purchase of land to give the congregation an opportunity to focus its energy in other ways before directing it toward a future site. “This has proved to be helpful,” said Robinson-Harris.
A review of the Pathways project in 2006 by a UUA panel determined that Pathways could have benefited from a more realistic project plan, more focused management by the UUA, gradual staffing, and a greater emphasis on marketing.
There is no ultimate size goal with WellSprings, said Robinson-Harris. “Numerical goals can be useful. They can also help create a sense of falling short that isn’t helpful to the mission and well being of the congregation. It’s a balancing act. We need numerical benchmarks, but at the same time we don’t want to set it up so perceived shortcomings get translated into shortcomings and failure.”
As for WellSprings, “I hope they’ll grow to as many as their mission can reach and the congregation can hold,” she said.
Robinson-Harris said there are no plans for more large-congregation starts at this time.
Other congregations have formed without startup costs supplied by the UUA. (See “Starting a Congregation from Scratch” below.) The total number of UUA-affiliated congregations has not risen significantly in recent years, however. There were 1,046 congregations in the UUA as of February 2008; in 2003, just after many Canadian congregations withdrew from the UUA to affiliate only with the Canadian Unitarian Council, there were 1,042 congregations.
While funding for Pathways came from two main partners—major private donors in the Dallas area and grants from the UUA’s Campaign for Unitarian Universalism—WellSprings is supported by a number of parties, including donors to the UUA, the Joseph Priestley District, the Main Line Unitarian Church, and individuals at Main Line. In its first stewardship drive, in 2005, members of WellSprings pledged about $100,000 for startup costs.
About $1 million dollars was provided for Pathways, with approximately one-third of that coming from donors to the UUA.
WellSprings treasurer Chris Chepel said the congregation received a $260,000 grant from the UUA over three years, funds for which were contributed by individual donors to the UUA. A Chalice Lighter grant from the Joseph Priestley District is providing $100,000 over three years; approximately one-third of that remains to be paid out. Members of Main Line Unitarian Church are contributing $97,500 over three years. Other gifts from individual UUs provided another $265,000, bringing the total commitments to starting WellSprings to around $720,000, Chepel said.
Robinson-Harris said, “These are two really fine congregations, ministering well and fully to the communities in which they were started.”
Chepel, who was a member of the original Planting Team, was a part of three other UU congregations before joining WellSprings. “We encourage one another to have daily spiritual practices,” she said, “so that we are always connected to our spiritual source. Having this expected of me has really helped me develop discipline and focus around my own spirituality.
“We also made a decision that we were going to talk openly about God,” Chepel said.
Chepel added that WellSprings places great importance on small groups. “They are our lived commitment to accomplish our mission so that everyone can find a place to be welcomed in our midst.”
- WellSprings Congregation.New congregation founded with UUA support near Philadelphia. (wellspringsuu.org)
- Update on UUA Growth Initiatives, April 2008.Report prepared by the Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris for the UUA Board of Trustees. (pdf; UUA.org)
- Growing UUism: Regional Strategies and New Congregation Formation.Report prepared by the Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris about the UUA’s Regional/Metro Growth Strategies, 1999–2005. Includes links to reports on new congregation formation. (UUA.org)
- Report of the Pathways Review Panel.March 2006 report to the UUA Board of Trustees on the Pathways large church growth initiative. (pdf; UUA.org)
- Unitarian Universalist Association New Congregation Formation Task Force, Final Report.May 2002 report to the UUA Board of Trustees outlining the goals for the new congregation initiative that formed the Pathways Church and WellSprings Congregation. (pdf; UUA.org)
From the Archives
Correction 01.08.09: In an earlier version of the story, we reported the church's membership as 73, based on the most recent UUA Directory. The church reported that their membership had increased to 98.
Correction 01.08.09: As originally published, this story did not attribute information about WellSprings's funding to Chepel and failed to mention her role as treasurer. We also incorrectly referred to her as "he."