Community spirit

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon sends children off to religious education classes with a tradition the growing congregation insists on keeping no matter how big it gets.

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon works to embrace rapid growth and a grand new building without surrendering its culture.

Image: The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon sends children off to religious education classes with a tradition the growing congregation insists on keeping no matter how big it gets. (© Karen Cammack)

© Karen Cammack


On a cold, sunny Sunday morning in November, the brand-new sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon, with its 19-foot ceilings and huge glass windows, is flooded with natural light. Nearly every one of the 216 seats is taken, where a year ago the service might have drawn half that number.

As the choir begins to sing, the sanctuary’s superior acoustical design—just one of the many features of the new building—becomes apparent. The sanctuary stage, built of white oak, gleams, and fresh wildflowers and sunflowers are scattered on the wood altar. A tech team manages an overhead computer projector that shows the hymns, so hymnals aren’t needed. The windows look out onto the bright blue sky, pine trees, and the runners and hikers on the trail that runs alongside the church.

Early in the service, the Rev. Antonia Won, the fellowship’s developmental minister, asks newcomers to stand as she steps down from the stage.

“I’ve lived in Bend for thirty-eight years,” one woman says, “and I’ve driven by this wonderful facility many, many times. I’m super excited to be here. This is a beautiful facility.”

“Welcome!” the congregation responds.

Another woman says, “I’ve been here a couple of times with my daughter and her family; these are my first experiences with the UUs, and I love it so much I’m moving to Bend!”

“You wouldn’t be the first to be influenced in your choice,” Won says, smiling.

As the fellowship celebrates its first year in its beautiful new building, the Unitarian Universalist Association has named it a 2016 Breakthrough Congregation in recognition of its significant achievements, including its thoughtful management of breathtaking growth. (See a study guide about this article.)

A few years ago, only two or three children would attend the Sunday service; today, there are twenty-five. In the congregation’s longstanding tradition, as they leave for religious education they walk under an arch created by adults joining hands across the center aisle. The congregation voted to keep this ritual, which might seem more appropriate for a smaller service. It’s just one example of its determination to retain, in the face of phenomenal growth, the sense of community and warmth that are its core identity.

After the service, Elliott Dutcher, 12, runs through the now-empty sanctuary with his friend Samuel Adams, 14. “There are a lot of festivals, always something going on,” Dutcher says of Bend; of the fellowship, he adds, “It’s a place of accepting and loving, to be whoever you want to be. It’s a really fun place.”

There are many parallels between the small city of Bend, Oregon, and the thriving congregation that calls it home. Both are experiencing extraordinary rates of growth. Bend is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon (UUFCO), which has more than tripled in size in twelve years, is among the fastest-growing UU congregations in the nation.

Both are stunningly beautiful. Set beside the Cascade mountain range in the central part of the state, with the Deschutes River tumbling through its center, Bend is an oasis of natural splendor. UUFCO’s brand new building, meanwhile, is visually spectacular, an award-winning “green” design of locally sourced cedar and rock.

Both the city and congregation retain a close-knit sense of community despite their burgeoning numbers. Bend, with less than 90,000 residents, has a laid-back, small-town feel; UUFCO, which has grown from 35 to 180 members since 2001, focuses on welcoming newcomers and integrating them into the congregation.

“In Bend, newcomers form community pretty quickly, and that’s true in the congregation, too,” said Won.

The city and congregation are both liberal beacons in a conservative region of the state. Bend, which attracts a growing number of retirees, families, outdoorspeople, and second-home owners from around the country, has two universities and a community college, a vibrant restaurant scene, and a charming collection of artisan shops and micro-breweries. UUFCO is the only UU congregation within two hours. “I wouldn’t say we’re the only liberal religious group in the area, but we’re the only UU group for right now, and that’s been a real advantage,” said Don Hartsough, a member for thirteen years and chair of the capital campaigns that resulted in the new building.

Bend and UUFCO are trying to adjust to rapid growth without losing the qualities that make them so appealing. And both are concerned with the region’s pressing social issues, including escalating income inequality and soaring housing costs that are shutting out the middle class and the young adults who help give the city its character.

As the congregation was adjusting to its new building and figuring out how to handle so many new members, it faced another hurdle. Won, a Canadian citizen hired in 2014 as a developmental minister to help the church navigate this time of rapid change, couldn’t get a visa to work in the United States. Demonstrating resilience and resourcefulness, the congregation adapted by having Won preach via video most Sundays until her immigration issues were resolved. She was able to move to Bend permanently in March 2015.

For the remarkable way in which the fellowship has navigated its challenges, the UUA named it as a Breakthrough Congregation. Yet with so many other things flying at them, even that honor seemed a tad overwhelming at first. “We’ve been working so hard to adjust to the growth that getting the Breakthrough Congregation status was a challenge and a bit scary because we had so many other things to take care of,” said Wendy Howard, president of the UUFCO Board of Trustees.

As things settle down, the congregation continues its strategic, spiritual approach to the future.

“All these people are coming in, and they’re waiting for us to say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, here’s how we’ll serve the community,’” said Kathy Day, a former congregational administrator who’s served in other church positions in the past eleven years. The building, she said, “is like a tool we can use. We are attracting all these people who want to do good, and respect this liberal religion—so how do we do it?”

Hartsough added: “Our biggest challenge is to keep the same spirit we’ve had for all these years. We can’t fall in love with the building so much that we lose the core of it. If you can accomplish the community spirit, that goes a long way to ensuring the future.”

Nestled on a 22-acre parcel just three miles from the center of Bend, the new UUFCO building is surrounded by ponderosa pines and sagebrush, and looped by a nature trail that connects to hiking and bike trails that head into the Deschutes National Forest.

Inside is more than 17,000 square feet of carefully designed, visually appealing space, including the Pete Seeger Gathering Hall, which is the heart of the building. The new space includes a commercial kitchen; religious education classrooms; rooms for board and other meetings, and art displays; and an intimate fireside room for small meetings or meditation. With soaring ceilings and walls of glass, UUFCO’s new home feels like an extension of the high-desert panorama that it celebrates.

Nearly everyone in the congregation participated in developing the new building, and as a result, it reflects UUFCO’s spirit, values, and principles. “When I first walked into the finished building, I felt a sense of spirit that’s hard to define,” said Marean Jordan, a former board president. “You feel its warmth and uplift.”

Despite the building’s size, the fellowship retains the sense of community. “At first, we all thought it’d feel empty, but you walk in and it feels vital, it feels like there is stuff happening,” said Howard. “There’s an art reception here, a committee meeting, a kids’ sleepover. It feels good.”

Space for families and children was a key focus, and the building includes light-splashed RE rooms and an outdoor play area inspired by former board president Melissa Hochschild, who died before the building was finished.

Every aspect of the building—designed and constructed over three years and dedicated on April 26, 2015, by UUA President Peter Morales—was an intentional and mindful expression of UU values and of the Bend fellowship. The building is sustainable and energy-efficient. It is oriented to optimize solar energy efficiency, and south-facing roof overhangs reduce overheating in summer while collecting heat in the winter. Native plants in the landscaping eliminate the need for permanent irrigation. Onsite bike and walking paths make it easier for people to get there without cars. It has already won two national awards for its green design.

With a very successful capital campaign and a major gift from an anonymous donor, there was enough money to make the building not only functional and green but also artistic. “It’s building as art,” said Howard. “People feel sacred when they walk in here.”

Despite their pride in their new home, Howard and others are eager to point out that the congregation’s growth began long before it drew so much attention. “It bugs me when people say our membership is due to the building,” Howard said.

“Our covenant of love is our core,” agreed Susie Hickman, chair of the communications team. “That’s what draws people in. It’s . . . the people, who are exceptional and caring and kind and accomplished and willing to champion values that make the world a better place.”

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon was founded in 1958 by the families of two Bend physicians, Walt Ford and George McGeary, who sought a liberal religious home for their children. Membership reached 140 in the early 1970s, but with the loss of key leaders in the ’80s, the congregation dwindled to just five members. They stubbornly refused to disband, although they sold the building they owned and met in various places around Bend.

Then, as the city’s population began to expand in the late 1990s, more people and resources appeared for the congregation. In 2004, on the advice of the UUA’s district representative, the fellowship hired its first minister, the Rev. Jeanne Pupke. Although she was part-time, membership doubled under her leadership. The fellowship’s first settled minister, the Rev. Heather Starr, was called in 2006, and became full-time, overseeing UUFCO’s becoming a Welcoming Congregation and growing even more.

The fellowship started searching for new space and began a capital campaign to purchase a building. In 2010, a family in the congregation came forward to make a very substantial—and anonymous—donation, which spurred a sense of generosity that resulted in $100,000 in giving. But a number of potential spaces fell through—one was infested with marmots—which got discouraging.

Starr left to marry and start a family, and the Rev. Alex Holt served as interim minister until mid-2014. By that point, UUFCO decided to change course and voted to build its own building. The donor family gifted the 22-acre parcel of land, and also offered a 10-to-1 match of funds raised in a new capital campaign, which set a goal of $500,000 (including the $100,000 raised earlier). By 2015, the campaign had raised nearly $600,000, or 117 percent of its goal.

A congregational workshop resulted in a set of values the building should embody, which was emphasized to the Portland-based architects. “They had to design to that,” said Howard. “It started as a values-based decision.”

Establishing a steering committee for the building that was separate from the congregation’s Board of Trustees was essential to success, since the board and its committees could continue to do their work rather than focusing on the building alone. “The church itself didn’t come to parade rest to build the building,” said Bob Barber, Howard’s husband, who himself served as board president from 2010 to 2013.

Most of the congregation was involved in the process in one way or another, including newcomers. The fellowship made a point of inviting them to participate, and their voices were given equal weight, Barber said.

Thirty to forty people met each week as the building went along, said Barber, who noted that the fellowship includes people of many talents, among them zoning experts, contractors, engineers, and planning professionals. “Did they agree on everything? No. Were there compromises? Yes.” That process, too, only strengthened the community, he said.

A website and other communications helped keep everyone in the congregation informed on the building progress. Several people in the congregation are professionals in marketing and public relations, which helped. Won, who traveled from Canada once a month to visit before she permanently relocated, oversaw celebration of the first Sunday church service in the new space on February 1, 2015.

Today, there are typically 200 people at Sunday worship, and Won is convening a team to explore whether to add a second Sunday service. The congregation is also creating a committee to hire a ministerial intern for the fall. It recently completed a new staffing plan, and changes will be put in place over the spring.

As members continue to adjust to the new building and minister, the congregation is in the midst of five major initiatives, including reevaluating the mission plan and updating the strategic plan.

In the midst of that, they want to make sure that pastoral care by the minister is not sidelined, Howard said.

Meanwhile, Won’s three-year term as developmental minister is halfway through. The congregation must decide whether to extend her developmental contract for two more years, call her as the permanent minister (while most developmental ministers serve five years and don’t have this option, Won was brought in under an old system), or begin a search for a new minister while Won finishes her tenure.

As they celebrate their growth, there’s a keen awareness at every level that one of the biggest challenges is making sure that the essence of the fellowship—the warmth and community that make it so special—isn’t lost. Its relaxed, down-to-earth personality—evinced in its monthly circle suppers, small covenant groups, and other social activities—shouldn’t be sacrificed.

“We all agree we are not willing to surrender our culture,” said Day. To that end, the fellowship has already held two congregational meetings to decide where they want to be five years down the road—and beyond.

“It’s a challenge: how do you open up to new people, new ideas and influence, and still maintain a spirit that’s of value?” said Jordan.

As the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon’s profile grows, others—including visitors—are also asking that question. “‘Is this congregation going to realize the promise I see here?’ A lot of newcomers are coming with that attitude,” said Won.

The fellowship is determined that the answer is affirmative. “I don’t know everybody, but I’m excited to see all these new faces,” said Howard. “This is the future!”

A study guide offers questions about this story for discussion in your congregation.

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View additional photos of the UU Fellowship of Central Oregon by Karen Cammack