Embracing an innovative shared leadership model has created a happier, more vital congregation in Athens, Georgia.
An innovative lay leadership program at the UU Fellowship of Athens, Georgia, helps members feel connected to and excited about their congregation. (© 2018 Justin Evans Photography)
On any given Sunday, you can look at the order of service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens, Georgia, and find it crammed with things to do and help with. Included in one such handout is information about recent Cause of the Month “Food 2 Kids,” circle supper groups, the women’s Thursday breakfast, the Athens men’s circle, the congregational book club, a major $1.8-million facility renovation that’s wrapping up, the sanctuary movement team, and the latest project of the Adopt-a-School program.
In short, there’s a lot for the 300-plus members of the Athens congregation to do and many ways for them to stay engaged.
The fact that the fellowship does so much with a relatively small staff and a board of trustees that seems far from stressed out is in large part due to its innovative lay minister training program. The program is a major part of why the UU Fellowship of Athens was named a Unitarian Universalist Association Breakthrough Congregation.
Of course, things haven’t always run so smoothly. Over the course of its 64-year history, the congregation has grown consistently. As it began the search for its current called minister in 2010, it had 240 members. But when it began that search—which ultimately brought them the Rev. Alison Wilbur Eskildsen—the board of trustees bore all the signs of overburdened leaders. Meetings dragged on past midnight, there was a dearth of priorities because there was so much to do, committee members suffered from burnout.
One thing they knew: they wanted things to change.
When Eskildsen arrived, she and the board came up with a plan. The board would cede responsibility for programming to the minister and focus its efforts on governance: finance, facility management, and administration. Still, Eskildsen knew that would not be enough.
“I’m the only minister,” she said. “There’s no way I can function with all these responsibilities.”
Thus was born the ministry council, a cultivated group of lay leaders who act as liaisons between the minister and the congregation’s various programming components, such as worship, fellowship, social justice, and lifespan development.
Many congregations have a volunteer role they call a “lay minister,” people who typically help the minister with pastoral or preaching responsibilities. That’s not their role in Athens.
“It’s a misconception that we’re in the pulpit,” said Vivian Preston Sellers, a former member of the ministry council, although it does happen occasionally. “Basically, we are a communication device. We have clusters and we connect with people who are heads of committees and teams to make sure things are moving along smoothly.”
Essentially, the various responsibilities for running a healthy congregation were divided between the board and the ministry council, which works in collaboration with and under the direction of Eskildsen.
Eskildsen said developing a cadre of volunteer leaders to assist the minister with programming is a way to meet the challenges of medium-sized congregations as they grow. As more members join the congregation, the demand for programming increases, but the congregation is not yet prepared to hire additional professional religious staff. Training and deploying volunteer leaders is an alternative that has been successful in Athens.
Here is how the ministry council works: Potential lay ministers fill out an application that is reviewed by Eskildsen. If accepted, they take on a yearlong training program that is followed by a two-year term on the council. During the training period, lay minister candidates attend monthly sessions with Eskildsen where they discuss reading and homework assignments they have completed on topics such as covenantal religion, congregational systems and conflict, and lifespan development of faith and meaning.
“I ask all the candidates to learn more about the whole ministry of the congregation,” Eskildsen said, “not just a particular area they’re interested in.”
The four to six ministry council members each year are assigned cluster areas, such as spiritual arts, fellowship, or lifespan development. They stay in contact with the various committees and teams in their assigned clusters and then meet monthly as a group with Eskildsen.
The overarching benefit comes from the shared responsibility among the board, ministry council, and minister. “There are more things going on because there are more people to do them,” said Caryl Sunderland, a former board president.
Other benefits of this approach have also become clear.
For one thing, it brings with it the understanding that much of what the congregation does is a ministry. “I hadn’t really thought of fun and fellowship as a ministry before, but it is,” said Michelle Leebens-Mack, a former lay minister. “This makes it become more than just committee work.”
Congregant Lisa Brown added, “All these little ministries going on, that is what keeps me entangled with everybody else.”
Another benefit is that this approach extends leadership opportunities. In many congregations, once a board president’s term ends, he or she may feel like there’s little left to do. In Athens, many ministry council members have been board members and vice versa, though individuals do not serve simultaneously on both the board and the council. The current board president, Bob McArthur, has undergone training as a lay minister and will probably join the ministry council when his board term ends.
The ministry council also allows greater coordination of congregational initiatives. “One goal we have for the coming year is to improve our family ministry, how we’re serving all families,” said Karen Solheim, who just finished a term on the council. “At our meetings, we can ask ourselves, what is worship doing to make sure kids are included in worship? What is fellowship doing to make sure older people are coming to events? How is social justice helping?”
And it certainly allows the professional minister to concentrate on her own priorities. “I can focus on something that needs more support from me,” Eskildsen said. “The ministry council is the team that supports me, and it prevents me from making mistakes. These are my advisers.”
For example, Jane Mayer, a veteran of both the ministry council and the board, said, “This congregation has made it clear we want our minister engaged in social justice in the Athens community.”
The congregation recently started an Adopt-a-School project, and Eskildsen has been actively involved in getting it up and going. One initiative involved congregation members donating to a fund to buy uniforms for students at the Alps Road Elementary School and then offer them to parents at deeply discounted prices. When congregation members distributed the uniforms during an ice cream social they hosted at the school, Eskildsen was there.
Eskildsen pointed out that the ministry council model may not be the answer for every UU church. Smaller congregations may not have so many programming needs that the minister can’t handle them; larger congregations may be able to hire associate ministers and other professional staff.
And it requires something from the congregation as well. “It takes a fair amount of trust for both the board and the minister to let go of some of the responsibilities they had,” Eskildsen cautioned. “And you can’t have a board that is antiauthoritarian. If people have those kinds of issues, it’s not going to fit.”
Nevertheless, at least in the case of the UU Fellowship of Athens, the willingness to embrace shared responsibility for leadership has resulted in a boon to the overall health of the congregation. It’s an example other congregations looking for a fresh leadership approach may wish to follow.
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Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who is also a member of the UU Church of Studio City, California.
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