Journey of Self-Discovery: Inside a UU Congregation’s Switch to Lay Leadership

Journey of Self-Discovery: Inside a UU Congregation’s Switch to Lay Leadership

Unitarian Universalists at the 110-member congregation in Las Vegas say the change is working for them. Here’s how they did it.

A person speaks at a podium on stage during a congregational service.

Mark Bergtholdt speaks during a service of the UU Congregation of Las Vegas, Nevada.

© Laurelinn's Lens


When the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Las Vegas’s minister left unexpectedly at the end of last summer, the 110-member congregation organized a town hall to consider its options.  

The congregation’s budget issues, and the hurdle of attracting candidates to the area led congregants to quickly decide to be lay-led. Though there is no official count of how many congregations have unexpectedly found themselves lay-led, Unitarian Universalist Association Transitions Program Manager Christine Purcell says her team has observed a recent trend alongside curiosity about combining resources with other congregations. 

Combining resources is a challenge for UUCLV, since the closest UU congregation is hundreds of miles away. Its Worship Committee Chairperson Mark Bergtholdt embraced the formidable challenge of helping the transition to lay leadership, committing himself to two years of service. He also saw an opportunity for the congregation to better define its UU identity. 

"Since we do not quite know who or what we want to be, each member is bringing their own idea of what it means to be a UU," says Bergtholdt.   

Las Vegas UU Congregants Share ‘Hidden Talents’  

For lay-led congregations, welcoming many voices can strengthen relationships. Bergtholdt says they’ve discovered congregants’ "hidden talents"—people who can share both their spiritual beliefs and storytelling or musical abilities, deepening the connection among parishioners.   

To fill Sunday worship services, Bergtholdt relies on enthusiastic volunteers, his worship team, and extensive resources from the UUA.  

The UUA offers a Sermon of the Month subscription service designed for small or lay-led congregations and those with part-time ministry, says Rev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, Congregational Life staff for the Pacific Western Region.  

At Bergtholdt’s request, Millspaugh sent out an invitation for guest ministers. The congregation now has at least a full year of sermons booked.  

Other roles usually filled by ministers need to be considered as well, such as memorial services and weddings. And regular pastoral care "can sometimes be hard for lay-led folks to take on," Millspaugh says. The UUA provides free online pastoral care training for lay leaders. UUCLV has an organized pastoral committee to handle these needs, and a seminarian has offered services as well.  

Presidents of lay-led congregations often become staff supervisors. When challenges arise, UUA Congregational Life staff can coach and companion the presidents and direct them toward human resources best practices, Millspaugh says.

Megan Walls, UUCLV’s president, says attending the UUA regional presidents’ meetings has offered valuable peer support.

"There are congregations having this exact same problem—a lot of the same challenges—and successes," she says.  

Being Lay-Led Can Reveal Congregational Strengths and Weaknesses

When it comes to being lay-led, Walls says, "You just need to work with other people, whether it’s your regional people or your nearest congregation, so reach out and be collaborative!"    

"By bringing in other voices, we will become more connected."

Rev. Keith Kron, the UUA’s Transitions director, believes being lay-led can help congregations focus on what matters and "may in fact be a hidden blessing—or at least have a silver lining," adding that it can reduce financial and other stress on the congregation and may illuminate aspects of ministry done by ministers that go unseen.

Bergtholdt is hopeful that being lay-led will indeed prove to be a blessing—and the congregation will be better equipped when the time is right to begin a minister search. 

"By bringing in other voices, we will become more connected," Bergtholdt says. "We can [then] welcome a minister who will know who we are, because we will know who we are."