One thing our churches are free to do is work with each other.
In September it took flight in Southern California, in the form of 160,000 postcards, a four-page insert in four major newspapers, and National Public Radio spots that tell people about Unitarian Universalism and invite them to check out seven congregations between Los Angeles and San Diego.
The biggest of the congregations in this cluster has 261 members, and most have fewer than 150. None has the resources to undertake outreach on this scale by itself. But by joining together, and with the generosity of individual Unitarian Universalist donors who came together to spare the congregations from raiding their own modest operating budgets, they are doing a great job of calling attention to our faith and the values we hold so dear—and of building their congregations as a stronger presence in this populous area.
I flew to Southern California to celebrate with people from the cluster as they launched their effort, and as I write this I’m looking forward to flying back at the end of October to preach at a regional UU revival. The cluster has rented a hotel ballroom big enough to hold the crowd—hundreds of UUs from the combined congregations, welcoming guests attracted by the combined marketing effort. And revival is indeed what they’re calling it.
This is our covenant at work, and there is power in it, power to strengthen our liberal religion even though we insist on being free churches with no central authorities to direct what our congregations do. One of the things our churches are free to do is to come together in agreement to work jointly, to strengthen our liberal religion and to deepen the religious lives of their congregations in the process. This living covenant was first made formal more than three and a half centuries ago, when the Puritan churches of New England came together to figure out how to be in relationship.
Happily, this new marketing campaign is hardly the only example of our covenant taking flight. Just to the south of this cluster, five congregations in the San Diego area have banded together for years and conducted their own marketing effort; a different kind of cluster, the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry, California, pools resources from congregations all over the state to support a lobbyist for UU values in Sacramento, the state capital.
Clusters have been breaking out in recent years from coast to coast, from California to Pennsylvania to Texas; from Long Island to Kansas City to Chicago. And in many states—not just California—our congregations have come together to lobby more effectively at the state level. Our covenant can truly make a difference in the world.
Membership growth and increased generosity are crucial to strengthening our faith and its ability to make our values a vital part of the public conversation. Increased cooperation among our congregations is just as crucial. In our covenant, we find the power of synergy, not only for building UU membership but also for building the spirit that makes our congregations vital—and gives our lives holy direction.
So if your congregation doesn’t have a strong alliance with other congregations, now would be a great time to catch the wave. Engage with at least one neighboring church to do something better than either church can do by itself—a social justice project, perhaps, or a joint youth adventure. Get your boards together to discuss your ways of dealing with the issues that all congregations face. Advertise together. Our covenant is wide open. What we can do to build the spirit is limited only by our imaginations. May they be as expansive as our faith!
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The Rev. Bill Sinkford is a former president of the UUA and now senior minister at First Unitarian in Portland, Oregon. He was appointed Interim Co-President for the roles of President as outlined in the UUA Bylaws on April 10, 2017.