Program strengthens church social justice work

Program strengthens church social justice work

Long-running UUA program helps congregations evaluate and strengthen their social justice programs.
Jane Greer


When it comes to social justice, some Unitarian Universalist congregations say they lack size or sufficient resources to have a real impact. But the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations’ Social Justice Empowerment Program (SJEP) is helping to change this perception.

“We help groups to see their own strengths and what they’ve accomplished,” said the Rev. Bill Gardiner, SJEP’s founder and the former codirector of the UUA’s Faith in Action program. “Often they don’t see how powerful they are.”

SJEP has been helping congregations build their social justice programs through weekend workshops since 1992. The program helps individual congregations assess their own strengths and weaknesses in social justice organizing and works with them to develop an effective social action program. The program also helps churches that have had active social justice programs evaluate—and celebrate—their efforts, giving them ideas for ways to function even more powerfully. In April, SJEP gave its 146th workshop.

And now SJEP is experimenting with training more than one congregation at a time. The UU Church in Nashua, N.H., was the site for a workshop at the end of March in which observers from ten other UU congregations were present. The Nashua church, which has been a leader in the Granite State Organizing Project—an interfaith coalition of religious, labor, and community groups—is also active in New Hampshire Faithful Democracy, a new UU justice advocacy network ministry that is trying to make a UU voice heard on legislative issues at the state and national level. The statewide workshop was intended to make other New Hampshire UU churches aware of the program, especially within the context of participating in NH Faithful Democracy, according to Susan Leslie, director of the UUA’s Office for Congregational Advocacy and Witness. So far, two New Hampshire churches have requested their own trainings for next year, Leslie said.

The workshop helped the Nashua congregation, which has had a strong social justice committee, examine its future. “We want to extend social justice so it has a broader base in the congregation, and not just in the social justice committee,” said the Rev. Steve Edington, Nashua’s minister. “We want to give the congregation a greater sense of ownership of social justice issues.” As a result of the workshop, the church’s social justice committee is working on processes to help the congregation narrow down the issues it wants to support.

A long-time organizer, Gardiner knew that many congregations wanted to be more active on the social justice front but lacked basic organizing skills. They might have good ideas but didn’t know how to focus their energy. Other congregations with active programs wanted a chance to evaluate them to see if they could be made more effective.

So in 1992 Gardiner called a meeting of facilitators and activist ministers to share their ideas and best practices. As a result of that meeting, he wrote an initial trainer’s handbook (which the Advocacy and Witness staff group is in the process of updating). He then recruited both lay and clergy trainers to go out to the congregations. Some of the facilitators—including the Rev. Carole Ann Cole, the Rev. Cynthia Prescott, the Rev. Ralph Galen, the Rev. Art MacDonald, Carl McCargo, Pam Kelly, and Charlie Zoeller—are still with the program.

”The program costs between $500 and $1,300 depending on the congregation’s size and its Annual Program Fund contribution to the UUA. An SJEP workshop typically starts Friday evening and ends Sunday morning with the congregation’s worship service, although shortened versions can be arranged. However, before a facilitator or pair of facilitators arrives, the congregation must complete an extensive self-evaluation, which includes answering questions like, “What kind of image does your social justice program have in the church?” and “In what ways does your congregation relate its public ministry to UU values, identity, and history?” The self-evaluation process helps trainers customize the program for each congregation and helps prime the congregation for its upcoming work at the workshop.

The training has certain requirements in terms of attendance. Half of the congregation’s governing board needs to be in attendance as does the minister, social justice committee, and as many congregants as possible. This ensures a high degree of buy-in, especially at the leadership level.

One of the things that the training emphasizes is building a lasting social justice infrastructure. One of the models taught by SJEP trainers is “the Rochester model,” named after First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York, which developed the model under the guidance of the Rev. Richard Gilbert, its now-retired minister. The model consists of establishing a social justice council and then having specific task forces for different projects that are accountable to the council. While the task forces might change or disband, the Social Justice Council would retain the same oversight position.

Both Kathy and John Harris, outgoing social action chairs of the UU Congregation of Columbia, Maryland, championed the Rochester model when it was presented at their December SJEP training. “When we first became social action council chairs,” Kathy said, “the council was involved in 27 social justice projects. Everyone was trying to get as much support for their project as they could.”

As a result of the training, the congregation is now in the process of reorganizing its social justice program by moving from a social action committee model to developing a stronger social action council that will oversee committees in four broad areas: community action, social justice impact, the environment, and the Welcoming Congregation program—a UUA program that helps congregations become more welcoming to bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people.

“Our aim was to get the administrative and meeting functions reduced for most people who want to do something in social action so that they could actually do things,” said Steve Jamar, Columbia’s incoming social action chair. “We wanted to facilitate that by moving policy-level decisions up to the council and leave implementation to individual project coordinators and leaders. Those projects would then be shepherded by the four committee leaders.”

First Church Unitarian in Littleton, Massachusetts, adopted a modified version of the Rochester system following its SJEP workshop in 2003. “We’ve established a social justice council,” said Joel Ross, who attended the workshop. “If ad hoc groups want to become task forces, they need to identify five people who are willing to work on the project and five people willing to support it. Every year in the fall we have a church meeting to designate who gets the task force designation. It’s a matter of not stretching our resources too thin,” he said.

Adrian George, social justice committee chair at the Nashua church sees their new social action committee as one that also helps groups become task forces. “Often, people come to the social justice committee with an idea and then expect us to do all the work,” he said. “There’s a danger of burn-out there. The real role of the social justice committee, in addition to providing educational forums and workshops on critical issues of social and economic justice, is to help people who would like to get involved by assisting them with things like recruiting and fundraising.”

The workshop is designed to work with congregations as they currently are, rather than where they want to be. The Rev. Mark Ward is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville, North Carolina, which went through the program this past year. “You don’t want to dream the impossible dream,’ he said. “Instead you want a good, doable project.” As a result of the training, the Asheville congregation is strengthening its current program and adding task forces in economic justice, environmental justice, peace, and human rights.

The program is not just about beefing up a congregation’s social justice program. The Rev. Carole Ann Cole, a community minister and trainer for SJEP since 1992, said, “It’s about how social justice can be made more central to the congregation’s life.”

Making social justice an important part of congregational life does not imply that everyone in the congregation needs to agree with all of the church’s positions, however. “You can still be an advocacy congregation without 100 percent support from the congregation,” George said. “The important thing is engaging people in the process of discussing and choosing issues.”

But he added that becoming an advocacy congregation can amplify a church’s voice. “The minister has more freedom to speak out on certain issues knowing that they have broad-based congregational support.”

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