In ten years leading the Church of the Larger Fellowship, the Rev. Dr. Jane Rzepka brought Unitarian Universalism’s “church without walls” to the Web.
Rzepka is stepping down because of complications arising from post-polio syndrome.
In her ten years at CLF, Rzepka reached out to the members of the UUA’s largest congregation through a unique ministry that maximized the use of technology—and the U.S. postal system—to bring Unitarian Universalism to underserved populations. CLF serves isolated Unitarian Universalists, including those living far away from a congregation and those looking for additional spiritual sustenance, even though they are members of a local UU church.
CLF’s membership grew from 2,552 members in 2005 to 3,492 members in 2010. CLF executive director Lorraine Dennis said that this growth can largely be attributed to the creation and nurturance of several specialized ministries, including ones to prisoners, members of the military community, young adults, and religious liberals outside the United States.
Rzepka said she saw her ministry as twofold: to serve CLF members and to serve Unitarian Universalism. “To serve the members I wanted to offer a wide range of all the aspects of Unitarian Universalism, like religious education for all ages, spiritual sustenance, community, and social justice work,” she said. “The second part was to increase the delivery system, which needed, then and now, to range from hand-written notes and paper publications to online video and podcasts, online communities in various formats, and social networking.”
Although technology has driven much of the CLF’s recent development, Dennis said that staff believe about half of the CLF’s 3,500 members do not have access to computers. “We have a disproportionate number of older people, disabled people, and people who don’t have money to buy computers,” she said. The prisoners in the prison ministry also have little to no access to computers.
“We always tried to interact with parishioners on whatever channel they were on,” Rzepka said, adding that this could range from hand-written notes to video conversations.
In 2000, Rzepka oversaw the launch of a prison ministry. Starting with about 100 prisoners, the ministry now serves 350 by mail from the CLF headquarters in Boston. The ministry offers correspondence courses, supplies UU books printed out on paper and mailed in chapters, and matches prisoner-members as pen pals with non-incarcerated UUs around the country.
The Rev. Patty Franz, who directs the prison ministry program, said the program is now looking to expand. “CLF is reaching its capacity for the number of prisoners it can serve through the mail,” she said. “We need to find a way to partner with local congregations to meet this need. I would love to see the CLF serve only prisoners in isolated prisons but have a way for every other prisoner to connect with Unitarian Universalism through in-person visits with local UUs.”
Another population that Rzepka identified as being underserved was young adults (18- to 35-year-olds). In general, young adults are tech savvy, making a more interactive form of religious engagement appealing. In 2005, the Church of the Younger Fellowship was established online “to serve the needs of its members as a place of reflection, learning, interaction, and service.” The CYF now counts hundreds of members.
The most recent ministry established under Rzepka’s watch is the military ministry website. Introduced in 2009, the site hosts forums for those in the service as well as a forum for family members. Another forum serves military chaplains and chaplain candidates. The military ministry’s chaplain, Seanan Holland, who is also the CLF intern minister this year, posts sermons and readings and is available for online chat and to answer questions.
“Jane was the perfect person to lead the military ministry through the CLF,” Holland said, “because she already had the experience with the technology and the Internet to build online gathering sites for each of the CLF’s different constituencies and still allow them to cross to other parts of the site.”
Holland noted that the military community includes a large number of young adults, some of whom are also members of the Church of the Younger Fellowship.
During Rzepka’s tenure CLF created many new worship and religious education resources. “Church OnLine” provides 240 complete worship services for family groups or small lay-led congregations, and more than 1,000 searchable and filtered service elements. “RE Express,” created by the Rev. Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, offers curricula and resources for religious education, including “KidTalk,” a special online children’s publication designed to link UU children to the wider world of Unitarian Universalism, and “CLiF Notes,” a weekly online curriculum for multi-age groups of children.
CLF also developed online courses in UU identity, spiritual practices, theology and faith development, and ethics. Thousands of pages of RE resources for children have been converted to searchable electronic form.
In addition to the resources themselves, CLF developed new forms of electronic community during Rzepka’s tenure, including email lists, forums, Facebook pages, and online chat and covenant groups.
The Church of the Larger Fellowship was created in 1944 “to provide a spiritual home for isolated Unitarians and their families, and to transfer the allegiance of its members to local Unitarian churches whenever possible.” Its services at that point consisted of monthly mailings of sermons and pastoral letters.
After the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged in 1961 to create the Unitarian Universalist Association, a new, stronger CLF emerged, offering correspondence courses, handbooks for conducting worship services, religious education resources, and a lending library—all through the mail.
In later years the CLF’s mission changed, dropping the part about helping congregants become members of local Unitarian churches. Now its mission “is to provide a ministry to isolated religious liberals and promote the understanding and growth of Unitarian Universalism.”
Rzepka described the range of things her ministry called her to attend to. “For me, life as a parish minister has rhythms, but never a typical day,” she wrote in an email. “A minister’s attention ricochets from a parishioner’s terminal diagnosis to a publication or preaching deadline to recording a podcast to wringing one’s hands over the budget. In the CLF office we also pored over letters from prisoners, jewelry designs, emails from Iran, our young adults’ website, online course proposals, grant applications, kids’ RE materials—you name it. No minister ever knows who will be at the other end of the phone, or what’s in the next email or in the next envelope.”
In addition to providing services and community to isolated UUs, the CLF fulfills a need for many of its members that is temperament-based, Rzepka said. “I learned that there are thousands of committed UUs and potential UUs who are not drawn to the more extraverted aspects of current congregational life—participatory service elements—singing and clapping together, joys and sorrows, rituals, and coffee hours. They prefer our religion straight-up.”
Parishioners are not the only ones mourning Rzepka’s departure. Ministerial colleagues have also weighed in.
“It’s impossible to escape the sadness of bidding farewell to a minister who has served us so well,” wrote the Rev. Stefan Jonasson, co-chair of the CLF Board of Directors in the February 2010 issue of Quest. “And words are insufficient to fully express our gratitude to Jane for her leadership, care, and inspiration.”
“You have been a shining light, and CLF an inspiring and edifying source of support to independent UUs and to congregations,” wrote the Rev. Marti Keller, assistant minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, on a CLF message board.
Dennis said that the search for a new minister is well underway. “We expect the new minister to start in mid-August or the first of September,” she said.
Update 5.13.10: CLF called the Rev. Meg Riley, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s director for Advocacy and Witness, as its new senior minister at the end of March. Riley will leave the UUA staff in July and will begin her ministry with CLF on August 16.
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.