Membership at Lake Country UU Church has more than doubled since 2006.
At Lake Country UU, it's a tradition for children and youth to light the chalice (© William Lizdas).
When Lake Country Unitarian Universalist Church purchased its current home, a circular, wood-shingled building in Hartland, Wisconsin, members weren’t sure what to do about the massive aluminum cross atop the spire. Left over from the church’s previous owners, the cross didn’t quite reflect the religious diversity in Lake Country’s congregation.
So late one night a group of members climbed onto the roof and quietly removed the cross to avoid creating a spectacle. Eventually, the cross was cut into five segments so it could be reborn into something new. Today these segments are posts topped with copper end caps that depict Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Bahá’í, and Buddhist symbols and stand sentry as part of an earth-centered fountain fed by a waterfall in the church’s memorial garden. The fountain is used as Lake Country’s profile photo on Facebook.
“It’s really symbolic,” said Sue Blackwell, Lake Country’s board president. “This church is so inclusive and really does respect people’s belief systems and where they are on their journey.”
That spirit continues to draw newcomers to Lake Country despite its location in a very conservative area just west of Milwaukee. Its membership has more than doubled since 2006, which is one of the reasons it was recognized by the Unitarian Universalist Association as a Breakthrough Congregation. The congregation now includes more than 150 adult members and nearly ninety children. The church called its first full-time minister, the Rev. Amy P. Shaw, in May 2013, and the staff continues to grow.
“The thing that I’ve noticed here is that it’s an incredible community, but unlike a lot of communities, it’s not closed,” Shaw said. “So you can walk in on day one and know this is your house, too. You are not being welcomed into our house; you are being welcomed home.”
It starts with a warm greeting as soon as visitors walk in the door. The church also makes the path to membership clear and offers easily available materials that explain how newcomers can get involved in various committees. “We try to take down as many barriers as we can,” Shaw said.
And it’s easy to want to get involved, notes Carol Cantrall, who joined the church last year. “Members sincerely enjoy being with each other,” she said. “They share their lives, both good and bad, with each other. This isn’t a church that you attend Sunday morning and then go home. You return for potluck meals, concerts, and volunteer opportunities that support the community. You get together once a month for a ted Talk or weekly for meditation.”
The church has come a long way since 1997, when around ten families who were attending another area UU church decided to start a congregation closer to home.
“At first they were like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness,” Shaw said. “They met at night, they rented other churches, and they slowly grew from about fifteen people to thirty and then sixty. In 2006 they took an unbelievable leap of faith, and a group of sixty people raised the funds to buy this church.”
When church members found Lake Country’s building, it was destined for the wrecking ball, as a developer prepared to convert the property to condominiums. But then the deal fell through, and the minister who had owned the building agreed to sell it for around $800,000. In just a few weeks, Lake Country’s forty-one pledge units pulled together a hefty down payment and secured the congregation’s new home: a 12,000-square-foot building set on five acres and located on a busy corner across from two schools. For many members, the fundraising drive meant making other financial sacrifices, but they were committed.
“If our congregation had an adage, it would be ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’” said Yvonne Fort, who has belonged to the church since it was first chartered.
The new location spurred rapid growth as young families in the area discovered Lake Country for the first time. And nearly a decade after the move, the church continues to grow. “Now people are being drawn by the reputation, and word is getting out there,” Blackwell said.
Points of pride include the strong children’s programming led by Director of Religious Education Kerry Duma; a commitment to social justice (the church recently started hosting homeless families overnight through the national Family Promise program and divested from fossil fuel companies, among other activities); and a dedication to environmentalism.
As soon as the church moved into its current building, longtime member Gerry Flakas organized the Green Sanctuary Committee and arranged an energy audit. Soon the church replaced its leaky roof and all of its fluorescent lighting, and it eventually installed a 20-kilowatt solar electric system, which now pays for two-thirds of the church’s electric bills. The solar panels are just one way that Lake Country demonstrates its values to the surrounding community.
“It’s a highly visible example of renewable energy,” said Flakas, who is co-chair of the Facilities Committee.
With the help of a local Eagle Scout, the church added an outdoor worship area with a fire pit and handmade benches. Outdoor services have included Kirtan chanting with fire dances, and a photography-focused service in which members wandered around the five-acre property to capture images of their vision of the church. A vegetable bed known as the Garden for Good provides homegrown goodies for both the local food pantry and anyone else in need, and a walking labyrinth offers another way to connect with the outdoors.
Music is also vital to the congregation, with an intergenerational choir, children’s choir, teen choir, brass quartet, violin trio, and the Lost Souls String Band contributing performances throughout the year. Lake Country recently hired a part-time music director, Nancy Bratt.
On a Sunday in December, children performed a Hanukkah pageant, the choirs sang Christmas carols, and the sanctuary lights were turned off as the Blacklight Dancers performed the Russian dance from The Nutcracker, their white scarves flying through the darkness.
“We try really hard to make sure that people are engaged in a lot of different ways,” Shaw said. “Last year we created the black-light team for people who may experience things a little more visually.”
Lake Country is slowly becoming more diverse, a trend Shaw would like to see continue. And while it’s not always easy to be the most liberal church in a politically conservative area, Lake Country does draw members from across the political spectrum. “Being UU is not just for Democrats,” notes Shaw, a Libertarian who makes a point of not preaching politics from the pulpit. “You can believe in UU values and be someone who believes differently in terms of political solutions. Most of our folks recognize that, too.”
The church has always been willing to adapt, partly out of necessity. Before Shaw came on board, it employed a long series of part-time ministers. “I think it instilled in us this flexibility,” Fort said.
Lake Country continues to change in other ways. Last year, the church upgraded its front restroom, which is non-gender-specific, to make it accessible to people with disabilities. This year the church will remodel its sanctuary. Meeting the church’s ongoing needs—including facility maintenance and staffing—will require continued growth, Flakas said. Still, church members have no doubt that they can do it.
“You never arrive,” Fort said. “You keep changing.”
See a slideshow of Lake Country UU Church on Flickr.
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Nicole Sweeney Etter, a member of First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a freelance writer and editor.
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