As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, three small Wisconsin congregations— Green Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Open Circle Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Fond du Lac, and The Point Fellowship in Stevens Point—have found an unexpected bright point in its wake. Forced in the spring of 2020 to move worship services and other meetings onto Zoom, these fellowships soon saw that the platform offered them an innovative way to collaborate.
Pre-pandemic, each congregation created its own programming and contracted individually with Rev. Jim Coakley for part-time ministerial services. As the pandemic wore on, they realized they could pool their resources to offer Coakley one full-time ministerial contract, have him rotate where he preaches in person, and use Zoom to share Sunday services among all three congregations.
“Out of that hardship came innovation.”
“It seems so weird to say this, but without COVID, we wouldn’t have been forced to do anything online, and I don’t know if it would have come to us that we could share services,” said Natalie Buhl, service planning chair at Green Bay. “Out of that hardship came innovation.”
In June 2021, the congregations formalized their agreement to share Coakley’s services via a consortium. This enables them to offer higher-quality Sunday services, a greater variety of speakers, and richer programming. In addition to preaching, Coakley facilitates chalice circles, offers pastoral care, and coordinates religious education.
Coakley’s leadership of the congregations frees volunteers from the feeling that they must take on entire programs single-handedly. For example, he lays out a religious education curriculum with videos that facilitators at each congregation can easily implement.
Along with these benefits have come some questions the congregations had to grapple with. All three were lay-led before they began contracting with Coakley, and some members were wary of losing their congregation’s lay-led identity upon entering the consortium.
“If you’ve been a member of a lay-led fellowship for twenty-five years and suddenly things are taking a turn, that can be very scary,” said Buhl. “So [we had to make] sure people had information, and then [we had to] be willing to have hard conversations.”
“It’s about, ‘What can we make better?’ Let’s try it, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.”
–Rev. Jim Coakley
In addition to the larger existential questions, the congregations have had to navigate practical challenges, such as how to ensure high-quality Zoom audio—both Open Circle and Green Bay had already upgraded their tech in response to the pandemic—while also supporting in-person attendees with limited mobility who can’t easily get to a microphone to speak.
Since the consortium’s founding, there has been an increased cost of about $20,000 due to benefits, employment taxes, and a pay raise for the 2023–24 year. As smaller congregations, these costs were not trivial and required a sustained financial commitment from members.
Whatever has come its way, the consortium has approached it with open heartedness and a willingness to try new approaches.
“It’s about, ‘What can we make better?’” Coakley said. “Let’s try it, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. I think that [mentality] opens up a space where people feel like it’s still their congregation and they really do have a say.”