Growing need pushes congregation to increase accessibility

The First Unitarian Church of Sioux City, Iowa, installed an elevator and created an accessible restroom out of a closet after someone who uses a wheelchair joined the congregation. The congregation uses a 100-year-old house for offices and has a newer sanctuary attached.

The lay-led congregation, which has 31 pledging units, spent $60,000 on the renovations. Of that, $10,000 came from a Missouri River Historical Development grant, $3,000 came from a Chalice Lighters grant through the MidAmerica Region, a member bequeathed $8,000, and the rest was raised or borrowed by the congregation. The congregation took out a $28,000 loan.

Marty Nash moved to Sioux City from Phoenix. For about two years she attended church by way of makeshift ramps. “Each Sunday we’d have to get out this long foldable ramp,” said Nash. “It was irritating to everyone and the ramp felt uncertain at times. The congregation had discussed this long before I came. They realized that since everyone was getting older, with bad knees and arthritis, this was going to be a continuing problem.”

Nash ended up heading a committee that, over a two-year period, raised or borrowed the money to do the projects. “Almost every member contributed. Everyone wanted this to happen.”

She added, “We had no money to start. We used $50,000 from our estate gifts fund to cover exenses until we raised the money.” She said the project has changed the congregation. “I feel a new energy, and I think that communicates to our visitors.”

Shed old processes to create vitality

Natalie Briscoe, a Congregational Life staff member for the UUA’s Southern Region, invites congregational leaders to undertake some “spring cleaning” in a recent post on the region’s blog. She suggests some things congregations might want to get rid of, including:

• A mission that is uninspiring, inaccurate, or old. A vision that is too small, old, or doesn’t lead you to where you want to go. An old covenant that isn’t practiced. Processes that no longer serve the congregation (such as committee structures, governance style, or communication processes).

• Along with old processes, how about old technologies? Are you still using a membership database from 1994? Do you still have Yahoo email groups? The internet, social media, and new database systems can streamline our congregations. We no longer need to waste time with outdated technologies.

• Silence around financial issues. Does your congregation have anxiety when it comes to speaking about money? Throw out the silence and start having honest conversations about what we can realistically do to financially support Unitarian Universalism in our communities. There are no tips or tricks; we just have to do it.

Briscoe’s complete blog post, from March 16, is here.


UUSC begins Haitian garden project

This spring, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is inviting congregations to help families in Haiti plant vegetable gardens. Congregations are being asked to raise money to buy the necessary tools and seeds to enable Haitian families to grow their own food.

The Rev. Katherine Jesch, former director of environmental ministry for the UU Ministry for Earth, says that $250 will allow one family to be trained and supplied with tools and seeds for a garden. The UUSC hopes to raise enough so that 100 families can plant gardens.

Jesch said that individuals, youth groups, congregations, and other groups are being encouraged to support this project. She noted, “Once Haitian families don’t have to buy all their food they are better able to cover other basic expenses, like school fees for their children. Food sustainability can be at the heart of thriving families and communities.”

Donations of amounts smaller than $250 will also accepted. Visit the UUSC website for more information.

Sermon-writing for lay people

New from Skinner House is The Shared Pulpit: A Sermon Seminar for Lay People by the Rev. Erika Hewitt.

The book is described as “a complete workshop to help lay people gain experience writing and preaching a full-length sermon.” It provides a step-by-step lesson plan for eight sessions, including the theory and theology of preaching, and practice sessions in writing and speaking.

The book includes a separate leader’s guide, homework readings, sample sermons, and other exercises “to help first-time preachers polish their preaching craft.” It is $14 from the UUA Bookstore.

Hewitt has an earlier book on worship, Story, Song and Spirit: Fun and Creative Worship Services for All Ages, which is $12 from the bookstore.

Looking for a Skinner House discussion guide?

Wondering if there’s a study guide for that Skinner House book that you’d like to use for a religious education course? Now there’s a page on devoted to Companion Resources for Skinner House Books.

In addition to study guides prepared by UUA staff and others, the resources include videos and UU World articles.

People are also invited to suggest other resources or create their own and submit them for posting on the site.

Letter: What to do about lack of volunteers

My name is Dan Kirchoff and I’m a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Belfast, Maine. I’ve been enjoying the Interconnections e-mail newsletter, especially a recent article (or perhaps I should say chain of articles) about the digital congregation. I’ve been working with others to form a Communications Committee in our church and we’ve been studying the initial article as well as all the blogs, tip sheets and such with great interest. I very much appreciate you folks providing us with that.

One issue I’ve see come up in our church, as well as my previous UU church in Rockland, Maine, is volunteer overload. Perhaps you’ve already had articles on this subject that I’ve missed, but it might be well worth re-running. All too often the need for volunteers at church outstrips the available manpower and a new member who is willing to do something gets overloaded with requests to join multiple committees, special tasks forces and councils. I’ve seen others (and felt the urge myself) pull back from participating in church as a result of this overload of requests. It’s as if the church “powers that be” discover “we’ve got a live one” and it’s all downhill from there.
Not too long ago, I was part of a cooperative art gallery in our area of Maine and while things can be hectic with 30 artists all trying to work together, they had some very good ideas. One exceptional requirement for membership in the gallery was that everyone was expected to participate on ONE committee or take on ONE task in the gallery’s function. We had full participation, lots of diversity of ideas, and complete ownership of what was happening there. I’ve often thought of how this might be extended to the functioning of our church in Belfast.
My thought is if everyone in the church’s congregation was encouraged to do just one thing—even if it’s just to join the choir—then we would have an abundance of participation and the diversity of thought and ideas and action would be rich indeed. The idea is not to have one person do five or six things (although since there are members with lots of time and energy on their hands, it also would not necessarily be discouraged) but to have five or six people all doing one thing each. Is it impossible? I wonder if other UU churches have been able to do this, thereby breaking the chain of overuse of a few qualified but very tired people.
I have yet to convince our church council to embark on such a mission, but I’m still working on it. We could even have entry-level, new-member participation slots such as greeters, hospitality and the choir (I’ve found that you make more friends in church just by joining the choir). Then these now-seasoned participators can move up to committees and task forces, eventually ascending to leadership positions. So far, I’ve heard of no such UUA church volunteer initiative, but perhaps it’s time we had one.
Perhaps if you have information on this topic, it could be shared.
Thanks for your attention and I appreciate any feedback you folks might have.
Dan Kirchoff
UU Belfast, Maine


Editor’s Note: Dan, many congregations make it clear to new members that the congregation can only function if everyone helps out in some way. They point out that giving of one’s time is an important aspect of membership. Often this happens in new-member orientation courses, but there are other ways to make this point as well. InterConnections will be happy to publish responses to Dan’s question.



Tips from Facebook on doing church

Congregationally-relevant articles that people like you have posted on Facebook in recent weeks include the following:

How Many Staff Do You Need, from the Ministry Matters website.

Why Worship Shouldn’t Feel Like Family, Ministry Matters

Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid, from the website Gestating a Church.

• Cabaret Church – On The VUU, a weekly webcast discussion sponsored by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison explains his proposal for “Cabaret Church,” (Aug. 29 webcast) which would be centered around music, art, resistance, and community. He notes that cabarets were a response in the thirties to Fascism and they might well be useful tools today in bringing a religious perspective to contemporary culture and world politics. Cabaret Church also has its own page on Facebook and on Tumblr.

The Facebook page Growing Unitarian Universalism recommends the article “Are Your Church Facilities an Obstacle to Growth? about the ways first-time guests see your building.

Ministry and Authority report available

A report, “Who’s in Charge Here? The Complex Relationship Between Ministry and Authority,” was recently released by the UUA’s Commission on Appraisal after several years of work. It is available for $12 through the UUA Bookstore.

The 98-page report discusses both lay and professional ministry and makes the observation that many of the “struggles and stresses” around ministry in UU congregations stem from issues of authority. It includes the following chapters: “What is Ministry,” “What is Authority?” “Who Has Authority and Who Does Not?” and “Conflicts about Ministry and Authority.”

The Rev. Erica Baron, who serves congregations in Rutland and Bennington, Vt., was project manager for the report. Chair of the commission is Megan Dowdall, a ministerial candidate and an adjunct professor at Starr King School for the Ministry.

The report was presented at General Assembly in June. A 13-minute video of that presentation is here at the 1 hour 41 minutes mark. A report of that presentation is here.

Choosing vendors for your church using UU values

From our June InterConnections feature, now online at

Congregations traditionally promote and encourage Unitarian Universalist values through sermons, religious education, and social justice work. Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minn., is taking its values to a new level—applying them to the companies that it buys products from.

Unity Church leaders refer to this as holding “values conversations” with those vendors. Here’s how it works: Any company that the church buys $2,500 in products or services from annually will be evaluated as to how well it meets certain social justice criteria—minority hiring, environmental sustainability, community engagement, fair treatment of workers—and whether its fees are competitive.

This practice, which gets underway this summer, had its genesis in the renovation of Unity Unitarian’s building, which was completed in November and dedicated May 19. Going back farther, said Barbara Hubbard, Unity Church’s executive director, the congregation has had an active antiracist and antioppression effort for at least ten years, and that work is becoming woven into the fabric of congregational life.

Go to full article.

‘Bidder 70’ environmental film available to congregations

Bidder 70, the documentary film about Utah Unitarian Universalist Tim DeChristopher and his arrest for disrupting a federal oil and gas lease auction in 2008, is available for viewing by congregations. DeChristopher served two years in federal prisons and a halfway house for disrupting the auction, an act of civil disobedience that drew international attention to the climate change crisis. He was released April 21 and is now speaking out about the need for climate change activism. He will be enrolling in Harvard Divinity School this fall.

The 72-minute film, by Gage and Gage Productions, is available to congregations from UU Ministry for Earth. Congregations with fewer than 150 members pay $75 for rights to show the film. Those with more than 150 members pay $100. Congregations that wish to partner with other groups to show the film in a more public setting will be required to pay a higher fee.

Email UUMFE Office Manager Sabrina Louise Harle, or call (503) 595-9392 for more information.