Prison ministry needs letter writers

The Church of the Larger Fellowship’s Letter-Writing Ministry is seeking UUs who are willing to correspond with other UUs who are in prison. The Rev. Patty Franz, coordinator of this ministry, says that while UUs of all ages are encouraged to apply, there is a special need for people from 25 to 50. Franz said more than 400 prisoners have joined CLF and about half of them are participating in the letter-writing program. Others are on a waiting list.

The ministry consists of sending and receiving letters on paper rather than email. All letters from prisoners are forwarded through CLF Prison Ministry’s office in Boston. The CLF’s prison ministry staff matches the pen pal pairs and remains available for advice and support. Pen pals are asked to write for at least six months, and may continue longer. Franz noted that prisoners are told only the first name or nickname of those they are paired with. A UUA-sponsored email list, uu-prison-justice is also available, providing a way to connect with other UUs engaged in this ministry and other prison-related social justice issues.

See the CLF’s website, to review the Guidelines and Notes for the CLF’s Letter Writing Ministry and to request information or an application packet, or write to the CLF Prison Ministry, 25 Beacon St, Boston, MA 02108 (


U.S. congregations struggle in down economy

The 2008 recession has likely pushed some congregations into stressful situations from which they will have difficulty recovering, even if the economy improves, according to a Faith Communities Today survey done in 2010.

The survey analyzed responses from more than 11,000 congregations from many faith traditions in the United States. The survey, Holy Toll—The Impact of the 2008 Recession on American Congregations, also noted that many congregations began having difficulties in 2001, when the economy declined after 9-11, and the 2008 downturn simply made that worse.

In the past 10 years the number of all congregations experiencing ”some or serious financial difficulty” doubled to 20 percent according to the survey. Author David Roozen of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, reported that the most popular ways of dealing with financial decline was for congregations to dip into savings and investments, postpone capital projects, and freeze or reduce salaries. Only 8 to 9 percent of congregations resorted to laying off staff.

Of the Unitarian Universalist congregations surveyed, 22 percent reported having financial difficulties in 2010, while 47 percent said budgets were simply “tight.” Thirty-one percent reported “good or excellent” financial situations.

“The longer-term question is how many congregations got pushed into a really strong deficit situation that tends to create a cycle of decline,” said Roozen. “Congregations can lose their capacity to deal with negative forces and that’s the bigger worry.” He also noted that financial stress can lead to conflict in congregations.

Read a PDF of the complete report on the Faith Communities Today website.


Membership professionals create organization

An organization has been created to support congregational staff members who work with membership issues. The group, Unitarian Universalist Association of Membership Professionals [UUAMP], was officially created at General Assembly 2011.

The organization is open to anyone who is a paid staff member of a congregation and who works with membership issues. Marie Murton, Membership Coordinator at Fox Valley UU Fellowship, in Appleton, Wisconsin, is president.

She notes, “Membership professionals are in a unique position to help our congregations grow in many ways. Not only do we help people join the congregation, but we also help those members grow on their spiritual paths and in community.

“Though there are fewer membership professionals than most other staff positions, more and more congregations are understanding the importance of having someone dedicated to the membership role. UUAMP is an effort to make sure congregations have a place to go for membership questions and concerns.”

The website has a comprehensive list of membership resources, including information about workshops, webinars,  how to welcome and integrate new people, and how to create a membership professional position.Membership also includes access to an email list, Mem-Pros and other opportunities to problem-solve with other membership professionals. An annual membership is $40.

Should we attract consumers or questers?

The Rev. Naomi King, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Plantation, Fla., posed the following question in the UU Growth Lab on Facebook:

Is your community living missionally or attractionally? When we devote our energies to making our congregations attractional, we’re providing a service that can be consumed, and we’ll be rated and expected to produce a high-grade consumable product, usually without a comparable budget. I’d argue that that rarely equips people for a life-changing spiritual quest, and it does even less for truly changing this world for the better.

It does tend to feel great for the consumer, though, (while creating) super-high anxiety for the service providers. When we’re living missionally, we’re on an astounding adventure together, in a multitude of ways, to transform this world for greater goodness, to be changed ourselves, and to give thanks and praise along the way.

The anxiety in missional congregations is more evenly distributed because everyone has their part to do as part of the questing company. Everyone’s gifts are important, and everyone bears big responsibilities about saving the world. Risk is there, failure is present, but failure is embraced as a chance to learn. Risk is just part of meaningful life.

The mission is more important than comfort, because we’re on fire with the passion of that mission . . . Is yours an attractional community model of growth or a missional community adventure model of growth?

Find out more about the UU Growth Lab here.

New building made possible by recycling, volunteers

When the Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene, Ore., went in search of a new building for its growing congregation, it wanted to make sure that its move upheld its green values. Long story short: The congregation bought a Scottish Rite building, then deconstructed the interior.

In the process it recycled 75 to 85 percent of the waste, according to Ed Zack, volunteer project manager for the congregation. That included removing and stripping wiring to resell the metals, salvaging thousands of board feet of oak flooring, finding a buyer for 140 theater seats, and dismantling a fire sprinkler system so its parts could be used by a contractor to install a new system.

The congregation estimates it saved more than a half million dollars through its recycling efforts. More than 150 of its 350 members worked on the site, including a crew that provided snacks and cooked for the volunteers and hired contractors.

The building itself was made energy-efficient with better insulation, lighting, and 43 skylights with louvers to control the building’s temperature. A more complete article with photos is at



iMinister on growth, multiculturalism

The Rev. Christine Robinson, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, N.Mex., has written a number of posts on her blog, “iMinister,” about growth, multiculturalism, and social media. Among her observations:

Growth – “When people who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ go looking for a religion, they go looking for spirituality; for heart, depth, warmth, spiritual practices, lessons in prayer, clues to a relationship to god. These things are not easy to get in UU churches. If we focused on them more, trained our ministers to provide them, helped lay people to tolerate, if not enjoy them…THEN we might attract some of this group of folks to our churches. But not before.” (April 26)

Theology – “Theologically liberal congregations tend to be even MORE institutionally conservative than theologically conservative ones.” Robinson notes that conservative ministers can find a basis in the Bible for, as an example, starting a contemporary music service to attract young adults. “That minister might meet some resistance, but he will have the congregation’s core beliefs (taking the Gospel to all nations) on his side. A UU minister…doesn’t have the same advantage.” (April 25)

• Multiculturalism – “If we achieve our goal of multiculturalism, it will be because we have attracted young people to our church and welcomed them—their music, their visual learning style, their multiculturalism, and most of all, their desire to explicitly address their spiritual lives.” (April 20)

Social Media – Robinson says she does not believe that the digital world will bring an end to brick and mortar churches. “What will have changed is how we attract people to church; that will be almost 100 percent digital (It is nearly that already.), and the fact that we will have the option to have online groups, trainings, and meetings, and that the resources we provide for spiritual development of our members (which will be the only reason people join churches in the future), will be available on our website as well as in sermons and classes.  A church doing its web ministry well will reach many more people, dispersed all over the globe, than any one church ever could before.” (April 19)

(Reader comments to these blog posts can be read on Robinson’s Facebook page.)

Signs of living and dying congregations

The blog of the UUA’s Congregational Stewardship staff group is currently highlighting “Signs of living (and dying) churches.” A sample:

Living churches always have a parking problem; dying churches don’t. Living churches are constantly changing their methods; dying churches don’t have to. Living churches have lots of noisy kids; dying churches are quiet. Living churches grow so fast you forget people’s names; in dying churches you’ve known everyone’s names for years.

Also up on the stewardship blog: an article titled “All we ever do is talk about raising money!” about how to manage small fundraisers that can proliferate in the life of a congregation, one on “Stewardship as Spiritual Discipline,” and another on “The 12 myths of fundraising.”

Small groups use special practices

The November issue of Covenant Group News, the monthly newsletter of the UU Small Group Ministry Network, includes an article on using Skype to connect people who can’t attend a meeting because of distance. Skype is software that can be used to connect two computers so that a distant person can be seen as well as heard.

“It was a great experience,” said a facilitator from Hamilton, Ontario. “I believe it has tons of potential applications for all kinds of ministry.”

Another article explores a group at High Plains UU Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., created for parents with small children. The group includes childcare. It has two trained facilitators, who, if enough people attend, hold two sessions. The groups sometimes have a choice of child-centered or spiritual growth topics.

The Church of the Larger Fellowship, a congregation that serves isolated UUs through the Internet and by mail, holds online small group sessions that can last three to four weeks. The facilitator sends out an opening reading and invites members to check in by email over the next few days. Then a topic is posed and more time is allowed for receiving responses. Then a few more days are provided for closing and evaluation and then there’s a final week for informal chatting. The Rev. Lynn Ungar, CLF minister for Lifespan Learning, said these groups work especially well for people who are shy or need time to process.

More information on the UU Small Group Ministry Network, including how to join and sign up for Covenant Group News is here. The network also collects discussion topics and makes them available to members.

Close friends at church equal happiness

The number of friends you have at your place of worship has more to do with how happy you are than does theology or spirituality, says Chaeyoon Lim, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led a study, “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction.”

The study is reported in the recent book, American Grace by David Campbell and Robert D. Putnam. Lim and Putnam, of Harvard University, found that people who have three to five close friends in their congregation are more likely to report they are extremely satisfied with their lives than those people who attend a place of worship but don’t have close friends there. The full report is available as a PDF here.

“To me, the evidence substantiates that it is not really going to church and listening to sermons or praying that makes people happier, but making church-based friends and building intimate social networks there,” Lim said.

People like to feel that they belong, Lim said. “One of the important functions of religion is to give people a sense of belonging to a moral community based on religious faith,” he said. “This community, however, could be abstract and remote unless one has an intimate circle of friends who share a similar identity. The friends in one’s congregation thus make the religious community real and tangible, and strengthen one’s sense of belonging to the community.”

Wind will power congregation’s building

A small congregation in Minnesota will soon provide most of its own power with its own wind turbine. The 58-member Nora Unitarian Universalist Church, a rural congregation in southcentral Minnesota, will receive a $20,000 federal grant to help pay for the $94,000-project.

Surplus power will be sold back to the local utility company. The congregation’s social justice committee began exploring alternative energy projects several years ago and settled on wind power. It expects to recover the cost of the project in 11 years.

The turbine will have 31-foot fiberglass blades on a 120-foot tower. Groundbreaking was to be November 21.