CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


or An Open Letter to the Growth Committee Chair

Dear Paul,

I have really enjoyed attending the last several meetings of the Growth Committee at LUUC (Large UU Church). It is clear that you and some of the folks at Large are deeply committed to your vision statement: to make LUUC the engine for UU growth in the metropolitan area.

For some time now, Large has been at the limits of growth: It has a rambling modern facility, with several big meeting rooms and many classrooms; multiple activities occur there nearly every day of the week; there are three ministers and two Sunday services. The site, although strikingly beautiful, is physically limited, especially for parking, and further facility expansion, even if desired by the already sizable congregation, is really not feasible.

So, after much consideration and discussion, you have arrived at the Off Site Strategic Growth Plan. The hope, as I understand it, is to organize a somewhat distant satellite which can serve like a waste water “interceptor,” drawing away current members and potential attendees living in that area, thereby relieving pressure on the present facility and eventually becoming an independent scion of Large.

I received a copy of the current draft plan last week and the more I read, the more amazed I became: big numbers, long times. Perhaps the most startling phrase is: “When a group of about 200 committed people have “gathered,” regular services can begin.” I read further and discovered that your committee views “gathering” as a year or even multiyear process, during which an office person and part-time ministerial staff would be employed, there would be covenant group meetings, adult and children’s religious education programs, teenage nights, potlucks and picnics, a web page but NO corporate, that is community wide, worship.

I have spent the last several days considering an appropriate response and only one word comes to mind, “Preposterous!”

In merchandising, such an approach would be called “bait and switch.” It is, in such a context, at the least unethical and at the most illegal. Furthermore, it shows a considerable lack of confidence in our basic spiritual “product”: a companionable, non-dogmatic search for truth and meaning in life, centered on and by community worship.

Large was not always large. It started simply, with home meetings of small groups, then in rented space and renovated property before arriving at its present size and situation. And from the beginning, even without staff or professionals, there was corporate worship, every week!

Therefore let me suggest an alternate plan, which I will call “The Two Box Church.”

I would begin with ten members from Large getting together and agreeing that for the next year, they will meet and worship as a church, devote their regular annual pledge to that activity and each attend at least three out of every four weeks.

Let Large provide the following three things:

*Pulpit supply, at no cost, from its ministerial staff, to lead worship and preach one day a month for a year.
* Two boxes, as a loan.
In the first box, 25 copies of Singing the Living Tradition
In the second box:
A hand bell, a chime and a small drum
A chalice, lamp oil and a box of matches
A membership book
A whiteboard and markers
A basket for offerings
A ledger for accounts
A portable CD player
A copybook for minutes
A reference library; perhaps 10 volumes such as, in no particular order: the UUA Congregational Handbook, Robinson: The Unitarians and The Universalists, Sophia Lyon Fahs, From Long Ago and Many Lands, a Bible, a Koran, a Talmud, Seaburg: Great Occasions, Roberts & Amidon: Earth Prayers, Buehrens & Forrest: A Chosen Faith.
And lastly, a list of important and useful telephone numbers, email address and URLs.

After an appropriate ceremony at Large, send the group out with their two boxes and the admonition to plant a church; to bring UU belief and practice to a new audience.

Or maybe, be even more daring and send out two such groups and, instead of providing a minister once a month to each, take on and supervise a seminarian or a preaching intern to work for a year with both groups, each with their two boxes.

And why not do it every year? After all, the cost to Large would be small. This week at Kmart, suitable boxes are on sale for $9.99 each! You could probably fill both for less than $1000.

I can hear the objections already:

Where will they meet?

They will find a home: perhaps in the beginning a private home, but every community has many public spaces, in banks, stores, etc., which can be used at little or no charge for an hour or so each week. Churches of other faiths, especially with diminishing attendance, as is common in inner cities, may welcome the energy of such services. Remember that the Amish erect no church buildings but have maintained a vigorous community worship life for centuries here in America.

What about worship leaders?

There would be 40 days in the first year for which the foundation group would take primary responsibility for leading worship. That works out to 4 services each, or one every quarter year. In any group of ten UUs, especially ones who would undertake such an activity, there are great resources for worship and leadership. There are many active and interested people in any area who can be invited to speak and who will come for little or no fee. Inviting them in strengthens ties to the local community and provides good word of mouth advertising. Also, others will join the initial groups as the year progress, bringing their gifts and ideas, and after the first year or so, these budding churches could easily practice traditional pulpit exchange.What about Children’s RE?

Each group will have to make its own decisions. Some may elect not to have such activities and focus on older empty nesters or younger singles. Some may choose to start with a lay led, single RE group for children of all ages: many current UUs remember very successful one room public school houses of their youth. In other groups, religious education will evolve as the group does and grow with it.

And what about coffee hour?

Coffee hour, one of the great “sacraments” of the modern UU movement, stands proxy for a bigger problem which Large and many churches and fellowships have: organizational overhead. With coffee expected every week, comes committees, meetings, elections, fund raisers, etc. In time, any community, religious or not, needs and will have such activities, if the members so desire. But, in the beginning, less is more. If someone wishes to bring a large thermos of coffee and a box of doughnut holes one Sunday, that would be fine; perhaps a jug of juice and cookies for the children, from time to time. Or sometimes, after the service, those who want go to a nearby pizza joint, put tables together and share a simple meal.

As for governance, these small religious groups can probably fulfill all of their basic needs in a simple meeting for business after the services once every month of so, without bylaws, and the selection of a single clerk or secretary to keep order and manage deposits and disbursements. What is needful and desirable will happen; but the less organization, the fewer responsibilities needed to be assumed, the easier and faster the early growth will be!

Let me address one final concern: What if you cannot recruit the initial 10 or 20 members of Large for this effort? That would be sad, but perhaps it would point the way to self-evaluation and reconsideration of vision and mission at Large.

Let’s be optimistic and turn the calendar pages in our imagination:

At the end of one year, the first two churches have either survived or they have not. If they have flourished, then it is time for a little more internal organization, bylaws adoption, affiliation with the UUA, a search for more permanent quarters, perhaps provision for their own professional ministry (and return of the two boxes!). If not, then the small group may choose to continue as a covenant group or, as individuals, each would be welcome back to the parent congregation.

At the end of ten years, perhaps half or more of the 20 churches will have survived past the end of their first year and, let us hope, 5-8 continue still as churches and fellowships. Let’s look at them, again in the theater of the mind:

Here is one that holds two services a week, one in Korean, in the sanctuary of a magnificent but nearly abandoned center city church. And it is beginning to translate Singing the Living Tradition into Korean, beginning with their favorite hymn, Morning Has Broken.

There is one that meets for worship every other Wednesday evening in the Social Room at Shady Side Manor. Some of the attendees doze off, but the staff says that all eagerly count the days until the next service.

In a nearby decaying post-industrial town, there is a small congregation, still meeting in a bank’s community room, which is sponsoring an adult day care and drop in center. Over on the south side, one with over 200 members is just completing negotiations to purchase a nursery school, which will offer UU programming for children during the week and where their services will take place on Sunday.

And let’s not forget the very successful welcoming fellowship with monthly Gay Bingo and an AIDS assistance clinic.

For, through the magic of the passage of time, each group has followed its own intentions and interests. Some have grown steadily, some have remained small, some have full-time ministers, and some remain lay led fellowships. All are UU and together their membership will soon pass that of Large.

Taken together, these new churches and fellowships may not be doing anything particularly new or that could not have been done at Large. But, due to their small size and entrepreneurial spirit, they have been able to experiment more easily. They have been able to be risk takers and pioneers in new places, since they began with low organizational burdens and minimal financial obligations. And, perhaps, most importantly, they are peopled with new UUs!

Large has also prospered. It still has essentially the same number of members, as many of the missionaries, for that is what they would be, have returned and others have been replaced by new arrivals. However, there is now a new vigor and sense of pride, for the members know that they are the spiritual parents of these bustling new congregations spread throughout the region. The cover of one of the original boxes is displayed in a place of honor in the foyer. The cost to Large has been a tiny portion of each annual budget, almost too small to measure, but the overall gain is too large to gauge.

Your vigor and drive are useful and admirable. But it is important to remember that churches grow from worship, not the other way around. Just as one size does not fit all, there are many models for corporate worship; for group religious activity. I think that the Two Box Church is a better, more promising and more UU approach than that which you and your committee are considering.

In fellowship,