Archive for the ‘overcoming challenges’ Category

Sextons in a UU Church? Why not?

November 9, 2011

Here’s a way that one congregation has found to assure that their building is an attractive and safe space during the week.

First Unitarian Universalist Church of Rochester MN has a team of 6 – 7 sextons. The sextons sign up for a week at a time through the year. On a daily basis, that week’s sexton goes to the church, walks through the building looking for open windows, unlocked doors, or clutter. The sexton turns off lights that are not in use, straightens up when there is clutter, and makes sure that the rooms are ready for the next group to use. They inspect the restrooms for adequate paper supplies and cleanliness. After checking the church building schedule, they program the thermostats in various rooms where meetings will take place. And on Sunday mornings or at other large events, they assist the staff or person in charge as requested.

The church has regular paid custodial help during the week. Snow removal is also contracted out. During the winter, the sextons put out orange cones in the parking lot on Sundays to guide drivers in parking their cars.

This group of sextons gather periodically for great parties; they make it fun for the team to do this work for the church! [Thanks to Sexton Patty T for sharing this information with me!]


They Call Themselves Multi-Site Congregations

October 19, 2009

We’ve been promoting a new idea in our district, and I want you to know about it. It’s an idea that has been around for awhile in evangelical congregations and is starting to catch on among Unitarian Universalists. They call themselves multi-site congregations.

We don’t have any multi-site congregations in Prairie Star District, but we are offering a workshop on November 7 to introduce the idea. We’ll be featuring Rev. Christine Robinson, Senior Minister at First Unitarian — “a UU congregation meeting in Albuquerque, Carlsbad, Edgewood, and Socorro.” That phrase is the heart of the matter — one congregation, with services in multiple locations, sometimes many miles apart. The groups in Edgewood [20 miles from Albuquerque] and Socorro [80 miles from Albuquerque] have been meeting for a couple of years, using videos of the ministers’ sermons, and the Carlsbad group [275 miles from Albuquerque] is new. The church’s web site at has more information. Click on the Branch Ministry Project link.

First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Diego has started a second site in Chula Vista, to reach out to people living in the south bay area. Hear their minister discuss the reasons for doing this on a video you can see here: And the ministers and staff at Fox Falley UU Fellowship in Appleton, Wisconsin, are currently meeting with members who live in Oshkosh, thirty miles away, to discuss how they might start a branch in Oshkosh.

Prairie Star District, too, has a large geography, with people living in many places with no access to a UU congregation. We, too, would like to serve those people. This is one way we might be able to do it. The workshop is Saturday, November 7, in two locations — the Twin Cities and Kansas City. Find out more here:

A Huge Step Forward

May 13, 2009

I’ve been asked to provide a list of “some of the things I’m most proud of” in my work during the last church year. I’m thinking about it and will post the list when it’s complete. But I wanted to share the first thing that occurred to me, because [1] I’m really proud of it, and [2] it represents a new way of making District services to congregations available to nearly everyone who wants them, no matter where they live!

#1 on my list is this: at this year’s District Annual Conference, we live streamed three major events — our two major speakers and the UUA presidential campaign forum. And best of all, it worked! People in all parts of the District were able to see those events live, even though they weren’t with us in Duluth. Not only that, but we’ve now posted videos of those events on our web site at [Click on Annual Conference and go from there to Highlights of 2009] So if people missed the live streaming, they can still watch the events. Or if they were at the Conference and want to see the speakers again, they can see them again. Or if they want to recommend the speakers to their friends, the friends can watch them. And on and on.

This represents a huge step forward for our District. In past years, we’ve had up to 325 people attend the Annual Conference, out of the 9,0000 adult Unitarian Universalists who are members of our congregations. In the past, we were sometimes able to get permission to post scripts of the major speeches on our web site for people to read. Now, with permission, we can present them live and also archive them for the future. This is huge, and this is just the beginning. We can do more and more of this, and we can offer other events online, too. Some of you may have attended some of the monthly online workshops that our Midwest UU Leadership group [District Staff from three MidAmerica districts] have hosted this year.

Thanks to our Web Coordinator Ben Stallings for his work on this, from concept to reality. Thanks to the speakers for their willingness to give permission. Thanks to the folks in Duluth who let us use their equipment.

Keep watching! We’re just getting started!

A Rolling, 3-Hour Worship Service

April 13, 2009

On April 5, the UU Congregation of Duluth MN hosted a rolling, 3-hour worship service for the participants at this year’s Prairie Star District Annual Conference and their own members. Some might question the wisdom of inviting anyone to a 3-hour service, but this service was spectacular! This service provided the answer to this question: how do we serve our own congregation members on Sunday as well as host 200 – 300 additional people who’ve been attending the Annual Conference at the hotel all weekend?

The invitation said, “Welcome to our three hour rolling earth revival, a celebration of the cosmic creation story and our place in it. Please make yourself comfortable and stay for as much of the celebration as your schedule allows. Please time your traveling in and out of the sanctuary to coincide with the end of any of the worship elements. The places in the order of servcie marked with an arrow are perhaps the least disruptive times to move about.”
Each hour provided a variety of elements that kept people of all ages engaged and energized. There were a couple of slide shows to accompany stories; music by a massed choir and others; a Council of All Beings in which the animals “talked” and discussed the challenges they currently face; giant masks of the sun and moon; short sermons by three ministers; and a stardust ritual [with glitter] to celebrate that we each are part of the unfolding universe.

Gail Marriner, the interim minister of UUCD, was involved in every aspect of planning and helped make the service enjoyable for children. The children gathered up front for a craft activity while they listened.
Here are some of the animals at the Council of All Beings:
Bear and Frog
Giraffe and Eagle
Members of the choir were from Duluth and from the conference goers:
The masks, created by Mary Plaster, added drama to the setting.
And the themes for the three hours were: We are Made From Stardust; Evolution – We are All Connected; and Into a Green Future. The service seemed especially appropriate because we were in the “green” church dedicated by the congregation just a year ago.

Much preparation, many elements to the service, the involvement of many people, and to this worshipper, it all worked splendidly!

Standing on the Side of Love

August 7, 2008

Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country responded with caring and compassion in the wake of the news of the attack on Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville, TN.  The news went out to members, and people gathered quickly to support each other and to send their support to those affected in Knoxville.

Here’s just one example, from the newsletter of the Unitarian Fellowship in Lawrence, KS.

Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence Shows Solidarity with Knoxville UU Congregations

In a moving candlelight vigil on July 30, members and friends of the Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence expressed caring for the Knoxville congregations affected by the July 27 shooting, showed compassion for the troubled soul who fired the shots, and reaffirmed our values of welcoming all people. We stood in solidarity with the Knoxville churches, with 83 other UU congregations holding services that night, and with 321 UU congregations that have held services since that fateful Sunday. Participants from Lawrence, Topeka, and Shawnee, Kansas joined our service. A soloist sang a beautifully touching a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Our consulting minister gave a meditation roll call, naming those who had been killed or wounded and conveying a bit about their lives. Our children lit candles from the memorial candles at the front table, and passed the candlelight to our candles. Participants, including our architect whose home church is the Tennessee Valley UU Church, shared their reflections. We closed by singing “Standing on the Side of Love.”

One of our ministers had a piece published in the local newspaper. Rev. Thom Belote [Shawnee Mission UU Church, Overland Park, KS] wrote this for the Kansas City Star; it can be seen here:

Thanks to all who are speaking out about our values and standing firm against those whose hate and bigotry lead them to do terrible things. For ongoing updates, see the many articles and resources available at

Hot Potato, Anyone?

July 7, 2008

Every congregation has issues about which people disagree. In some congregations, these issues are discussed and worked through. In others, however, the congregation hasn’t yet developed the skills to tackle these issues, and so the issues sit there unresolved, or, worse, grow larger and spread like mildew on your shower curtain.

Several years ago, a congregation in our district created a way to work on these prickly issues. The congregation is All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, MO. You can read their story by going to and doing a search on Breakthrough Congregations 2007. What All Souls did was to announce in their newsletter that they were sponsoring a series of “Hot Potato Conversations” on difficult topics. There were rules — we will have a facilitator; there will be time limits for speakers; everyone agrees to listen respectfully; we’re not making any decisions today – we’re hearing peoples’ various opinions; and so on. And they served baked potatoes with all the trimmings for lunch!

Now another congregation in our district is starting the process. Their newsletter announcement is so clever that I thought I’d share it with you. But please know this — the reason I’m proud of them isn’t for the cleverness of their announcement but because of their commitment to working through their concerns — and listening to each other with respect and kindness.

Here’s the announcement: “Calling all UUs for the first ‘Hot Potato’ luncheon and discussion on Sunday [date] at 11:30 a.m. Baked potatoes will be served. Bring a topping to share. We will have a conversation on an issues on which there is disagreement. [Name of respected church leader] will be the ‘Common Tater.’

“Look for Mrs. Potato Head in the coffee hour and place a topic suggestion in the Easy Bake Oven. Please make a reservation by calling [church president]. It’s a very a-peeling idea. Don’t let this spudder out.”  

Good for this congregation for seeking out new, healthy ways to work through the difficult conversations! Moving from a habit of ignoring or fighting about issues to exploring a new method for discussing them is to be celebrated.

Why This Ministry Matters

June 12, 2008

I spoke on Sunday at the ordination of a new minister. Lyn will focus her ministry on small congregations. She sees her work as consulting ministry with small, mostly lay led fellowships and churches in our district, rather than to a specific congregation. In her internship, and in the work she’s done as a district consultant in the last few years, Lyn has encouraged small congregations’ lay leaders to focus on mission, vision, and planning.

After the service, two ministers who were there suggested that I post my remarks on “Why This Ministry Matters” on my blog. Here they are, excerpted.

We have many small congregations in our District and across the country. Some of them have part time Consulting Ministry, but many are too small to afford it, or too isolated geographically to be able to attract professional ministry. Some, because of their history or the preference of their members, are not interested in having a minister. These small congregations wax or wane from year to year, depending on the energy and vision of their current lay leadership. Almost all of them struggle. They struggle to provide programming that attracts or keeps newcomers.  They struggle with too few volunteers and not enough money. If they own a building, they struggle to maintain it; if they rent, they are challenged by not having space that’s adequate or, perhaps, by having to find a new space every few years. The people are dedicated Unitarian Universalists, committed to having a liberal religious presence in their communities. But with the need to focus on month-to-month and year-to-year survival, there can be little time to focus on the larger questions.

Unitarian Universalist minister and Alban Institute consultant Dan Hotchkiss recently wrote an article entitled, “Who Owns the Church?” In the article, Dan contends that the mission of the church owns the church — that leaders and congregants ought to feel accountable to the mission.


If congregations believed that the mission owns the church, defining that mission would be essential. It would be critical for them to ask, “If we were truly living out our mission, what would that look like? What programs would we offer? What social justice activities would we be engaged in? What would we need to offer to families with children? To teenagers? To our aging members?” These mission-based questions often go unasked, are not even thought of, in the struggle just to maintain. And so some congregations are content to go on, month after month, doing pretty much the same thing, year after year. Unless some crisis occurs, or some large issue that requires a lot of attention, the congregation marches in place, trying not to lose ground, but not moving forward in any significant way. Lyn sees the possibility for something more.

If our small congregations get clear about mission and vision, and if they agree to move forward with new ideas, they can be stronger presences in their communities. They can be strong and valuable influences in their towns and cities. They can make a difference in the world. That’s why this ministry matters.


This is the ministry Lyn feels called to do. This is a ministry that is needed by our District, by our Association, because so many of our congregations are small ones. We need Lyn, and we need many more Lyn’s, who see the value in our small congregations and in serving them.






Meeting the need for intimacy in a growing congregation

May 12, 2008

Research tells us that if newcomers to a church don’t make some significant friendships in the church within a few months, they’ll leave the church.  Wise leaders in growing congregations provide many opportunities for people — newcomers and longer time members — to get to know each other and begin to form friendships. Here are examples from two growing congregations in Prairie Star District.

Shawnee Mission UU Church in Overland Park, KS [335 adult members and growing!] has many groups that are open to all – visitors, members, and friends. Some examples are the Thirtysomethings Potluck group, the Tuesday Book Group, the Ulysseans [active seniors], the Thursday Book Group, the Halftimers [adults 40ish to 60ish], the Math and Science Group, the Quilters, the Men’s Group, the Playgroup, and so on. Invitations to participate are listed in the monthly newsletter and the weekly Order of Service. It gives the impression that there’s a group for everyone — or there could be. The President of the congregation told me recently, “We want to be the kind of church where if someone comes to us with an idea, we will ask just two questions: ‘Does it fit with the mission of the church?’ and ‘Does it bust the budget?’ If the answer to the first question is ‘yes’ and the answer to the second question is ‘no,’ we’ll say ‘go for it!'”

When I spoke with an active member of SMUUChurch yesterday, she mentioned a recent Women’s Health and Wellness Retreat. Held on a Saturday, it featured yoga, a talk on the healing aspects of music, nutritious food, other programming, and plenty of opportunities for women to chat and get to know each other. “How did this come about?” I asked. “Oh, two women had an idea, and it just went from there.” And more than forty women of all ages came together for the day!

Here’s another example. I recently attended the Building Dedication for the UU Fellowship of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. [See photos in the sidebar.] During the reception afterwards, I spoke with the woman who’s in charge of the Covenant Groups** in this layled congregation of 93 adult members [and growing!]. She told me they have recently started a Covenant Group for people in Tomah, WI.

“Tomah?!? But that’s fifty miles away,” I said.

Yes, they have people who drive an hour to get to church on Sunday mornings. The congregation wanted the people in Tomah to have a way of bonding with one another at times other than Sundays, so they started the group for Tomah residents. And they’re thinking of starting another for people who live in Sparta, which is between LaCrosse and Tomah. In this way they’re meeting the needs for intimacy and connection for those folks who live too far away to come to LaCrosse for evening meetings during the week.

These forward-looking congregations know that people are coming to us looking for connection with people with similar values, for enrichment of their spiritual lives, and for ways to make a positive contribution in  the world. Providing these groups is a way of giving them what they’re seeking, and it can make all the difference!

**If you want to know more about Covenant Groups [sometimes called Connection Circles or Small Group Ministry], go to 

All Too Common and Totally Preventable

February 27, 2008

The headline was in today’s newspaper: Church Treasurer Charged in Theft: volunteer accused of pilfering $18,000. The story went on to tell of the story of a St. Paul man who’s been accused of stealing nearly $18,000 from the weekly collections of a Christian church. Imagine the distress of the church leaders — the betrayal of trust — the difficulty the church will have now that the money is gone. And the question they all must be asking themselves is “How could this happen!?!?”

Well, of course, we can guess how it happened. One person was put in charge of counting the money in the Sunday collection plate, and of taking the money to the bank, and of depositing the money, and of writing checks from the church’s account, and of signing those checks.  How many red flags do you see in that sentence?? The newspaper report says that over several months, the treasurer wrote a number of checks payable to “cash” and cashed them himself. Since the treasurer would have been the person receiving the bank statements, there was no one to sound the alarm. Again, red flags!

A congregation needs to be able to trust the people it empowers to act on its behalf. Safeguards need to be put into place so that temptation is minimized. Safeguards not only protect the assets; they also protect the volunteers from false accusations of misdeeds.

The Sunday offering should be counted by two people who are not related to one another. One of them could prepare the deposit slip, and the other could take the money to the bank if this is not a staff responsibility. If the church has staff doing financial work, the staff can check the deposit slip against what’s actually in the envelope handed over from the volunteers. The volunteers counting the money and taking the money to the bank should be someone other than the treasurer. The treasurer can check copies of the deposit slips against the deposit receipts and against the bank statement which comes back at the end of the month. Multiple checks and balances will go a long way to ensuring security for the assets.

If your congregation has someone who knows about good accounting and money handling practices, ask that person to go over your practices and give you advice on improving them.  lists several books available to assist congregations with accounting systems and cash control. One that I particularly like is Richard J. Vargo’s book Effective Church Accounting [now out of print]. Vargo lists 50 internal controls for churches.

The bottom line is this — leaders need to ensure that congregation members can trust that the money they give to the church will be used wisely, and that includes setting up safety policies and practices for handling it. Without those assurances, why should they give?

A Story from the Past

December 11, 2007

Over the weekend, I attended services at First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, IA. It was quite a weekend! They were celebrating their 130th anniversary year, they were dedicating their newly renovated building, and they were asking members for financial gifts to continue the unfinished work from the project. Spirits were high, and the enthusiasm wasn’t dampened by the icy roads outside.

As part of the anniversary celebration, the service included the telling of some short vignettes from their history. This is, after all, a congregation that once had as its minister the Reverend Mary Augusta Safford, one of the Iowa Sisterhood!

The story that I loved, however, was the story that involved buttons. Yes, buttons! Here’s how it goes. After World War I, the Unity Circle [a women’s group that included but was not limited to members of the church] received notice that several thousand wool coats were in storage near Des Moines, new coats left over from the Army. The ladies were told that they could have the coats to be distributed to needy people. But there was one catch — all of the buttons on the coats — the buttons with the Army insignia — would have to be removed. What to do!?! Well, the ladies got busy. Through the newspaper, they let people in the area know about the project. Soon, packages of buttons were arriving from all over, some from as far away as Alabama. And soon, ladies from around Central Iowa arrived to start stripping buttons off and sewing new buttons on. In the end, more than 7,000 wool coats were shipped to Europe to meet the needs of people suffering from the cold. What a wonderful thing!

Are there interesting stories in your congregation’s past? Is someone recording them? Let’s give our future UUs something to marvel over, shall we?