What Four Years Has Taught Me

Rev. David Pyle

For the last four years, I have had the honor of serving the congregations of the Central East Region of the UUA, first as the District Executive of the Joseph Priestley District, and then as a Primary Contact and as a specialist in governance, staffing, ministry, and pastoral care.  I remember when I accepted the position, the Central East Region had been mostly a dream and an agreement to share a few staff between the four districts, and now it is a fully functioning staff team, and a growing set of wider relationships among congregations.  While the Central East Region is still growing and adapting, it is wonderful to see the ways in which what was once an idea has been “made manifest”.

As I am preparing to step away from serving on the Central East Regional staff for a year, to serve our country as a U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain during a deployment, I have been thinking about what these four years has taught me.  It is a little different than when I have departed from previous ministries, because I will be returning to the UUA staff when my active duty obligation is complete.  What I have been thinking about these last few weeks has been the learnings that I will continue to live into when I return.

The first and largest of these  is the realization that there are no two Unitarian Universalist congregations that are the same.

We can intellectually say that every congregation is a unique expression of our living faith tradition, but I think serving in the role of the Regional Staff is one of the few ways to really see that truth.  Every congregation makes decisions in a different way.  Every congregation understands its core beliefs in a different way.  Every congregation sees its purpose differently.  Every congregation has a different relationship between its leadership and ordained ministry.  Every congregation does faith formation differently. Every congregation has different joys and pains in its history, which lead to different assumptions and challenges.

As a consultant, I think I first thought that we should try to make our congregations more like one another.  As if there was one “right” way, or “best practice” that would work in all the varying congregations, cultures, and contexts of our free faith.  The arc of my development on this led me later to think that such commonality would be beneficial, but it might be impossible to ever actually occur.

What working with the wonderful and dedicated leaders of our congregations has taught me is that the strength and beauty of our religious movement lies in just how different all of our congregations are.  And that very few people are in a position to see that strength and beauty the way that members of your Regional Staff do.

The passion I think I will return to is how to help those serving in the leadership of a congregation to see the strength and beauty of their own congregation.  To see and celebrate its uniqueness.  To own the history and culture that create their congregation’s identity in such a way that inspires them to be the best of both.

To stop thinking of the differences in our congregations as something that “needs to be fixed”.

And… to begin to see the strength and beauty in other Unitarian Universalist congregations as well… not to copy them or even to learn from them, although learning might happen.  No, I want all of you to see the ways in which our differences make for who we are as a movement of liberal faith.

I look forward to seeing you all when I return, and to continue to be amazed by your dedication and love for one another.  Thank you for allowing me to journey with you these last four years, and I look forward to catching back up to you on this path.

Yours in Faith,
Rev. David Pyle

Note: Paula Cole-Jones will be filling in this next year for Rev. Pyle starting on August 13th.

Share on Facebook

Sharing Vision Statements

After developing a vision statement, it can sometimes be difficult to communicate how it should impact the ministry of the congregation.  The UU Fellowship of Greater Cumberland created this stunning Vision Visual to help guide that process. They plan to share it at…and post it…. So that it can guide the board, committees and ministry teams going forward.  And they have graciously agreed to share their Vision Visual with the rest of us.

The congregation intends to put the Vision Visual on posters and post them in the sanctuary, our community room, and the room where the Board meets. They will devote part of one Sunday service next month to discussing the Vision Visual with the congregation, then present it again at the Annual Meeting on May 5. Each Board member will get a copy for the Board Manual and we will distribute a copy to each congregation member. An additional Strategy Vision for the board was also created.

Thank you to the UU Fellowship of Greater Cumberland for sharing this with us all.

Download a PDF of the Vision Visual

 

Share on Facebook

Congregation in “Rust Belt” Increases Pledges 30%

You don’t have to be in a growing area to see growth and vitality in your congregation. What you do need is energy, focus and a strong sense of purpose. Recently, Andy Crabb, the President of the First Unitarian Church of Youngstown, OH, posted how his congregation had a significant increase in pledges this past Fall.  -Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Primary Contact

UU Youngstown Congregation

The First Unitarian of Youngstown, Ohio just had our pledge drive in the fall and got an almost 30% increase in pledges.

We are going to present a balanced budget at our congregational meeting later this month.  The keys for us were to have an integrated pledge program and to be as transparent as possible about what we were spending money on and why we wanted more.  That doesn’t mean we buried people in financial details, but rather that we explained key points:

  • that we wanted to increase our UUA contribution to be closer to fair share,
  • that we wanted to have more hours for our office administrator to do the routine communication tasks that everyone asks of her,
  • that we wanted to continue to support involvement in community activities,
  • that we want to give raises to our staff (including our new, freshly ordained minister) so they see that we have a viable career path for them,
  • that we need to operate the building, and
  • that we have had shortfalls for the past several years that required late year special appeals and we don’t want to have to do that anymore.

Anyone who wants financial details can have them, but most people don’t need or want them, at least at first, so we didn’t bury them with numbers.

One of our stewardship co-chairs is a new member and she observed that we never talked about money when she first came to us.  We’ve changed that.  We now bring it up regularly as a fact of life.  Again, transparency is the key.  No one is trying to get away with anything or trick anyone or be cute about pledging.  We all want to see UUYO do well and we are being clear and open about what it takes to make all of the things that we came to UUYO to do, happen.

Key elements of our Stewardship Campaign:

  • We had a plan and a financial goal before the campaign started.
  • We made a brochure that focused on what we do and why, then stated the costs and the income needs.  We spent a little bit ($200 or so) to print up a very nice, quality color 11×17 single fold brochure with lots of relevant pictures and mission stories that really impress.
  • During the stewardship drive, we had a special dinner for our biggest givers to thank them and encourage increased giving, especially to help bridge the gap until newer members can reach higher giving levels.
  • We personally contacted and where possible met with all other members to review our plans and clearly state our financial plan and goals.
  • We promoted automatic giving as a prominent part of our pledge campaign with great success (we use Vanco).

Stewardship is integrated into the life of the congregation by:

  • Having an active membership program for new members that gets them involved right away and that presents the same information as we give our members about money.
  • Having active worship associates and hospitality teams with broad participation to keep all members involved and feeling connected to and invested in our vitality as a group and promoting this in the pledge campaign.
  • Making as many opportunities as possible for members to do things and feel connected to and valued by the church because that is how people come to where they want to give to and support the church.
  • Looking for where we had entrenched individuals and/or groups always doing “everything” and bring new people in to help.
  • Separating “governance” activities from “mission” activities.  Both are necessary, but most people came to us for “mission” activities, so we focus on making sure there are plenty of them and keep “governance” to just where it is really needed.
  • Creating opportunities to learn leadership skills.  These are valuable in all aspects of our lives and provide great opportunities for personal growth and enrichment of our lives.

In closing – it seems to me that whether we do year-round-pledging or all at once pledging, closely tying the pledge campaign with the members and the activities of the church is critical for the success of the pledge drive.  If the pledge drive doesn’t clearly tie to the mission and activities of the church, it will be less effective because the connection with the members and what brought them to UUYO is what really made the pledge campaign a success for us.

-Andy Crabb, President, First Unitarian Church of Youngstown, OH. (UUYO)

Share on Facebook

Focused Church

Who knows why our Central East Region staff decided to schedule our congregational check-ins for February this year? What a surprising opportunity it turned out to be to see how congregations turn from crisis and overwhelm to resolve and commitment.

I happened to have planned a video call with DC area clergy for the day after the election. What a surprising crowd turned up. It seemed that everyone wanted to be together in an incredibly tender time. They were a shocked and overwhelmed lot. They were afraid for the vulnerable among us. They wondered how they would craft their Sunday message when they themselves were struggling. They wondered how to minister to both the devastated Democrats and the unseen but present Republicans. They were confused and hurting.

Contrast that day to what I found from my calls just three months later:

  • “Our pews are full of people seeking meaning and sustenance.”
  • “We used to have a scattershot approach to justice work. Now we’re really focusing.”
  • “Our stewardship campaign is going strong.”
  • “We used to fight over stupid things. Now we pull together.”

Folks, people and systems are resilient. We thought we had to make resilience happen, but it turns out that it happens on its own. That’s the nature of human recovery, and thank goodness for that.

What will our congregations do next with this focus and resolve? Will we breathe a sigh of relief and fade back to our old, perhaps less directed, perhaps less effective ways? Or will we learn the lessons these times have to teach?

I think we’ve just re-learned what focused church can do. It comforts and strengthens those who suffer and those who work hard at recovering. It is a place where love and compassion are planted and sprouted so that those who participate are at their best in the rest of the world. Church can serve as a countercultural beacon, declaring through words and action that no matter what happens out there, love wins in here.

Don’t forget that what you do matters, you are not alone, and your Central East Region team is here to help. May we keep the resolve and focus that have been hard won over the past few months. May we see our value more than we ever have, and use our power more than we ever did. May our churches be the shining light that both welcomes us home and lights our way forward.

Megan Foley, CER Regional Lead

Share on Facebook

Celebrating 200 Years of Universalism in Western New York

Many churches celebrate important anniversaries, but it’s rare that congregational historians take a wider view. But when Bill Parke, the Church Historian of the UU Church of Buffalo noted this anniversary, he researched the topic and came up with this lovely display and story.

2016 is a bicentennial year for our faith! All the way back in 1816, The Reverend Stephen R. Smith arrived here and began a preaching circuit, bringing a new religion — Universalism — to Buffalo and Western New York.

***

Take a moment, and teleport yourself back in me and imagine life in June, 1816 when 27-year old Mr. Smith arrived:

At this me, except on the great lateral roads from Genesee River and along the shore of Lake Erie, the settlements were comparatively few – and sometimes “far between.” There every thing but the eternal woods and waters, was new. –Almost every family still occupied its primitive log cabin–the roads were but cart-paths in the interminable forest–the streams were in most instances without bridges, and the soil deep enough to render every traveled way almost impassable. And yet, it was among these settlements, that the preacher of Universalism was to find hearers, and friends, and hope to raise up congregations!

 

Just a few years earlier, the village of Buffalo was overrun by British soldiers during the War of 1812. Nearly all its buildings burned. Recovery was slow. And just two Universalist societies existed in New York west of the Genesee River. But even if there weren’t churches, there were early believers: Benjamin Caryl, who helped found one of the village’s first businesses, a bank, was one. He had a house in Williamsville and invited Mr. Smith to stay with him and begin preaching. As a result, Universalism arrived in our land. Here is Mr. Smith’s own account:

On the 24th of June of this year (1816), a Masonic celebration in the then village of Buffalo, furnished a convient (sic) opportunity for the introduction of Universal Salvation into that place. The appointment was accordingly made; and at 5 o’clock, P.M. the same building and the same seats were occupied for the service, that had been fitted up for the festival. It was a new Barn, attached to one of the Taverns— and though its accommodations would now be thought rather humble, they were the best which the place afforded, and were duly appreciated by the citizens. A respectable auditory attended, and gave very patient and candid hearing to a discourse from the 6th ver. of 126th Psalm—“He that goeth forth and weepeth bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

Mr. Smith found receptive audiences for his message and established a preaching circuit which, he wrote,

in its windings to and from the vicinity of Buffalo, embraced about two hundred and y miles. And from this time, during most of the year, this distance was very regularly traveled every four weeks. The number of discourses usually delivered in making the circuit, varied from twenty to thirty-two—that is, from five to eight per week.

What about in winter? After all, today many Buffalonians shy away from winter weather; but not the circuit riding preachers of yesteryear. Roads would be frozen and not muddy, making travel easier. In January, 1817, Mr. Smith wrote from Buffalo to his parents, “I have preached twenty-one times in twenty days.”

In most localities, Universalism was wholly unknown. Mr. Smith was “the pioneer, the first herald of salvation, within their borders.” Mr. Smith himself wrote, “Doors are opened everywhere, and the walls of Zion are, by the divine blessing, laid in fair colors.”

Having laid a foundation of faith, in 1817 Mr. Smith departed. Ensuing years brought ebbs and flows to Universalist fortunes here. Many open-minded Bu alonians were recep ve, but the Universalist message contrasted sharply with Christian beliefs of the time, and general acceptance was hard-won. Thank goodness for stalwarts like Benjamin Caryl. He helped establish the first permanent Universalist Church in Buffalo, by organizing the first board of trustees, signing a certificate of organization to form a congregation on December 6, 1831, and seeing a church built on Washington Street. Shortly after it was dedicated in August, 1833, Mr. Caryl wrote to Mr. Smith: “Br. Smith: We have got, as you have heard, a beautiful house dedicated to the worship of Almighty God, but unfortunately, we are destitute of a minister…” However, Mr. Smith could not be persuaded to return. Finally, in a turn of events presaged in words spoken by Mr. Smith in his first service in Buffalo in 1816 — “He that goeth forth and weepeth bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” — Mr. Smith did return to Buffalo, commencing a ministry on the 1st day of May, 1843 and remaining in the pulpit for six years. The city was booming, the church “was highly prosperous and, above all, there was aboard in the place and neighborhood a spirit of deep religious inquiry.”

In time, however, Mr. Smith’s exertions over the decades took their toll. He preached his last sermon in the Buffalo church in 1849. In declining health, he was forced to give up his beloved pulpit. Then, one Sunday in February, 1850, the end arrived. And in fitting fashion, Mr. Smith connected with his faith — and our church — on his last day: “When the bells rang for church in the morning, he listened to them with deep interest, and finally selected that of the Universalist church from among the rest, and appeared to listen to it with unusual pleasure.” At the end of the day, “— in calmness, in peace, in purity, — closed the earthly career of one of the best of husbands, one of the best of fathers, one of the purest and most upright and exemplary of men, and one of the most eminent and faithful of the disciples of Christ and servants of God.”

Bill Parke, Church Historian
November 4, 2016

Share on Facebook

Leveraging Their Location

Maumee Valley SignWayside Pulpits” have been mainstays at UU congregations for decades. They started out as outside display cases that hold an uplifting quote from a famous sage (or other respected source) printed on heavy poster-sized paper.  Some examples are:

  • Goodness is the only investment that never fails. — Henry David Thoreau
  • For a thought to change the world, it must first change the life of the person who carries it. — Albert Camus
  • I defy the tyranny of precedent. — Clara Barton
  • Never lose a holy curiosity. — Albert Einstein

 

Designed to pique the curiosity of passers-by, the quotes served as subtle evangelizing tools, especially for intellectuals.  What kind of church quotes women, existentialists and scientists?

 

Originally printed by the UUA and sold to congregations, they are now available in pdf format so that congregations can have them printed locally.   Of course, congregations can also choose their own quotes and create their own Wayside Pulpit posters.

 

But with modern technology and the advent of affordable electronic signs, the Wayside Pulpit can be a more effective evangelical tool.

 

The Maumee Valley UU Congregation in Bowling Green, Ohio is located on the main highway between the college town of Bowling Green, and the city of Toledo (to the north) with a lot of traffic and not much else to look at.  Because the sign is electronic, it can be easily changed to offer a connected series of messages such as:

Be Good to Yourself.     Be Excellent to Others.     Do Everything with Love

We Believe in:
Freedom, Reason & Tolerance
The Necessity of the Democratic Process
The Transformative Power of Love
The Power of Beloved Community
The Never Ending Search for Truth & Meaning
Freedom of Religious Expression

 

They can also respond to current events with agility:

Rainbow Flag Up, Confederate Flag Down
Pro Black Lives, Pro Police Lives

 

The minister of the Maumee Valley UU Congregation, The Rev. Lynn Kerr, reports that many of the first-time visitors to the congregation say that they visited because they were intrigued by the different (and sometimes edgy) messages on the sign. (The rainbow flag sends its own message.)

Perhaps the folksy wisdom in the electronic version of the Wayside Pulpit might create a bigger tent for the faith in our postmodern age.

Here are more samples that MVUUC has displayed on their sign.  Feel free to borrow them for yours:

  • All Welcomed, All Loved
  • Are You a UU and Don’t Know it?
  • Atheists, Agnostics, Religious, All Welcome
  • Black Lives Matter
  • Black Lives Still Matter
  • Be the Change
  • Celebrate Everything
  • Cold Hands, Warm Heart
  • Come As You Are
  • Compassion is the Answer
  • Find Us and You Shall Seek
  • For the Beauty of the Earth
  • Hate Free-Love Filled
  • Journey Inward
  • Justice is What Love Looks Like in Public
  • LGBTQ Friendly & Affirming
  • Leap and the Net Will Appear
  • Live Now-Love Wastefully
  • Love, Courage, Wisdom – Found & Given Here
  • Make Your Voice Heard- Vote
  • Not All Who Wander Are Lost
  • Our Only Doctrine is Love
  • The Path to Peace Begins With Us
  • Peace Can Only Be Achieved Through Understanding
  • Peace is Possible
  • Small Church, Big Heart
  • Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn
  • Speak the Truth, Even if Your Voice Trembles
  • Speak the Truth in Love
  • Standing on the Side of Love
  • Stop Hate.  Together.
  • Truth and Love Always Win
  • War is Expensive, Peace is Priceless
  • We Are All Immigrants
  • We Put Values into Action

 

Rev. Renee Ruchtozke, primary contact for the Maumee Valley UU Congregation

Share on Facebook

What’s Our Business?

Rev. Joan Van Becelaere
CERG Congregational Life Staff Lead

What is our core business – as congregations; as a faith community? There is a lot riding on how we answer that question.

Remember Kodak? It was an industry giant. Many of us still call memorable events “a Kodak moment.”h

Kodak went bankrupt a couple of years ago. Many analysts say that the company was killed by the rise of digital photography. Ironically, Kodak actually invented digital photography in the 1970’s. But the company’s leadership saw digital photography as something unimportant, even frivolous, rather than the wave of the future. They didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize their primary business – which they saw as film sales.

Kodak made great film and knew how to market it well. But in a digital age, no one buys film, no matter how great it is. If Kodak has defined its primary business as ‘imaging’, they might have been the leaders in the field of digital photography. But they defined their business and focused all of their resources in a way that could not keep up with technological change. And they went bankrupt.

Are our congregations and Unitarian Universalism facing our own “Kodak moment” now? In light of deep social and economic change, how do we define our core business? Where do we ocus our congregational energy – our Time, Talent and Treasure?

Are we in the building maintenance and preservation business? What do our budgets say? Or are we in the business of helping heal disconnection and creating new connections among people – no matter where that takes place?

Are we in the Sunday morning classroom business? Or are we in the business of raising children with UU values and identity, wherever and whenever they might have the opportunity to learn?

Are we in the musical production and Sunday event business? Or is our core business to change the world and build Beloved Community?

What is our real business? There is a lot riding on how we answer that question.

Share on Facebook