Category Archives: Story

These posts are the story of how we became a multisite UU church

How to Complain At Church


or: transforming a MRC or CoM to
a Healthy Communication Team

Do you have a good “complaint” system at your church? Every church can benefit from a complaint system that is:

  1. easily understood
  2. widely accepted
  3. endorsed by the leadership
  4. available any time church is “in session.”

This is particularly helpful in a multi-site situation when not everyone “knows” everyone else– including who the leaders are, what there portfolios are, or which campus they happen to be at.

And of course– If you don’t have an intentional grievance procedure, then people will usually use the default method.

What is the default method? To complain to a lay leader, hopefully the board president.

Note, that I have never seen a job description for a board member, officer, or anyone else specifically include: “listen to complaints from anyone who happens to be around.”

Assuming the church has a minister, and that to the extent people think the minister is responsible for everything, that the board president is likely hearing negative things about the minister– and rarely positive things– since most people will use face to face when it comes to positive communications.

This means the board president is likely to get a skewed view of what others think of the minister. This makes a certain amount of sense: if you hear more complaints than compliments, what is a logical conclusion?

Worst of all, the default complaint system in a church frequently have the following components–

  1. triangulation (venting about a 3rd person)
  2. pass through communication (to get a message to someone, you tell someone else)
  3. anonymous feedback (deal with the problem I’m telling you about, but don’t mention my name: I want to vent, not solve my problem)

These three problems prevent forward progress and increase anxiety and dissatisfaction for everyone involved. If this is a perennial problem, why hasn’t it been solved?

People have come up with a lot of ways to avoid conflict and dealing with complaints, and they mostly– don’t seem to work. Perhaps we frequently prefer subtlety, tact, and the desire to spare people’s feelings. So, over the years, folks have come up with various euphemisms, strategies, and committees to deal with complaints– although these groups rarely make that explicit.

For congregations that have a minister, an old name for this kind of group was: Ministerial Relations Committee (MRC). This group would be the official group you could complain to about the minister. But it was also the group that would advocate for the minister’s compensation: big mistake. People on the MRC would try and remain ‘impartial’ but were frequently seen as either “in collusion” with the minister, or worse– antagonistic to them. There were little tricks to try and change that mindset– the minister would select twice as many nominees as needed, the board would pick from that group, 3 year revolving terms, and so on– but this did not change the basic dynamic.

A new euphemism came up in place of the MRC, it was called “Committee on Ministry” (or CoM) and it’s purpose was to look at the overall ministry of the church and then the minister’s place within that overall ministry. Alas, this didn’t seem to change many people’s minds, since just changing the name and widening the scope didn’t do much about the inherent problems with the complaint system.

When I came to Houston in 2010, I decided I wanted a different procedure to be used: a new method. It was, in fact, the very first team of leaders I assembled, because it’s that important. I read & questioned & queried colleagues & read some more. I took ideas formulated and written about by others and came up with two things:

  1. Healthy Communication Team concept
  2. Grievance_Procedure

Like many colleagues, I have been greatly influenced by the idea of making church more simple, accessible, and easily understood. If you’ve been a UU for any length of time, you know this is an inherent challenge of our religion.

The Healthy Communication Team (HCT) is available after most regularly scheduled church services. There is at least one person there, with a book and a pen. There’s a sign on the table, so it’s easy to spot. If someone has a comment– about anything– they write it down in the book, along with their name. The key item here is– no anonymous feedback.

The folks on the HCT follow the process on the Grievance Flow Chart. This chart is printed in the church “Information Guide” (our main print publication) and is available at the HCT table. Board members, most lay leaders, know that if someone has a complaint (or more rarely) a compliment, and the “messenger” isn’t sure what to do with it, then they are guided to the HCT table.

The HCT does two main things: triage the grievance, and provide guidance to the aggrieved. They are basically the same process.

Triage: A grievance generally falls into 1 of 3 categories:

  1. Preference
  2. Performance
  3. Policy

In a non-scientific sampling, I’d say that

  • 95% or greater grievances have to do with preference.
  • 4% have to do with performance, and
  • 1% has to do with policy.

Preference is about personal preference: music, wall color, the use of pew ropes, publications, religious education curricula, and of course sermons. Because we operate by policy governance, and because most decisions of consequence are clearly delineated via our governance documents, most of the time, individual preference is acknowledged, and occasionally changes or adjustments are made. Most of the time, the preference is simply acknowledged.

Performance would be things like: not returning email in a timely manner, failing to perform some essential function of a job, that kind of thing.

Policy has to do with violation of board governance policy– failure to comply with government regulations or failing to report something essential to the board, that kind of thing.

Every month, the HCT sends a summary of whatever was written in the book over the preceding weeks to the senior minister and to the board of trustees. There is rarely conversation about these things at the board level, usually the senior minister reports the status to the executive team. The senior minister usually responds in person or via email to the aggrieved. Often, that is the end of the matter. Occasionally, given enough people with the same preference, a change is made to the governance policies to avoid future incidents.

The system serves us well. People feel heard. The emphasis is on clear, straightforward communications that avoids anonymity and encourages direct communication.

What’s your default grievance policy? Can all you lay leaders tell you what it is off the top of their heads?

Daniel O’Connell is the senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, TX. One Church in Three Locations: Copperfield, Museum District, Stafford




Team Sermon Building

Several people wanted to know how we could only spend a few hours a week on Sunday service preparation. This is a perfectly reasonable question.

The first thing you must understand, is that there are 4 ministers and 1 Religious Educator working on this, along with the occasional music director. So, none of us are working on these services alone.

It also means that if I run across a particularly juicy illustration or anecdote that would work better in a colleague’s sermon than the one I happen to be working on, she gets it. Note– that if you adapt this model to where you are preaching to different audiences (i.e., it isn’t the same church– you can each use the juicy illustration).

Back in the day– when I was preparing sermons all by myself– it could take anywhere between 12 and 20 hours each week just to get everything ready for a single Sunday:

  • sermon title
  • sermon blurb (for newsletter)
  • hymns
  • readings
  • call to worship
  • prayer or meditation
  • Children’s time
  • special music
  • special liturgical element
  • Order of Service graphics
  • Order of Service worksheet
  • integrating music with words
  • Consultation with other Sunday Service participants (musicians, choir director, liturgist)
  • Etcetera.

So, as a team, we get all these things done, but we spend about 3 hours per week each week over a 6 week (42 days) period (working on more than one sermon at a time) to get that done. The Creative Team meets every Tuesday for 2 hours to “discuss & decide” everything related to the services.

Here’s our process.

We already know we are doing 3-4 sermons on a theme. The themes for the regular program year (September through May) are jointly selected by the ministers by May of the previous program year– often earlier than that. Just for kicks, here’s our current set of themes:

    1. Isolation v Intimacy
    2. Stagnation v Generativity
    3. Gluttony v Temperance
    4. Envy v Kindness
    5. Sloth v Diligence
    6. Greed v Charity
    7. Lust v Chastity
    8. Wrath v Patience
    9. Pride v Humility

Remember– When we work on services, we work on 3-4 at a time– the whole series.

First week: we each do Initial Research (ITR). This means we look for book reviews, blog posts, TED talks, colleague recommendations, magazine articles, online videos, anything that relates to the theme. Each of us spends about 3 hours during the course of a typical week doing that ITR. We post our research in a cloud based project management system called TeamworkPM by a Friday afternoon, so we can read each other’s work over the weekend.

2nd week: Meeting of Assignment. Based on what we’ve found, we assign further reading to get the juicy bits– now we’re looking for actual material to use in sermons. Our ITR is going to suggest an arc. But we also ask ourselves: What is a uniquely UU viewpoint on this particular topic? We begin to get ideas about what the sermons are likely to be about and who is likely to do them at which location. Assignments for further research our handed out here. Begin research & writing (3 hours).

3rd week: more research & writing (3 hours). Hymn / music  suggestions

4th week: Building the Arc, Part 1. Here’s where we “build the arc” of the sermon series. How shall we approach this? There are lots of ways–

  • personal / family & tribe / church / world
  • past / present / future
  • direct experience / words & deeds & world religions / humanism & science / interdependent web
  • psychological / sociological / radical / reverse radical
  • fears / tears / outrage / saying the other side / light of hope
  • and many more

And obviously you can play with the order of things and mix & match, depending on the circumstances.  This week we frequently get everything we need: hymns, graphics, music, titles & blurbs. Also, we often have a sermon outline by this point, certainly by the following week.

5th week: Building the Arc, Part 2. If we need it, or for further refinement. Many times we’re done with everything but the individual sermon outlines.

6th week: Sermon Prep and Review. The first preacher in the series posts an outline and draft of their sermon. Remember– they’ve gotten a lot of help from other people’s research. We all critique the sermon– ask questions about clarity, suggest a better order of sermon ‘moves,’ that kind of thing. Even the senior minister (me) gets critiqued. We finally settle on our Big Idea (an upgrade replacement to the idea of ‘Children’s Time’ AKA ‘Time of All Ages.’

And by the end of that 6th week, the 1st sermon in the series gets delivered at the Museum District campus.

Frequently, this means that a sermon is basically done the Tuesday before the Sunday of first delivery. And, it usually means colleagues– given our critique process– have made the sermon better than it would otherwise have been.

It makes the ‘arc of the series’ much more coherent.

Given the abundance of research material we’ve gathered– and not all of which we’ve used we now have plenty of material for an ADULT RE SERIES– that runs concurrently with the sermon series. Talk about value added!

For those of you who like spreadsheets, below  is a version of what we do.

Undoubtedly there will be more questions. Put them in the replies below, and I’ll try to answer them in future posts.

In the meantime– if you’re a solo minister (as the vast majority of UU ministers are), can you begin to see the advantages to a team approach?

What if you put together a team of 3-4 colleagues, agreed to monthly themes, then meet (physically or virtually) to accomplish the same purpose? I guarantee you, that you and 3 colleagues could start with the same sermon outline and wind up a week later with different, personalized sermons that benefited from your research collaboration. Plus your preaching skills would increase since you’d have more time to practice delivery (if you chose to do that).  Frankly, I think it would be fun to run a ‘boot camp’ for people who are interested in getting this going, but timing would be tricky.

12/15/2013 Sunday
12/16/2013 Monday Greed versus Charity
12/17/2013 Tuesday Do initial research ITR, 3h prep
12/18/2013 Wednesday
12/19/2013 Thursday
12/20/2013 Friday Post  ITR, each minister
12/21/2013 Saturday Read colleagues ITR
12/22/2013 Sunday
12/23/2013 Monday
12/24/2013 Tuesday Meeting of Assignment, 45m
12/25/2013 Wednesday Research & Writing (RW), 6h prep
12/26/2013 Thursday
12/27/2013 Friday
12/28/2013 Saturday
12/29/2013 Sunday
12/30/2013 Monday
12/31/2013 Tuesday
1/1/2014 Wednesday
1/2/2014 Thursday
1/3/2014 Friday Post  RW, each minister
1/4/2014 Saturday Read colleagues RW
1/5/2014 Sunday
1/6/2014 Monday
1/7/2014 Tuesday Building the Arc, Part 1, 45m
1/8/2014 Wednesday
1/9/2014 Thursday
1/10/2014 Friday
1/11/2014 Saturday
1/12/2014 Sunday
1/13/2014 Monday
1/14/2014 Tuesday Building the Arc, Part 2, 45m
1/15/2014 Wednesday Write & Prep 1st Themed Sermon, 5h+ sermon outline, sermon draft, Sunday worksheet
1/16/2014 Thursday
1/17/2014 Friday
1/18/2014 Saturday
1/19/2014 Sunday Read colleagues Sermon Draft
1/20/2014 Monday
1/21/2014 Tuesday Sermon Review, 30m
1/22/2014 Wednesday Final draft, rehearse, polish, 2h
1/23/2014 Thursday
1/24/2014 Friday
1/25/2014 Saturday
1/26/2014 Sunday Sermon 1: Greed versus Charity

Two Paradigm Busters: Frequency of Ministry Presence & being a Minister led Church

Let’s start with the idea of the role of the “campus minister.”

Invariably, there is some confusion when we use the phrase “campus minister,” because folks thinks it means a community minister doing outreach at a local college or university.

However, we haven’t found a good substitute (yet) and so we should be clear about what we mean in the multi-site context of how we define a campus minister.

In our church, we have 3 campuses, identified by their geographic location within the greater Houston area metroplex: Copperfield, Museum District, and Thoreau / Stafford.

Each has a campus minister. The campus minister is the face with the place. They are physically present on their campus almost every Sunday, even if they are just part time. This is part of the magic of multi-site ministry.

In the older way of thinking, a quarter time minister would preach about once a month, meet with leaders periodically, maybe go to board meetings, and not much else. Typically, the minister does not reside in the same town, and frequently has other employment– either with another church or something else.

This means that when newcomers arrive, the minister is “never” there, and there are clear doubts as to the long term viability of the church. Often, the pool of available ministerial talent is much smaller for part time ministry as for full time ministry.

It is a classic no-growth situation and is part of the catch-22 nature of small congregations– they don’t have the resources bring on staff that can grow the church to the size where it can afford those resources– and even if they did– it seems like it would take waaaayyyy to long to bring about the desired reality.

How to get around this conundrum? Well, what if the quarter time minister only had to preach “live” once a month, but acted as a liturgist– became the face with the place– and was there almost every Sunday, while the other 3 Sundays, a preacher from a larger campus had their sermon up on a projected video screen?

Suddenly, the quality of the sermons have probably gone up. More importantly, the consistency has been established. There is a minister physically present to lead worship almost every Sunday, and the church now seems viable in a new way that it had not seemed before.

How do we make this magic happen? What is the nature then, of the Campus Minister’s time breakout?

Here is the Campus Minister Weekly Time Breakout–

12 hours per week = Quarter Time.

  • 3 hours Sunday morning, 1 hour prep, 1 hour service, 1 coffee hour
  • 2 hour weekly staff interaction (local & senior minister)
  • 2 hours supervision: Team Leaders (1 weekly meeting, 4x month)3 hours creative prep
  • 2 hours flex time

20 hours per week = Half Time.

  • 3 hours Sunday morning, 1 hour prep, 1 hour service, 1 coffee hour
  • 2 hours weekly staff interaction (local & senior minister)
  • 4 hours supervision: Team Leaders (1 weekly meeting, 4x month)3 hours creative prep
  • 6 hours flex time

40+ hours per week = Full Time.

  • 3 hours Sunday morning, 1 hour prep, 1 hour service, 1 coffee hour
  • 4 hours weekly staff interaction (local & senior minister)
  • 2 hours Team Leaders (1 weekly meeting, 4x month: ½ hour prep, 1 ½ hour mtg)2 hours counseling, rites of passage prep
  • 2 hours service prep: offering partners, liturgical considerations
  • 8 hours creative prep
  • 19 hours flex time

Several things must be noted. First, this is an early draft of the time breakout– recent events will modify this draft breakout.

“Flex time” usually means administrative projects of one kind or another. For example, all 4 ministers worked on developing a leadership retreat for the end of September: we each had different roles with different amount of time responsibilities.

Two Paradigm Busters: Frequency of Ministry Presence & being a Minister led Church.

The key thing to note here is that we have broke out of the paradigm of a quarter time minister only being physically present once per month. Now, it is almost every Sunday– and this has led to another key difference: even a small campus can be a minister led church, which is different than a lay led church. This is a huge mental shift in thinking about how the church campus gets run.


The Core Curriculum in Becoming a UU of Spiritual Depth

common-core-image1UU Core Curricula & Electives

I have identified 9 core ministry areas for our church. What does that mean?

We asked the question– if we were going to replicate & scale the programs we use at one location, which ones would we absolutely HAVE to include at the other locations? What is necessary and what is extra?

For example, an adult discussion group is a fine thing, as are yoga classes, identity groups, and so forth. But they are not essential to a UU church.

What’s an example of something essential? Teaching our faith to our young. No one else can do that for us. It is a core ministry.

We decided on the following Core Ministries for our church– at any campus, no matter the size–

  1.  Sunday Celebration
  2. Faith formation for children
  3. Faith formation for adults
  4. Stewardship
  5. Social Justice
  6. Care of Souls (Pastoral Care)
  7. Care of Congregation (Healthy Communication)
  8. Welcome (hospitality through membership)
  9. Leadership Development (from membership to leadership)

Each of the areas above has a Team appointed by the senior minister. This is where the ministers and staff put most of their energy into.

Items 1-3 are served by the Creative Team, which is the ministers, a religious educator, and occasionally, a music person. That team now meets every Tuesday for 2 hours.

Items 4-6 are served by the Administrative Team (A Team), which is the ministers, administrator, and facilities manager. This team also handles facilities, logistics, and governance compliance. This team meets every Thursday for 90 minutes.

All the information in the Core Ministry areas is kept in the church Information Guide. It gets updated at least twice a year. It also includes floor plans, organization charts for staff and teams, membership and joining information– all the things we want EVERYONE in the church to pay attention to. It is our priority.

Everything else at church is extra. For adults, we call these “enrichment groups.” Typically, these are:

  • concerts
  • adult discussion group
  • tai chi class
  • yoga
  • women’s circle
  • men’s group
  • and many, more.

Consider the Core Ministries as the core curricula for developing UU elders. Consider the enrichment groups as “electives.” It gets it’s own paper and electronic publication that is separate from the Core Ministry areas. It’s called the Enrichment Guide.

This means it will be fairly easy to see how staff time, publicity, and other resources will be allocated: primarily to the core ministries. However, people want access to the electives, so we will put forth an Enrichment Group catalog twice per year.

And because we do so many social justice activities (monthly projects, multi-year Signature Project, &c), we also publish an all-3-campus Social Justice Guide.

The Guides are usually published twice per year. Since information doesn’t move that slowly, we also have weekly electronic communications with the latest updates.

This is how we provide focus to our ministry areas, while making sure information about everything we do is easily available to folks.

If you had to list just 10 areas of essential ministry– meaning you could give up other things, if you had to, in order to ensure the success of the essential– what would they be?




Getting Started With the Merger Model


Teams – How to Get Started with the Merger Model?

Lots of questions to consider. First, we have to set some definitions, and some guidelines about nomenclature.

First UU Church of Houston was the Adopting Church, at 360 members. Northwest Community UU Church, at 50 members and Henry David Thoreau UU Congregation of Fort Bend County, at 70 members were the Joining Churches.

Combined, we’re now at about 480 members.

We look at everything through the eyes of simplification and context for newcomers. This meant changing the informal name of the church and the names of the campuses.

Some people wanted First UU to be called “Main” or Main Street or another nearby street name. But Main Street in Houston, runs more than 50 miles long, so you’re not really helping. And “Northwest” doesn’t really help  in a city the size of Houston, and there is no Thoreau, TX.

So, we are Copperfield Campus, Museum District Campus, and the Thoreau/Stafford campus.

Copperfield had just lost their 1/4 time minister. And while Thoreau/Stafford had a couple of full time interims, that did not look to be financially viable going forward. Why is that important? Because it made the leadership more open to radical ideas about their future.

What is merger about for the Joining Churches? It’s about giving up control for a new chance at success that has previously been out of reach.

It’s frequently about a significant jump in ministry quality. And it is especially about long term thriving.

What is merger about for the Adopting Church? It’s about creative collaboration, economy of scale, better use of resources, and expanding Unitarian Universalism in their geographic area.

As you might imagine, as the first senior minister of a 3 campus UU church, I have been approached by colleagues who are wondering if times are ripe in their neck of the woods to consider a massive change to “How We Do Church Now.”

Let’s say you are a minister or a lay leader at a potential Adopting or Joining church. How should you even begin your journey of inquiry?

Read “Better Together,” have your leadership read it. Meet to discuss. It is an eye opener. And it is extraordinarily helpful to set the context. It puts everyone on the same page.

Now, let’s consider a typical scenario for an Adopting Church and 2 Joining Churches and just ONE of the many advantages, which can best be described as:

A quarter time minister is there (almost) every Sunday of the year, and becomes the “face with the place.”

Let’s say each of the potential joining churches  can each afford a quarter time minister. Normally, that would mean they’d get a live preacher once a month. That preacher probably wouldn’t be on the same level as the senior minister of an Adopting Church, and newcomers would “never” see the quarter time minister because they’d usually come on a day the minister wasn’t there.

If those quarter time ministers worked with the senior on sermon development, they could be the ‘campus minister,’ the face-with-the-place, and be there almost every Sunday, conducting the liturgy, doing each part of the service, except the sermon. The quarter time minister would preach live once a month, and the video recorded sermon would be on screen the other Sundays (lots of people fear video sermons, but research– and our own experience– doesn’t bear that out).

Our model– one church in 3 locations– means we really are just ONE church. It meant the Joining Churches gave up their non-profit state charter, and all joined the Adopting Church. That’s pretty radical, but it also– almost guarantees– their survival and thriving.

Can the multisite model be done with out that? Maybe. But I wouldn’t want to try it. Because we commit to that campus’ thriving. We don’t just provide sermons.

We provide children, youth, and adult RE, which is tied into sermon content. Plus, we have taken over all operations, administration– everything.

Our two satellites dissolved their non-profit corporate charters and are now officially part of us. That’s going ALL the way.

Needless to say, this whole thing is made possible by policy governance, which is often a shock to leaders in small congregations– usually a welcome shock, but a shock nevertheless.

If you’re interested in exploring the idea of UU church mergers in order to become a multisite church, then

The number one thing you should do right away is get the book “Better Together” from Amazon or wherever and read the whole thing, as fast as you can.

It will provide some context for the next steps. If I were you, I’d also get a few copies for the leaders at the two congregations you are talking to, so you all can be on the same page.

I suppose at some point– probably not this GA in Providence, we should think about putting together something like a 4 day midweek boot camp to thoroughly soak folks into “How We Do Church Now.” I have no doubt that this model is going to take off.

Seriously, read “Better Together,” but don’t be put off by the evangelical credentials of the authors. It is ground breaking work.

Resistance to Simplification

Resistance to Simplification

One of they keys to the daunting complexity of becoming One church in Three locations (and for church growth in general), is to try and simplify everything.

I explain our thinking in a previous post here.

What is transient? What is permanent? What is it that only we can do?

For example, faith formation for our children, youth, and adults is permanent. It is essential. We can’t contract it out to anyone else.

Discussion groups, tai chi, yoga, identity groups, activity groups– these are– for the most part, non-essential. The folks who are active in those things might disagree, of course.

What that means is that we must make sure we do the essential things, and let the non-essential things take care of themselves. If folks want an adult discussion group, fine. Let them set one up. If it begins to falter due to lack of participation, then let it die.

Religious Education? It’s a given. The ministers and staff will drive the content and be responsible for its success and failure. If the program begins to falter due to lack of participation, then the program needs to be evaluated and adjusted. Trial and error.

And what is the purpose of church programs anyway? They are not necessarily useful in and of themselves. I prefer to think of them as “steps.”

Our faith formation for children, youth, and adults, are steps– to what? Toward spiritual depth as a Unitarian Universalist.

Then, of course, you have to define what a spiritually deep UU looks like 😉

What else is essential? We have identified 9 Core Ministries. Everything else is an Enrichment Activity (it gets its own publication).

I like to think of this as the core curriculum (majoring in become a UU with spiritual depth), and elective classes (the enrichment activities, e.g., tai chi, yoga, identity groups, activity groups).

So, I am not proposing we drop enrichment activities or electives– just that we put them in their proper place.

I am also proposing that in a minister led church (as  opposed to a lay led church), the minister(s) and staff be responsible for the Core Ministries.

What are these Core Ministry Teams?

  1. Worship / Celebration
  2. Faith formation (children & youth)
  3. Faith formation (adults)
  4. Social Justice
  5. Stewardship
  6. Welcome
  7. Leadership Development
  8. Care of Souls (pastoral care)
  9. Healthy Communications

In future posts I can outline how we do each of those teams. We also have two primary staff teams:

Creative Team. 4 ministers, 1 intern, and a religious educator meet weekly on a 42 day cycle to plan out our monthly sermon themes, the arc, and the religious education components (we adapt some for children, but primarily write our own for adults).

Administrative Team (A Team). We discuss & decide logistics of the 3 campuses and how to do team development.

Have we faced resistance to the simple church concept? Of course we have. What did we do about it?

  1. My whole board of trustees read the book and then dedicated most of a board meeting (with me gone on vacation) to discussing it.
  2. The staff and I prepared a workshop on it for 45 leaders of our 3 campuses.
  3. We discuss it wherever and whenever people in our church bring it up.

This means we are on the same page. Of course, some people are uneasy– does this mean the senior minister is going to get rid of the choir? Of course not– it’s an essential component of our Celebration Ministry (#1 above).

But we trust each other– the ministers and leaders– and that means everything.

One approach to multisite churches is for a medium to medium large sized church to spin off “satellite” congregations. These are multisite 01typically formed when you have enough families– say 5-10 who live about a 20+ minute drive from church in a particular neighborhood. These can be ideal locations to consider a new satellite. Why?

Because, while your current members from that neighborhood are willing to drive in to church, their friends are not (usually). If you start a new satellite in this new location, then their friends are much more likely to attend.

This first approach– let’s call it– planting satellites– is the one I originally thought we’d pursue, and it is the one that is being done with some success in Albuquerque, NM and in San Diego, CA, among other places.

A new approach– which we are pioneering in Houston– is to take existing, fellowship sized churches and merge them with a mid-size to larger church. The former are the “joining” churches, and the latter is the “adopting” church.

Advantages are that you already have a committed group of lay leaders at the “satellite” location. You have talent available at one location that normally would not be assisting another location. You have creative resources, you have social justice relationships, and there is some shared history.

A “disadvantage” for the adopting church is that some of their resources (mostly staff) will now go to assist satellites. The primary “disadvantage” for the joining church is giving up control (in order to attempt a new level of success that has previously eluded them).

I put “disadvantage” in quotes, because there is a hidden advantage in there, too. Staff can learn new “best practices” from the joining churches, and joining churches giving up control to supervised professionals can increase the overall quality of church life, freeing up lay leaders to do more ministry and less administration.

Shortlink for this post:

Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 3 of 3

Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 3 of 3

What is it we are risking? We are risking successrainbow chalice 02

We’ve heard how people tried to grow Unitarian Universalism in the past. And we can see new models of doing collaborative ministry that could benefit everybody. (Eventually, I’ll update this post with a link to how we’re doing collaborative ministry– it’s mind-blowing!)


The information below is from a 2012 sermon explaining the multisite concept to the Museum District campus.
What do we risk? We risk giving up some of how we do things now– for getting what we say we really want.
We risk outgrowing an old, comfortable identity for a new one better serving a larger purpose.
Change is both gain, and loss. Some folks will feel this loss–  more than others.
The caterpillar– dying to her old form– may not be impressed with the promise of birth as a beautiful butterfly.
But really– there is a much bigger risk. We risk–  success. That’s right.

Guess what the success rate is for multisite churches is?

Is it one out-of-4? Is it 50-50? No, the success rate is NINETY percent.

NINETY percent success.

Of course, that is for evangelical churches. I suppose we have to throw in a fudge factor for liberal churches. But still. NINETY percent success.
As Karen Carlson, on our Transition Team, put it in 2012:
This is a big vision. If you want to expand social justice, if you want to be more than just a small island of liberal religion in the Bible belt, this is an opportunity to step up and [be counted]. (Note: this was also used as the benediction).
So the real danger to our proposition isn’t that we won’t succeed– It is that we will succeed.
Imagine that. Imagine 7 women & men– ministers & educators–  in 3 locations, all creatively collaborating on excellent content to be shared at all locations.
Imagine finally freeing up leaders from administration & operations to lead core ministry teams.
Today, we imagine building a new way of doing Unitarian Universalism.
Today, we do– what has never been done before– we move toward being one UU church in three locations.
And why do we do this? To create a brighter beacon for liberal religion.
And to create a more welcoming home for religious liberals. Let us consider the kind of home we want to build….

Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 2 of 3

Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 2 of 3
Previous Attempts to Grow UU on a Big Scale
Last time, I talked about the Catch-22 of Small Congregations. This post, we’ll look at 3 previous attempts to grow UU on a big scale.
  1. Quillen Shinn.
  2. Fellowship Movement.
  3. Get Big Fast.
Our church website’s very first entry for our history, is this– 1895: Rev. Quillen Shinn first arrives in Houston. Next entry– 1899: Rev. Shinn stays for two weeks. Third entry– 1907: Rev. Shinn dies.
The Rev. Quillen Shinn was an evangelist for Universalism in the early 20th century. He would get billboards & flyers put up in towns just before he came to visit. He would reserve a space– whatever was available– a home, church, or store. There, he would preach Universalism– that we are all already saved. And he’d explain how to form a new congregation.
Then he’d leave town, and come back periodically to check on things. Some called him the greatest Universalist evangelist– ever. Others called him the Grasshopper Missionary because he moved so quickly from place to place.
“Although most of the groups Shinn started failed to survive for long, a number did.”
So, starting congregations like ours back in the early 20 th century was pretty hit or miss– and truth be told– mostly “miss.”
Within 50 years, a new strategy was developed. It was called the Fellowship Movement. The idea was to start new congregations without ministers, to try and catch up with the post-war America population boom. The program was wildly successful. Between 1948 & 1958– in just 10 years! Some 323 fellowships had been organized. They had 12,500 members, 75% of whom were new to Unitarianism.

Can you imagine adding 12,500 new UUs in 10 years? That’s like the entire UU population of Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin combined.

Most of these congregations however, never got any bigger. Eventually, the Fellowship Movement ran out of steam & money. And Unitarian Universalism has not grown much since then. In fact, last year, we shrank a little.
We had Quillen Shinn on horseback. We had the fellowship movement. Now, we move ahead, 40 years later.
At the dawn of the 21st century, came the idea to start a large UU congregation from scratch. Maybe we could have the first UU mega-church. A mega-church is one that has over 2,000 members. In the Dallas area, a local UU endowment fund purchased land for a new church.
“A few generous and visionary UU families (in the area) gave a million dollar grant to lease office space and hire five full-time staff members.”
The main idea was to start a new congregation–  AND–  have it Get Big Fast. Why not fully staff as if you were already a large church? Maybe then you could grow from 0 to 600 members in three years.
That was the original plan. They were going to delay regular Sunday services until they thought they could get 300 on a Sunday. But time passed & they decided not to wait. There first service had 140 people attend– but “many of the people attending that first worship service were well wishers from other UU churches.”
The church’s 2012 numbers are 93 adults, and the original staff– is gone.
To recap:
  1. Quillen Shinn rode horseback all over the country trying to get Universalist congregations started. Many were started, but few survived.
  2. The fellowship movement did start a lot of small Unitarian congregations. But very few got out of the small church box.
  3. The million dollar idea of Get Big Fast did not work out as planned.
Except for the Fellowship Movement–  there hasn’t been any successful strategy to grow Unitarian Universalism. And those fellowships– with very few exceptions– have been caged in by the Catch-22 that affects them. I talk about the small church Catch-22 in a previous post.
Next, what if we took some of those fellowships and merged them to take advantage of creative collaboration and an economy of scale?

Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 1 of 3

Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 1 of 3
The Catch 22 of Small Congregations
My understanding is that except for the Fellowship Movement–  there hasn’t been any successful strategy to grow Unitarian Universalism on a large scale. And those fellowships– with very few exceptions– have been caged in by the Catch-22 that affects them.
In my lifetime, I have personally only known of one congregation that has made this leap (from fellowship with no minister to 500+ member church). Just one. Out of 1,000. Maybe you know of a couple more? Still– Not very good odds.
That phrase Catch-22 comes from a novel. And it means something is a no-win situation. For small congregations– it means that
            because the congregation _is_ small,
            they can’t afford to hire the kind of staff 
            that will grow them to the size–
            where they could afford that kind of staff.
And, so our smaller congregations try everything they can think of–  to grow out of that small congregation box. And they almost never succeed.
These people I’m talking about– these fellow UUs– have poured their heart & money & muscle into creating a viable UU community. And that is great. It is admirable.
They know that. But they want more.
Why? Why this focus on growth? Why numbers? Why are folks so concerned about “numbers? Why is that so important? Because every number represents a person– like you & me.
And they want something else– something almost all UUs want.
They want a building to call home. And they want a minister to serve & lead them. They want to make a difference in their community.
They want to be a safe haven for religious liberals. And they want to be a shining beacon of liberal religion in often hostile world.
But that Catch-22–  is still there. And it seems to keep their dreams–  just–  out of reach.
How many congregations are we talking about? In 2011, there were 995 brick and mortar congregations listed in the UUA official list. Of those, 350 congregations listed membership of 150 or greater. That number is significant to me because I believe that is the minimum size a congregation should be in order to have a full time, fairly compensated minister and the necessary part time staff.
This means there are 645 congregations that are too small (in my opinion) to support full time, fairly compensated ministry (and additional part time staff). That is 65% of all UU congregations!
This tells me that a significant impediment to UU growth is the Catch-22 of small congregations. Don’t get me wrong– there are plenty of UU congregations WITH ministers that don’t grow, but there are lots that do.
That’s the dilemma. What’s a possible solution? What if we could take the unique identity of a small congregation and provide it with the resources of a large one? That’s the focus of a future post.