Rev. Lisa PresleyAt a Spring 2012 Heartland District Ministers’ Chapter meeting, once again I presented information about the planned move from District-based service delivery and governance to Regional-based models. I’ve been talking with the ministers and religious education professionals about this for the past 18 months, and once again I asked “What are your questions?” One of the ministers sent me four specific questions. I’ll be addressing each of them in a separate blog entry.

Here’s the third one: What is the responsibility for “territory” e.g. regional staff serves region? What of traditional/untraditional extension work, is the region, or the UUA, or a congregation, or no one responsible?

Here’s the heart of the answer: It’s complex. I read in this question the desire for someone to be responsible for helping with the growth of congregations, and of new congregations, and wondering where that is located.  Right now, the District/Regional Staff are responsible for growing Unitarian Universalism and growing healthy/healthier congregations in the geographic land mass that is currently the Central MidWest, Heartland and Prairie Star districts. We do this by providing webinars and workshops, in coaching and teaching, and helping folks realize what’s necessary for the future, and we will continue to do that. We know that Unitarian Universalism is a message that people need, and we get pretty darn evangelical about that, and that belief and approach won’t change moving forward into regional structure.

The problem is that with all our experiments in ministry and starting congregations over the past 30 or so years, the “success” rate in doing that (with some notable exceptions!) has not been very great. Most of the extension congregations or new starts have leveled out in the small to small-midsize congregations, most of them at or well below 150 members. One congregation in Heartland is under 100 members now, despite somewhere between $70-100,000 being “invested” in its new start. Many of the former extension or new start congregations have hit a wall when the funding was reduced/eliminated, or when they got to the point of needing their own space in size, but not having the critical mass of numbers to be able to afford a building, or a building and a minister.

We have not figured out how to do this well, or what will catch fire. And at the same time, there are new developments happening where we hope to make a difference. There is a new UUA Growth Office, and they are looking at what is working, and will be looking to partner with districts and regions. And here in MidAmerica, we’re working with the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) to see how we can partner with the smallest of our groups—those who are already affiliated, and those who may never amass the numbers required for congregational affiliation, but who share our UU theology.

We’re also looking to see how the Congregations and Beyond emphasis that is designed to connect with the thousands of people who claim they are UUs but who don’t come to church can help us foster healthy UU communities here in the region. How can we help our congregations reach out to and connect to these folks, provide mutual support and understanding, and help congregations lower their walls? How can we connect with the folks who grew up UU but don’t come to church? All good questions, and frankly, there isn’t much funding at either the national or district/regional level to do this work. But again, here in MidAmerica, we understand how to connect with folks with our Midwestern approach to live. Growth is about congregations understanding what it means to be hospitable, and how to lower those walls, how to reach out to the community, and we believe that we understand how to help MidAmerica congregations that want to do this work learn how to do it. Phil Lund, one of our MA staff currently in Prairie Star, is considered one of our national experts in this work, and I’m excited we get to work together.