One of the highlights of the 2008 District Assembly was a panel discussion on growth in the Central Midwest District. Featuring ministers and religious educators from some of the most dynamic and growing congregations in our district, the panelists presented their perceptions of how their recent growth has been encouraged and some specific ways other congregations can generate growth in their religious communities.

The first panelist was Rev. Krista Taves, minister of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel in Ellisville, Missouri. She focused upon the changes which Emerson has made in recent years to move toward a multigenerational community which worships together. Krista said that when she arrived at Emerson, they had the typical Unitarian Universalist format of one hour on Sunday morning with religious education downstairs and adults upstairs, both groups separated with not a lot to do together. The religious education teachers were burned out from missing worship and the fellowship of their religious community. There was not much participation in adult religious education programs save for a small core group of people, and since many parents couldn’t do much in middle of week, they were in effect excluded. 

Under her leadership, Emerson changed its Sunday morning format to two hours starting with worship for all ages and then following with religious education for all ages in the second hour. Krista said that at first there was real resistance to moving to two hours, but she posed the question to congregants about priorities and asked parents in particular to recall what they were willing to sacrifice for sports programs. She then challenged them to consider making a similiar commitment of time for their children’s spiritual growth.

Although there was a dramatic decrease in attendance for the first few months during the transition, the congregation was able to weather this by keeping their focus on the big picture. They recognized that significant change can take several months to produce positive results. Nonetheless, it became apparent right away that it was so much easier to recruit teachers for the religious education programs and nuture the spirits of those teachers who could now worship with the rest of the church community.

Krista also reported witnessing a great deal of energy in the worship of all ages together, including more youth attending worship services because they now didn’t have to choose between the service and youth group. However, the most significant positive effect that Emerson has experienced is that the new format of the morning encourages newcomers to be connected to the larger community. Visitors no longer have to hang around during coffee hour to get to know members of the congregation. Instead, they were able to meet people and make connections during the religious education time. Krista said that although this format meant more work for the staff, the benefits of what Emerson is experiencing have been more than worth it. She stressed the importance of the community sometimes having to sit with discomfort, as these changes have meant some people have not come back. She sees the challenge to implementing any change is to focus on the future you envision, sit with discomfort, and trust the process.

Next month: Rev. Khleber Van Zandt, minister of Alton, IL and Paul Beckel, minister of First Universalist Unitarian Church in Wausau, WI talk about reaching out to the community through innvoative uses of technology and development of local resources.