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Leap of Faith gathering in August at Sacramento, California

Seeking growth, congregations take 'Leap of Faith'

Congregational mentoring program enters third year.
By Donald E. Skinner
9.2.13

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This winter, leaders of the Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation, of Fremont, Calif., will head off to Colorado to spend a couple of days with leaders of the UU Church of Boulder, learning how that congregation "does church." They'll look at everything from administrative practices to welcoming procedures.

Additionally, throughout the year, leaders of the two congregations will share information by email, Skype, and telephone. Their exchanges will be part of the Unitarian Universalist Association's Leap of Faith program, which begins its third year this fall. Since it began in 2010, more than 50 congregations have participated in the program. It was initially suggested by UUA President Peter Morales as a way for congregations to learn from each other.

In its first two years, Leap of Faith was a national program of the UUA, including congregations from across the country. This year the program has evolved into a regional one. Two of the UUA's five regions, Pacific Western and New England, are participating. The other three could not take part this year, for various reasons.

The Rev. Jeremy Nickel, minister at Mission Peak, which has had steady growth up to around 120 members and which is looking for ways to grow further, said the congregation is excited about participating.

"We want to learn the best ways to set ourselves up for the future," he said. "We've had a family-sized culture and we'd like to learn some ways to grow past that. Board culture is one issue we want to focus on. Our board meetings have gotten really long and sometimes difficult. We're pretty sure they don't need to be that way, but we don't know how to get there. Boulder can help us with that."

One of the goals of Leap of Faith has been to increase membership. That generally hasn't happened—yet. Two-and-a-half years is scant time to see that kind of change. However, congregations say Leap of Faith is helping them make other changes that will support and encourage numerical growth.

In an evaluation conducted for the UUA by outside evaluators in the fall of 2012, following the second year of the program, participants reported that being involved in Leap of Faith led to an increase in "inspiration and courage to change." One leader reported, "We dealt with one of the endemic issues getting in the way of [our] growth—pleasing members, especially older members. Our board is able to begin to see the impact of people‐pleasing and has begun to take stands on things that have been decades‐old immovable issues . . . A big focus has been on finding ways to take a stand for the good of the entire congregation."

Another participant observed, "We've come to better understand the context of families today and the fact that they are busy and often stressed. It's not necessarily that they are bad people because they don't want to sign up to make coffee. Rather than focus on that, we have deepened the conversation to ask 'Why do families want to be here?' and then to work to create more meaningful volunteer opportunities that tap into that meaning."

The Rev. Nancy Bowen, regional lead staff person for the Pacific Western Region, and overall coordinator of Leap of Faith, added, "Participants in the program have come to look at the way they do things in new ways. There have been some changes of heart and mind and some increased capacities for welcoming, structuring governance, and ministering in different ways. Some congregations have made really important decisions about staffing. Some congregations have achieved higher profiles in their communities."

Bowen noted there are some congregations that are connecting outside of the program in Leap of Faith fashion. "First [UU] Church of Richmond, Va., has a partnership with Eno River UU Fellowship, in Durham, N.C., which they are financing themselves," Bowen said. "Some small congregations have approached midsize ones, using the LOF model. And this has been one of the larger goals of the program: that congregations will take it upon themselves to develop more lateral connections and actively learn from one another."


Photograph (above): Leaders of Saltwater Church in Des Moines, Wash., and the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ventura, Calif., partners in Leap of Faith, gathered in August at Sacramento, Calif. (© Leap of Faith). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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