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Congregational leaders gather for training conference

First-ever 'UU University,' on eve of General Assembly, focuses on lay leadership.
By Donald E. Skinner

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UUA Moderator Gini Courter at last year's GA

UUA Moderator Gini Courter meets with congregational presidents at last year’s General Assembly. A new program this year was UU University, a leadership training mini-conference prior to the start of GA. (Nancy Pierce/UUA)

As thousands of Unitarian Universalists gathered in St. Louis this week for the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, a few hundred got a head start.

A group of 410 congregational leaders from across the country gathered Tuesday at the America’s Center for “UU University,” a day and a half of inspirational and educational workshops and other presentations. The program was offered for the first time this year. Approximately half of those attending UU University were presidents of their congregations, and half of the participants said this was their first time at a General Assembly. (GA began Wednesday afternoon and continues through Sunday.)

UU University is part of a denominational effort to provide congregational leaders with what they have asked for: more training on how to do their jobs. UUA Moderator Gini Courter welcomed participants to UU University, reminding them that two years ago at the General Assembly in Long Beach, Calif., they had asked for more help in their leadership roles.

“It took two years to plan it, but here it is,” she said. “We’re trying to make leadership a joy and a blessing—and no more work than it has to be.” She encouraged participants to share ideas with each other. “Your learning shouldn’t be all focused on what the presenters tell you. This is a time to network with other leaders and share your best practices with each other.”

UU University began with a luncheon presentation by the Rev. Dr. Peter Steinke, a church consultant who has written extensively on viewing congregations as “emotional systems.”

Steinke told the group: “All systems tend to keep what is familiar in place, which is why it is difficult to create change. No emotional system will change unless the people in that system change how they function with one another.”

Deal with conflict sooner rather than later, he said. “If you don’t deal with conflict now you’re going to deal with it in a year or two years or three years. But conflict is also an opportunity for learning, growth, and change.”

Throughout the remainder of UU University participants had their choice of three workshop tracks on membership, financial, and leadership issues. Workshop topics included “Marks of Healthy Congregations,” “Repelling Fewer Visitors,” and “The Yin and Yang of Conflict.” All presentations were videotaped and will be made available to those who could not attend.

UU University is part of a larger plan by the UUA to ensure that General Assembly gives church leaders what they need. In 2004 and 2005, the GA registration fee was fully reimbursed for all congregational presidents serving as delegates. This year, congregational presidents serving as delegates will be reimbursed 75 percent. Courter and UUA President William G. Sinkford held several receptions and workshops with the presidents last year and are doing the same this year.

Courter is leading an effort to make GA business sessions, called plenaries, more relevant to congregational leaders. She has set aside time in the plenaries for open discussion of topics selected by congregations. Topics include, “What are the common traits of our growing congregations?” “What do we need to teach to children, youth, and new members?” and “Why are many of us unable to tell others about the importance of church in our lives?”

Vickie Trott, membership chair at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Overland Park, Kans., is attending GA for the first time and came early for UU University.

“It was very helpful,” she said, “to not only hear the presentations but to meet with other leaders who have the same issues you do. Sometimes you think you’re the only one with a particular concern. I also learned that we’re doing many of the right things [at church] and it was good to be reminded of that.”

The Rev. Harlan Limpert, the UUA’s director of district services, said he was delighted with the turnout for UU University. “We would have held it if only 200 came. Three hundred would have been great. Four hundred is phenomenal. This was a great idea.” He said UU University will be repeated in 2008.

Limpert noted that some are suggesting it should be held annually. “We’re looking at that,” he said. Parts of UU University will be available on the UUA.org website later this summer.

Another participant and first-time GA delegate, Bill Ross, new president of First Unitarian Church in Omaha, Nebr., said, “This is excellent. It would be too bad if we had to wait two years to do this again.”

Courter urged UU University participants to look at the big picture when they go back to their congregations. “Lead at the level of vision, not of policy. A congregation has to have vision.” She also encouraged them to take care of themselves by developing a spiritual practice while at GA. “Find a practice that feeds you, that grounds you, and do not let it go.”

More than 4,000 UUs are attending General Assembly this year, where poet Mary Oliver is the keynote speaker Saturday night. Daily coverage of GA events is available from uuworld.org’s General Assembly blog and from UUA.org, which also offers audio and video of plenaries, worship services, and major address. See sidebar for links.

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