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The Multi-Site Congregation Option

General Assembly 2009 Event 2027

The option of multisite congregations appears to be a popular topic in our denomination this year. At a well-attended session led by Rev. Ken Brown, district executive of the Southwest District, and Rev. Arvid Straube, of the First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of San Diego, the model used in the San Diego area was presented and attendees heard some of the lessons learned from their experience.

A multisite congregation is one that shares a common vision, budget, leadership, and board. Reasons for fostering and maintaining multiple campuses can be varied. Some congregations may be simply seeking an answer to space problems, while others want to attract and serve a more diverse audience. One rule of thumb when considering multiple campuses is that most people don’t like to drive more than 20 minutes to church.

The multisite congregation can take different forms, depending whether video-cast sermons fit the needs of the congregation and to what extent they are able to share staff and resources across multiple campuses. Having a multisite congregation can mean just holding services in a second location or it can mean providing a full range of programs and services in both locations.

San Diego, now in phase three of their plan and in their third year of the project, uses a combination of models. Although the offspring church, South Bay, presents a full service that is much more contemporary than the so-called “high liturgy” traditional service, they often hear the sermon recorded at the Saturday service of First UU. Other times, a minister will deliver the sermon in person.

Surprisingly enough, Rev. Straube said, funding was not the hardest part. He suggested getting grants from your district, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and Chalice Lighters. The UUA can also connect you with people who can do a demographic survey for your congregation, he said, which is hugely important. Straube got a chuckle from the crowd when he said, “It’s a little scary and big-brotherish to see how much they know about us!”  First UU in San Diego also raised a large amount from a special collection.

The turning point, Straube said, was when they had a service in which the leaders got up and addressed the congregation about why they thought it was important to undertake this venture.

“We gave out information every week about what we were doing,” he added, “and now the people are proud of what we’ve accomplished. They feel the new congregation is part of them.”

Straube had several pieces of advice for anyone wanting to try the multisite option:

  • Be sure you have enough volunteers lined up who are anxious to help—not only in the new congregation, but also in the original congregation.
     
  • Do not refer to the new congregation as a satellite or the originating congregation as the mother church or the main church.
     
  • Don’t try to mix styles (contemporary vs. traditional) in the same service. Fit the music to the audience.
     
  • Be prepared to put a lot of money and energy into getting the technology right and running smoothly.
     
  • First UU of San Diego found that direct mail marketing was not as effective as “guerilla marketing,” such as handing out flyers at festivals or community events in the target community, and clever marketing campaigns such as chalking the sidewalks in city parks (with permission, of course!).
     
  • Do a lot of upfront planning. First UU of San Diego spent the first year of their project researching. Know the answers to important questions like: “What is our dream?”, “How will we develop leaders and artists?”, “Is funding in place?”, “What level of autonomy do we want the new church to have?”, “Who will provide oversight of this effort?”, “What core ministries will we offer?”, and “How will we market the new campus?”
     
  • Be ready to follow the energy as it develops. You may have a clear idea of what the process and end result should look like, but it may not happen that way.

Reported by Dee Ray; edited by Dana Dwinell-Yardley.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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