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New Suburban Congregation Tries Different Approach

January 1, 2012

Harmony Unitarian Universalist Church in Mason, Ohio, on the growing northeast side of Cincinnati, held its first worship service in the fall of 2009 with seven families in attendance. As of this fall it has around 150 adults and children on the rolls. Almost half that number are children aged 10 and under.

Because it has grown so quickly—the church is 30 minutes from the nearest other Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation—and because at this point it remains entirely lay-led, Harmony leaders are understandably hard-pressed to keep up with the demands of congregational life. So they’ve made a couple of adaptations to the ways that many other congregations “do church.”

For example, Harmony holds four worship services a month, but two of them—on the second and fourth Sundays—are repeats. Coming up with two unique services a month is more doable than four, notes Lindsey Sodano, co-president. But there is an additional reason for this AABB style of worship.

Says Sodano, “When we formed Harmony, we gave a lot of thought to the unchurched—people whose principles and values would mesh perfectly with Unitarian Universalism, but who stay away because of negative associations with church or because they are simply too busy. The founders set up Harmony to be particularly attractive to young, busy families. Parents in their 30s and 40s want the full UU experience for themselves and for their kids, but they are juggling incredibly demanding schedules. They often don't have time to attend four services a month plus all the extras that really make it a community—outreach projects, adult religious education, camping trips, yoga class, etc.”

So instead of four unique services, energy goes into two. Adult education is done differently as well, she said. Each Sunday there are small breakout group discussions following the sermon to accommodate people who may not be able to fit adult RE into their schedules at other times, but still want the small group experience. This schedule also enables religious exploration teachers—and those members who travel or work on some Sundays—to not miss services.

In the months where there is a fifth Sunday, special programming is scheduled on those Sundays whenever possible, such as camping trips and social justice projects. “We’re trying to offer as much of the full church experience as we can in a compact way,” Sodano says.  

“We’ve found this a great way to fit 150 people into a historic building that only holds about 75,” says Sodano. The congregation is renting a small Universalist church building built in 1835. This schedule will continue through 2012 and then it will be reevaluated. “Once we consistently see very full RE classrooms each week we will probably add a third service,” she said—a repeat of one of the others.

There’s plenty of programming outside of worship at Harmony. This winter a Building Your Own Theology class is meeting monthly before worship. Monday night is yoga class. Friday nights are for the book club and parenting discussions. Fellowship events are on occasional Saturday nights. External volunteer opportunities are throughout the week.

In a small congregation everyone has to help. Harmony is aggressive about involvement. Everyone who attends is asked to fill out a “Time and Talent” pledge form, including volunteer preferences. “Our rate of adult member volunteerism is 100 percent,” says Sodano. “Everyone does something. And one new thing we’ve done recently is to create a similar form for kids. “We have kids reading the children’s story, passing out programs, assisting in the preschool class. It really makes them feel like they are needed, which they are.”

And Harmony has yet another divergence from conventionality. Sodano says most of the congregation prefers the “relevance and vitality” of contemporary music over hymns. So music at Harmony consists largely of a singer/guitarist and a violinist who each week present secular songs that fit with the week’s topic. “This way we have music that everyone can get behind without any paid music staff.” There is a children’s choir, but no adult choir.

Services are “very visual,” says Sodano. A projector is used to show photos, graphs, political cartoons, and other materials that enhance the sermon. Some song lyrics are also projected.

And one more difference: The congregation holds a stewardship campaign every six months. “This is because everything changes for us so incredibly quickly,” says Sodano. “A year and a half ago we were meeting in a tiny bookstore and had a minimal budget. Then we had to scramble to find a larger space and create a larger budget. And that happened again five months later. So we come back to the congregation every six months and explain how things have changed and what our new needs are.” Twice-a-year drives also mean that new members begin contributing more quickly, she adds.

Demographically Harmony is different from many other UU congregations. Sodano says 88 percent of adult members are in their 30s and 40s. Five of seven governing board members had not been members of another UU congregation.

The Rev. Dr. Lisa Presley, district executive for the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA’s) Heartland District, which includes part of Ohio, notes: “Part of Harmony’s success is that leaders embrace new ideas and new ways of doing things. They are not held back by attitudes that can cripple innovation. They organize by social media—email, Facebook, and other methods that fit better with their busy lives. With so many having young families and competing demands, this works for them—they have learned how to create community that is not dependent on always being face-to-face with each other. “

“Their idea of the six-month stewardship drives, and coupling both time and treasure, also helps with their fast pace of change,” says Presley. “If they had asked me, I wouldn't have suggested their AABB way of solving crowding in worship, and instead would have burdened them with four unique services. I've been learning from them—they help me break down my barriers.”

Presley adds, “Harmony's answers might not be for everyone. But their willingness to think of new things, and not be trapped by ‘but we've always done it this way’ thinking, is something that could stand many of our congregations in good stead.”

For more information contact interconnections @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Sunday, December 22, 2013.

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