THE MULTISITE CONGREGATION OPTION
THE MULTISITE CONGREGATION OPTION
FOR UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS
-- Rev. Dr. Ken Brown
It is time for Unitarian Universalist to move beyond the usual methods of growing congregations to explore new options available to us now and in the near future. We can learn from others in North America who are experimenting with new models of church. One of the most interesting models is the creation of multi-site congregations. Jim Tomberlin, a church consultant specializing in multi-site congregations, says, “In the future multi-site will be a primary church planting tool.” The authors of the recently published book, The Multi-Site Church Revolution, “predict that 30,000 American churches will be multi-site within the next few years.” An article in Leadership by Dave Ferguson in 2003 began,
The multi-site church is a phenomenon that you will no doubt be hearing about in the future. An estimated 100-200 churches nationwide are experimenting with this concept: one church (meaning one staff, one board, one budget) meeting in multiple locations, usually with various sites developing unique personalities yet sharing the same “brand identity” and DNA. (p. 81)
The numbers involved with this model have grown to over fifteen hundred in North America. A couple of dozen or more Unitarian Universalist congregations across the continent are exploring the model. I believe there is no reason why we could not or should not add this model to our experiments in spreading the Unitarian Universalist message. In fact our understanding of the interdependent web calls us to find ways in which we can work to grow our faith. Since the article in Leadership, not only have the numbers of congregations involved with multi-sites grown, but the styles and forms have also evolved. In a recent article, Warren Bird of the Leadership Network’s multi-site church project writes: “No two multi-site churches look alike. Across the United States and Canada more than 1,000 churches hold services in more than one location. Each does it differently from other churches – some only slightly so, and others dramatically so.” In fact many of the congregations that have moved into this model have moved to create three, four or more sites. There is no one model but there are some specific things to be learned from the congregations involved with creating these additional venues.
The first question most congregational leaders ask is what prompts a congregation to use this model? There are many reasons for using this particular model. One of the key factors is that it is one way to deal with overcrowding. By creating another site you do not have the expense of duplicate staffing and program development as you would if a spin-off congregation was created. It is also a way for landlocked congregations to expand when they cannot do so on their current site. For many Unitarian Universalist congregations with old downtown or town square buildings this may be a particularly attractive model. Another key factor is that it allows a congregation to reach another area in their community or to reach a target demographic. The multi-site model helps congregations create niche ministries that serve a particular neighborhood or group. It is also a model that might in fact help in greeting more diverse Unitarian Universalist communities. One other factor is that this model, at its core, would help to spread Unitarian Universalism in differing ways, that in my opinion, have a greater chance of succeeding than other models we have followed in the past. In fact the varieties of implementing this model seem to be limited only by our imagination.
So how do we begin? Everyone who has gone the route of creating a multi-site congregation states that it begins with a shared vision, mission, or purpose for moving in this direction. Developing such a mission/vision includes being clear about whom you want to reach. This is not about a quick decision to try the latest fad in building a congregation but must be based on a clear shared mission, vision, or purpose with an understanding of the direction it will take the congregation.
The authors of The Multi-Site Church Revolution ask three crucial questions about beginning this model. 1) How healthy is your church? 2) Is there a driving impetus behind your desire to go multi-site? 3) Are the key leaders behind the decision? Expanding on these questions I would ask if your congregation is already growing and if so how? This is not a model that will help you grow if you have not already shown growth in numbers, programs, and outreach in your congregation. Does your congregation have a strong evangelical drive to spread Unitarian Universalism? A congregation that does not see one of its roles as helping to expand Unitarian Universalism is probably not a good candidate to create another site. Is your leadership willing to take risks? Creating another site involves taking risks and exploring a different way of doing ministry. A congregation where leaders want firm guarantees about anything they support is not ready to create another site.
Another vital factor that most of the multi-site congregations developing multiple venue locations share is that they have a small group ministry program. From the beginning of the new site small groups are created for those who attend the new site. Thus to begin another site it is important for the congregation to already have a structure and support system for small group ministry.
Well done worship is a factor that congregations involved with this model hold up as being absolutely vital to its success. This involves being intentional in planning for worship at the new site. Using worship associates or a worship team to plan and develop worship is key to developing this model. If you decide the new venue is to offer a differing style worship than you currently employ, it must be done well and impart a similar message to your original site.
There are three basic models of how congregations approach worship at multi-site venues. Some congregations have a minister preach at each service at each site, some use video taped sermons at one or more sites, and others have a mix of both live and video sermons at all sites. One thing they all share is that the music and worship leadership is live at each venue. This means that you must develop able worship leaders for each site and have a variety of possibilities for music, for both accompaniment and presentation.
The leader in the use of video venues is the North Coast Church in Vista, California. This congregation has 21 services at ten different sites. Six of the sites are actually on the main campus; the other four are in differing sites several miles away. Their sites on the main campus offer a varying degree of music and styles of leadership. These sites include a Video café that is in a casual setting with Starbucks coffee and snacks; the Edge which includes loader and edgier youth bands; Traditions which has nostalgic music with a piano; Country Gospel which offers country music; and the Family Room for families that wish to worship together. Now, I understand that having this many video venues is probably not the cup of tea for most Unitarian Universalist congregations but we can learn from North Coast. The move to using video happened after the lead minister, dreading the move to their fifth service, asked a staff member to explore options for the future. The recommendation was to produce videos of his sermons for other venues. Reluctant in part because they were not sure how such sermons would be received, their ministry team planned for a video venue. To their surprise it worked, in fact those attending video presentations of the sermon out number their live presentations. One study suggests that a big screen of at least 110% larger than the live presentation allows people a better opportunity to concentrate on the presentation.
There are two ways in which congregations use video. Some congregations set up live simulcast of the sermons, but the majority of congregations, video one presentation of the sermon and use a DVD copy at the other services. This latter process is less costly and also has less chance of technical difficulties. No matter how you provide worship at your new site, I again want to emphasize the importance of quality worship as being key to its success.
One of the assumptions involved in moving to create other sites is the strong leadership of the lead minister. Yet, it is also a model that requires a team approach to leadership. The lead minister must work closely with the paid and volunteer staff to plan for the worship and programming at all sites. In bringing on more staff it is crucial that those you bring on have an ability to work well in a team. It is easier to teach skills to a team player than the other way around. It clearly involves ongoing leadership training for people who would be involved in the new site; ideally done alongside the training for leaders at the original site. This would include worship leaders or associates, greeters, people who do follow-up with visitors, as well as religious education. Adult education is handled in differing ways, but in most cases there are classes or socials at the new site with everyone also invited to events at the original site.
The majority of the additional sites of multi-site congregations use non-church buildings. The primary reason non-church sites are used is that they are less costly than new buildings and many are rented locations. Linda S. McCoy, a minister at a multi-site venue writes, “One of the reasons I believe The Garden has become the spiritual home for such a diverse group of people is that it is not housed in a church building.” Thus for some leaders using non-church buildings is an added outreach feature.
As the Leadership article mentioned it is important to infuse the new site with the DNA of the congregation creating it. This of course suggests that the congregation understands it own DNA. The DNA involves a congregation’s traditions, heritage, styles of leadership and worship, and commitment to the larger faith. It also includes the practical side of governance, organization, generosity, and congregational demographics. In order to insure that the new site is not just an add-on, the leadership must see it as part of whole, not just a back up location.
In starting a new site, another area to which the congregations involved paid attention was outreach. It seems that the two main methods of outreach were postcards to selected areas near the venue and invitations to friends by members of the congregation. Some congregations took out advertisements in local papers but well written press releases about a new venue were as useful.
While the majority of the congregations involved with creating multi-site venues are large, the range in size for those following this model begins around 250 in attendance at all weekend services. This model obviously requires detailed planning; enough finances to support the startup for months or years; and enough staff, both paid and volunteer, to carry out the plan. Yet for a strong mid-size congregation it is a viable option.
It seems that most of the multi-site venues do not have an office at the additional site. While the majority approach budgeting with one budget for all sites, some have separate budgets for each site. In nearly all of the programs there is religious education for children. Many of the congregations have a combined youth group. While the majority I talked with, read about, or e-mailed seem to be Evangelical Christian, there are many congregations involved with multi-site who belong to mainstream denominations and the majority belong to a denomination rather than being independent.
The Leadership Network website has an article on “Avoiding Detours” that is also included as Chapter 13 in The Multi-Site Church Revolution. This list of ten pitfalls is worth reading and keeping near-by as you develop your plan for another site for your congregation. The book also includes resources for planning in the as do the websites of the Leadership Network and the North Coast Church in Vista. Further information about these resources is included at the end of this paper.
The cost of starting another site is always an issue. There is no doubt that following this model involves an outlay of money. Yet the congregations involved have found that the new sites are self supporting within one to two years. The expense of adding another site will vary according to what model one follows. I have developed a couple of assumptions in studying the multi-site style in relation to Unitarian Universalist congregations. Besides the previously mentioned commitments, a congregation probably needs to have two ministers, particularly if you are not going to use video. The staff should include a paid or volunteer coordinator for the second site. Using video means a financial commitment, at the minimum it involves $15,000 to $30,000 for equipment according to congregations involved with this model. Some congregations may already have some of the basic equipment, like sound, lighting and even cameras that can be used in this project. The First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque is exploring the use of a video venue on their campus and they believe they can keep the costs under $5.000 for their start-up. The North Coast church has resource ideas online that outline some of the basics for video.
Jim Tomberlin states, “Multi-site multiplies ministry exponentially because it maximizes seats at optimal attendance hours, and its return on investment in money and people is far greater.” This multiplication will work for the Unitarian Universalist congregations that have a commitment to spreading our faith. It is a cost effective way in the 21st century to build on healthy, strong congregations looking to grow. While I have talked with a number of Unitarian Universalist congregational leaders about the multi-site approach, two groups seem to be moving toward implementing some form next year. The First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque is moving toward creating a video café on their campus and is seriously exploring using video to either start another group or to support a couple of Fellowships in New Mexico. In California, the Riverside Universalist Unitarian Church and the Chalice Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Escondido are considering creation of a site in Temecula, a town between the two congregations that would be supported by the staff in both congregations. This means evolving even another model of how to create multi-site ministries regionally.
The conversation has begun among Unitarian Universalists and in some cases we are moving beyond just talking. I believe this model is one that Unitarian Universalists serious about spreading our faith need to explore in the near future. This model takes seriously our interdependence while offering us the opportunity to fulfill our commitment to greater diversity. The future possibilities in developing multi-site congregations are truly limited only by our imaginations.
Resources on Multi-Site
Dave Ferguson, “The Multi-Site Church,” Leadership (Spring 2003, Vol. XXIV,
No. 2, page 81) http://www.ctlibrary.com/le/2003/spring/21.81.html
Linda S. McCoy, Planting a Garden: Growing the Church Beyond Traditional
Models (Abingdon Press) 2005
Larry Osborne, The Video Venue Starter Kit (Owl’s Nest) 2003
Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon & Warren Bird, The Multi-Site Church Revolution
www.leadnet.org/LC_MultiSiteChurches.asp Leadership Network
www.multisitechurchrevolution.com Multi-Site Toolkit
www.northcoastchurch.com North Coast Church, Vista, CA
www.communitychristian.org Community Christian Church, Naperville, IL
www.seacoast.org/ Seacoast Church, Mount Pleasant, SC
www.merkertbrown.com Website for Ken Brown and Angela Merkert with
materials from workshops, etc.