By Susan Ruttan
National board member,
Canadian Unitarian Council
(a longer version of this was presented at the Jan. 28, 2018 Sunday service of Westwood Unitarian Congregation)
On Jan. 17, in the regional public library of Morden, Manitoba, there was an open house. It was hosted by a small group called the Pembina Valley Unitarian Universalist Community, which had decided it was time to let people know that they existed.
The original group of eight adults in their 20s and 30s, plus two children, started meeting over a year ago in private. This area of southern Manitoba is deeply Christian, so they were cautious about letting people know they were exploring a faith community that isn’t Christian, and that dares to question quite a few things.
They had the quiet support of Joan Carolyn, the CUC’s congregational support staffer for western Canada. Joan, who is based in Winnipeg, helped them figure out what they wanted to do.
Now the Pembina Valley group has 14 adults and three children attending, and they are officially launched. They’ve done a radio interview and set up a Facebook page which greets people with the words: we are a warm and open community where all who come with open minds and kind hearts are welcome.
If you ever wonder why we need a national organization like the Canadian Unitarian Council, that’s why. This group found each other, but they also found Joan and the CUC. They got help. They found a larger, national group of some 4,400 people who share their commitment to open minds and kind hearts.
Three provinces over, in Nelson, British Columbia, the new Nelson Unitarian Spiritual Centre has met all the requirements to become a full member congregation of the CUC, something that will be ratified and celebrated at the national conference in Hamilton in May. Again, this group has had lots of help from the CUC staff.
We are a national organization of roughly 46 congregations. I say roughly, because there are a few that are dying – the Red Deer group folded last fall – and a few are emerging. Nationwide, our membership has been slowly declining as we lose older members, but it’s nothing to panic about. It is something, I think, to acknowledge and manage. And the CUC has been doing just that.
The decline in membership doesn’t affect all congregations, or all years. The Vancouver church is booming – lots of new young families, I’m told. My own Unitarian Church of Edmonton, which has had declining membership for over a decade, has gained members in the last two years.
The national board has made the CUC’s financial health a priority, keeping the budget as tight as we can. We have ramped up our fundraising efforts, trying to find UUs who will make a personal contribution to keeping the CUC strong. We are also raising the per-member rate we ask our congregations to contribute each year – to $100 per member for 2018.
The national CUC office is the size of a large closet – a couple of desks and file cabinets, plus a printer, and that’s about it. The one person who works there five days a week is our terrific administrator, Ahna DiFelice. Ahna is from the Neighbourhood congregation, so she knows our movement as well as she knows how to organize things.
Our executive director Vyda Ng works from her home in Niagara On the Lake except for two days a week when she comes into Toronto. Our handful of other national staff live in Burlington, Kitchener and Ottawa.
What this means is that national staff connect by phone and computer, and very rarely in person. That’s the kind of streamlining the CUC has done to live within its budget and keep our national movement going.
In the same way, the CUC offers more and more online ways for congregations to connect – online training sessions called webinars, and online meetings called roundtables. For example, there was a webinar a year ago on the topic of theme-based ministry, featuring the First Toronto minister, Shawn Newton. And of course, there has been webinar training of facilitators for our Truth Healing and Reconciliation program.
Roundtables have been on topics like alternative worship and religious language, as well as practical topics like preparation for the national annual meeting.
Part of that greater online connection is the big project of rebuilding the CUC website. The aim is to have a website that gives congregations what they need, and that is a portal for those many people searching for a spiritual home. The goal is for a launch this summer.
In everything we do at the national level, we try to uphold and promote our UU values. Even though our finances are tight, the CUC finds money for things that speak to our values, like the continued rollout of the Truth Healing and Reconciliation project.
I’ve been on a small committee this past year coordinating a national sermon contest and an art contest promoting the new Canadian UU vision statement. (deadline is Feb. 1). Our lovely vision statement says that we envision a world in which our interdependence calls us to love and justice.
We are trying to make our national annual meeting an online event, so people who haven’t the time or money to come in person can participate. Last year’s annual meeting was a trial run, and we learned from it. The top thing we learned is that you can’t have a daylong meeting if people are watching it on their home computer. The goal this year is to have an afternoon national meeting this is no more than three hours long.
The annual meeting and conference of the CUC is the Victoria Day weekend, and it’s in Hamilton at McMaster University. I hope some of you come. It’s such a great experience. Early-bird registration starts on Jan. 31.
And I hope some of you will consider getting involved at the national level. I heard there’s an opening for a Western member of the national nominating committee. Western means the prairie provinces plus Thunder Bay. That’s a job I did before I joined the national board, and it was a good first window into the national UU movement.
My experience of being involved nationally has been very special. I know Unitarians across the country — Bunty Albert from P.E.I., Keith Wilkinson in Vancouver, Joanne Green in Regina, and so on. My term on the national board ends in May, but I will never abandon my commitment to the national movement.
One of the great blessings of our home congregations is the deep long–lasting friendships we build there. I want to remind you that there are lots of people like us – wonderful people committed to open minds and kind hearts – in the other congregations.
We are connected. We are family. We need to nurture those bonds that keep us one national family.