After living 20+ years away from my childhood home in South Dakota, last year I decided to return home to be near my mother who is in her 90s. One thing that I was very concerned about was the traditional spiritual environment of Sioux Falls. The day I moved into my apartment, I prayed, “God, how will I survive in Sioux Falls?”
The answer I received was clear and immediate, but not what I expected nor what I wanted. Spirit revealed to me that I was the person who was to bring Unity back to Sioux Falls (as the last study group folded around the year 2000). Spirit told me that I knew the culture and the city, I knew Unity principles, and I had the ideas and energy to bring this about. I agreed, knowing that with God’s help, all things are possible.
I realized I had some things going for me that would help in my new adventure: I was already a licensed Unity teacher, I spent three years as the business manager for Unity Santa Fe, N. Mex., and had experience in business development, strategic planning and marketing. Despite the positives, I also knew that there would be challenges, such as the abundance of fundamentalist churches and the large Baptist seminary in town, and the city’s conservative flavor. Lastly, the closest Unity ministries were in Omaha (175 miles, 3 hours) and Minneapolis (225 miles, 4.5 hours), so I would need to be self-reliant in my new adventure.
Building the Foundation
One of the first things I did was to build a safety net of ministers who could support and coach me. These people have been instrumental in encouraging me when I am down or offering solutions when I experience challenges. My team includes Brendalyn Batchelor (Unity Santa Fe, N. Mex.), Pat Williamson (Unity Minneapolis, Minn.), Becky Whitehead (Unity of Omaha, Nebr.), Duke Tufty (Unity Temple on the Plaza, Kansas City, Mo.) and others. I also had additional support from my classmates and instructors from the Unity Urban Ministerial School where I am enrolled. Not only did my ministry challenges and my school assignments dovetail with each other, but the instructors and fellow classmates at the school were extremely helpful during difficult times.
One job which seemed unnecessary at the time—but which proved helpful—was the writing of the Unity Expansion proposal, which uncovered demographics, and forced me to put my vision and dreams on paper. My research revealed that we should be targeting people who either never belonged to a ministry or those who had left their church.
To raise interest in our new ministry, I located a mailing list from the previous Unity group, although I found that few people were still in the area, interested or living. The most helpful marketing tools were the accounts that we set up on Meetup and Facebook, although we also had a few people find us through our free listings in the religion section of the local newspaper. I visited over 100 businesses, and got permission to post our flyers in about thirty of these. Because we did not yet have permission to use the Unity logo, we adapted and initially launched our group as a New Thought Spiritual Group.
After these promotions, we attracted seven people to our first meeting, twelve to the second, and we hoped that our numbers would continue increase as such, although this was not the case. Some people came to a few meetings and then did not return, and my co-leader became upset at one meeting and we lost her. I initially blamed myself for these shifts, but through prayer, I realized that there was not a fit between these attendees and our group and I needed to accept these changes without personalizing them.
Speaking of prayer, this was a big part of our initial group. Over the first six months, we held several month-long classes on prayer and meditation. Of course, we opened our classes and board meetings with prayer and used this as the basis of many decisions. One of my seminary assignments was to pray daily and keep a prayer journal, which was vital in making slow and steady progress rather than reacting to outer circumstances. Prayer also helped me to discern next steps and helped me model positive communication. During challenging times, prayer helped me to create a pause so that I could rise above fearful or angry thoughts, and respond in the most helpful way.
Gathering the Board
I planned to create a board of trustees by asking people to stay after class one night, but this was not productive and seemed to make people uncomfortable. Instead, I began inviting each group member to have coffee with me individually, so I could get to know their needs, understand their vision for the ministry, and uncover areas where they may most like to volunteer. Since Unity does not leverage guilt, shame or obligation to get things done, I originally found it challenging to create volunteer teams, but learned to plant a seed where we wanted help, and to let that seed germinate. Using this method, we have filled many board and volunteer positions.
Even before we formed a board, we developed a loyal core group and soon added a second class for people who wanted to meet during the daytime. I found a reasonably priced attorney friend who helped us create our articles of incorporation and bylaws, and advised us on sales tax issues (for the bookstore). I also created a newsletter, a mailing list and class attendance and offering files. During those first few months, we were really stepping out on faith, yet I felt the constant presence of Spirit guiding me. On days when I was overwhelmed, often someone would soon tell me that their life was changed by Unity, which helped me to continue forward with our plans.
I felt that a website would be instrumental to our success, so we joined the branding program as soon as we were eligible, and signed up for the Unity website program through OneEach Technologies. The website initially intimidated me, but the OneEach team and their webinars helped us get our website up and running within a month.
With all the startup logistics and the few people we had to perform our work, we consciously decided to postpone our board retreat until we were more established, had more members, and had a better idea of who we are and where we want to go.
We recently purchased a booth at a local holistic health and spirituality fair, which was very successful. We featured a professional banner, brochures, and gave away bookmarks and sold Unity books. Over thirty people signed up for our mailing list whom we immediately sent a newsletter and added to our Facebook page. We look forward to promoting Unity at the upcoming multicultural festival and the Pride Festival, where we will be highlighting our Unity Diversity Statement.
Choosing a facility has been a learning experience. A facility survey revealed that most group members favored a full-time rental space, although the board eventually discerned that the best option would be renting the local women’s club for three hours each Sunday. We still have the full-time rental in our future plans.
We launched Sunday services in June 2016, starting with a “soft opening” to work out the kinks before inviting the public. We wanted people to take us seriously (especially in a fundamentalist area), so we spent the money for professional welcome packets, activity bags for children and signage. Our vision for worship is to project a professional image, and a positive message with inspirational music. We want to create a welcoming atmosphere for all, accommodate children from day one, and offer a clear alternative to orthodox ministries and negative religious messages.
Although pioneering a ministry is exciting, it can be scary and challenging too. I went from a six-figure career to a four-figure career, so security issues have come up for me quite often, although I know that the money will come as we grow. We are surrounded by orthodox churches and have been marginalized by some in the church community (as well as being called a “cult” by a local religious leader); thus, loneliness and acceptance have come up for me as we try to explain our theology and do our work in the area.
Personal demons do arise, but ministry has given me tools to gently work through challenges. My prayer life and alone time have become vital to my well-being and to our success. I am an action-oriented person, so my growing edge is self-care.
For People Who Are Considering Pioneering a Ministry
I am no expert, and we have not done everything perfectly, but I am proud of what we have created in Sioux Falls. The nights when I wake up in a cold sweat are fewer, and the joys and milestones are more frequent. Some things that have helped us succeed include:
- Reading the expansion materials, as these had great information and showed us the road ahead;
- Getting our group members involved as early as possible and enlisting the expertise of ministers and advisers;
- Subscribing to all the Unity leadership publications and Facebook groups, and not being afraid to ask questions when I didn’t know something, since someone somewhere has probably faced and solved this challenge;
- Taking advantage of Unity’s free or low-cost programs such as branding and website, welcoming and volunteer systems, teaching guides, etc;
- Introducing myself to the leaders at Unity Worldwide Ministries, so when I need assistance, I will be a known entity, and
- Staying centered in Spirit, working hard, being nice, and saying thank you to everyone, as this is walking the talk of ministry.
Good luck, and know that with Spirit’s blessing, you will succeed!