By Tom Holmes
The Rev. Brian Covell will be leaving Third Unitarian Church (TUC) on Aug. 14 after serving as minister for 11 years, a period of time in which the congregation experienced recovery and renewal.
"When I arrived at TUC," Covell recalled, "my sense was they were coming off the recent memory of a difficult parting with the previous minister and had some institutional anxiety about developing a relationship with a new minister. They were needing some stability."
In addition, some members of TUC were still suffering from what Rev. Alan Taylor, senior minister at Unity Temple, the Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Oak Park, called a "systemic emotional divide" between the two congregations because a group — which had split off from TUC in 1979 and called itself Beacon Unitarian Church — joined with Unity Temple in 1994. According to Taylor, "time has thinned that group out."
Underlying everything was the question of institutional survival. Covell said, "What I kept hearing when I arrived was, 'Do we have enough buzz, enough juice to stay here? Can we exist in this place?'" TUC meets for worship in the Austin neighborhood, an area which, as most people know, has experienced huge demographic changes in the last 50 years.
"When Brian came," said Taylor, "it was questionable if the congregation could maintain a full-time minister, and for 11 years he has navigated that terrain effectively. TUC is now a congregation that has its unique identity and a critical mass of people who are learning to live thoughtfully and in support of one another — and ways to live out their values in the wider world."
Covell saw his task as strengthening as well as healing. "What they needed," he said, "was outreach, visibility, and deeper connections with the neighborhood."
One way of connecting with the people living near the church was for the congregation to purchase one derelict adjacent building, knock it down, and use the space for a community garden and play area for the Head Start program housed in the church.
"We increased our interaction with the neighborhood through our involvement in the Central Austin Neighborhood Association," he said, "which we helped incubate."
Covell also convinced the congregation to take the risk of investing a significant amount of money in their church building even though the "feathers of some members were ruffled" because of the amount of money to be spent. "There is now a renewed sense among the membership," he said, "that if they're going to be serious about that location, they're going to be serious about that building. I think TUC has a renewed sense of pride in the place and what you need to do to be a good neighbor."
In terms of outreach and visibility, he used the media in creative ways. For example, between 2009 and 2011, he convinced half the Unitarian Universalist congregations in his district to contribute $3/member to fund an ad campaign on WCPT liberal talk radio, 820 AM on the dial. The 60-second ads included testimonials about what Unitarian Universalists believe.
"The second year we ran the ads," he said, "one out of every two people who crossed the threshold of our church said that they had heard the commercials."
Around Memorial Day in both 2009 and 2010, TUC hosted live broadcasts in their sanctuary, broadcast on the Mike Nowac Show, which focused on urban gardening.
"We got only two families from that," Covell recalled, "but many people showed up to check us out. One person from the neighborhood said, 'I've lived here 45 years and I didn't know this place existed.'"
Finally, he was able to raise the $1,500/month to produce a radio show on WCPT every Sunday evening with meditations, prayers, music and testimonials from UU congregations, including TUC. "I was able to convince our board," he said, "to increase our outreach budget to the unheard-of amount of $4,000."
The show ran for 26 months between March 2011 and May 2013. Covell leaves TUC feeling good about the health of the congregation but uncertain about its future. On the one hand, Sunday attendance has declined slightly, and the congregation is only 20 percent African American, which doesn't fit the demographics of the neighborhood. On the other hand, the congregation's income, which they receive from member pledges and the Head Start program has increased.
"Does the church need to be reframed to fight another day? It does. Does it need to move from Austin? I don't know."
Covell's wife, who has been working for a nonprofit organization in the area, has just accepted a position in the U.S. Foreign Service and will be moving to Washington D.C. for training and then to who knows where in the world.