IN THE BEGINNING

In the late 1990’s, Robert (Bob) Johnsen’s charge as the growth consultant from the Joseph Priestly District was to look for places in the district where there was the potential for creating a UU congregation. Seeing that the area contained by Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland, and southern Burlington and Ocean counties did not have a UU congregation, he consulted with congregations in the nearby area to come up with a list of UU’s living in this area. Bob was able to identify some interested people, and in June of 1998, he and three other people met in the home of a local couple Jean Wiant and Andy Kruetzer, to discuss the possibility of creating a UU congregation for the Jersey shore. This small group led by Bob Johnsen became the steering committee. As others joined this group, they planned and held “in-gathering” evening meetings at three different locations over several months which eventually led to our first service at the Jordan Road School in Somers Point on February 14, 1999. This location had been carefully chosen as it was centrally located and near an exit of the Garden State Parkway.

Seed money from the New Congregation Program of the UUA provided pay for a minister and part time staff in a grant that would lessen each year as the congregation took hold and was able to sustain itself. As a result, we had both an Religious Education Director and a Music Director for our first service. The Music Director for that service, Barbara Miller, is still our Music Director 16 years later. UU ministers in the district volunteered to lead our Sunday services until we obtained a minister.

Bob Johnsen enlisted First Unitarian Society of Wilmington, Delaware and Mainline Unitarian Church in Devon, Pennsylvania to sponsor our new congregation. Along with contributing money, each participated in some of the early gatherings and services. The Wilmington Congregation became our lead sponsor, mentor, and friend over a period of many years.

Rev. Doddie Stone, who had been selected for us by a representative from the UUA, visited and met with the congregation in various groupings and settings. On May 16, 1999, we voted to accept her as our full time minister.

One of Rev. Stone’s first missions was to work with us to develop a Charter Sunday. We soon learned that this would be a high church ceremony to mark our acceptance as a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was also the time when we would individually sign our membership book with those doing so becoming “Charter Members.” Charter Sunday was held at the Presbyterian Church of Pleasantville on February 13, 2000. The speaker at this service was the well known Rev. Scott Alexander. Although 76 persons signed the book, there was some rapid attrition, and we were in actuality a congregation of 70 members.

YEARS IN THE WILDERNESS

In the spring of 2000, we learned from the new superintendent of the Somers Point School District (who cited concerns about church and state) that we could no longer rent space in the Jordan Road School. Some months later, we learned that they were renting the space to a fundamentalist congregation. We had to wonder if the newspaper publicity about our welcoming the LGBT community had influenced the superintendent’s decision.

On July 1, 2000, we began holding services at the Jewish Community Center in Margate. The room they provided us for our services was small and drab, but the RE space was fine and we also gained the luxury of a closet we could use for our supplies. We no longer needed to lug hymnals and coffee supplies each Sunday.

Some important events happened while we were there. On May 6, 2001, we voted to become a Welcoming Congregation. This vote had been preceded by workshops that members were encouraged to take part in to become more knowledgeable and sensitive to the issues that gays and lesbians faced in their lives. The vote was two short of unanimous, which hurt and disappointed some of the leaders who had worked hard for this vote.

We also had our first Birding B&B, a very successful fundraising event that we would hold for the next 10 years. Guests were invited from UU congregations within a day’s driving area to come for a weekend of birding. The congregation provided each with lodging and all meals. We had a Friday evening dinner and orientation. The birding guides within the congregation took our guests on an all day birding tour on Saturday, and Sunday morning prior to our Sunday service. We had from 10 to 20 guests at each event, and a cumulative total of $35,600 was raised. They ended in 2010 when the birding leaders retired.

Another important event happened in December of 2001, when Rev. Doddie Stone announced that she would be resigning effective June 30, 2002. Her letter of resignation refers to the “diversity of our liberal voices in our visions for this congregation,” and acknowledged that “we have not grown in membership at the rate that we had imagined.” Following this, the congregation voted to withdraw from the Fast Start program, as our membership was not sufficient to support a full time minister. We hired a part time administrator, and Rev. George Blair as a part time minister. He was an ordained United Church of Christ minister, who was already a member of our congregation. He was appreciated for his dynamic and interesting sermons.

In November of 2002, we changed our location to the Board Room in the newly built Jewish Family Service facility right next door to the Jewish Community Center which was about to close for extensive renovations. While this provided a more upbeat meeting space for our services, the RE space was in the small adjacent kitchen which did not have an adequate sound barrier.

From our earliest days, we were searching for a space to call our own. After we located to Margate, this became particularly acute. Despite the densely populated area we were in, we did not attract new people from this community, and our numbers and attendance shrank. It did not help our spirits that we were not allowed to place our sign outside during our services – for legitimate legal reasons on their part. During our 3 ½ years there, we were consumed with finding a better space. Many different options were considered, from renting spaces, to renovating buildings, to purchasing land. Some sites that were looked at seriously were quite bizarre.

DECISION REGARDING A HOME FOR US

We finally found and agreed to purchase 6.2 acres of land on Pomona Road across from Richard Stockton College (now Stockton University) for what seemed to be a very reasonable price of $80,000. The final sale was pending the outcome of our preliminary work to see if there were problems with either the Pinelands Commission or Galloway Township. We soon learned that the reason for the low price was that as a condition of construction in the Pinelands Preservation Area where our land is located, we could only build on 7.5% of the land. We further learned that Galloway Township would not permit us to have a semi-permeable parking lot, so that the paved parking area would need to be a part of this footprint. After considering how this would limit our building and necessitate a two story building with an elevator, we decided to still go ahead with the purchase. We made settlement on October 30, 2003.

The next month on Sunday morning November 23, we held a service on our land to dedicate it. The theme of the service was getting to know and bond with our land in the Pine Barrens and to understand its ecology. The children collected natural items and showed what they had gathered. We poured water from many symbolic sources onto the land. Afterwards, we held a potluck lunch at the nearby Catholic Campus Ministry Center. It was a great facility, and we were happy to learn that we could rent it on Sunday mornings. We held our first service there in February.

One important event that happened while we were there was the completion of our first Capital Campaign with its target goal of $275,000. At its completion on June 24, 2004, our Capital Campaign had raised $276,345.

Another notable event was that in November of 2005, we held our first Service Auction. We knew that other UU churches were doing this, and that it could be a significant money raiser. We were pleased with our event, and they continue to this day, raising approximately $10,000 each.

Months were spent looking at building plans and layouts and completing mandated environmental surveys. Most memorably, we were required at considerable expense to prove that there were no endangered pine snakes on our property. Expert biologists had assured us that there were no pine snakes on our land, but nevertheless the Pinelands Commission demanded that we install and monitor a long trap across our land for an entire season. No pine snakes were seen or captured.

EVICTION

Our time at the Catholic Campus Ministry Center had been working well for us, and we were growing. But on Thursday, November 2, 2006, we heard through the priest who was newly appointed and clearly did not like our presence that he had been getting calls of protest regarding our speaker, Marc Adams, who was to be speaking in three days. Marc Adams’ topic was ministering to LGBT students at religious institutions who were in need of support, and we had publicized this event. On Friday we received an email saying that we could not hold this service, and that since we did not have a valid lease, we could no longer meet at the Campus Ministry Center. The next day our lawyer had our immediate eviction rescinded. We could stay until the end of the terms of our agreement, but that a “valid” lease agreement would need to be drawn with the diocese if we were to stay.

Ironically, Marc Adams fell ill and could not attend on Sunday. Fortunately, our District Director, Rev. Richard Speck, had been planning to come, and we had a rousing service. This event energized us: we were standing up for our convictions and principles and had been publicly recognized by the local newspapers for doing so. More than ever, we longed for a place that was truly our home where nobody could tell us what we could or could not do.

LAST DWELLING BEFORE HOME

After an anxious search, we found a good place at the Lions Center for the Blind in Absecon which was not far from our land. Our first service there was February 4, 2007. We continued to grow in this large space. Our challenge there was creatively utilizing awkward RE spaces such as a bar and a lobby. We remained here while our Center was being constructed.

In May of 2007, Rev. George Blair III left our pulpit by mutual agreement after some unresolved issues between him and our board. A key issue was that the Board had understood that he would seek UU fellowship, which was something Rev. Blair did not do. His strength was that he preached well prepared intellectually-leaning sermons which he delivered in an entertaining way. But he had done little to connect with the organizational aspects of the congregation and the UUA. Newcomers generally liked him, and the congregation grew during the five years he was with us.

In July of that year, Music Director Barbara Miller was additionally hired as Sunday Service Coordinator for the duration of the time we were without a minister. Also, in September, Heidi Jannsch was hired as Coordinator of Religious Education. In 2009 this title was changed to Director of Religious Education (DRE) and her time was upgraded to 15 hours per week.

We had some good news that fall. On September 13, Galloway Township Planning Board approved our application for a building permit. The Township meeting room was filled with members of the congregation who attended to show support. From October through November, we held a second capital campaign. The goal was to raise $200,000. Incredibly, $246,188 was raised.

A groundbreaking ceremony was conducted on our land following our Sunday service of November 18, 2007. Rev. Richard Speck, Executive Director of the JPD, was our guest speaker at both the morning service and the groundbreaking ceremony. Underbrush had been cleared to form a circle in our woods and on a dark and damp day with the rain holding off until the end of our ceremony, all had a chance to symbolically dig into the earth.

groundbreaking

In January of 2008, trees were cleared from our land and construction quickly followed. In nine months the building was completed. On the fifth year anniversary, we collected some remembrances (PDF) of the building process from our members.

construction begins

During the construction months, an ad hoc committee guided the congregation in making decisions about what to call key spaces in our new building and in discussing as to whether we should change our long congregational name. It was concluded that we would call the big room the Sanctuary and that we would refer to our building as the “ UU Center” in formal situations. As no new name emerged that along with its resultant acronym, was widely supported, we would remain The Unitarian Congregation of the South Jersey Shore.

HOME AT LAST

On September 30, 2008 a Temporary Certificate of Occupancy from Galloway Township was obtained. In order to gain tax exempt status, we held a service that evening to fulfill the requirement that we had held a religious service in the building prior to the deadline of October 1. Rev. Rosemarie Newberry presided over this service. She helped us to rejoice, and had us form a snaking line where everyone had a chance to shake hands with and thank every person face to face. And then we danced.

First Service - Sept 30, 2008

dance of joy

Our building was a miracle in many ways. The first miracle was that throughout this process we raised $719,350 through two capital campaigns, UUA and Chalice Lighter grants, and additional gifts from Members and friends. The second miracle was that we had among our membership and friends people with a wide range of professional skills and experience who were willing to volunteer to make all of this happen. Among these was a member who was a recently retired engineer with experience in buildings who became our construction manager. Our membership did the work of painting, cleaning up and recycling construction debris, planting and watering our new lawns, and lots, lots more. The third miracle was that we completed our work and obtained a certificate of occupancy just hours before our deadline to request tax exempt status for the following year.

Another notable aspect of our building is that it fulfills our wishes to be an environmentally friendly “green” building. Every material that went into the construction was evaluated and chosen for its environmental qualities, and many of our choices were more costly than the alternatives. A geothermal system is our “underground steeple.” Every construction scrap was sorted for recycling. We know that our building has all of the qualities to be LEED certified, but to do so would require great amounts of time and money.

We held our first official service at our UU Center on October 26, 2008. On the afternoon of February 15, 2009, we held our Building Dedication service with the Rev. John Crestwell as our guest speaker. This was 10 years from the date of our first official service.

In May of 2009 we held our first native plant swap and sale, through the leadership and passion of Jesse Connor. These have continued each year. In May 2011, there was an addition of the Native Nursery-Grown Plant Sale where native trees, plants, and shrubs can be preordered. These sales have a big following among local gardeners. While they bring in a major source of money to our congregation, (about $4000 each) their main purpose has been to carry out the mission of increasing awareness and planting of native plants for the overall health of our environment.

STAFF CHANGES

After a year and a half without a minister, we were happy to welcome Rosemarie Newberry as our half time consulting minister on October 1, 2008. She became The Reverend Rosemarie Newberry at her ordination on November 2 at her home church UUC of Monmouth County.

Unfortunately, her ministry was not to last. In May of 2009, The Board, after an every member poll, gave a 30 day notification to Rev. Newberry that they intended to cancel her contract. A majority of members had been dissatisfied with her leadership and sermons. It should be noted that she was newly graduated from seminary and had no prior church leadership experience; meanwhile, the membership was full of “congregational hubris” as it had been thriving with lay leadership for a long time and had just successfully completed building the Center without the presence and aid of a minister. It was not a good match.

We were without a minister again for over two years. During this time, the congregation did significant soul searching. We held services and sponsored workshops facilitated by the District in order to better understand what can reasonably be expected of a part time minister.

We were better prepared to receive our next part time consulting minister, Pastor Charlie Dieterich, on September 11, 2011. His most recent experience had been as a UU chaplain in a city he loved, New Orleans. We held Mardi Gras Dances during the years he was with us.

On September 30, 2012, our congregation ordained Charlie Dieterich. Now we could address him as Reverend Charlie Dieterich. His contract was changed to make him our quarter time minister. The ordination event was in the planning stages for months and culminated in a ceremony that made us proud. It was held on Sunday afternoon and there were many visiting clergy in robes. Food was prepared by our members, including one who was a caterer, and was served outside under a big tent. Musicians in our congregation played from the deck following the ceremony and into the evening.

Another positive staff development was that UUCSJS member Kathleen Hartnett began employment in a newly created part time bookkeeper position on August 11, 2010. Kathleen still holds this position.

The congregation had felt a need to have a better way of assuring that we were all treating each other in the most responsible, kind, and open ways. In January, 2013, we held a Covenant of Right Relations workshop led by Rev. Libby Smith. A team was selected to put our ideas into words. The Covenant of Right Relations that they proposed was adopted by the congregation at our Annual Meeting on June 9, 2013.

ANOTHER STAFF TRANSITION

In March of 2014, Rev. Charlie announced that he would be leaving when his two-year contract ended on June 30, 2014. Citing personal reasons, Rev. Charlie told the Board that his decision was final and not contingent on moving into a new position. Rev. Charlie’s last Sunday with us was June 29. We held a farewell party for him and took a photograph of the congregation on the deck stairs holding a goodbye sign.

In April, The Board, after consultation with Rev. Dr. Richard Speck, JPD District Executive, decided to apply for an Interim Minister to guide us through a two-year transition period. Our search for a two year ¾ time Interim Minister was successful, and on August 15, 2014, Rev. Cynthia Cain arrived. She has lived up to our hopes and has more than met our needs. She has gotten to know us well, has nurtured us, and shared wisdom from her long experience with ministry.

GOOD THINGS HAPPENING

Capital Campaign 3 was initiated to pay down our mortgage debt.
Too much of our income was going towards debt service on our mortgage, so a Capital Campaign to pledge a sufficient amount to reduce this debt was undertaken. By the end of the campaign in December of 2014, $148,000.00 had been raised. The original $500,000 mortgage has been reduced to $260,000. Our monthly mortgage payment has been reduced from $3,008 to $1,612, freeing up considerable sums towards our hoped for new called minister.

Our staff became credentialed.
Heidi Jannsch became a Credentialed Religious Educator at the Associate level in August of 2014. To obtain this, she completed independent course work in 8 program areas, wrote essays about each, and submitted pertinent work samples. The time she has put into her training has far exceeded the required 75 hours.

Barbara Miller was recognized at the 2015 General Assembly for completing the course work in the 3 year Music Leadership Certification Program. She is now called a UU Music Leader.

We began a search for a ¾ time called minister.
In the March 2015 meeting with Primary Contact Mark Bernstein from UUA, the Board determined to seek the calling of a settled minister in 2016 following the interim minister period. The congregation approved this decision, and through a democratic process, they nominated a Search Committee which was elected at the June 7 Annual Meeting. They have been working steadily, and hopefully sometime in the spring of 2016, they will be announcing that we have a candidate.

In May of 2015 an Anti-Racism Task Force was formed.
Rev. Cynthia Cain had been the initiating force, as racial injustice has been a great concern of hers for many years. An idea was approved to create a BLACK LIVES MATTER sign to be placed on Pomona Road. In August, following a short afternoon ceremony, the sign was placed next to our congregation’s sign. We were joined by some Black members of the community, especially from the AME Church in Pleasantville, where Rev. Cynthia had taken flowers to express our condolence and solidarity following the Charleston Church massacre. We received favorable local publicity.

In September, our BLACK LIVES MATTER sign was defaced with white paint saying “ALL” on top of the “BLACK”. This event made local and national news. After a few weeks we repainted it. It was torn down once, and defaced again. But today it stands proudly witness for our values and our dreams.

And our congregational life moves on ……….

Betsy Searight
January, 2016


Our meeting places over the years:
2008, September – UU Center opens
2008, January – construction begins on UU Center
2007 – groundbreaking on land
2007 – Lions Center for the Blind, Absecon
2003 – Newman Center (Catholic Campus Ministry Center), Galloway
2003 – acquired land
2002 – Jewish Family Services, Margate
2000 – Jewish Community Center, Margate
1999 – Charter Sunday
1998 – Jordan Road School, Somers Point

Our Ministerial Leadership

  • Rev. Cynthia Cain, Interim Minister, 08/2014-06/2016
  • Rev. Charlie Dieterich, 09/2011-06/2014
  • Rev. Rosemarie Newberry, 10/2008-05/2009
  • Rev. George E. Blair III, 06/2002-05/2007
  • Rev. Doddie Stone, 05/1999-06/2002