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UUA looking beyond traditional congregations

President Morales: ‘Congregations cannot be the only way we connect with people.’
By Donald E. Skinner
3.12.12

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UUA director of Congregational Life Terasa Cooley

The Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, the UUA’s director of Congregational Life, is encouraging congregations to connect with people in unconventional ways. (UUA)

Whom does your Unitarian Universalist congregation serve? Is it focused only on those who “sign the book” and become members? Or does your congregation also serve other people who might have less obvious connections to the congregation? Is your congregation engaging with people who share your values, or do you wait for them to come to you?

These questions and others are being asked in conversations among Unitarian Universalist leaders this winter and spring about how to broaden Unitarian Universalism’s reach.

The conversations started at a Unitarian Universalist Association staff leadership retreat in September 2011. In January, the Rev. Peter Morales, UUA president, moved the conversation along by publishing “Congregations and Beyond,” a proposal for the UUA’s future he had shared with senior staff. In it, Morales observed that many more people identify as UUs than are members of the UUA’s congregations and that Americans are increasingly choosing not to affiliate with religious institutions.

“I am realizing in a profound way that congregations cannot be the only way we connect with people,” Morales wrote. “We have long defined ourselves as an association of congregations. We need to think of ourselves as a religious movement. The difference is potentially huge.”

Meanwhile, the UUA Board of Trustees has proposed a change to the UUA bylaws that expands the definition of “congregation.” The UUA bylaws currently define member congregations as “local congregations,” but a two-year business resolution introduced in 2011 would cut the word “local,” potentially opening the door for membership in the UUA to new forms of online and nonlocal congregations. The 2012 General Assembly will have the final say on that amendment.

Among Morales’s observations:

  • The number of people who identify as UUs is about four times the membership of our congregations. (A 2007–2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimated that 0.3 percent of U.S. adults self-identify as Unitarian Universalists; see UU World’s coverage of the survey.)
  • There has been dramatic growth in the number of ministers taking up community ministries rather than parish ministries.
  • Many young adults raised in UU congregations continue to identify as Unitarian Universalists, although they often do not join congregations.
  • UUs gather in other contexts besides congregations. The annual Southeast UU Summer Institute (SUUSI), for example, draws about 1,000 people, many of whom do not belong to a congregation.

“[O]ur core values appeal to far more people than are attracted to (or likely to be attracted to) our congregations,” Morales concluded. “We have always treated this as a problem to be solved by devising ways to get people to become members of our congregations. But the reality of today’s world is that not everyone who shares our core values will want to become part of a traditional congregation. The fact that so many share our values is an enormous opportunity, not a problem. The future relevance of our faith may well depend on whether we can create a religious movement beyond, as well as within, the parish. I am confident that together we can seize this historic opportunity for our faith.”

Many UU bloggers discussed the document, which was widely shared electronically, and ministers preached about it. (See UU World’s Interdependent Web blog for links: Jan. 27 and Feb. 3, and see this Storify summary of other blog posts and tweets.)

To build on the buzz created by Morales’s paper, UUA staff invited a number of clergy and lay leaders to join them for a consultation and brainstorming session in Florida in January. One coordinator of that event, the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, the UUA’s director of Congregational Life, said participants explored innovative ways that congregations might reach into their larger communities, to connect with other UU congregations, and to connect with congregants and others.

The bottom line, Cooley said, is that a number of congregations are connecting with people in unconventional ways and that it’s time to encourage more of this. “It feels like we are at a tipping point and that it’s time to move in some of these directions.”

It’s also time, she said, for more people, including congregational leaders, to get engaged in the conversations around these issues. “What we’ve been doing thus far is meant to start a conversation, not to present a set of plans. We want congregational leaders to think about what the implications will be for them of doing some of these things—of making connections beyond their walls, of connecting to other congregations, of using social media in innovative ways, of turning outward rather than inward.”

She added, “I think congregations would be enriched by these conversations. This is about all of us responding to huge cultural trends that can make or break us as a movement. If we don’t tap into what’s happening, we will be left behind.”

Leaders can join this conversation in several places, Cooley noted. One is a Facebook page: “Unitarian Universalists Exploring Congregations and Beyond.” Participants share stories about congregations that do things differently. Recent posts have explored fee-for-service ministry, office chaplains, a Huffington Post article about the end of the conventional church, and podcasting worship services.

The Church of the Larger Fellowship, which has provided a ministry-by-mail to thousands of isolated Unitarian Universalists for decades and which has moved increasingly into online ministry, now offers a twice-weekly online worship service, available Sundays at 7 p.m. (EDT) and Mondays at 1:30 p.m. (EDT).

UUGrowth.com, a website by Peter Bowden, a UU congregational growth and social media consultant, promotes a range of tools and best practices for congregations doing innovative ministry.

The UUA will always be primarily focused on congregations, Cooley said, but increasingly there’s a need to be aware of other ways of connecting with people who identify as UU. And that means the UUA will have to figure out different ways of meeting the needs of these groups.

The good news, Cooley said, is lots of congregations are exploring these new ways. “A substantial number have social media ministries. At least one is doing a TV ministry. Another has a very interactive website.”

It’s not all about social media, she added. “It’s about creating and supporting small groups. The Church of the Larger Fellowship, for example, is working with many groups of less than 30 people, providing worship components that they have trouble developing on their own.”

The question for UUA staff, she said, is, “How can we support congregations so that they can make these new connections? Congregations have been and will continue to be the major source of religious community. But increasingly it won’t be the only one.”


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