Growth Strategies office creates blog

The UUA Office of Growth Strategies has created a blog, Growing Unitarian Universalism, which it will use to share ideas and strategies for growing congregations. The blog will share research, resources, articulate strategies, identify good practices, present guest commentaries, and invite comments from congregational leaders.

The office was established in 2011 “to help restore the Unitarian Universalist Association to a position of active evangelism,” writes the Rev. Stefan Jonasson, director of the office. He notes that he and Tandi Rogers, growth strategies specialist and a credentialed religious educator, have surveyed UUA growth initiatives past and present, identified resources from inside and outside the UUA, and  consulted with individuals and groups “who care about the health and vitality of Unitarian Universalism.”

One early conclusion: “Along the way, we’ve discerned that the best programs and initiatives seem to have a ‘shelf life,’ after which they need to be retired since they begin to produce diminishing returns, however effective they may have been at their peak,” says Jonasson. “We’ve realized that our institutions reward caution much more than responsible risk-taking. We’ve seen how technology is outpacing our imagination for its effective use.”

He adds that the Office of Growth Strategies can’t single-handedly increase the number of UUs, nor is it focused simply on numerical growth. Rather, growth is the work of all UUs and it includes changing hearts and transforming lives, in addition to increasing numbers of UUs. “Our office’s role is to inform, equip, and inspire Unitarian Universalists in this work,” he says.


iMinister on growth, multiculturalism

The Rev. Christine Robinson, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, N.Mex., has written a number of posts on her blog, “iMinister,” about growth, multiculturalism, and social media. Among her observations:

Growth – “When people who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ go looking for a religion, they go looking for spirituality; for heart, depth, warmth, spiritual practices, lessons in prayer, clues to a relationship to god. These things are not easy to get in UU churches. If we focused on them more, trained our ministers to provide them, helped lay people to tolerate, if not enjoy them…THEN we might attract some of this group of folks to our churches. But not before.” (April 26)

Theology – “Theologically liberal congregations tend to be even MORE institutionally conservative than theologically conservative ones.” Robinson notes that conservative ministers can find a basis in the Bible for, as an example, starting a contemporary music service to attract young adults. “That minister might meet some resistance, but he will have the congregation’s core beliefs (taking the Gospel to all nations) on his side. A UU minister…doesn’t have the same advantage.” (April 25)

• Multiculturalism – “If we achieve our goal of multiculturalism, it will be because we have attracted young people to our church and welcomed them—their music, their visual learning style, their multiculturalism, and most of all, their desire to explicitly address their spiritual lives.” (April 20)

Social Media – Robinson says she does not believe that the digital world will bring an end to brick and mortar churches. “What will have changed is how we attract people to church; that will be almost 100 percent digital (It is nearly that already.), and the fact that we will have the option to have online groups, trainings, and meetings, and that the resources we provide for spiritual development of our members (which will be the only reason people join churches in the future), will be available on our website as well as in sermons and classes.  A church doing its web ministry well will reach many more people, dispersed all over the globe, than any one church ever could before.” (April 19)

(Reader comments to these blog posts can be read on Robinson’s Facebook page.)

New book helps in talking about class

We don’t talk much about class in UU circles, says the Rev. Mark W. Harris.

Is that because the stereotypes are true––that we are only educated suburbanites? Or intellectual urbanites? When we look around on Sunday morning, do we see people who are “not like us”?

Not often, says Harris, who has written a book, Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History, that will be useful in creating discussions of classism in lifespan religious education classes, small group ministry sessions, book groups, and sermons. The book is available for $10 at the UUA Bookstore.

Harris, minister of the First Parish of Watertown, Mass., takes us on a historical tour of classist behavior by Unitarians and Universalists. One of his first stops is around the time of the American Revolution when Unitarians preached that God had given everyone the gift of reason––but given it in differing amounts. Then there was the “Boston Brahmin” period of the late 1870s when Unitarian “elites” controlled pretty much everything and didn’t consider the “lower classes” qualified to help make the rules or sit beside them in church.

Harris also devotes much of a chapter to eugenics, the belief, supported by many Unitarians in the early 1900s, that some people’s genetics were superior to others and should be managed accordingly. Universalists, says Harris, have generally been more welcoming throughout history, consisting as they did of a broader range of classes, including tradespeople, textile and mill workers, and farmers, as well as ship captains and merchants.

We carry assumptions, says Harris, “that a liberal thinking person’s faith will not appeal to those who are not college-educated, work with their hands, drive pick-up trucks, or live more than twenty miles from an art museum.” He notes that many of us seem more comfortable with gender, race, and sexual differences than with “working class” people. Perhaps, he says, “we are too quick to dismiss the truth that all classes have folks who are smart inquisitive people with inquiring minds and hearts open to all kinds of people. We should not sell our faith short when it comes to what we have to offer and why we want others to join us.”

Seven principles for UU vitality

One document that was developed by participants at the UUA Growth Consultation, held May 5–7 in Colorado, was a list called “The Seven Principles for UU Vitality.” The Rev. Thom Belote, a participant and minister of Shawnee Mission UU Church in Overland Park, Kans., notes, “This document was produced using a process of brainstorming, the grouping of emerging themes, and reflection on our own experiences.”

Here are the Seven Principles for UU Congregational Vitality. More description of each is on Belote’s blog, RevThom.

• The congregation has a clear and powerful purpose and mission.

• The congregation is aware of and responsive to the world around it.

• There is vital worship and a vital Sunday experience for all ages.

• Church is done well.

• The congregation cultivates religious community.

• The congregation builds skills to lead and nurtures gifts to serve.

• Strong ministerial leadership supports the fulfillment of the previous six principles.

There were 17 participants in the consultation, including nine parish ministers, plus religious educators and UUA staff. The consultation was charged with developing a growth plan for the UUA. A list of the participants, a description of what the group attempted to do, and commentary about the process, is all available on RevThom. A program called Leap of Faith is being developed as a result of the conference. More information on it will be available this fall.

How your church can appeal to a younger crowd

In the introduction to her book, Designing Contemporary Congregations: Strategies to Attract Those Under 50, the Rev. Laurene Beth Bowers, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Randolph, Mass., describes some of the people in the congregations she has served over the years:

They are people I love and care about, but they are also a stubborn and stagnant people who have sacrificed for too long at the altar of “everything must stay the same” and who need gentle encouragement and caring confrontation by passionate leaders who will love them enough not to let them remain there.

Bowers suggest ways to lead congregations into change that can be more inviting to a younger generation. Among her suggestions: Create worship that moves. Add nontraditional music, dance, drama, and personal witnessing, with elements no longer than three minutes each, plus a 10-minute sermon. And yes, it’s OK if it goes more than an hour. “It moves, so you don’t notice the time,” one congregant told her.

She includes chapters on worship, social justice, life-cycle rituals, and evangelism. Her 128-page book is available at the UUA Bookstore for $14.

Small Texas congregation finds a way to build

From May’s InterConnections feature story, now online at

For years, the Huntsville, Texas, Unitarian Universalist Church held its services in a local hospital chapel. The congregation has been meeting since the early 1980s, but now, finally, it has its own building.

“We’d talked about a building for years,” says member Lee Stringer, “but it never happened. Finally, in early 2009 we overcame the objections and fears of those who had been opposed and we held a vote. It was 17-3 in favor.” Construction began within weeks.

The congregation held its first service in the building on February 14, 2010. And with the new building came other changes. Immediately there were visitors every week, says Stringer, chair of the Building Committee. “At the chapel we might have had one visitor a quarter. The membership has grown from 28 to 34 members. People in town know we’re here now. This has given us visibility.”

Go to the full article.

CLF will help you welcome seekers

Congregations can get help in presenting themselves to seekers through a new service provided by the Church of the Larger Fellowship.

For $250 the CLF will prepare a five-session “Welcome In” online class explaining Unitarian Universalism, how the congregation works, UU spirituality, the larger world of Unitarian Universalism, and the history of Unitarian Universalism and the congregation.

The CLF will create the class using text, photos, and video specific to the congregation, host the class on its server, provide technical support for three months, and offer resources for promoting the class.

Learn more and view a sample online class here. Contact the Rev. Lynn Ungar, CLF’s minister for Lifespan Learning, at

Factors combine at Mt. Diablo to create growth

Any Unitarian Universalist congregation that grew both in numbers and average attendance in the past year has something to share with other congregations. When annual membership numbers were tallied in February by the Unitarian Universalist Association, some of our congregations had risen in one or the other of those categories, but few rose in both. One that did was the Mount Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Mt. Diablo gained 20 members and its average Sunday attendance increased by 44. To add perspective, in the same period the UUA declined by several hundred members and about half of our congregations lost members. Read about the UUA’s current membership report here.

Mt. Diablo’s coministers, the Revs. Leslie and David Takahashi-Morris, explain that the membership and attendance increases didn’t just happen. Says Leslie: “A number of factors came together to create an aura of excitement that is continuing.” Specifically, there were four factors––their new ministry, the congregation’s commitment to social justice, a new building, and strong lay and professional leadership.

They began their ministry at 400-member Mt. Diablo in August 2008. Just prior to that the congregation had voted to oppose California’s initiative (since passed) to ban same-sex marriage. “The combination of a new ministry and engagement in the marriage issue helped create a strong first year,” says David. Adds Leslie, “Mt. Diablo attracted people who saw our engagement with marriage equality. People in the community saw us taking the lead and they wanted to be involved.”

Mt. Diablo had also just completed a new fellowship hall, causing social life at the church to “blossom,” says David. Leaders also made sure members felt comfortable in coming to church even if they’d lost a job and couldn’t contribute as much. They started a weekly community dinner and a midweek meditation service. And Leslie says they made sure members kept coming, even if some couldn’t pledge. “We emphasized our desire to be strong together and to not be afraid to bring our vulnerabilities to church,” she says. “The economy has hit Mt. Diablo as hard as anywhere. The canvass is harder this year. More people lost jobs in the past year than in the previous one. Families are struggling to stay in their homes. Yet there has been a generosity of spirit and the material kind that has sustained us.”

Multisite ministry resources

The Rev. Christine Robinson, First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, N.Mex., has created a “multisite bibliography” for congregations interested in exploring the world of multiple-site churches. Read it on her blog, iMinister. Resources listed include news articles from the popular press and Christian publications as well as books.

There is also a UUA-sponsored email list, Multisite-UU, and an InterConnections article, Multisite Ministry Another Way to Grow and Serve. Both First Unitarian and First UU Church in San Diego have multisite ministries.

Growth Summit book published

A dozen ministers of some of the fastest-growing Unitarian Universalist congregations gathered in Louisville, Ky., in November 2007 at the UUA Growth Summit to share some common threads about their growth. Parts of those conversations have been gathered into a book, The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality, published by Skinner House this month. The book is available at the UUA Bookstore for $12.

The book’s editor, the Rev. Thom Belote of the Shawnee Mission UU Church in Overland Park, Kans., participated in the summit. He cautions that there is no “magic secret,” but there are principles that will lead to growth. He says congregations need to have a saving message, a purpose, a balance between “looking in” and “going out,” excellent worship, a “moving, energetic spirit” (also known as “buzz”), seeing welcoming as a moral imperative, leadership from the minister, and a willingness to try new things and fail.

The UUA Growth Summit has also been featured at a workshop at General Assembly and in a DVD (available to watch online). There is an online study guide for the DVD (which will also work with the book).

Contributors to The Growing Church include the Revs. Ken Beldon, John Crestwell, Liz Lerner, UUA President Peter Morales, Christine Robinson, Victoria Safford, Michael Schuler, and Marilyn Sewell. The book features a foreword by Alice Mann of the Alban Institute, who facilitated the gathering in Louisville.