Magical Mail Month

mailI love mail.  I love writing letters, stumbling across the perfect card or postcard to surprise a friend with, or creating a thoughtful gift or care package.  I love that moment when the mail truck pulls up in front of my house when just for a minute, anything seems possible.  There might be a letter from someone I haven’t heard from in a while.  There could be a picture of a friend’s new baby.  There might be that book that I ordered, or maybe there is a check I didn’t know would be coming.  The mail is in the mailbox for no longer than 10 seconds before I stop whatever it is I am doing to go outside and retrieve it.  It really is one of the highlights of my day.


I have fond memories of writing and receiving letters.  From exchanging letters with close friends who moved away, to receiving cards and care packages when I went off to college, to hearing from family and friends when I was serving in the military, the practice of writing letters or sending mail has been near and dear to me for as long as I can remember.


Magical Mail Month began in March 2014 as a way to get through the end of a harsh New England winter by using letter writing as a spiritual practice.  It soon turned into a form of ministry that permeated several aspects of my life. Morning coffee became a time to send a note to a distant friend; staff meetings were started by writing thank you notes to volunteers and leaders; grocery shopping was now an opportunity for my kids and I to leave anonymous love letters and notes of encouragement underneath the boxes of cereal or crowns of broccoli.


During Magical Mail Month, you might send notes to congregants you haven’t seen in a while just to check in, thank you notes, or invitations to community members to join you in worship or other events.


You might look through the newspaper for examples of people/organizations that have stood on the side of love and send them a thank you note.


You can write notes with Unitarian Universalist quotes or messages of hope and leave them in library books or in mail2random places while running errands.


No matter how you choose to participate, Magical Mail Month has become a way to spread the Love and Grace of Unitarian Universalism out in the world.  You are invited to join the fun from March 1-31, 2015 for the second annual #magicalmailmonth.


Here are some resources to get you started:

Love Letters to Strangers, a TED Talk

CLF’s Prison Letter Writing Ministry

The World Needs More Love Letters



ksKimberly Sweeney serves as the Multigenerational Ministry Director for the New England Regional Staff Team of the UUA.  If that doesn’t pan out, she’s pretty sure working for the post office would be a solid plan B.


Grace Under Fire

Sometimes growth occurs in unexpected and not always desirable ways. Take the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mountain Home, Arkansas, for example.

Mountain Home is a quiet little town tucked away in the beautiful Ozark Mountains. With two massive lakes, three rivers and beautiful mountain scenery, it ranks as one of the country’s top vacation and retirement destinations. In fact, Where to Retire magazine named the area an ‘Undiscovered Haven’ and perennially ranks it as a Top 100 Retirement Community in the United States.

Organized in 1981, the UU Fellowship is led by the Rev. Alice Hurley, lay minister. In June of last year, Rev. Hurley published a letter in the local paper letting the community know that they welcome everyone at their church regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. Referring to the pending decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding same-sex marriage, Rev. Hurley wrote in part:

“Once the state ensures everyone is represented equally, then individuals are free to choose, within the bounds of law, whom they befriend and what organizations hold their loyalty or membership. Individuals can be open to learning about different people and cultures, choosing to be inclusive and tolerant of their neighbors in a community, or they can choose to be insular and discriminatory. We at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mountain Home choose not to discriminate. Our Fellowship Hall is open to all truth-seekers, regardless of race or sexual orientation. Please feel free to visit our fellowship and consider becoming part of our family. We respect the right of people to choose their marriage partners for themselves, and are happy to perform, for members or non-members, commitment ceremonies and same-sex marriages, as soon as the state of Arkansas realizes it cannot discriminate and must ensure that all of its citizens are equal under the law.”

In response to this letter, the following note was sent to the President of the congregation, Mr. Bill Rhodes (warning: this letter contains hateful language and violent images):

Grace Under Fire


In addition, the church windows were shot out around the same time although Rev. Hurley isn’t sure that the two incidents are related. The church sits by a traffic light, she points out, and teenagers with a BB gun might have “just popped off a few shots.” Regarding the letter, Rev. Hurley thinks it was just somebody blowing off steam. She wished that that writer would get in touch with her. “I’d arrange for him to have five to ten minutes of time to speak at our service Sunday. We’d be happy to listen to him. I won’t say we’d agree with him, but we’ll listen.”

Rev. Hurley told me recently that the benefit of all this was an increase in membership following the publicity associated with the letter and the shooting. As she put it, “On the bright side, after all the fuss died down, we went from an average attendance of 15 to 25! And four of those have signed the membership book. We had been looking for a way to get our group known in the community; this isn’t the way we would have preferred, but it did bring in new members and most of them were young people.”

Growth in our congregations occurs not just in the number of people who fill the chairs on Sunday, but in our commitment to our principles; in exercising grace under fire; in standing up for what one believes in; for being a beacon of love and tolerance in one of the best retirement communities in the United States. Thank you, Rev. Hurley and the good people of the UU Fellowship of Mountain Home, Arkansas, for reminding me why I love this faith so much.


markMark Bernstein is a member of the Congregational Life Staff of the Central East Region of the UUA. He hopes someday to retire in Mountain Home, Arkansas.


Future of (Our) Faith

Future of Faith picCarey McDonald is one of those innovators and collaborators growing our faith beyond silos and traditional boundaries who I love to dream with. Whenever I’m in Boston we set aside a chunk of time to play into the following questions:

1. “If we were in charge …”  and then we excitedly spill out possibilities with no regard to our current authority or resources at our disposal. Note that the “what” of our charge shifts at our creative whim. Sometimes we’re in charge of the UUA. Sometimes we’re in charge of the world.

Sometimes the imagination playground is inspired by a book we’ve both read.  Last year Carey turned me on to American Grace by Robert Putnam, and that still makes appearances in our conversation.

2. “However, we aren’t in charge.  And we still can …” is the second, perhaps most important part of our exploration. We get real with what is our current authority and responsibility and “our work.”  Accessible resources magically sparkly with new and variant possibilities. Partners within and outside our system become apparent.  Strategies begin to take form.  We both come away feeling energized and inspired by our partnership.

I encourage you to seek out a partner to try these questions within the context of your leadership.  Don’t go to the most obvious partner in your system. But do find someone who is also passionate about growing our faith and is clear in the mission of your community.

Sometimes Carey and I try ideas out with each other that aren’t quite word-ripe, or we show each other pieces that we’re just putting the finishing touches on.  Future of Faith: Unitarian Universalism and the Millennial Generation is a presentation that is stunning and smart and right on. Carey’s been thinking about the Future of (Our) Faith for a long time.  This presentation brings it all together!  (Note: there is no sound and you move the presentation along with the arrows at the bottom.)

Please tell us what jumps out at you in the comments. What excites you? Gives you frown lines? And feel free to share the presentation.  I think this would be a great piece to show at a board meeting or staff retreat.


cmcdonald_headshotCarey McDonald is the mind behind Future of our Faith.  Carey joined the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries in the summer of 2011. He most recently worked as the staff director for a statewide advisory body, the Ohio School Funding Advisory Council, where he has focused on education reform, educational equity and “closing the achievement gap.” He has also worked as a budget analyst, policy advisor and legislative aide, and has considerable experience in political campaigns and organizing. Throughout his varied career, Carey has focused on creating a world more just through a community more loving, and is excited to bring that inclusive approach to the helm of the Youth and Young Adult Ministries Office.

Carey is a seventh-generation Unitarian Universalist who was active as a youth with Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU). He is formerly a member of the Ohio-Meadville District Youth/Adult Council, was active as a youth in Diverse & Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM), and served three times as a delegate to General Assembly. Before moving to Boston, he was an active young adult in his congregation in Columbus, Ohio, as a member of the Young Adult Covenant Group and chair of the church’s Annual Budget Drive. He also has served in recent years as a lay member of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Carey has a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Economics from Pomona College in Claremont, CA. He lives in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston with his wife, Sarah.

A Call: People Get Ready

Vanessa Southern

The following sermon was proclaimed at the 2013 General Assembly’s Service of the Living Tradition.  There is a video of the full service with the sermon starting at 1:21. I do encourage you to experience the whole worship and turn up the music for a special treat!

If after experiencing this inspiring invitation to live Unitarian Universalism large, into this new Awakening, this Age of Spirit, you’d like to share ideas and strategies and experiments, please join the FaceBook conversation at Unitarian Universalists Exploring Congregations & Beyond.

You can also give to Faithful Risk, which honors former UUA Moderator Gini Courter’s commitment to creative Unitarian Universalist ministries in and beyond congregations. Your donations to Faithful Risk will help support UUFund, a Unitarian Universalist crowd funding platform currently under development that is itself an entrepreneurial ministry to our movement.


Standing at the Edge: The Next Great Awakening

The Rev. Vanessa Southern


Imagine, I am standing on the edge of a ledge off the back of a boat that is rocking in pretty decent waves. I have 8 pounds of weight strapped around my waist, and another 40—they tell me, though it feels like more—strapped to my back. My size 12 feet are now even more absurdly large because they are covered in flippers, so I look like a redheaded Donald Duck. Only I can’t quack because they stuck some tube in my face and told me to breathe through it while the mask that covers my favorite breathing orifice, my nose, and my eyes, despite the instructor’s best preventative measures, is fogging. So, I can’t walk, or breathe the way I’d like to, and the world is getting misty, which might be nice and atmospheric except that they are also now telling me to hold on to my mask and regulator and jump…like this [show fingers splayed] which as we all know is crazy. No one jumps like this. At the very least it is inelegant but at the moment, I have lost all dignity already and I am only concerned, truth be told, about survival.

So is my Lizard Brain. Do you know Lizard Brain? It is that part of our brains that has been around since wooly mammoths whose job it is to keep us alive and warn us of danger. Lizard Brain has come for a chat.

Actually, mine is in a panic. First she tells me to step back from the ledge, as if I am someone on the 8th floor of a New York apartment building about to take my life. Then she asks why I don’t just take all this ridiculous stuff off, and instead just enjoy a little sun. When I don’t listen she gets more hysterical: She wonders aloud sarcastically why they don’t just put a noose around my neck too. Finally, she tries the pastoral approach. She tells me I don’t have to be embarrassed about bailing on the birthday gift of a dive lesson. That a good friend will understand.

I listen. I take it in. Then I cover my face, like the instructor tells me to, and I jump. And a whole new world opens up, one just below the surface of what I know and trust.

Why am I telling you this?

It is relevant, I think, to this train that’s coming. The one that we don’t need a ticket for that requires us to drop some baggage before we get on board. I’m telling you because think we are standing at the edge, preparing to leap into a world beyond what we know and trust.

I am talking, my friends and colleagues, about the religious revolution that seems headed our way. Diana Butler Bass, writer and professor of religious studies, calls this moment “The Great Turning”. William McLoughlin, historian of religion and former professor at Brown University fifty years ago predicted the signs of what he called the “Fourth Great Awakening”.

What they are saying certainly makes sense of things we are hearing and seeing all around us. It makes sense of all the cultural changes and upheavals that Peter Morales has been calling to our attention; that Fred Muir explored in last year’s Berry Street Lecture; that the Pew Survey on Religion found ways to quantify; and Faith Formation 2020 put into lists. It makes sense of all the changes that so many of our lay and ordained leaders are already wrestling to incorporate into their sense of what we must become.

You know the facts as well as I do—

  • Mainstream denominations are on the decline;
  • The “nones”—those who, when asked to identify their religious affiliation, answered “none”—the “nones” are on the rise;
  • Increasing numbers of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (maybe some of you are among them);
  • More and more families and marriages, like my own, are made up of folks of mixed religious and racial and ethnic backgrounds, and
  • In the rising generation of adults 18-35 these trends are growing fastest.

When asked why they reject “religion” this growing cohort of people, when they do, reject it because they associate it with words like narrow, judgmental, homophobic.

“The Age of Belief” or Dogma is out, says Harvard Professor Harvey Cox. Enter: “The Age of Spirit.”

Cox and Bass, leaders of the Emergent Church Movement and others, say increasingly people are looking for a more direct experience of the divine; one unmediated by religious leaders or staid ritual or dusty doctrine. They bring to their spiritual and religious lives an ethic informed by a world that has grown smaller and more clearly interdependent; a world in which differences of race, gender and sexual orientation blend and brush up against each other all the time. Where they gather they want professed truths to be visible and in action. They are tired of religion getting in the way rather than paving it.

In this future, increasingly shaped by the radical democracy and full and open participatory influence of the internet, if people don’t find a community they like, they will make their own; in one great flash mob of religiosity.

The religious wave washing over us is made up of people who have no innate love of institutions. Why would they? In the last decade alone we have watched institutions launch the war in Iraq without proof of weapons of mass destruction. Institutions allowed the bundling of sub-prime mortgages that collapsed the economy into which many people entered for the first time looking for jobs that were not there. And religious institutionsfought and split over the rejection of gay and lesbian clergy. Religious institutions protected priests over children.

In other words, in this new world, congregations whose mission is just to maintain the congregation, and denominations whose de facto mission is simply to keep the bureaucracy alive, are out. What is in are communities alive to spirit, people gathered who question, doubt, struggle, live with ambiguity, serve directly, are ecologically minded and affirming of the pluralism across all real and supposed differences. These are the only communities this cohort of adults, growing in size and strength by the year, will join and offer its allegiance to.

Perhaps you are thinking as I was when I read all of this, this is great!!!! Perhaps under your breath you just started singing: “We are who you have been waiting for!” It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? We love questions and doubt too, you want to scream out. “Deeds over creeds, baby! We are with you.” We live pluralism and interfaith dialog, some of us in our own homes. Some of our best ministers and lay leaders, let alone friends, lovers and children are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer folk.

In fact, this year, I co-officiated at the first same-sex wedding at West Point Chapel—for Unitarian Universalists Penny Gnesin and Sue Fulton. How about a shout out for them and their work on behalf of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It was a moment in history. And looming right beside the joy was the sadness that the Defilement of Marriage Act—that’s what DOMA stands for doesn’t it?—that DOMA still stood as law, still stands. And so soldiers and their wives and husbands are still second class citizens in the military if their partners are of the same sex. Though their blood—pardon the image—still runs as red, white and blue.

But we were there and in places like that this year all over the nation. In statehouses and city halls, hanging banners and demanding the nation make good on its promissory note again—the one that promises equality and justice for all. We don’t want religion to get in the way either. We want it to pave the way and we are working to make it so.

We get this wave of the future, this Age of Spirit because we have been swimming in it, dancing with it, wrestling to live it for years, decades? Maybe centuries.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean our work of preparing ourselves for the future is done.

Cox and Bass say this Age of Spirit may be a little more chaotic than we are used to. It may be more like the early stages of all faith traditions, than it will be like the age just past with its doctrines, and procedures and institutional focus. “In the beginning,” writes Andy Stanley, the founder or Northpoint Ministries in Atlanta, “In the beginning the church was a gloriously messy movement.” Not bound by creed or hierarchy, the early church was bound by a pretty clear mission, which was figuring out what it meant to live the teachings and example of its founding prophet, Jesus, and how to usher in “the coming of God’s Reign of Shalom”—of peace, of justice and love.

This awakening will be about going back to those basics—about being focused back on core mission, and being willing to question whatever inherited patterns get in the way of serving and being alive to it. “Be married to mission,” says Stanley, and date everything else. Date everything else!

What might that mean? Does that feel intimidating to you? It does to me. It involves lots of uncertainty about what we lose and what we gain. For some of us it will mean sitting with a pretty chatty Lizard brain warning of all the dire possibilities that come with each risk or change.

But it is also exciting.

And it might just be fun.

I knew one person who was the most alive-to-life spirit-filled person I have ever met. If she had a mission that would have been it, and very little got in her way of living it. No norm, no convention was more important than responding to what life demanded of her in a moment. So, taking road trips with her meant paying the tolls for the people behind you. Going to lunch with her meant sending a piece of cake or pie to the person across the restaurant who looked like life had just caved in under them. Almost nothing was completely routine with Toni around.

The quintessential Toni moment took place at a stop light. We were out running some errand when a song came on the radio. It was a song that we loved and loved to dance to. So, we were trying to do so but the car seemed too small for all this joy and right about then we pulled up to a red light. Before I knew what was happening, Toni turned up the music, opened the door, unbuckled her seat belt and out she went out into the street to dance. Hair flying, smile across her face, she danced and people driving by honked, others joined her from inside their cars. Laugher and joy erupted all around.

The mission was to be alive to life, spirited-filled. Everything else took its rightful, auxilliary place.

I am not saying that we have to dance in traffic, you and I. I am saying there are times we might want to throw off what holds us back especially if it is getting in the way of what spirit and mission require of us. We are a pretty flexible lot but even for us radical innovations will, with time, become traditions, and traditions with more time often become fossilized artifacts. Sometimes we have to get back to basics, then risk and experiment, take a chance we’ll look foolish, be a bit incompetent to become more alive to what it looks like to live those commitments for this age, and in our case for the “Great Turning” that is upon us.

The good news is I think we are already doing this. Already grounding ourselves pretty clearly in core mission and taking risks.

  • As we speak we are preparing to leave a headquarters with a stately address, so we can have the offices with 21st Century technology and accessible space that speak to our future more than our past;
  • We have been asking and answering what it means to Stand on the Side of Love and keeping that core piece of witness front and center;
  • We are talking this whole GA about the glue that holds a non-creedal community together across difference and through chaos, namely the covenantal promises we make to one another;
  • We are experimenting with reaching beyond our walls and using technology to broaden our embrace;
  • We are opening our eyes to what interpersonal skills and cultural competencies we need to be truly welcoming in this pluralistic, multicultural world;
  • And some of our ministers, particularly newer minted ones, are doing all kinds of great experimentation. Some have started coffee houses with justice programming, and small house church communities, and one newly gathering community is talking about meeting in a tent, amidst an urban community garden. These ministers and lay folks are casting off some inherited patterns to see what new ways of being together might invite to dwell among us.

And I would bet your church has a few examples you could throw in. My own church just passed a mission statement that says we are “a radically inclusive religious community that feeds the human spirit and heals the world.” As a result of that this year our theme for the year will be “Living the Mission Impossible” and in October I expect we will rip up a mortgage on a property next door. It is a property the powers-that-be said we didn’t have the ability on short notice, to buy, but spirit and mission told us we had to. $2.5 million dollars pledged in record time and paid off in two years. Spirit is a powerful partner.

What will it take for us to step into this revolution as full partners and participants? No one really knows. It’s emerging. It’s a paradigm shift of some kind; an adaptive change. But I can think of a few things it will mean.

  • Surely it will mean abolishing stinginess. Big missions don’t happen on starvation budgets. And on average we give 1 ½ percent of income to our congregations. Really? That is unworthy of us. We need to stop pretending we are just careful with our money and just get crazy generous.
  • Second, I think we also need to admit that no perfect form of governance alone will create a congregation or an Association that does great things. The best assurance of great things is people gathered in the spirit of collaboration and trust. So we need to make that a given and not spend too many years hammering out the governance structure… Even as we do good organizational development;
  • Lastly, you and I have to become great experimenters in our laboratories of religious life. We have to be like 1000 R & D departments, reporting in daily from our congregations and community ministries about where our experiments brought faith more alive and where they have failed. We have to laugh and tell stories of our victories and wipe-out-face-plants and be pioneers of the spirit; entrepreneurs of soul and service. Married to mission, dating everything else. We must do this to be partners and co-creators of the next great awakening.

Emerson told us not to any take second hand truths, but generation after generation we take two truths as our own, and these two give the living tradition its continuity.

First, is a commitment to a Love that refuses to honor false and constructed boundaries between us. This is the love that banished hell from religious imagination, then put us to work banishing it everywhere else. The expanse of this Love’s embrace will, in the end, be the best judge of the worth of our living.

Second, and related, is the Unity we affirm beyond all divisions real or imagined. Interdependent web of all existence, injustice anywhere as a threat to justice everywhere, all creation woven into one garment of destiny. Ecologically, theologically, politically, economically, this is the reality we seek not to forget. That we are one. Remembering it breaks us wide open generation after generation to both deep pain and great joy and wisdom.

Love and Unity. These are our enduring mission.

Some day we will have to answer for these. What did we make of them? How did we serve them? To this dream and purpose you and I are married.

Which is why we find ourselves standing here, facing these waters. It is why we have awkward new gear strapped on our backs, and even though some old habits are working a bit against us, we are preparing ourselves to leap.

Because a train is coming, my fellow pioneers of this faith. Love and Unity wait to take their rightful place front and center on the human stage. Spirit wants to claim the age. It is a Great Awakening for which we have been preparing for a lifetime. And for this, we are asked to leap just beyond the surface of what we know and trust. “This is the time,” writes poet Sonia Sanchez, “for the creative human being.”

Before you dive the instructor tells you there are two things you have to remember. Only two.

“The first is just to remember to breathe.” “Breath” that word so close to spirit. That which anchors us to life and its call.

“The second thing to remember,” he says, “is never to dive alone.” “Once you are in, you can take my hand,” he tells you.

So you reach up to secure the mask, walk to the edge, and you do that crazy leap they tell you you must. When you land, he reaches out and you take his hand.

Breath and that hand will be what makes the scary possible. And so the adventure begins.

The rest, the rest is still Unwritten.



vanessa-pinkGuest blogger Rev. Vanessa Southern, the minister of The Unitarian Church in Summit, NJ, is the consummate Congregations & Beyond minister.  Read more about her ministry for examples you might want to try out yourself!

Holy Coffee Making

Close-up of young woman holding mug of coffeeI love to make the coffee at church – I go and get real half-and-half and fancy sugars.  I’ll get the juice with less sugar and more anti-oxidants (super juice.)  I’ll make the coffee and pray into it. And as people are standing around after church talking about the sermon or the details of their week, I peer out from the kitchen and watch my prayers get sipped up into bodies and spirit. I watch the real half-and-half delight them, hoping that they will in turn make a decadent decision in the world and go beyond what is necessary.  I watch for the juice mustaches of children hoping that their blood-sugar levels will remain stable so they can share what happened in Sunday School with the adults in their lives rather than melt on the way home.  I tend to these little details knowing I will not see the results.  But I remain faithful to the suspicion, the hope that they have made a difference.  Coffee duty is one of my cherished spiritual practices.

We live through each other.  This is humanist immortality, which I find more potent and knock-me-to-my-knees awesome than a promise of eternal afterlife in a heaven-place.

Enjoy the Peter Mayer video to Holy Now

Lyrics to Holy Now
by Peter Mayer

When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything, Everything
Everything’s a miracle

Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles
But finding where there isn’t one

When holy water was rare at best
It barely wet my fingertips
But now I have to hold my breath
Like I’m swimming in a sea of it
It used to be a world half there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

Read a questioning child’s face
And say it’s not a testament
That’d be very hard to say
See another new morning come
And say it’s not a sacrament
I tell you that it can’t be done

This morning, outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything is holy now
It used to be a world half-there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now



Tandi Feb 2012Tandi Rogers also likes to make coffee for herself as a meditation while listening to Peter Mayer’s music to prepare for holy work.






Peter MayerPeter Mayer began playing the guitar and writing songs when he was in high school. He studied Theology and music in college, and then spent two years in seminary. After deciding that the priesthood wasn’t for him, he took a part-time job as a church music director for 8 years, while performing at clubs and colleges, and writing and recording his music. He has nine CDs to his credit, and has sold over 70 thousand of them independently. And yes, he is Unitarian Universalist.


Congregations & Beyond Sweet Spot

C&B Sweet SpotCongregations & Beyond” is a concept that Peter Morales introduced to us a little over a year ago.  There’s a study guide.  There’s a video.  There’s  a Facebook group dedicated to exploring the concept and keeping the conversation going. This blog has posted on it before.


And yet, there are many of us still trying to wrap our heads around it.  We’re still wondering what our home congregation might look like in a Congregations & Beyond context.  So today, we’re going to use a different part of our brain.  Get out the markers and/or crayons.


  • Draw a big circle on a piece of paper.  Draw a big square overlapping it like a Venn Diagram with a corner of the square smack in the middle of the circle.


  • In the circle list the things that your congregation does that people consistently show up for? What creates a lot of buzz and energy?  Where is your joy? Also list the things that your congregation does together that make you go, “Dang, I feel UU to my bones when we do that!” (That’s what the light green lettering in the circle allude to — don’t hurt your eyes trying to read it.)


  • In the square list the three most exciting places to be in your wider community. And then list the three places that break your heart.


  • That overlapping place in the middle is the Congregations & Beyond Sweet Spot. Go there!


If your congregation has a choir that blows the roof off with energy and beauty, and you live in a city whose homicide rate breaks your heart… Perhaps your congregation is called to start a community-wide Peace Choir, show up at places of violence and sing that space back into grace.


Maybe you have a youth group that shines with spiritually mature natural leaders, and your schools are littered with a bullying problem… Perhaps your congregations trains, supports, and commissions them to be peacemakers within that system


The possibilities are endless.  It requires that we collectively show up in authentic and aligned ways, and be in dynamic relationship with the wider community.  You may be a Congregations & Beyond community and you didn’t even realize it.


And here’s an offer.  If the leaders of your congregation commit to doing my little art exercise above, and you still can’t see your Congregations & Beyond Sweet Spot, contact me for a consultation.  I see possibilities and abundance all around.


Tandi Feb 2012Growth Strategist Tandi Rogers’ office looks more like an art studio with room for work.  She delights in color coding data and maps with demographics.  Venn Diagrams have a special place in her heart.  And she travels with colored markers.

MeetUp in Action: congregational example

Skagit MeetUp


When considering an online solution to communicating with the members of the small UU fellowship in Mount Vernon, WA, we decided to use

The congregation is very small, semi-rural, and far-flung.  We wanted to create more community-building activities, classes, etc., both at the church and in the towns where members live, but it was hard to get people together for anything besides Sunday morning activities.  Also, we wanted to empower all members to suggest and initiate activities without having to wait for leadership to come up with them!  Another factor was that there is a digital divide:  many older members are not active online.

Many people recommended Facebook to us, but we wanted to explore other solutions that would help us with our main concern, community-building, and that would not require a lot of maintenance. turned out to be a quite good solution.

Because MeetUp is designed specifically to get people together in person, there is a minimum of chat and a maximum of planning.

It is extremely easy for any authorized person (an Assistant Organizer) to announce an activity and get a reading of how many people are interested and likely to attend.  I made every MeetUp member who was also a member or friend of the congregation an Assistant Organizer.  Activities can be planned far in the future or on the spur of the moment.

I found it necessary to have a small training to get the non-digital-savvy folks to sign up.

The Organizer has total gatekeeping power.  What we decided to do in Skagit was to set it up so that anyone from the public can see what’s going on, but only people who are known can join the group.

Because MeetUp is geared toward improving the quality of events, attendees can rate the events afterwards, make comments and suggestions, and post photos.

Because MeetUp has no ads, it costs $15 a month.  It’s easy for members to set their email preferences and the like.  It was EXTREMELY easy to set it up and it looks quite nice.

A real bonus is outreach:  if someone is looking at MeetUp for activities in their neighborhood, or looking for Unitarians, they will easily find the church.  To try it out, browse to “” and enter “Mount Vernon, WA” and “Unitarian” – or just browse MeetUps near Mount Vernon.  You will find Skagit Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

When I left Skagit UU Fellowship and started serving South Fraser Unitarian Congregation in Surrey, British Columbia, I was delighted to see that they already had a MeetUp group:  The MeetUp page has been directly responsible for attracting at least one wonderful new couple that has joined the congregation.

MeetUp pages look AWFUL if no one is maintaining them – but very simple to update – easy to plug in the next worship service, suggest outings and activities, and list the upcoming events of the congregation.  Best practice is to make everything look fun and attractive, and include photos.

I would be more than happy to explain MeetUp to anyone who is interested.  It can be a real boon to a congregation – almost like having an extra staff person. Amanda will take questions in the comment area or you can contact her directly.



Amanda headshot Guest blogger Rev. Amanda Aikman is the Consulting Minister serving South Fraser Unitarian Congregation










Reaching out with

Charlotte_SL_Dinner_Party - edited


If I could attract 588 lesbians to dinner in Charlotte, North Carolina, think how many people you could get to your congregational events! Ok, not all 588 of them have come to dinner, but they are all members of the “Charlotte Single Lesbians Dinner Party” group.

I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2006, to become District Executive of the Southeast District. When I moved to Charlotte, I didn’t know a soul and my job required me to travel on weekends to visit congregations around the district. That made it virtually impossible to attend the various LGBTQ functions in the area. So asked myself, why not see if I could find six or eight lesbians who wanted to have dinner on a Wednesday night?

I started a group on and scheduled our first dinner at a local restaurant. I put notices up (all provided by Meetup) at our local LGBT bookstore and a couple other lesbian hang-outs in town, and sent some individual invitations to lesbians on (that’s a whole other story). I expected four or five women to join me for the first dinner. Within days of listing the group, forty-two had joined! And better yet, twenty-six showed up for first dinner! Within a month, we had seventy-five members, then hundred, then two hundred, and more have joined each month since. It’s now an established community where lesbians meet each other, develop friendships, have fun together, and occasionally, fall in love.

So how does work? Meetup is a social media site with a twist: members who connect online over a common interest, actually meet together in person. Meetup is designed for people to find each other, but unlike a dating site, its focus is to bring groups of people together. Using the tools, you can schedule events, sign-up members, post photos, hold discussions, email all the members, post static pages, even print name tags for your events.

It’s a perfect tool for congregations to reach out and find people. In fact, when new people move to town, especially new people under 40, Meetup is one of the first places they check for ways to connect to their new community.

Some UU congregations, like the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Benton County, Arkansas, use Meetup as their primary website. Congregations, such as Fourth Universalist Society of New York City, use Meetup to encourage fun activities for their members and the community at large. Still other congregations use Meetup to attract people who are interested in a particular faith development topic, a social justice issue, or connecting with others with particular affinity. North Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Danvers Massachusetts, for example, sponsors a GLBT Parents on the North Shore Meetup group.

For a group to be successful, you need three key ingredients:

  1. A topic or affinity that people will want to connect with
  2. An organizer or team of organizers who welcome new members, online and in person, and keep the site up-to-date (generally, once it’s set up, site maintenance is less than an hour a month, at most)
  3. Regularly scheduled meetups to keep the group active and alive

How might a Meetup group serve your congregation and your community? How about sponsoring an LGBTQ Meetup group and hosting a monthly dinner for the members? Your congregation could provide a vital link for LGBTQ people, especially in rural communities, who often have nowhere to gather and connect. How about a Zen group or a liberal Christian group? Maybe you want to start a multicultural writing group or a jazz music group. The possibilities are endless.

Who do you want to attract to your congregation? What population could you support by offering a place to meet?  How might you extend your congregation’s reach using Meetup to doing the reaching for you?

If you have a successful Meetup story, we’d love to hear it.



annette_marquisGuest Blogger Annette Marquis is the LGBTQ and Multicultural Ministries Program Manager, Unitarian Universalist Association.

Social Media: what it is and isn’t

Let’s start with some facts:
  • 57% of folks agree with the perception that social networking is for young people BUT
  • The average age of Twitter users is 30-49.
  • The average age of Facebook users is 30-49.
  • The largest group of Facebook users is 35-45 years.
  • The fastest growing demographic on Facebook is people over 50.


Social media does not replace email, newsletters, websites. It supplements them. I can remember when email lists became the rage and folks complained about everything being on email. Same rules apply here. You cannot send things out on social media that aren’t also sent out in other methods.

You have to reach folks where they are. Why did we start those email lists? Because people were reading email. . Why do we add social media? Because that is where people are. And not just young people. The fastest growing demographic is folks 50 and up. Why? Because they are connecting with family and former classmates. Young adults are the heaviest users – and Youth and Young Adults are the ones that tend to understand the technology better. So don’t buy into that myth. Instead poll your congregation and find out. In my experience the older population tends to use social media as a recipient – they receive information but they don’t send out much information. The younger population tends to use this as their primary form of communication.

Tom Fishburne, an insightful Marketoonist, says that social Media should be about people, but Social Media Strategies show us that’s not always what happens. Social media is not a magic bullet. It’s an enabler. Social media won’t make an antisocial brand suddenly social. But it can facilitate and amplify the role that brands play with their audiences. Whether in social media or any other domain, we need to focus less on how “awesome” we are and more on working toward making our customer’s more “awesome”. In other words what can we do for you to make your life better. Remember Social Media is about People. Not products and brands. And since our congregations are about making lives better, it should be a good fit.

 Guest Blogger Beth Casebolt is the Communications Consultant for the Central-East Regional Group. She also serves as the District Administrator for the Ohio-Meadville District, a position she has held since November 2007.  She is very interested in social media and website design and how congregations can use technology to enhance their communities.

Please Stream Me Into Worship

watch_us_live_bannerThis was one of those weeks where I doggy-paddled to Sunday, needing worship so badly to fill me up, adjust my perspective, and connect me to my community. Saturday night was a harsh night of nursing a sick little person.  Clearly contagious by morning.  Sunday morning worship was out of the question. My flushed-cheeked little person begged to go to church.  He loves church. But in an effort to keep cooties to ourselves, we went on a quest to go to church from the safety of our home.

In the order of our attendance and time zone availability:

Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, IN

  • 9:15 & 11:15am (EST)

Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua, NH

  • Live broadcast Sundays 10:00am (EST), repeats at 3:00 and 7:00pm.

Unitarian Universalist Church of Farmington, MI

  • 10:30 am (EST)

University Unitarian Universalist Society in Orlando, FL

  • Live-stream audio-cast at 10:30 am (EST)

All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK

  • Sunday Traditional Service at 10 am (CST)
  • Sunday Contemporary Service at 11:30 am (CST)

Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist in Cedar Rapid, IA

  • 11:00 am (CST)

Church of the Larger Fellowship

  • Sunday at 8:00 pm (EST)
  • Monday at 9:00 am & 1:30 pm (EST)

I want to hold up a couple things I liked in some of the services.  Most of these congregations post their Order of Service so we can follow along at home. At All Souls they pan out to the congregation and choir.  I love seeing my siblings in faith, not just the chancel action.  All Souls also gives me the opportunity to donate on-line to their ministry and their week’s Community Action Project.  At Peoples Church you can chat on line if you sign in.  You can also chat  at the Church of the Larger Fellowship service. CLF intentionally uses the chat to create community.  We light our chalices together and we do joys and sorrows together. It’s powerful.

While it was wonderful worshipping with our distance siblings in faith, what we really craved was to be virtually connected with our own people. I hope more congregations will consider using this technology as a way to lower their walls and to connect to members who are unable to attend for a variety of reasons. The UUA website has some resources for congregations that are considering live-steaming their worship services. Attend some on-line worships for yourself and see what you like and don’t like.  And don’t hesitate to call up those congregations for tips and advice!



Tandi Rogers is the UUA Growth Strategist. She turns up the volume on her computer whenever there is music in a live-stream worship, at which time she can be found dancing around her living room and singing loudly.