Back in 2005 the UUA gathered ministers from some of the fastest growing and most diverse UU Congregations in America to talk about growth. The result was a DVD I recommend to you called Listening to Experience.* I was on the Growth Team at the time and got to experience that weekend unfold.  I remember being giddy with anticipation – we were finally going to know what made these innovative ministers work. We could capture the checklist of success and send it out as a memo far and wide. Congregational leaders would read the memo and growth would just start happening.  Right?  Well, I’m not too proud to admit, that I’d hoped it would be something easy.

One by one these ministers got up in worship and prayer and discussion throughout our time together and declared their congregation’s saving message.  They each avowed a bold theology without apology and a spirited imperative to heal the world beyond their congregation’s walls.   In a very simple nutshell, these ministers acted as if they knew with ever cell of their being that Unitarian Universalism is a religion with the power to transform lives.

And siblings in faith, no slick strategic plan or clever billboard or innovative social media outreach tool is going to work until our congregations and everything we do within that context (worship, pastoral care, governance, justice making, faith development – all of it) is saturated in Unitarian Universalism.

So let us start with discernment as the beginning strategic plan before we jump into specific strategies for growth. And I promise, we will offer specific strategies both at the Associational level and at the ground level in the coming posts.

Discernment Questions

  • What is the purpose of religion? What is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism? What is the purpose of our congregation?
  • What is the saving message of our faith? Of our specific religious community? How do we reveal and extend that message in everything we do?
  • What is our story that we tell ourselves?  Is it true?  Who are we called to be as a religious community? What do we want our story to be that they will be telling a generation from now?  What do we need to let go to get there? What do we need to learn to get there?
  • What kind of leaders/ disciples of Unitarian Universalism do we need to fulfill our purpose and call? How are we identifying, differentiating, forming, sustaining, and giving permission?
  • How can this congregation help individuals grow and deepen in their own personal Unitarian Universalist faith?
  • To make our part of the world a better place, what can our surrounding towns and and our congregation offer one another during the next 3-5 years?
  • At the end of the day/ week how will they have known we were Unitarian Universalists?

We are building something larger than our selves and beyond this time. That magnitude deserves faithful patience and reflection.  Please take the time to make discernment part of your growth strategy.


*Suggestions for how to use the Listening to Experience DVD as a learning tool in your congregation may be found here.

About the Author
Tandi Rogers


    • Irma

      Tracie, this was really a proweful talk. Thanks for pointing us all to it. It takes courage to challenge the members of your congregation in such a bold manner (to trust each other, to step up to the plate, to stop gossiping, etc.), your delivery was strong and you spoke with authority (but not in any overbearing way), and I loved your themes of Power, Purpose, and Process.I think that power and purpose used to be more important to me in the past, but in the past couple of years, largely due to my professional life (and maybe a little due to my Quakerism), I’ve become aware of the importance of process. I’d love to hear you go deeper into it some time, especially as it relates to the struggle for utopia.

      • LOonely

        Rev. Dave I am thankful the itrnneet makes these connections possible. I remember hearing you speak years ago at a conference hosted by the UU church in Waco. We have never forgotten it well, of course we have forgotten exactly What you said, but we have not forgotten how you made us Feel. I look forward now to following dare2seek. It has been so frustrating at times to be part of a tiny fellowship of people who thought it was enough to just do what we like and want and need, somehow forgetting that each of us here now was once them. When I first took on the job of worship team leader many years ago (when we couldn’t actually SAY worship ), I had many run-ins with a hard-headed member who insisted that we should not be doing church for some random people who might wander in off the street! I was shocked, because I thought then, and still do, that those are exactly the people for whom we do church, whether or not they ever do actually wander in. Only surely we should not be just hiding out in the woods, waiting to see if they can find us. Thank goodness my church is no longer doing that. And thank goodness there are ministers like you out there helping us remember who we are.

        • Annie

          Kinsi, I agree with your insight on GA very much (though I was not there this year) and take it furhter than GA.I don’t think we will survive as a religion without developing a stronger sense of our shared religious purpose and that purpose cannot be social justice. If that were the case, we’d be no difference from GreenPeace and we are. I think our attempts to put social justice at the center of our religious life have only served to marginalize us and shrink our membership.Not that there’s anything wrong with a church pursuing social justice aims they are a critical part of our communities. But they can’t be the center. Worship does not have to do with a deity, not necessarily. In it’s oldest forms, worship means “to create that which is worthy.” In our time together, in worship, we participatein a ritual that names, creates and shapes expressions of what is worthy in our lives. In sodoing, we make an opportunity in worship to transform ourselves, and by extension our community and our world, in accordance with what we deem most worthy.That’s where social justice, among other things, can come in. But without our shared naming of what is worthy of reverence and awe in our lives, effective social justice is not possible. The impetus has to come from somewhere and for us, it should only come from our sense of religious purpose.

  1. Michelle Conklin

    I believe discernment is the greatest gift we can offer one another as siblings in faith and in our communities at large. Our churches are filled with thoughtful loving people, who are very wise. The suggestion of intentional discernment will embolden our congregants to speak their truth. That is the church I wish to serve.

  2. Thomas Earthman

    I’ve been taking a lot of flack on Twitter and my own blog for asking questions like these.

    I’ve been trying for a month to discuss ways in which we might better define what it means to be a UU, and I’ve been called a creedalist for it. I won’t go any further here than to say that I am glad to see something like this being brought up on an official blog, and to welcome more discussion on my own. I hope we take these questions seriously. Without them, we have no future as a religious movement.

    • Micheline

      Thanks, David. I, too, have felt more that usually frkeaed out of late, as I risk speaking deeper, wider truths both in my congregation and outside it about what is and isn’t going on in this movement, and what our relationship to our broken culture ought to be, and my own frustration and vision. And yet, without people willing to take risks, rock boats, offer visions beyond comfort zones, there can be no movement.Gather courage and strength from others of us around the edges who are also gathering courage and strength from your work. And, always, from the God whose already/not yet kingdom changes everything.Traveling mercies. -E

  3. Peggy Smith

    I just watched the whole series a couple of days ago. I think discernment is the first step! We are a brand new Threshold Congregation at Unitarian Universalists of Southern Delaware and have our first planning meeting with Mark Bernstein of CERG tonight. So excited to take a first step together!Thank you for all the resources that you provide!

  4. Chuck O'Neil

    I think Unitarian Universalism has lost its way. What does “faith” have to do with UU? People who beleive in a external power that can’t be sensed, measured or in anyway be shown in an objective way need faith. UUs don’t need faith.

    What does “discernment” mean. Is this another one of those fuzzy words like “spiritual” that have no definable meaning? Is this a word to be all inclusive and squeeze any and all beliefs into one word?

    By trying to be all inclusive, we are defining things so broadly that the words have no real meaning. Then we proceed to “pray” or have “faith” as mentioned in the article. Whom do these people pray to and who do they have faith in?

    UU doesn’t mean any of the above. It doesn’t mean any religious belief is a part of us. It means we take an objective look at all beliefs and the wisdom they may or may not provide.

    Caring about the world and those in it is an important part of who I think we should be. Taking action to change the world for the better as best we can is also a part. My church seems to have lost sight of that and focuses inward on ourselves looking for spirituality. That is the wrong approach for me.

    When I first became a Unitarian Universalist, we didn’t have faith or spirituality and we sure didn’t pray. UUs have changed and if they keep going in this direction, they’re going to loose me.

    • Thomas Earthman

      Plenty of UUs DO have faith, and we are a religion, not a social club. I pray. I pray to the unknown god, embodied in the interdependent web, and reflected in the dignity of the human spirit.

      We aren’t growing. We aren’t even holding on to our members in most cases because so many of our congregations have become half-way houses where the disillusioned come to ween themselves off of church, rather than a spiritual home where they are challenged and encouraged to grow.

      That is the point of discernment; how can we be vital to the lives of our members? What message can we bring them that helps them improve their lives and communities? How can we become more than what we are?

      I’d hate to loose a single member from a single congregation. Realistically, though, the kind of direction and discernment we need might cause some congregations to fold entirely. I’d rather have that in the name of true growth as a movement than the slow death by attrition that we are currently suffering.

  5. Jordan

    @Chuck– interesting thoughts! I understand your feelings about broad definitions of faith; we can’t ever encompass everyone. However, it is difficult as Unitarian Universalists to define our path and purpose without a common foundation, which we do require in order to remain relevant and cohesive.

    I’m a little confused; Unitarian Universalism is a religious movement, which by its nature implies faith or religious structure, be that theist or non-theist. Supporting social justice in the world is vital to our religion and to our identity as UUs, but can’t be the ONLY thing we define ourselves by. If our main purpose is service and isn’t centered around faith, how are we any different from the Rotary Club, Habitat for Humanity, or other service group??

    Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religious movement that grew from congregationalist Christianity. While we may not believe in the trinity, or in a concrete theist figure, we still are a religious community. I’d say, if you don’t want faith, and don’t want to pray, don’t come to a church.


Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply