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by Jill Sarber

In Texas, the Houston metro area is home to eight thriving congregations that joined together to deepen their Unitarian Universalist (UU) theological understanding with the help of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

On one of his many trips to the Houston area, Terry Sweetser, Vice President for Stewardship and Development at the UUA, approached a number of lay leaders and ministers in the area about forming a group that would think strategically about how to grow the vision of the UU movement and harness the spiritual hunger in the region.

What began almost two years ago as monthly discussions among the area ministers and a few lay leaders, the Houston Metro Strategic Planning Group now involves the ministers, presidents, and other lay leaders of eight energized congregations including Bay Area UU Church, Emerson UU Church, First UU Church of Houston, Henry David Thoreau UU Congregation, Northwest Community UU Church, Northwoods UU Church, Unitarian Fellowship of Houston, and UU Fellowship of Galveston.

The group had been meeting for over a year organizing and discussing how best to develop ways to encourage growth and health among the UU congregations in the Houston area. They kept coming back to the idea that at the heart of the UU faith is a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” It became clear that theological literacy and the ability to help UUs learn to think and articulate their faith theologically was an essential aspect of their goals.

Meanwhile, at the Association level, lay theological education was an important focus and goal as well. UUA staff established the Lay Theological Education Grants Program funded by money raised through Association Sunday 2008. Grants were awarded to UU congregations, districts, and seminaries for projects focused on providing lay leaders with opportunities for spiritual growth and deeper theological understanding.

Joe Sullivan, a leading participant in the Houston Metro Strategic Planning Group, a member of the Henry David Thoreau UU Congregation, and the former president of the Southwest District said, “It’s not enough to simply get people to find us…when they do, we must be prepared to help them live out a faith that has depth, meaning, and challenge.”

Seminary courses are often time-consuming and cost-prohibitive, and few ministers have the time to teach in-depth theology courses within their own churches. Thus, the members of the Houston Metro Strategic Planning Group decided to develop a learning opportunity that would help lay people begin to think theologically, to ask and answer theological questions, and to engage in articulating their own theologies. They created the Houston UU Lay Theological Institute, a training program to educate budding spiritual leaders in the community. “The institute is more of an idea than a place” committed to regular on-going and annual deep faith development, according to Matt Tittle, minister of the Bay Area UU Church and a leading participant of the Houston Metro Strategic Planning Group. They decided their first project would be to field test Rev. Dr. Thandeka’s new curriculum for adults titled, “What Moves Us: Unitarian Universalist Theology,” for the UUA’s Tapestry of Faith online religious education resources program.

The UUA awarded the Houston Metro Strategic Planning Group a $9, 245 grant provided by funds raised through Association Sunday to achieve their shared lay theological education goals.

People who gave for Association Sunday in 2008 can feel pride that their generosity continues to be distributed and utilized today for programs and projects critical to the UU movement including lay theological education.

Tittle said, “Generosity comes naturally when it is for a project or pursuit that matters to people, is critical to church life, to the mission, and to the community.”

In January, Rev. Dr. Thandeka traveled to Houston to train 22 facilitators on the curriculum. The training lasted over two weekends for a total of 20 hours. Each congregation from the Houston Metro Strategic Planning Group was represented.

On February 20, the Houston Metro Strategic Planning Group hosted a kick off event for this project and the spiritual journey they about to embark on.

Sullivan said, “We believed if we had 60 individuals attend this event, it would be considered a success. We had over 140 attendees for the kick off event. It was a very successful launch.”

In Houston, TX, participants in the field test of Rev. Dr. Thandeka’s curriculum are gaining a deeper theological understanding which would not have been possible without congregants coming together to support programs that matter to the faith movement through generosity and Association Sunday.

In May, Rev. Dr. Thandeka will return to the area to wrap-up the 10-week course by following up with participants, helping to close their experience, and assisting with the transition from curriculum to continued small group ministries within their congregations.

“This experience has brought everyone closer together—creating a more interdependent culture where we all work together which naturally makes all of our churches healthier,” said Tittle.

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