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Forum Series Offers a New Way to Reach Others

The Communications Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tampa, Fla., was not satisfied with the idea that a congregation should simply address the faithful who showed up on Sunday morning. It wanted a way to reach out to people in other ways and to raise contemporary social issues in a meaningful manner.

Thus was born the Emmerson Forum, an umbrella for a series of presentations on different social issues. The first two will focus on end of life issues. The first will be September 21, 2012, and will be a multi-speaker event titled “End of Life Care After Terri Schiavo.” The second, “What We Can Learn About Life from the Death of a Pet,” will be early in 2013.

Ron Hammerle, a member of the congregation and one of the founders of the Emerson Forum, said the forum was conceived out of two convictions: that congregations ought to take a hand in creating responsible public dialogues on social issues, and that forums like this are another way to reach people who might be interested in Unitarian Universalism—if they knew it existed.

Hammerle said the forum planners chose to focus the first two forums on end of life issues for two reasons. First, the Schiavo case was local. And second, he said, “End of life issues have been among the longest-standing interests of primitive people and organized religion, as well as among those with little or no faith. Since we are all destined to face these decisions, we felt it was a fitting first topic for our forum.”

Schiavo was a young woman who collapsed in her St. Petersburg, Fla., home in 1990 from cardiac arrest, suffering massive brain damage. Years of unsuccessful therapeutic efforts were followed by years of court battles that included the intervention of politicians. At stake was whether she could be allowed to die or should be kept alive in a comatose state.

The conference will include Schiavo’s former court-appointed guardian, plus the author of a novel about one family’s struggle with a mother’s desire to die a natural death. Other speakers are the director of a hospital palliative care program and a pediatric intensive care physician, who will speak about the “limits of care” for children.

The second forum, about the death of pets, will feature a presentation by a veterinarian who founded Lap of Love, a network of veterinarians devoted to end of life care for pets and support for their owners. Hammerle said that forum gives people an opportunity to explore end of life issues from a distance. “Talking about the death of a pet gives people emotional distance—and the death of a pet is often the first experience a child has in comprehending death.”

These forums will not be presented in the congregation’s building but at public sites around the Tampa Bay area. That’s for a reason, said Hammerle. “We recognize that in a largely secular era people are not coming to or joining churches as they have in the past. Providing forums in venues like this gives us an opportunity to reach groups we might not otherwise reach and vice versa.”

He elaborated, “The era of religious organizations expecting people to exclusively ‘come to our place’ on Sunday—or on Saturday—for relevant and ethical inquiry, is over. Those few religious organizations that have succeeded in growing do so because they offer messages that relate to people’s everyday lives—emotionally as well as intellectually. Among those successful organizations membership is no longer the standard by which to judge success. Attendance is the criteria now used by those who study and measure the success of religious organizations.”

He said the forums will not advocate for a specific position on issues. “We think the forums should provide a diversity of opinion and views, rather than reinforcing one particular point of view.”

The congregation has committed $500 in support of the Emerson Forum, which the co-founders have pledged will be self-supporting. The programs will be largely underwritten by corporate sponsors, foundations, individual donors, and ticket sales. The Forum operating group anticipates doing at least two major forum programs a year.

The Emerson Forum was influenced by a program at the UU Fellowship of Vero Beach, Fla. The congregation there for several years has sponsored two speaker series through The Emerson Center. One series features presentations by nationally recognized personalities engaged in politics, the media, and other areas. The second series brings in speakers on Florida culture.

Hammerle said the Tampa forums will be different. “Vero Beach’s program is more a community venue for cultural presentations. We have many places in the Tampa Bay area that do that very well. Our focus is on issues at the crossroads of ethics and public life.”

Hammerle said that he’s happy to talk with other congregations that may want to start similar programs, and he can be reached through his congregation. Each congregation needs to assess their own situation, he noted. “Markets are different. Organizations are different. Leaders are different. Programs that work in one area won't necessarily work in others.”

“We do, however, share one thing in common, he added. “If we keep on doing what we've been doing for the last century and expect different results, we will continue to be disappointed—and ask why.”

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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