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Things to Consider When Naming a Congregation

February 14, 2012

When a Unitarian Universalist (UU) group began to form in 2009 in suburban Cincinnati it wasn’t long before its members decided it needed a name. They thought about naming the new congregation for the town where they met, but then they opted for something different. “We noticed all these contemporary nondenominational Christian churches, which all had names like Wellspring and Crossroads,” says Lindsey Sodano, one of the organizers of the new group.

“Interestingly,” she says, “these congregations are our main competition when many liberal people look for a church. They go there mistakenly thinking the modern music and laid-back minister will translate to beliefs and values similar to theirs. After attending and listening to the anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) messages these visitors end up with us.”

Sodano’s group picked the name Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Church. “We wanted to get on the radar of church shoppers, so we went with a modern one-word name,” she says. Other names considered were “Discovery” and “Beacon.”

Sodano says the word “church” as part of the name both helps and hurts. “It helped give us legitimacy when we were having to rent space from others. It has probably hurt us with our more atheist/humanist-leaning visitors. I’m sure there are people who drive by and think that we’re not for them because we’re a ‘church.’ We thought about adding a line to our sign, ‘Atheists welcome, and we really mean it.’”

“A name means a lot,” she adds. “Your church could be a vibrant, friendly, contemporary liberal community, but if it is named something people don’t connect with they won’t come.”

According to numbers submitted through February 2011, there are 1,046 congregations within the Unitarian Universalist Association, including the Church of the Larger Fellowship. An analysis shows that the vast majority are named for geographic locations. Most are cities and towns, but there are also congregations named for counties, valleys, mountain peaks, and ocean bays. A few are named for broader regions––Piedmont, prairie, mountain ranges, foothills, seashores, deserts, and forests.

Of those with names not tied to geography, at least two appear to be named for flowers: Columbine UU Church in Colorado and Wildflower Church in Texas. Around 30 are named for people––Starr King, Emerson, Thoreau, May, Throop, Goodloe, Jefferson, Channing, Davies, Murray, Follen, Parker, Servetus, Eliot, Dix, Pullman, Atkinson, Paine, Priestley, Cooper, Reeb, and Brown.

Twenty-two congregations use All Souls as part of their name. The oldest congregation with that name is the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, founded in 1819. With more than 1,000 members, it is one of the UUA’s largest congregations. In the past decade three congregations have taken the All Souls appellation.

A small number of congregations have taken names that evoke more than geography. Some express inclusiveness. There is “Tapestry, a UU Congregation,” in California, and “Mosaic UU Congregation,” in Florida. There are several that use “Open Circle” or “Circle” as part of their name. Several use “People’s Church” and there are a couple that use “Free Church.” Other congregations have adopted religious imagery. There is a “Chalice UU Congregation” in California, plus at least one that includes “Spirit of Life” in its name. There is also an “Epiphany Community Church” (a Christian UU congregation).

Of the total 1,046, 752 congregations use both Unitarian and Universalist as part of their name, 161 just use Unitarian, 58 only use Universalist, and 75 use neither. As for church, 473 use that identifier, compared to 271 fellowships, 142 congregations, and 102 societies.

The newest UU congregations have tended to stick with geography when choosing names. Of the 64 new congregations welcomed into the UUA between 2000 and February 2011, 47 chose names that tie them to a specific city or region. The benefit in that is that including a city’s name instantly tells a seeker where the congregation is located. Another ten or so chose spiritual, inspirational, or aspirational names, such as Harmony UU Church, New Hope Congregation, WellSprings Congregation, UU Peace Fellowship, Open Circle UU Fellowship, Pathways Church, Gaia Community.

Choosing a name can be challenging for a congregation. Take the experience of folks at one congregation formed several years ago. One of its leaders, who asked to be anonymous, said, “Choosing a name looked so simple, but it was a long and winding path that took the services of a consultant and a lot of patience.”

He said congregants were divided over church vs. congregation and whether to use a city name or a broader geographic name. “The church vs. congregation sides didn’t care what other name parts were added. Their interest was totally in the liturgical,” he said. “The other camp didn’t care whether church or congregation was used so long as the geographic issue was covered.”

The discussion went on for 17 months. A facilitator who was called in “surrendered” after one meeting. The governing board then called a meeting where, after extensive discussion, a two-thirds majority voted for Unitarian Universalist Congregation of _________. In the aftermath one person left the congregation, feeling the issue had not been discussed sufficiently. The leader said he is grateful for the resolution. “I’m not looking forward to any future discussions of name should we feel a need.”

When the Rev. Ken Beldon and several lay leaders began forming a congregation in 2005 in suburban Philadelphia, they decided they wanted a name not limited by geography. They chose WellSprings Congregation.

“We had a desire to have a name that spoke to the power of symbols and images,” he said. Local geography did play a role in the naming, however. WellSprings evokes both a nearby town, Chester Springs, and a well-known state park, Marsh Creek.

“We landed on a water image because of the abundant water where we are and because WellSprings speaks to images of abundance and flow,” said Beldon. We also wanted a word that had a verb-like quality, that spoke of action, movement.”

He said the naming group made a conscious decision to create a name that people would remember––and that was fairly short. For that reason “Unitarian Universalism” is not part of the short name that members and staff use in answering the phone and in referring to the 185-member congregation in general conversation. But the two Us are not far away.

“On our website we identify ourselves further as 'a Unitarian Universalist community of faith.' We identify as UU in the words we speak each Sunday in lighting our chalice. And our web address is wellspringsuu.org.

And congregation vs. church? “We went with congregation because it was more inclusive,” he said.

There’s also a visual element to “WellSprings.” It functions as a logo. The middle S descends and forms an outline for a pool of water. So the name becomes a symbol as well as a name.

"We wanted a name that speaks to the variety of ways that people take in information––verbal, but also visual. We know that human beings connect to what's most important in a variety of ways, and not simply with the rational, linear part of the mind. Simply naming ourselves for a location could not achieve that resonance.”

For more information contact interconnections @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Monday, December 23, 2013.

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