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Spirit in Practice: Ten Workshops for Unitarian Universalist Adults

A Tapestry of Faith Program for Adults

About the Author

Erik Walker Wikstrom is Senior Minister of First Parish Brewster (Massachusetts). He served as pastor of First Universalist Church in Yarmouth, Maine, from 1995 to 2006, and served an internship at First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts. Raised a Presbyterian (he was ordained as the youngest elder in the Long Island Presbytery) and nurtured in the summer camps of the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church, Erik also studied Zen Buddhism for nearly twenty years. He holds a master's degree in divinity from Harvard Divinity School and has advanced training in spiritual direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. Before entering the traditional ministry, Erik was a clown, magician, juggler, fire eater, and mask maker. He is the author of Teacher, Guide, Companion: Rediscovering Jesus in a Secular World (Skinner House Books, 2003) and Simply Pray: a Modern Spiritual Practice to Deepen Your Life (Skinner House Books, 2005). He currently lives on Cape Cod with his wife, two sons, and their cat.


The author expresses his gratitude to Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, for its "Eight Gates" model upon which this workshop's central organizing principle is based.

The developmental editor wishes to thank Adrianne Ross for her tireless project coordination for the Spirit in Practice program and other Tapestry of Faith programs for adults, Margy Levine Young and Adrianne Ross for the hard work and technological know-how that has brought the Spirit in Practice program to the internet, Kathy Carter for detailed and thoughtful manuscript editing, and Judith Frediani for carrying forward the vision of the Tapestry of Faith series.  Gratitude also to Tapestry of Faith consultant Marion G. Mason, Ph.D., for her valuable suggestions pertaining to adults’ spiritual development, and sincere thanks to Rev. William “Scotty” McLennan for permission to use “A Faith Stage Checklist” from his book Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up With Has Lost its Meaning(Harper San Francisco, 1999).


Developed in response to many Unitarian Universalist adults' desire to engage in life-giving spiritual practices, the ten workshops of Spirit in Practice provide avenues for deepening spirituality and affirming spiritual growth in the congregation. Participants are invited to reflect, share, and grow together, exploring ways to nurture their connections with the sacred in everyday life.

As one in a series of Tapestry of Faith curricula for adults, Spirit in Practice weaves Unitarian Universalist values, principles, and sources with four "strands:" spiritual development, ethical development, and Unitarian Universalist identity development, and faith development, Each of the strands is described below.

Spiritual Development. In the book Everyday Spiritual Practice, Scott Alexander defines spirituality as our relationship with the Spirit of Life, however we understand it to be. Our spirituality is our deep, reflective, and expressed response to the awe, wonder, joy, pain, and grief of being alive. In this sense, the Tapestry of Faith programs seek to form children, youth, and adults who:

  • Know that they are lovable beings of infinite worth, imbued with powers of the soul and obligated to use their gifts, talents, and potentials in the service of life
  • Appreciate the value of spiritual practice as a means of deepening faith and integrating beliefs and values with everyday life

Ethical Development. When we develop our ethics, we develop our moral values—our sense of what is right and wrong. We also enhance our ability to act on those values, overcoming oppressions and despair. In this sense, the Tapestry of Faith programs seek to form children, youth, and adults who:

  • Realize that they are moral agents, capable of making a difference in the lives of other people, challenging structures of social and political oppression, and promoting the health and well-being of the planet
  • Accept that they are responsible for the stewardship and creative transformation of their religious heritage and community of faith in the service of diversity, justice and compassion

Unitarian Universalist Identity. A person's participation in a Unitarian Universalist congregation does not automatically create Unitarian Universalist identity. Personal identification with Unitarian Universalism begins when people start to call themselves Unitarian Universalist and feel part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation or community. Identity is strengthened as individuals discover and resonate with the stories, symbols, and practices of Unitarian Universalism. As individuals find and give acceptance, as they cherish the community's people and values and messages, as they find sustenance for their holy hungers, they grow into Unitarian Universalists. In this sense, the Tapestry of Faith programs seek to form children, youth, and adults who:

  • Affirm that they are part of a Unitarian Universalist religious heritage and community of faith that has value and provides resources for living
  • Recognize the need for community, affirming the importance of families, relationships, and connections between and among the generations
  • Accept that they are responsible for the stewardship and creative transformation of their religious heritage and community of faith in the service of diversity, justice, and compassion

Faith Development. When we develop in faith, we develop as meaning-makers. Faith is not about accepting impossible ideas. Rather, faith is about embracing life's possibilities, growing in our sense of being "at home in the universe." Faith is practiced in relationship with others—it has personal dimensions, but it is best supported by a community of shared symbols, stories, values, and meaning. This strand—faith development—emphasizes each person's religious journey as a participant in a faith community and faith tradition, and each person's lifelong process of bringing head, heart, and hands to what is of ultimate meaning and value.

Each of these strands is woven, to some degree, in each of the Spirit in Practice workshops, even though the primary focus of this resource is spiritual development. May these workshops come to life in your hands and in the hearts, minds, and spirits of those you teach.

—Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, Developmental Editor, Unitarian Universalist Association Adult Programs Director

The Program

The idea of spiritual practices encourages individuals to take responsibility for their own spiritual development by spending time working on it, deliberating on its meaning and how best to pursue it, seeking to understand the sacred through reading and the counsel of others, and seeking to have contact with the sacred through personal reflection and prayer.

—Robert Wuthnow, scholar of American religious history

Spirit in Practice was created to help Unitarian Universalists develop regular disciplines, or practices, of the spirit—practices that help them connect with the sacred ground of their being, however they understand it. Spirit in Practice affirms religious diversity while seeking unity in our communal quest for meaning and wholeness. Whether participants follow a path they identify as Humanist, Jewish, Christian, Pagan, Theist, Atheist, Agnostic, Mystic, and/or any of the other paths we follow in our diverse congregations, the Spirit in Practice workshops offer a forum for learning, sharing, and growth that can enrich their faith journeys.

In Everyday Spiritual Practice, an anthology of writings by Unitarian Universalist clergy and laity about their own spiritual practices, the Reverend Scott Alexander wrote, "In our faith every individual is expected, with the help of clergy and community, to nurture and tend the garden of his or her own religious life each and every day."

Spirit in Practice helps Unitarian Universalists tend that garden. It helps our congregations offer support and challenge to members along their spiritual paths. It is one way to provide the practical support and guidance Unitarian Universalists need for spiritual growth to blossom.

In interfaith dialogue, and in our spiritually diverse congregations, the analogy of a mountain is often used—there are many paths up a mountain. Each path has its own plusses and minuses. The North Face may be faster but also more technically challenging; the South Face may meander more easily and provide more overlooks. Each will appeal to—or repel—different people.

One of the things that make our movement unique is that we do not insist that everyone take the same route. Rather, we encourage people to find the path that most suits them. And then we go a step further—at our best, we keep gathering together to discuss what we've seen and done on our journeys thus far. That means that the folks going up the North Face get a bit of the flavor of the trip they might have taken, and the folks going up the South Face get to vicariously experience a different kind of climb than the one they're on. This mutual give-and-take, in the context of conversation, not conversion, can only enrich the experience of all who take part in it—even those who are just walking back and forth around the base camp.

The workshops that make up the Spirit in Practice series are predicated on three fundamental ideas:

  • That the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" that we affirm in our Unitarian Universalist principles is a spiritual quest
  • That this search is more effectively and more evocatively carried out if we have some training and discipline—not to mention some practice, in both senses of the word—that helps us pay attention to the sacred
  • That there is nothing in our lives that cannot serve as a tool for this work

Drawing on a model developed by the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York , for the training of its students, Spirit in Practice focuses on eight spheres of holistic and wholehearted spiritual practices. These eight spheres are:

  • Personal spiritual practices
  • Communal worship practices
  • Spiritual partnerships
  • Mind practices
  • Body practices
  • Soul practices
  • Life practices
  • Justice practices

The first workshop introduces this eight-sphere concept, and Workshops 2 through 9 examine each of these spheres in turn. The spheres can be explored as a complete series or as individual encouragements to try new lenses through which to view and engage the depth dimensions of our lives. The tenth workshop is designed to review and integrate the others, since an argument that runs through them all is that these various spheres work best when brought together.


This program will:

  • Nurture a deepening spiritual life and spiritual centeredness
  • Consider the value of spiritual practice, in any variety of forms, as a means to deepen faith and enhance the quality of everyday living
  • Cultivate individual and communal spiritual practices
  • Develop participants' alertness to the wonder and mystery of existence
  • Encourage experiences of the sacred through worship, ritual, wisdom of faith traditions, and spiritual disciplines
  • Explore possibilities for deepening experiences of spirituality in the context of a Unitarian Universalist congregation


A team of two or more adults should lead the Spirit in Practice workshops. The same co-leaders need not lead each workshop. However, consistency in leadership has many advantages for congregations providing all or part of the Spirit in Practice program as a continuous series.

Leaders may be religious professionals, such as ministers or religious educators, or they may be committed laypersons. Consider using these criteria in choosing your Spirit in Practice leaders:

  • Knowledgeable about Unitarian Universalism
  • Involved in the congregation
  • Trusted within the congregation
  • Effective at speaking, teaching, and facilitating
  • Engaged in regular spiritual practices
  • Good listeners
  • Responsible and respectful, with strong interpersonal boundaries
  • Well organized and competent

Leaders need to be capable of creating and nurturing a supportive, respectful, and safe community within the workshops. If your congregation has a safe congregation policy, a code of ethics for leaders, or a covenant of right relations, make sure your Spirit in Practice leaders become familiar with and affirm it.

Leaders are expected to be facilitators of learning. As such, their motivations and behavior should be tuned toward the learning needs of participants. Leaders interested in their own gratification or celebrity, or leaders with a theological axe to grind, might present a workshop that is more a "show" about the leaders than a learning experience for and about the participants.

A leader can facilitate learning in these workshops without teaching experience or pedagogical knowledge. Throughout each workshop plan, leaders will find detailed guidance to conduct activities in a way that facilitates participants' learning.


The Spirit in Practice program is designed for adult participants age eighteen and up. The workshops are equally suitable for a congregation's first-time visitors and its longtime members. To adapt a workshop for use with high school youth, leaders may need to revise some activities to make their concepts more concrete and less abstract.

Workshops can accommodate any number of participants, with six participants an ideal minimum. If you have six or more participants, you will be able to divide your group into the groups of two or three that several activities require.

Downloading the Document

You can download this program, save it on your computer, edit it, and print it. Or, you can download individual sessions or workshops.

About the Author

Erik Walker Wikstrom

Erik Walker Wikstrom

The Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom is the former Worship and Music Resources Director for the Unitarian Universalist Association and has served congregations in Yarmouth, Maine, and Brewster, Massachusetts. He is the author of Teacher, Guide, Companion: Rediscovering Jesus in a Secular World and Simply Pray: A Modern...

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