General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

The Spirituality of Welcoming the Stranger

General Assembly 2006 Event 2038

Speakers: Rev. Dr. Terasa G. Cooley, District Executive, Massachusetts Bay District

Opening Reading from Alla Renee Bozarth

Pack nothing. Bring only your determination to serve and your willingness to be free. Don't wait for the bread to rise. Take nourishment for the journey, eat standing but be ready to move at a moment's notice.

I will give you dreams in the desert to guide you safely home to that place you have not yet seen...I am sending you into wilderness to make a new way and to learn my ways more deeply.

Some of you will be so changed by weathers and wanderings that even your closest friends will have to learn your features as though for the first time. Some of you will not change at all. Some will be abandoned by your dearest loved ones and misunderstood by those who have known you since birth and feel abandoned by you. Some will find new friendship in unlikely faces, and old friends as faithful as the pillar of God's flame."

Terasa Cooley's story: "Unitarian Universalism has saved me three times. Growing up in Texas, I had to explain 'what church I went to' and knew I was not alone. It saved me from feeling isolated and apart.

"Working in Texas politics, for Jim Hightower, I ran up against the entrenched system and found myself becoming cynical about the possibility of change. I found myself going back to church, a place of safety.

"When I became a minister, I discovered the most extraordinary people who give of their own generosity; but I also found people arguing, people who were upset with me, people who had different ideas from me. There will always be people who will challenge us in the way we least want to be challenged.

"I have been forced to grow in ways I did not think I could.

'Your ability to grow is defined by your ability to withstand pain. The greatest growth comes out of the greatest pain,' said Peter Steinke in a UU University presentation earlier this week.

The people that we don't even know have something to teach us. Radical hospitality is a willingness to be open to that kind of understanding.

PowerPoint Slides

Why Radical?

  • Requires Change
  • Necessarily uncomfortable
  • Spiritual growth comes out of it
  • Dedication to larger purpose—not just about me, but a larger purpose
  • Journey through the unknown

Glass is Half Full

  • Growth every year for the last two decades
  • ARIS Survey—630,000 identified as UUs in 2001,
  • Compared with 500,000 in 1990
  • 42% of UU congregations grew by 10% or more between 1995 and 2000


  • Presbyterian—aggregate decline of 50%
  • Methodists—aggregate decline of 52%
  • UCC—aggregate decline of 60%
  • Evangelists—growth by 50% or more! (Mormon, southern Baptists, Lutherans, non-denominational)

Glass is Half Full

  • Comparison to 1968—282,000 UUS but in 2004 218,000
  • Aggregate decline of 7%
  • 1.5 % of congregations account for 24% of the growth in the denomination
  • 30% of congregations have shrunk by 10% or more in the last decade.

Practical Means

  • Usually given over to a few
  • Desire to grow derives from needs for money, building, staff, etc
  • Internally based rather than externally based (our need to grow, etc, not based on culture shift)

Culture Shift "Incarnational Shift"

  • Not a need but a want
  • Spiritual basis
  • Desire to include engage and invite
  • Open to unfolding mystery

David Rynick, Rynick Consulting

Incarnational Growth

  • It's not just about numbers, requires us to know ourselves,
  • Must be present to ourselves
  • Must be present to others
  • Then you get to spiritual growth

Power of Curiosity

  • Abandon preconceptions
  • Recognize we can learn something
  • Risk being "intrusive"

Must Be Able to ask Powerful Questions (not ones we know answers to)

  • Short, simple
  • Open-ended, not yes/no
  • How? What/ where? (never "why," which is an intrusive question)
  • Questions that lead to more conversations with visitors: Did you find what you were looking for on our website? What drew you here today? What did you think of the service? What did you not get from the service?
  • Conversations should be reciprocal, and lead to connections—and differences. Both of those can be community-building

Terasa directed the group to hold short conversations with one other person for five minutes: the challenge was to talk about things you aspired to as a child but hadn't been able to achieve.People discovered things in depth about each other in just a few short minutes;

Challenging conversations, but easier than "Hi, How are you?" Once you get past that, you can discover all kinds of wonderful things.

There are always people who like to sit in the back and not talk to anybody, and leave out right have to be sensitive to that.

Welcome tables: you should not hide behind them but be in front of them; even welcome people outside, as they walk in the door.

You can even have encounters with people you think you already know.

Acknowledging words ("nice to see you, hope to see you next week") but not intrusive questions can make a big difference. "Do you have time to come with me to coffee hour?" gives people a choice, if they are on the fence about sticking around.

Asking a newcomer to be an usher is a painless way to get in, it doesn't require much effort or committee time.

Being "pounced on" is not the ideal situation for a newcomer.

Many congregations have a special location where newcomers can go to, where a church leadership person will talk to them.

How do we create congregations that push spiritual growth instead of "business of the church?"

Personal Growth Leads to Congregational Growth

  • Clarity of Purpose: related to people's lived experience. A one-line statement of purpose can do it, not about saving the world, or some such grandiose purpose. Here are some examples:

    • In every worship service you talk about those things that are important to the community—In Hartford CT Terasa instituted a policy where some lay person got up every Sunday and talked about how the church community had impacted their lives.
    • Relationship between mission and worship
    • Inspiration worship
    • Small-group ministry is essential to a successful community building; they should rotate after eight weeks, so you are always meeting new people
    • Opportunities for spiritual growth in daily life
    • Meet people where they are
    • Lack of significant conflict

Nobody likes to be in a church where people don't know who to argue; we need appropriate structures where people can deal with conflict easily and openly. That creates an inviting natural atmosphere for spiritual growth.

All standing committees should be renewed every year if there is a purpose for them, else they should be abolished. It's about "meeting people where they are," something which mega-churches do incredibly well, and create ministries about that.


  • Niche—We don't need to become mega-churches; we must constantly revisit if we are a niche church; young single people become married people with children after a few years
  • Generalist—across the spectrum programming; you must staff for it to do this.
  • You staff for the future, not for the present, if you are to grow
  • You take the pulse of the larger community as well; you should know the demographics of your community; what are the needs of the people surrounding the church (not just what our needs are).


Reported by Allan Stern; edited by Margy Levine Young.