It is, of course, every congregation’s desire to have most of its members actively engaged in personal growth, in deepening their spiritual development and working to improve the larger community and the world.
There’s a lot of all of that going on at First Unitarian Church in Dallas, which has embraced a congregation-wide theme this year: Year of Engagement and Service, or YES!
The YES! theme invites friends and members to get involved in social action and civic engagement projects outside of church, ranging from increased involvement in their neighborhoods to engaging with the world at large. They are encouraged to join one of three YES! “tracks,” focusing on their neighborhood (Neighbors), the Dallas metro area (Community), or the world itself (Global).
Member MarySue Foster chose the Global track. By spring she, with many other members of the congregation who also chose that track, will have participated in a 12-week course on Islam, made monthly visits to a mosque, done a four-week book study around oppression of women and helped lead a community discussion on it, assisted with an underwear drive for immigrant families, and begun to create a local immigrant resource directory.
“I’m really attracted to social justice and getting out in the community and engaging people and making change,” said Foster. “I really like this year because that’s what it’s about.”
The Global track, which focuses on how one person can make a difference in the world, includes opportunities to learn about and make connections with the local Muslim community and with immigrant communities. It also explores issues of cultural diversity, immigration, and economic justice in Dallas and beyond.
The Neighbors track explores three types of neighbors—“Our neighbors in the pews, the faith communities around us, and our neighbor next door,” says the description of YES! on First Unitarian’s website. It organized events to help church members get to know one another better and arranged for visits to faith communities close to the First Unitarian campus.
Participants in the Community track are working with local projects, including volunteering weekly at the North Texas Food Bank. Other teams work with local community gardens. The Community group was named the lead partner in the Launch Collaborative, an after-school mentoring program for at-risk students.
For all three tracks, the year itself is divided into three segments. In the fall participants learn about a topic. The early winter is devoted to deciding how to engage with it, and the rest of the year is actual engagement.
This is the third year that the congregation has embraced a yearlong theme for its ministries. Two years ago the theme was Rise and Shine! about living with “purpose, hope, energy, and gratitude.” Last year it was Moving Forward, about “learning more about who we are, what is driving us, and where we’re headed.”
Senior minister the Rev. Daniel Kanter introduced the program to the congregation in September, saying, “We think of this year as a way to serve... to engage with those we do not know... in our pews and neighborhoods and larger communities. To be part of this church today is not to stand by, but to engage in service. It’s time for us as a church to make a difference.”
In an interview he added: “This weaves together our understanding of being a person of faith in a community. It integrates the entire year. People like the tying together of worship and programming over a nine-month span. This is also a way to have a unified direction for religious education for children and adults, music programs, and other aspects of ministry.”
The Rev. Aaron White, associate minister, added: “These themes are about what is going on in the life of the congregation. We heard from so many people who want to do something meaningful in the world. And at the same time we’re trying to get more active in the Dallas community, so it made sense to have a Year of Service. It feels like a more public identity for the church.” A banner outside the church proclaims “Be Part of Our YES!”
Kanter said about three-fourths of the congregation of 1,100 is participating in YES! He said that in the first two years of theme ministry the themes were primarily articulated during worship, with congregants asked to undertake introspective exercises. Included were invitations for people to develop a spiritual practice and to ponder keywords that helped them learn more about themselves. This year YES! work is outward-focused. “All three tracks have educational events on Sunday, but most of what goes on happens away from church. The beauty of this year is that the theme happens in many places and at many times.”
White said theme ministry allows the congregation to say, “We’re all on the same page.” He said UU congregations can struggle with a lack of communal vision that everyone can buy into. “Now, when a guest shows up, we can point to this as a program they can immediately be involved with.”
Kanter added, “I’m hearing people say they’re proud of the congregation deliberately engaging in the community and also that they're getting to know more people in the congregation.”
Foster agreed: “This is engaging people in a different way. I’m hoping that our guests will recognize us as a church that’s serious about engagement, about walking the talk. And we are.”
Another First Unitarian member, Jennifer Jennings, chose the Global track. She says she’s found something in each of the three years of theme ministry to support her life journey. The first year she participated in a retreat called “Let Your Life Speak.” Last year there was an “ImagineNation Conference” that focused on connecting with community partners for social justice work. “The retreat was perfect timing, helping me get more involved in projects that now feel like a big part of my life’s purpose.
“This year, what I love about YES! is that it’s mobilizing our members—moving us out of the church, so we can have more of an impact on our neighborhood, community, and world. All three years the themes have helped us focus on our commitments to grow individually and collectively and make our world a better place.”
Peggy and Kevin Yard and their son, Cameron, 14, picked the Community track. Kevin and Cameron are working at two community gardens at local schools. Peggy has attended some of the track’s educational events and hopes to participate in activities outside the church this spring.
“We’ve been school volunteers for probably 20 years,” she said. “The Community track spoke to us for that reason. It’s been wonderful to participate in volunteer activities through a church program. And it’s so well organized all we have to do is show up.”
Children at First Unitarian are also engaged with the theme. Director of Religious Education for Children Karen Lewis said that by May there will have been 16 children’s chapels relating to YES! The first part of the year the children talked about meeting the people in their neighborhoods and doing acts of kindness for others. As the year progressed to a focus on the larger community, the chapel services focused on the groups the children belonged to, including sports teams and dance classes, and how the children could make those groups stronger.
In February the children voted to collect used towels for local veterinarians and animal shelters. Later this year they’ll have a book drive for children in Dallas who have few books. “This is all focused on helping their communities grow stronger,” said Lewis. When the discussions come around to the Global aspect of YES! there’s a natural connection already in place. First Unitarian is one of nine UU congregations partnering with the New Life School in Uganda. The offerings the children bring to chapel each Sunday benefit their pen pals in the Kkindu village.
Lewis said she doesn’t know whether the children talk about the theme outside of class, but she believes the messages are connecting. “As with everything else we do in religious education, we’re planting seeds. The children may not say much now, but at the annual Sunday service when we celebrate their graduation from high school, we’ll learn what community service and social action they’ve performed over the years and what they plan to study. That Sunday, and when they return to us as young adults, we can celebrate the fact that the messages got through.”
Other congregations also practice theme ministry. In 2011 InterConnections wrote about All Souls Unitarian Church of Tulsa, Okla., and other congregations that have monthly theme ministry programs.