Personal Religious Stories Build Church Community

By Donald E. Skinner

Jean McCormick continues to be amazed at what comes out of the mouths–and hearts–of people she thought she knew. For four years she has been one of the coordinators of Unitarian Universalist (UU) Religious Odysseys, a program at All Souls UU Church in Kansas City, MO (317 members), in which members regularly prepare and present the compelling and sometimes poignant stories of their religious journeys.

The program started as a way to fill an hour of Sunday morning programming during the summer. To date about sixty people have presented stories. Moments that stand out include the odyssey of a devout rational humanist who gave the barest outline of his life and then spoke movingly about his daughter's death and its effect on him.

"The odysseys provide a way to look at each other as human beings rather than categories," says McCormick. "And everyone who has made the effort [to do an odyssey] has felt that it was in itself a tremendous growth experience. And now, instead of standing around at coffee hour talking about who came to dinner or what our committees are doing, we can share the meaningful events in our lives."

At the lay led West Hills UU Fellowship in Portland, OR (171), a service is dedicated frequently to people who share their odysseys in a program called "This I Believe." "It forces people to think about what they really do believe," says board member Don Kludas. "People spend a lot of time on these and the congregation loves them."

There is a similar program at the UU Fellowship of Manhattan, KS (123). It helped the congregation weather an "identity crisis" in which "we attempted to balance the differing needs of established, more pragmatic members with those of newer, more spiritually inclined members," says coordinator Sue Turner. "I think they helped foster respect for those with conflicting views."

"Couples sometimes give their odysseys together at Community Unitarian Church in White Plains, NY (240)," says John Cavallero, former member of the religious education committee. "Our odysseys are some of the best attended church programs," he says.

At the UU Church in Eugene, OR (219), a monthly program called "Personal Reflections" began as a way to enable members to enrich the life of the church. Church member Cori Taggert notes that these five to seven minute presentations, part of the Sunday morning service, often include deep pain, great triumph, searches for meaning, and life-changing moments of inspiration and that they help attract people to church.

First UU Church in San Diego, CA (773), has a credo program in which individuals are given five to seven minutes during the Sunday service. One of the coministers, Revs. Carolyn and Tom Owen-Towle, meets with credoists well in advance to explain the process and then again to review finished credos. People are asked to express themselves honestly and concisely, but not to denigrate a past faith.

"It's a difficult task for people," says Carolyn Owen-Towle. "They work very hard at writing their credos and feel wonderful about it afterward. A credo is a reminder that we are each in the business of figuring out what we believe and trying to live it."

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

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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