What’s In a Name Change?

By Donald E. Skinner

When the congregation of the First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Duluth, MN (190 members), made the decision this past winter to begin raising money for a new church building, it seemed like the time might also be right to consider changing the name that would go up on the new building. Because the church draws from a broad area some members wanted a regional name. And as discussions progressed there were others who wanted to trade "church" for "congregation."

The depth of feelings surrounding a possible name change surprised everyone. As time went by and more and more energy was expended on possible names, the congregation made an important decision—to put off a decision for a year.

Because the congregation had just spent several years in an intensive strategic planning process and was just embarking on a capital campaign for its new building, members concluded that one more high-energy project wasn't what they needed.

"We were pretty naive in some ways," says Rev. Karen Gustafson. "We went at this with a mechanistic process, sorting out the different names to come up with a new one. But what we needed to do first was to find a way to get people who have strong feelings to truly listen to each other and be willing to alter their understanding and ultimately agree on something. And beyond that, we learned never to do a name change while another major event is taking place."

Changing a congregation's name requires long and careful deliberation, says Deborah Weiner, the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's)director of electronic communication. When congregations consider name changes there are usually two issues, she notes. The first is whether to identify as a church, congregation, fellowship, or society. The other is whether to add Universalist or Unitarian to the title. Although the two denominations merged in 1961, many congregations have not adopted both names.

For congregations considering name changes, or for new congregations, Weiner encourages the use of inspiring names from UU history, noting there are congregations named for James Reeb, Sojourner Truth, and Michael Servetus. Many congregations also choose to name themselves for an environmental feature. There's the River of Grass UU Congregation and the UU Fellowship of the Emerald Coast, both in Florida.

Even if a congregation considers a name change but decides to stick with its old name, the discussion process can be valuable, say congregational leaders. When All Souls UU Church, Kansas City, MO (317), added Universalist to its title a few years ago, there was also debate about dropping "church" for "congregation." In the end there wasn't much interest in that, says Sharon Blevins, who was president at the time. But the process of holding two congregational meetings, taking several straw votes on proposed names, and discussing the issue at meetings and in the church newsletter seemed to help people come to a decision.

At the UU Church of Fort Lauderdale, FL (135), members debated changes in their name for a year, including whether to add "First" and to change "church" to "congregation." But when the changes came to a vote last January there wasn't much enthusiasm for a change, says Mary Teslow, chair of the renaming committee. Still, the process seemed to reinvigorate the congregation, she says.

"At the vote many members spoke with a depth of commitment as to why they preferred we keep our current name. I believe that was a wonderful outcome of the process. We enthusiastically reaffirmed we are UU Church of Fort Lauderdale. And I think we can now go on growing our church."

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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