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Emerging Congregations Offer Hope for Growth
Emerging Congregations Offer Hope for Growth

It’s no secret that the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) hasn't been growing. In the past decade membership numbers have fluctuated from barely perceptible growth to losses of just under 1 percent. 

As a result there’s been lots of conversation about how to grow Unitarian Universalism. One of the most recent discussions was in October when the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, the UUA’s program and strategy officer, updated the UUA Board of Trustees on the Association’s growth and prospects for growth. She shared with the board one positive note about growth: that across the country there are more than 50 “emerging” Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations.

A congregation is “emerging” when it is relatively new and does not yet have enough members to allow it to apply for UUA membership. A congregation must have 30 members to become a UUA-certified congregation.

Following the October board meeting, the Rev. Tandi Rogers, the UUA’s growth strategies specialist, undertook a survey of the emerging congregations that Cooley had noted. She found 51 small groups. Leaders of 34 of them responded to a survey.

In February Rogers made that survey available to UU World. In it, she reported that “community” was by and large the primary reason given by leaders of the groups for coming together. A search for spirituality was another prime reason. Four specifically mentioned Jesus or liberal Christianity as part of their purpose for coming together. 

About a fourth of the groups said they intended to apply for membership with the UUA in the next two years. More than half expressed interest in being mentored by another congregation––one that might serve as a fiscal agent for them, help with leadership development training, and offer them pastoral assistance when needed. About half of the congregations expressed a desire for coaching and networking with other emerging congregations. 

Asked which UUA resources have been helpful to them, around 40 percent said they used the UUA’s Worship Web and Tapestry of Faith materials. The former is a collection of resources for preparing worship services. The latter has religious education materials. Some of the emerging congregations also use worship materials and get other support from the Church of the Larger Fellowship, an online virtual congregation that caters to UUs around the world.

A majority of the responding groups said they had a Facebook page and a website.

Rogers says leaders of many of the congregations, especially rural ones, worry that they will never grow enough to join the UUA. “Many are tired and burned out and feeling abandoned, but they want us to know they love their faith and each other,” said Rogers. One question that needs to be answered, she notesa, is how long an emerging congregation can exist without coming into relationship with the UUA. Some of the congregations surveyed have been in existence for a decade or more.

The groups are distributed across the country. Eleven are clustered in the Carolinas and Virginia. There are 12 in the western half of the United States, a cluster of six in the upper Midwest, and many of the others are in a band from Oklahoma to Vermont.

UUA staff is working with the Board of Trustees to determine ways that some of these UU groups might be officially, or at least administratively, recognized to raise their visibility among seekers and to make other congregations aware they exist. That would also help them feel connected to the Association, Rogers notes.

Susan Wasilewski is a founder of the Grove Park UU Congregation at Kinston, N.C. Organized three years ago, it meets twice a month for worship and a covered-dish dinner. It has 17 members, although attendance has been as high as 28.

“We’re having a good time, but it’s also hard,” she says. “Everyone is wearing several hats. We want to move faster than we are, but at the same time we’re trying to be very deliberate. We believe that in a couple years we’ll get to 30 members.”

 What would help? Although ministers do come and present services, it would help to have a minister who is focused on helping the congregation grow, she says. She acknowledges the congregation has had a lot of support, not only from the UUA but from other congregations and the Universalist Convention of North Carolina. 

Wasilewski is an eighth-generation UU, growing up in a congregation in Kinston that was first Universalist and then UU before it closed during an economic slump. “This is missionary work for me. It brings a sense of fulfillment. There’s a need for us here.”

In addition to the 51 emerging congregations, there are around a dozen new congregations that could be called “alternative.” They include Sanctuaries, DC, The Sanctuary Boston, Beloved Café, AWAKE Ministries, Mutual Aid - Carrboro, Create Meaning groups in Denver and Los Angeles, and the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Second Life.

Many alternative groups have a high percentage of young adults. Most are racially and culturally diverse. Their worship may be in a circle, and they may meet in different places from week to week. Some have worship that is highly infused with various forms of art and music. Worship might also take the form of feeding the homeless. The format of worship for these groups is often different from week to week.

For a better look at what these groups envision, watch a Sanctuaries, DC video (posted Jan. 23, 2014, on the UUA’s Growing Unitarian Universalism blog). Sanctuaries, led by the Rev. Erik Martinez Resly, also created a year-in-review brochure about its ministries. In 2013, Sanctuaries, DC created three “neighborhood community” groups. It plans to launch six more. 

The UUA’s newest congregation, Original Blessing, which was granted membership in October, meets weekly at a spa-café in Brooklyn, N.Y. It has a house band and says about itself, “We are a spiritually ambitious movement seeking God through creative worship, social justice, and compassionate community.”

Original Blessing’s founder, the Rev. Ian White Maher, says he felt called to create a congregation that was built on a foundation of “communal transformation, rather than individualism. We see ourselves as being externally focused rather than the caretakers of people within the walls of our community. The definition of God for us varies from person to person, but our ambition and our discipline leads us into a relationship that is larger than our own egos. We are called to transform the world rather than to see our own spiritual development as the end in itself.”

AWAKE Ministries, at the UU Church of Annapolis, Md., includes a Tuesday night service that is part talk show, part workshop, concert, and worship. A primary focus is also providing life coaching for personal growth. “AWAKE believes that all humans have a purpose; that we must all walk in our greatness by serving others and striving for excellence,” says AWAKE’s founder, the Rev. John T. Crestwell Jr., who is also associate minister of the UU Church of Annapolis. 

“These groups fill me with hope,” says Rogers. “We can’t even put some of these on our map because their gathering space moves or they are virtual communities. I like to think about what an Association filled with these communities might look like.”

About the Author

  • 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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