Sample Core Values Exercise: The Experience of the Holy

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The Nested Bowls The Promise and Practice of Good Governance

By Laura Park

A practical book for congregations interested in bringing clarity and focus to their ministry

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Attribution and Permission
This exercise was originally developed by Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs in 2007 and refined by the Unity Consulting team for the UU University Governance Track in 2008. You can see Unity Consulting lead it at UU University. This exercise also appears in The Nested Bowls: The Promise and Practice of Good Governance by Laura Park, Managing Director of Unity Consulting.

Permission granted to copy, use, and adapt this exercise as long as this paragraph of attribution and permission, plus the attribution in the footer, stays with the exercise.


This script steps a facilitator through the process of leading The Experience of the Holy. This exercise helps the governing body of religious institutions (congregations, professional organizations, social justice networks, etc.) answer the question:

What timeless, transcendent qualities of our religious community will we embody in all we do?

Unity Consulting, a program of Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, MN, helps the boards of religious organizations identify three to five words or very short phrases that answer that question. These shared core values fill the largest bowl in our Nested Bowls metaphor, and the touchstone they provide shapes everything the institution does.

Usually the board recruits volunteer facilitators to hold multiple sessions of this exercise, on different days and at different times, so that as many people as possible can participate in it. In addition, with volunteer facilitators leading the sessions, board trustees are free to wander and listen. As described in The Nested Bowls, trustees “sit close to several groups and hear as many stories as they can. They sit among several groups and listen for common words and themes. They watch the room as a whole to see where the energy of the room is going. They make note of the times when the whole room turns to a particular idea and says something like, ‘Yes, that!’”

The data emerging from this exercise—flip charts from each group of 4 listing three values all four of them would want to pull forward into the future of the religious institution—then goes to the board for analysis and the final discernment of the institution’s core values.

It’s worth noting that this exercise is usually part of a longer workshop that gives a board data to discern mission and ends in addition to core values. The Nested Bowls book gives more details about that work. The book also gives more information about the theology that undergirds this exercise and the work of discerning values, mission, and ends.

The script in the downloadable instructions gives you some exact verbiage you can use, but please don’t read the script to people. Instead, practice leading the exercise until you can say the material in your own words. In the right-hand column, you’ll find suggested PowerPoint slides (or flip charts) to help participants keep track of what’s happening in the exercise, plus other supplies you might find useful.

This exercise, plus the introduction exercises the script recommends adding, would take about an hour in total

The Experience of the Holy Instructions (PDF)

About the Authors

Robert L. Eller-Isaacs

The Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs is co-minister of Unity Church–Unitarian in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Laura Park

Laura Park would have been astonished in college to be told she was going to be a congregational governance consultant....

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