Sustaining Healthy Multiracial/Multicultural Ministries

When Unitarian Universalists congregations make efforts to diversify their ministries they are doing “a bold new thing.” Unitarian Universalists are writing a new chapter in the history of this faith. Congregations are going against the conventional wisdom of “church growth experts.” Unitarian Universalists are being counter cultural, which is consistent with UU history and identity.

Only 5 to 7 percent of congregations in mainline religions in the United States are multiracial/multicultural. And by multiracial we mean no one group is more than 80 percent of the congregation. Of that 5 to 7 percent only half are intentionally multiracial/multicultural. The other congregations are experiencing neighborhood demographic shifts that will eventually result in a different but still monocultural membership.

Multiracial/multicultural congregations represent a major cultural change. It takes about 10 years for a sustainable shift to take hold. Ministers of these congregations usually experience frustration in these efforts between 3 to 5 years.

In our attempts to diversify Unitarian Universalism, what we have learned from leaders who have been able to sustain healthy multiracial/multicultural ministries and the sociologists who studied these congregations is the same wisdom UUs on this ministry path have told us for a decade or more. I have listed 8 of those lessons here:

  1. Diversity of membership requires diversity of ministry
  2. Multiracial/multicultural ministry and membership must be integral to the larger mission and ministry of the congregation – diversity alone is NOT the goal
  3. Growing a multiracial/multicultural congregation must be intentional. Every aspect of congregational life must reflect multicultural diversity.
  4. There must be diversity in worship. For Unitarian Universalists this means learning how to “mix it up” -- to translate Unitarian Universalism in music, movement, story, imagery, and ritual delivered in the cultural languages of the communities of which we are a part.
  5. The staff and leadership of the congregation must reflect the diversity the congregation wants to attract. Leaders must hold the vision and mission, and model multicultural competency for the congregation.
  6. The above means that the congregation, especially staff and lay leaders, must be in continuous learning mode.
  7. There must be intentional outreach to the community and ministries that are relevant to the community (example from 2008 Middle Collegiate Church conference: we have 650 members, we minister to 2,000 people in the community).
  8. Multiracial/multicultural congregations must be able to meaningfully engage the realities of race and racism in the congregation and the larger community. Note: as evidence of how racial dynamics play out in these congregations, sociologists note that it is mostly white members who leave multiracial/multicultural congregations when their culture no longer dominates, or when they feel their identity as white people is threatened by the growing influence and presence of other racial/cultural groups.