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Spirit of Life

A Tapestry of Faith Program for Adults

Spirit of Life workshops offer participants space, time, and community to explore their Unitarian Universalist spirituality. Each focuses on a different aspect of the spiritual life, framed by the lyrics of Carolyn McDade’s song “Spirit of Life.” Like the song, the workshops are designed to be welcoming to Unitarian Universalists of many spiritual and theological persuasions. Participants are invited to claim an inclusive definition of spirituality and recognize the spiritual aspects of their lives. Reflecting, speaking, and listening are core activities in each workshop.

About the Author

The Reverend Barbara Hamilton-Holway is co-minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, California, and has taught literature and served in the Peace Corps in the Fiji Islands. She is the author of Evensong: An Eight-Week Series of Gatherings (Volumes 1 and 2); Evensong for Families, and Who Will Remember Me? A Daughter's Memoir of Grief and Recovery.


The author wishes to thank the Rev. Jurgen Schwing for permission to use a story from his experience, the Rev. Michelle Favreault for teaching her about "wow words," and Carolyn McDade for blessing this program's use of her song, "Spirit of Life," Copyright (C) 1981 by Carolyn McDade.

The Unitarian Universalist Association is grateful for the thoughtful feedback of the many congregations that participated in the field test in 2007-2008. These congregations are: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville, AR; North Shore Unitarian Church, West Vancouver, BC; Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach, CA; First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, CA; All Souls Church, Washington, DC; First Unitarian Church, Orlando, FL; Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola, FL; Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta, GA ; Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington-Normal, IL; Unitarian Universalist Church of Joliet, IL; The Unitarian Universalist Church Rockford, IL; Congregational Unitarian Church, Woodstock, IL; Unitarian Universalist Church of Owensboro, KY; Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, MD; Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Houghton, MI; People's Church, Kalamazoo, MI; Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro, Jamestown, NC; Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of New Bern, NC; Bismarck Mandan Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and Church, Bismarck, ND; Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Las Vegas, NV; Unitarian Universalist Cong. of Central Nassau, Garden City, NY; Unitarian Universalist Church of East Aurora, NY; The Community Church of New York, NY; St. John's Unitarian Universalist Church, Cincinnati, OH; East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church, Kirtland, OH; Olmsted Unitarian Universalist Congregation, North Olmsted, OH; First Unitarian Church, Oklahoma City, OK; Kingston (ON) Unitarian Fellowship; Westminster Unitarian Church, E. Greenwich, RI; Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga, TN; First Unitarian Church, Memphis, TN; Oak Ridge (TN) Unitarian Universalist Church; Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Church, Cedar Park, TX; First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, TX; Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco, TX; Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Blacksburg, VA; Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula, Newport News, VA; and Prairie Lakes Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Ripon, WI.

The editor wishes to thank Adrianne Ross for her tireless project coordination for the Spirit of Life program and other Tapestry of Faith programs for adults, Margy Levine Young and Adrianne Ross for the hard work and technological know-how that has brought the Spirit of Life program to the Internet, Susan Lawrence for detailed and thoughtful manuscript editing, and Judith Frediani for carrying forward the vision of the Tapestry of Faith series. Gratitude also to Tapestry of Faith consultants Marion G. Mason, Ph.D., and Christine Sevilla, M.P.A., M.S., who each provided valuable suggestions and feedback throughout the development of the Spirit of Life program.

We gratefully acknowledge our use of the following materials:

"Balance" by Susan Manker-Seale, reprinted from Everyday Spiritual Practice, Scott Alexander, ed., by permission of Skinner House Books, an imprint of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Copyright (C) 1999.

"Untried Wings" by Elizabeth Tarbox is reprinted from Life Tides by permission of Sarah Tarbox. Copyright (C) 1993 by Elizabeth Tarbox. Published by Skinner House Books, an imprint of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

"Leftovers" by Gordon B. McKeeman is reprinted from Out of the Ordinary by permission of the author. Copyright (C) 2000 by Gordon B. McKeeman. Published by Skinner House Books, an imprint of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Carolyn McDade's "Spirit of Life" is excerpted and adapted from an article by Kimberly French, UU World magazine, Fall 2007 with permission of the author.

Further, we are grateful for field test congregations for their suggested adaptations of the program. In particular, we wish to thank the Unitarian Universalist Church of Owensboro, KY for their very effective adaptation of the "Fruits of the Spirit" activity, which now appears in Workshop 9.


The song "Spirit of Life" by Carolyn McDade could be considered a Unitarian Universalist anthem of sorts. Its page in the Singing the Living Tradition hymnbook (Hymn 123) is probably the most frequently accessed page of any in many congregations' collections. Some congregations don't sing Hymn 123. Perhaps they have other "greatest hits" their members prefer, or they found they were singing it too much and had to take a break. But its popularity is uncontested. Many Unitarian Universalists find the song deeply meaningful. Its imagery is beautiful. Its words are inclusive of Unitarian Universalists all along our theological spectrum. Its tune grows on its singers and listeners, and many use the song to help themselves grow.

Barbara Hamilton-Holway's Spirit of Life program seeks to be like the song from which it derives its name and bring meaning, beauty, inclusivity, and growth to Unitarian Universalist adults as they deepen their spiritual awareness and connections. The Spirit of Life program taps into one of the central functions of religion, eloquently described by minister Kendyl Gibbons: "... how we—each of us, in our uniquely constituted beings—recognize and understand and make sense of that unbidden, overwhelming awe at the wonder, magnificence, danger, demand, and delight of being alive."

The Spirit of Life program is part of the Tapestry of Faith program series for adults. As a whole and in each of its individual programs, the Tapestry of Faith series weaves Unitarian Universalist values, principles, and sources together with four strands of religious growth: faith development, spiritual development, ethical development, and Unitarian Universalist identity. Each of the strands is described below:

Faith Development. When we develop in faith, we develop as meaning-makers. Faith is not about accepting impossible ideas. Rather, faith is about embracing life's possibilities and growing in our sense of being "at home in the universe." Faith is practiced in relationship with others. It has personal dimensions, but it is best supported by a community with shared symbols, stories, values, and meaning.

Spiritual Development. In the book Everyday Spiritual Practice, Scott Alexander defines spirituality as our relationship with the Spirit of Life, whatever we understand the Spirit of Life to be. Our spirituality is our deep, reflective, and expressed response to the awe, wonder, joy, pain, and grief of being alive.

Ethical Development. When we develop our ethics, we develop our moral values—our sense of right and wrong. We also enhance our ability to act on those values, overcoming oppressions and despair.

Unitarian Universalist Identity. A person's participation in a Unitarian Universalist congregation does not automatically create his/her Unitarian Universalist identity. Personal identification with Unitarian Universalism begins when people start to call themselves Unitarian Universalist, and feel part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation or community. Identity is strengthened as individuals discover and find resonance with the stories, symbols, and practices of Unitarian Universalism. As individuals find and give acceptance in a Unitarian Universalist community; as they cherish the community's people, values, messages, and activities; and as they find sustenance for their holy hungers, they grow into Unitarian Universalists.

The workshops in Spirit of Life address all of these strands, yet the program focuses primarily on Unitarian Universalists' spiritual development. May these workshops be for your congregations like roots, holding us close, and like wings, setting us free. Spirit of Life, come to us, come to us.

—Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, M.Div., Developmental Editor

The Program

True spiritual growth can be achieved only through the persistent exercise of real love... . The principal form that the work of love takes is attention. When we love another we give him or her our attention; we attend to that person's growth. When we love ourselves we attend to our own growth... . By far the most common and important way in which we can exercise our attention is by listening. — M. Scott Peck

Spirit of Life workshops offer participants space, time, and community to explore their Unitarian Universalist spirituality. Each focuses on a different aspect of the spiritual life, framed by the lyrics of Carolyn McDade's song "Spirit of Life." Like the song, the workshops are designed to be welcoming to Unitarian Universalists of many spiritual and theological persuasions. Participants are invited to claim an inclusive definition of spirituality and recognize the spiritual aspects of their lives.

Reflecting, speaking, and listening are core activities in each workshop. Listening, M. Scott Peck writes, is "a kind of attention that fosters spiritual growth." Participants in Spirit of Life are given space to silently reflect, to listen to the still small voice within. They are also given space to speak and to listen to other participants. Sharing honestly and listening attentively are affirmations of the inherent worth and dignity of each person and of our interdependent relationship to one another. Reflective and expressive activities invite participants to give attention to their lives and their choices so that they might live with mindfulness and intention.

The word "spirit" derives from the Latin word for breath and for inspiration. The "spirit of life" can thus be understood as inspiration for life, or the very breath of life. It can be felt as a loving force, a life force, or as (in the words of Howard Thurman) a growing edge, "the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor." The spirit of life can be experienced as god or goddess, as deity unfolding, as divine comforter. It can be felt as the collective human spirit, the power of nature, or innate wisdom. Each participant finds a meaning that speaks to his/her own understandings and experience.

As participants reflect on the following questions, they may grow in awareness and connection: "What experiences or moments have you had of feeling 'wow,' feelings of oneness with the earth, feelings of connection with the mystery and wonder of the universe, or a sense of God or the Spirit of Life?" "How have celebrations and rituals helped express your spirituality, and helped you connect with the Spirit of Life?" "What calls out for your care and compassion?" "How does your spirituality relate to the earth and our natural environment?" "In what ways do you show care, love, and respect to yourself? To others?" "What are the roots that 'hold you close' and the wings that 'set you free'?" "If you could reach your full potential as a person in touch with the spirit of life, what would you be like?"

Choice is central to Unitarian Universalism. Just as each of us is responsible for choosing our beliefs, we are responsible for choosing practices that support our living them. We can make our choices within the context of heritage and community. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that truth—revelation—is continually unfolding. We learn from our experience and from one another. Spirit of Life accompanies its participants on a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" in the context of a covenanted congregational community.

May the Spirit of Life move through these workshops as you bring them to life.


Participants will:

  • Become familiar with a broad and inclusive definition of spirituality—one that includes those who do and do not affirm the existence of spirit or deity
  • Evaluate their experiences of the spiritual during turning points in their lives and during day-to-day living
  • Learn methods for being attentive to their spirituality
  • Consider the value of spiritual practice, in any variety of forms, as a means to deepen faith and enhance the quality of everyday living
  • Participate in the spiritual practices of speaking and listening with respect
  • Explore a vocabulary of reverence drawn from the Unitarian Universalist hymnbook Singing the Living Tradition and its supplement, Singing the Journey
  • Articulate thoughts, feelings, and longings in authentic ways, and develop their understanding of the spiritually healing value of such authenticity
  • Explore possibilities for deepening experiences of spirituality for themselves and for others in the context of their Unitarian Universalist congregation.


A team of two or more adults should lead the Spirit of Life workshops. The same co-leaders need not lead each workshop. However, consistency in leadership has many advantages for participants.

Leaders may be religious professionals, such as ministers or religious educators, or they may be committed laypersons. Consider using these criteria in choosing leaders:

  • Knowledgeable about Unitarian Universalism
  • Involved in the congregation
  • Trusted within the congregation
  • Effective at speaking, teaching, and facilitating
  • Good listeners
  • Responsible and respectful, with strong interpersonal boundaries
  • Well organized and competent.

Leaders need to be capable of creating and nurturing a supportive, respectful, and safe learning community. If your congregation has a safe congregations policy, a code of ethics for leaders, or a covenant of right relations, make sure your Spirit of Life leaders become familiar with and affirm it.

Leaders are expected to be facilitators of learning. As such, their motivations and behavior should be tuned towards the learning needs of participants. Leaders interested in their own gratification or celebrity, or leaders with a theological axe to grind, might present a workshop that is more a "show" about the leaders than a learning experience for participants.

A leader can facilitate learning in these workshops without teaching experience or pedagogical knowledge. Throughout each workshop plan, leaders will find detailed guidance to conduct activities in a way that facilitates participants' learning.


Spirit of Life is designed for adult participants age eighteen and up. The workshops are equally suitable for a congregation's first-time visitors and its long-time members. To adapt a workshop for use with high school youth, leaders may need to revise some activities to make the concepts more concrete.

The program can accommodate any number of participants, with six participants an ideal minimum. Six or more participants allow you to divide the group into the pairs or triads that several activities require.

For a group of thirty or more, leaders will need to modify activities that involve small group presentations to the entire group. Co-leaders can split the whole group in half and facilitate in separate meeting spaces. The two, separate sets of small groups can then present simultaneously, each to their own half of the whole. Workshops with more than sixty participants will require further adaptation of some activities, including expansion of the leadership team.

Integrating All Participants

Leader Resource 1 from Workshop 1 offers tips to make the activities inclusive for all participants and accessible for people with particular cognitive, learning, and physical disabilities. In addition, some activity descriptions in the program include a section called Including All Participants, which includes specific suggestions for modifying that activity to meet particular accessibility needs.

The tips are not exhaustive. You may find they do not fully equip you to create a welcoming, accessible space for all of participants. The Unitarian Universalist Association website offers more information about accessibility for persons with disabilities—information that goes well beyond the recommendations listed in this program. Visit the UUA website and search the keyword "accessibility."

Downloading the Document

You can download this program, save it on your computer, edit it, and print it. Or, you can download individual sessions or workshops.

About the Author

Barbara Hamilton-Holway

Barbara Hamilton-Holway

The Rev. Barbara Hamilton-Holway, author of Who Will Remember Me? A Daughter’s Memoir of Grief and Recovery, is co-minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, California.

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