The Remedy of Connection: Theme-Based Church
by Kaaren Anderson
This essay is from a Skinner House book in development, edited by Fredric Muir. Reprinted by permission of Kaaren Anderson.
Many years ago now, we started theme based church. We began with worship, music and small group ministry. At first, I was anxious that one of the other ministers on my team might steal my angle for a sermon or the worship theme might restrict my creative juices, box me in. I was also worried about our people. Might they get bored or feel sufficiently doused in a particular theme—Grace or Vulnerability or Resilience—that they would be like groundhogs, not rearing their heads again until the first of the next month, when a new theme was introduced. Suffice it to say, I had my own reservations.
And yet, as life often does to me, I was surprised to find just the opposite. The congregation was elated with the change. They experienced the alterations as an opportunity to immerse themselves in worship rather than flitting from one topic to the next. They relished the chance to come at the theme from many different angles, and perhaps most importantly, the themes became their guide. A guide for their own musings, reflections and reconnections to self, others and the needs of the world. Professionally, I got to throw ideas off of my colleagues, inquire as to their own musings or personal implications. The church’s music director comes with arrangements, and choral pieces from various aspects of the theme I never would have thought of myself, or by thinking through the topic the next week right after the first is done. In the end, it made our work more collaborative not less.
So in worship, no doubt, the themes worked. But what hooked me was the corollary step of including the themes into our small group ministry program. Ministers often talk about: what do we want from our parishioners? We want them to give of their time, talent and treasure. We want them to understand that church is a co-op, not a consumer product or service. But this theme based ministry work changed my perspective by changing around the question. Not what do we want FROM our people, but what do we want FOR them. And that’s the better question to be asking anyway. I want for them: more compassion, to know their lives matter, to be spiritually connected to the grace of life, to their best selves, and to a larger community. That they, with others, can make a difference in the world. Only through this theme based ministry did it connect for me.
Perhaps one of the best ways to get to what I’m talking about is to explain the guts of what happens in one of the small groups I lead. Each month we sit in a circle, do a check in about "our spirits,” then dive into the spiritual assignment, reading, video or question that captured our heart that particular month. We are a motley crew: two organic farmers, two environmental scientists, an MBA student, a special education teacher, an artist, a librarian, a retired CEO, a retired news anchor, a small business goat soap entrepreneur and me. We are young and old, introverts and extroverts, patient and impatient, expressive and reserved, contemplative and impulsive. Yet with all of that, this little band of Unitarian Universalists manages to work with a monthly worship theme not just in its breadth but in its depth. That’s the magic of the small group work, right there. The depth around a particular theme.
I’ve been in the ministry for almost 20 years. I’ve known the joy in worship when grace arises, and we are all connected, flawed and fabulous together. I’ve sat with parishioners as they disclose their tales of woe: lies, hopes dashed, revelation arrived. Over the years, I’ve loved these moments of ministry, yet none of them in their totality compare to the richness, the jaw dropping courage and vulnerability that floats through and around our little circle, in our Soul Matters small group. When we are together there is no fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight. We offer each other the space to hold one another’s, pain, elation, trepidation, anger, inspiration, tragedy, joy. It seems such a simple gift: Deep listening. Each person gets to tell what assignment they completed, what story they sat with, daily. They do this uninterrupted. No one is allowed to ask questions, or offer a follow up, until we all have said our peace. My group is half men, half women. The men cry without embarrassment or worry that anyone will think less of them. The women rant, strutting their mighty testosterone with glee. We laugh; we weep. There has not been a month where stories aren't told about a spouse betrayal, family secrets that kept one another hostage, or the ongoing peeling back of layers of sadness associated with mental illness or addiction. But there are also tales told of the resurrection of ones’ spirit, the sharing and giving of unconditional love, the faith in our common extraordinary, vibrant humanity that leans toward the light.
At the end of an evening, I often drive home in silence, running through what just transpired in the course of those two hours. Every time, I am reminded how lucky I am that there are people who hold me, accept me, honor me, and encourage me. I come home each month to the best of who I want to be and become, and a net of forgiveness and trust I can come back to when I’ve disappointed myself and others.
Our sessions together are not just “an evening of good discussion” or “an opportunity for intellectual stimulation” or even “a chance to meet new friends.” It is a path back home. These Soul Matters groups are unlike traditional small group curricula that give people a time to “reflect” on the past. These are immediate groups, meaning, how is this theme right now, spiritually connecting you to greater mindfulness, to your family/friends/co-workers, to your commitment to a life of service. They are organic and central to everything we do now at First Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist Church of Canandaigua.
They are so important that after each new person goes through the requisite steps toward membership, they are immediately placed into a Soul Matters group with their peers. These small groups become people’s support networks, their lifelines in a harried world, and central to how they behave in and out of the group. In fact, they are so well imbedded now in our church culture that often times the group takes care of its members quicker and faster than any minister ever could. For instance, one parishioner tragically lost a child and by the time the ministers got wind of it, her small group had claimed detail for food, laundry, and childcare for her other child, for months to come.
Worship, Music and Soul Matters were just the beginning. Once the themes were firmly embedded in those ministries, we cast our net even further. All our adult ed/spiritual development groups came on board: from Buddhist discussion groups, to guest speakers for Social Justice, to our academic Bible Study group taught by the local college’s Religious Studies professor. Social justice task forces and ongoing ministry projects now had a means to further their mission when a particular theme resonated with their members and the church’s monthly events. Most importantly in my opinion, was the web of theme based ministry integrated into Religious Education. I can’t tell you how many parents have told us that they can now connect adult worship to their kids’ worship and workshops to their small groups, quite easily. Mainly because it offers a family a chance to see and talk about the theme through a 4 years olds’ sense of the topic to a 50 year old lens, and it makes it convenient to do so as they pull out of the parking lot from church on their drive home. In the end, theme based church is integral to how our church functions and behaves.
I’m convinced the reason this works is because of this: Unitarian Universalism is about connection. We are a religion that sees people struggling, not against our own sinful souls, but against a shallow, frantic and materialistic world that all-too-often leaves us disconnected. Our congregations—at their best—work to heal that divide by helping each other listen to our deepest selves, open to life’s gifts and serve needs greater than our own. Soul Matters, worship, religious education, and faith in action supports this theology by embracing deep listening, which in turn sets the stage to welcoming in grace and the needs of the world.
We do all this work against the fabric of theme based ministry. Our themes focus us on a spiritual value that our faith tradition has historically honored and emphasized. We are reminded that our faith dreams of a preferred way for us to be in the world, challenging each of us to ask “What does it mean to live a life with these particular values front and center?” There’s an important reminder here: Unitarian Universalism is not a religion of “anything goes.” Rather our faith has a unique vision of the good life. Yes, we affirm personal choice and individuality, but there are some core values that our faith asks all of us to engage, take seriously and apply to our daily living.
So yes, those two components—a theology of connection at our center, and the particularity of the Unitarian Universalist life in practice—are key. It’s also the foundation of our growth at First Unitarian in Rochester, NY. In the last 10 years, we’ve grown from a congregation of 700 members to 1,050. We’ve partnered with a small congregation (80 members) in Canandaigua, NY for staff and resource sharing. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say we’ve grown internally, which in the end is what matters. These people, the parishioners in these two congregations, in the Soul Matters group, in faith in actions projects, in non-structured, engaged conversation over coffee about the themes, make us better person. They challenge, love, tweak and kid me. They conspire against arrogance of thought and action. We remind each other to be patient with oneself and others. We’re reminded that our inherent humor, wisdom and courage are always available if we just take the time to listen long enough. They do so, because this theme based church is integral to their living and loving. I know from experience, that they lead me at times, more than I lead them, often with a piercing insight and a vulnerability that opens the human condition to me with such courage and clarity, I feel weak in the knees. They often reflect that without this structure, without theme based ministry, they’d feel a little bit like a fish out of water. That’s not something to take lightly, and it’s a powerful nod to the church being a someplace they go on Sunday, or a drop in for Social Justice activities; and the hub of where they find meaning, connection and growth.
In the end, this is why we believe this to be the center of the religious life in the 21st century.
It is said, that the modern day, 21st century American feels, on average, they have one person they can confide their fears, hopes, dreams and worries to. One? Now I’m not a math whiz, but that means if it is an average that there are a number of people saying they have zero—zero friends to confide in, to sort through what matters in life and what doesn’t. Zero connections to another’s story for inspiration or solace. Zero safety net when life feels like we all have to go it alone. Zero depth in their living and loving. Zero. That’s a scary number. Yet that Zero makes this work of small groups—of worship, of themes in cross over with their children, of faith in action that is mission and theme based—one of the best gifts we as Unitarian Universalists can offer. It’s something we can offer anyone whose numbers of connection, fall below what you can count on one hand. We’ve got the remedy for the sin sick soul, we just need to apply it, and live into our calling for the 21st century.