Innovations and Risk-Taking

“I’m not an entertainer. I’m not an athlete. I’m not someone who said, ‘I want to be a star.’ I really just love my people a lot. And I love Black children a lot. And I want to see us live. I want to see us thrive. I want to see us enjoy the kind of life that our ancestors fought for. And that’s the way that I was raised. I feel like every time I’m able to access some of that joy, I try to hold on to it in my personal life. I just want to see us all be able to live lives of full humanity, ’cause that’s what we deserve.”
—Brittany Packnett Cunningham, interview with The Undefeated

“What if we had a 1-800 number for spiritual support for people who are doing this work and are feeling weary and discouraged and confused?”
—focus group participant

Background and Trends

We live in a world of change. The pace of change is now at an unprecedented level accelerated by shifts in global economics and demographics as the world adjusts to a world economy and as the US prominence in that economy drops, signaling an “end of empire.” This is affecting us at the local level as well, specifically in these ways:

  • The demographics of our nation are changing, with Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color making up a greater share of the population.
  • Newer generations are more interested in using direct lived experience as the basis of worship rather than the secondary sources or more academic frameworks.
  • Younger families face extreme stress because of increased workloads and greater economic insecurity, exacerbated by phenomena such as the gig economy.
  • Technology has changed expectations for the kind and quality of worship, making authenticity and high quality particularly important to newer generations. They expect to see a diversity of voices represented in worship, as well as the multicultural competency they learned in school and are expected to have in the workplace.

The good news about all these changes is that it could actually make the value of face-to-face religious community more important. This kind of community offers a kind of sanctuary and solace that is not offered in other experiences. And yet without attention and care, oppressive practices that center the white, straight, cisgender, auent, able-bodied, neurotypical, college-educated experience will make religious community untenable for those who need it the most as a place of sanctuary in these troubled times.

The pace and extent of change require us to reexamine how we lead, staff, and organize our shared community life. We need to recognize that generations coming into leadership, or that we wish to come into leadership, will not come with the same level of security or resources with which past generations entered. A model in which we pay a minister’s health insurance, for example, yet expect a director of religious education’s needs to be provided for by a spouse is not a viable model. The practice of paying wages that do not recognize the debt with which seminarians graduate is not sustainable. Since the lower net worth of Black/Indigenous/people of color families (as well as members of other oppressed groups) is well documented, these factors are compounded.

In other words, the ways we have been doing business need to change and we need innovation, experimentation, and support for those risk-takers who are building new ways.

New models of shared leadership that recognize the importance of all religious professionals are needed to meet the skill level expectations of people used to professionalism in the nonprofits they serve as volunteers. These models would also provide meaningful and time-effective ways to tap the talents of volunteers as they face unprecedented time pressures.

We also need new models of worship that integrate emotional intelligence, music, and other forms of knowing in a world in which people are often overwhelmed. People’s spiritual solace is often not the lack of good ideas but the lack of space to process the emotional difficulties of living in a world wracked by conflict, inequity, and uncertainty; we need more spiritual practices and tools.

Rituals and spiritual practices are essential alternatives to all-or-nothing arguments, as they are capable of holding the highs and lows of authentic human religious expression. Technologies and practices that encourage generative conflict can replace exhausting, disillusioning, and heartbreaking practices of ignoring conflict until it is explosive and burying or covering up abuse or mistakes.

One of the main concerns of the focus groups was that people who are front-runners and innovators need support. As one participant put it, we need “some kind of structure for congregations to share their stories and their journeys with each other on a regular basis, some structural mechanism.”

Considerations for Cultural Borrowing: Questions to Ask (and Answer)

The following is from


  • Why am I doing this? What is my motivation?


  • What is the goal?
  • Why do we want multiculturalism?
  • Why this particular cultural material or event?


  • What is the context in which I will use the cultural material?
  • What is the cultural context from which it is taken? The history?
  • What are the controversies/sensitivities surrounding this material?
  • What are the power relationships in this context? The privileges?


  • What am I willing to do to prepare for this experience?
  • Have I done my homework on this material?
  • What sources/resources have I used?
  • Have I asked people from the culture for feedback/ critical review of my plans? The history?
  • Have I asked people from the culture to create or co-create the material?
  • Did I invite people from the culture to participate?
  • To speak for themselves in this plan?


  • Am I in relationship with people from this culture?
  • Am I willing to be part of that community’s struggle?
  • What is my relationship with the source of the material?
  • What can I give in return? What do I offer?
  • With whom do I ally myself with this usage?
  • Am I working alone?


  • How does this work nurture self-identity and group identity?
  • How does this strengthen UU identity?
  • How does it help UUs be religious?
  • What does this say about UU faith?
  • How does it relate to UU spirituality or spiritual practice?
  • What can UUs learn from other traditions?


  • Who holds the copyright?
  • Have I received permission to use the material?
  • Who has the right to adapt? Why?
  • Who will be insulted/offended by this adaptation?
  • With whom do I ally myself with this adaptation?
  • What is the difference between symbolic and real ritual, and how am I using this ritual?
  • If I am using a translation, is it accurate, authentic, and current?


  • Am I using current, authentic language?

Mistakes and Miracles, by Nancy Palmer Jones and Karin Lin

The following is an excerpt from the Introduction of Mistakes and Miracles: Congregations on the Road to Multiculturalism.

This book models a fundamental truth about multicultural work: At its heart, it is always about the relationships we create and the care that we bring to these relationships. Taking the time to build these relationships is part of the work we’re describing. Storytelling, too, takes time, and in that sense, it is an act of resistance in a culture like ours, which values the quick and efficient. Stories take longer to unfold and ask more of the reader or listener than does a list of to-dos. The interweaving strands of the stories we tell—their loop-de-loops and muddy patches, their forests of details and their bright shining moments—all help to paint a fully human picture of what’s at work in each congregation.

Such stories transform us—readers, hearers, and tellers alike—into participants in the act of creating something new. We experience joys, sorrows, anticipation, disappointment, hope, frustration, and wonder together. We come away from these stories with lessons learned to guide our actions and with a new vocabulary to name the meanings we discover along the way.

The complex stories we share here show that it takes intentional work and persistent commitment to build multicultural, antiracist Beloved Community. Mistakes and misgivings abound and are inevitable. But unexpected miracles of joy and transformation are abundant too. The journey itself; the companions who join in; the sometimes fleeting, often sacred sense of completeness that emerges in the midst of the journey; the satisfaction that we are living our faith—these elements make all the hard work meaningful and worthwhile.

Recommendation to UUA Funding Inclusivity

The Unitarian Universalist Association should fund, spread, and curate the ideas of those congregations working for many decades now to become more inclusive, equitable, and diverse and amplify this work at the General and District Assemblies.

We need to allow ways for these innovators to share together in order to do this and spread findings to the larger Association so that thoughtful leaders do not have to all reinvent the wheel.

  • Action: Work with funders to establish grant programs for those developing practices and technologies for inclusion.
  • Action: Provide learning circles and virtual learning circles for groups of white people interested in learning how to be accountable to Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color and co-journeying with them.

Recommendation to Prioritize Assistance to Congregations

Assistance to congregations supporting circles or caucuses involving Black people, Indigenous people, or people of color as well as young adult groups within their local context should be prioritized.

  • Action: Amplify community practices building diverse, equitable, and inclusive spaces throughout General Assembly as “Promising Practices.”
  • Action: Develop a new annual award to be presented at General Assembly to individuals, congregations, or other groups or communities for innovation in counter-oppression work.
  • Action: Provide resources and a coaching program for congregations interested in retooling their forms of worship, leadership, and accountability. This can include small and shrinking congregations willing to redirect existing resources toward new groups such as young adults, LGBTQ people, or Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color.

Recommendation to Fund Leadership

Funding is needed to ensure that Black leaders, Indigenous leaders, leaders of color, and leaders from other marginalized groups with lower financial resources can be engaged and provide leadership into a more inclusive future. We need to continue to figure out ways to use the leadership, expertise, and life experience of Unitarian Universalists who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color or have other marginalized identities, as they are very valuable in designing faith-based experiences that speak to resilience and inclusion in an increasingly diverse context.

The wealth gap between white people and non-white people, and especially between white people and Black people, continues to be documented. [34] As we seek to bring the power of many life experiences to the table, we need to compensate for and counter the wealth gap so that those living in the new economy can participate. Many currently in the workforce and in lower paid jobs are not able to take paid vacations, so participating in gatherings can endanger their incomes.

In addition, as we shift to counter-oppression practices, we know that cultural misappropriation (the taking of resources out of context or the use of resources for an inappropriate purpose) will occur. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Associational resources were developed to counter this, so we need to revive best practices for cultural borrowing.

  • Action: Examine the ability of volunteer leaders in certain key positions—such as moderator, General Assembly Planning Committee members, and UUA Board of Trustees members—to recoup lost income on a needs basis and to pay for child care and other service-related expenses.
  • Action: Fund leaders who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color to develop new worship materials, including curation of music with guidelines for how to use music in a culturally competent manner.
  • Action: Revive a focus on cultural competency and cultural borrowing in all religious professional associations to counter the cultural appropriation that can come with efforts to become more equitable, inclusive, and diverse.
  • Action: Continue to prioritize resources about inclusion, equity, and diversity written by Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color in Unitarian Universalist publications, including Skinner House books.
  • Action: Provide funding in congregational budgets to allow leaders who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color; younger leaders; and those without means access to funds for child care, travel, and other expenses so they can participate in leadership and decision making in all aspects of our Association.

Recommendation for New Settings and Structures for Worship

New settings and structures for worshiping and convening for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and youth and young adults should be funded, including new communities.

In these times of seismic change, we need to be investing in new ways of creating religious space that can honor other sensibilities and sources of truth and that can allow a place for engagement for those not served by more established congregations. Congregations can also serve as incubators to allow these groups to be nested within their walls and supported by their resources.

As we continue to provide worship that nurtures those already in our congregations, we also need to look at models that will support and nourish people who share our theological beliefs and do not find our worship models adequate for their needs.

  • Action: Convene a learning group for people of color, youth and young adults, and other marginalized groups interested in experimenting with new ways of worshiping and convening that better suit their cultural norms.
  • Action: Provide learning circles and virtual learning circles for groups of white people interested in learning how to be accountable to Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color and co-journeying with them.


  • People and communities who are front-runners and innovators in combating white supremacy culture and developing practices of equality, innovation, and diversity have traditionally faced barriers when what we need for them to have is support.
  • The limited resources we have should showcase and spread successful innovations because such change is critical for our survival as a faith tradition.
  • We should not be culturally appropriative as a way of being inclusive, and education can help prevent that. We should do this education.
  • Congregations taking the risk of engaging in inclusion, equity, and diversity work will pay a cost because of those unwilling to adapt to the times. They should be supported.
  • Recognizing and honoring those engaged in equity, inclusion, and diversity work at the national level can build support at the local level.