Maybe two or three times a year I get a call from an isolated Unitarian Universalist interested in starting a congregation in their area. Sounds like a good idea, right? There’s bound to be at least a few other people nearby who would benefit from a UU community.
Thing is, given the changes in the religious landscape of the United States, being part of a church (or congregation or fellowship) is not a high priority for more and more people. As UUA Outreach Director Carey McDonald says,
We can’t assume people are already looking for a church on Sunday mornings, because in fact we’re competing for their time and attention against sleeping in, talking a walk, soccer practice, Facebook and brunch.
Even if our Association had loads of experience with starting new congregations (and we don’t), 2017 isn’t really the best time to be trying to do so. Which still leaves us with the presenting issue of “What’s an isolated Unitarian Universalist to do?”
Get Some Idea About What You Really Want
The first thing an isolated UU should do is get a little clarity about what they want when their say they’re interested in starting a congregation. People come to church for a lot of different reasons. My guess is that most people who ask about starting a congregation have maybe two or three main reasons in mind.
One of my favorite ways for looking at the needs religious community might fulfill is from John Ortberg, senior pastor of Menlo Church. Ortberg identified these seven spiritual pathways that people might follow:
- Intellectual Pathway
- Relational Pathway
- Serving Pathway
- Worship Pathway
- Activist Pathway
- Contemplative Pathway
- Creation Pathway
Some people come to church in need of intellectual stimulation, for others it’s the relational opportunities.
Serving others is another reason a person might want to participate in religious community, while many people come for the worship experience.
Some are looking for ways to be involved with social justice, some are seeking a spiritual home where they can contemplate life’s big questions, and some want opportunities to share their environmental concerns because their spirits are nourished by spending time in nature.
So my first question for an isolated UU yearning for a nearby congregation is, “What need would you like to have fulfilled?”
Depending on the answer, one of these five strategies might help you get your needs met.
Get in Touch with the UU Congregations Closest to You
If your needs don’t necessarily include attending a worship service every Sunday morning, then you can still benefit from being part of the UU congregation nearest you, even if it’s an hour or two away.
Odds are that there are members of that congregation who may be living close by, maybe half an hour or an hour away. Talk to the congregational leadership and see if there might be the possibility of offering some activities in your area.
Not worship, necessarily, but maybe a small group, or a book club, or a circle supper. If your needs are primarily relational or intellectual, being able to occasionally gather with a group of people from the closest congregation could go a long way toward making you feel less isolated.
To find the nearest congregation to you, visit http://www.uua.org/directory/congregations, enter your location, and see what comes up.
A Unitarian Universalist Congregation Without Walls
If the closest congregation is still too far away, consider joining the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a Unitarian Universalist congregation without walls. As they say on their website,
Wherever you are in the world, wherever your truth takes you on your spiritual journey, the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) is there to keep you connected with Unitarian Universalism (UU). Our 3,500 members, with their children, live all over the world. What brings us together is the desire to connect, seek, share and grow within Unitarian Universalism.
The Church of the Larger Fellowship could be especially helpful for you if your spiritual interests are centered around worship and relationships. You can worship with other members online live Sunday evenings or Monday afternoons.
CLF also offers online small groups, so if you feel the need to spend time with other UUs on a regular basis, this could be the format for you.
For more information about the Church of the Larger Fellowship, visit https://questformeaning.org/clfuu/.
Make Friends with the Friends…
Or the Congregationalists…or the Disciples…or another group that shares many of our values. While Quaker, United Church of Christ, or Disciples of Christ communities come in a wide variety of theological orientations, some are quite liberal (as are some of the other Mainline Protestant denominations).
Maybe there’s a non-UU congregation near you that could fulfill some of the same needs a UU congregation could, for relationships, intellectual stimulation, or social justice. Ask around and see if one of your friends or neighbors might be attending a congregation that you’d be comfortable in.
And remember, if your main needs don’t include worship, then you could still attend a variety of activities, from potlucks to lectures. To find a Quaker meeting near you, visit http://www.quaker.org/meetings.html; for a UCC congregation, try http://www.ucc.org/about-us_conference; and for a Disciples of Christ church, see http://disciples.org/regional-ministries/.
Use Meet Up
Some UUs have found some luck using meetup.com to get small groups together. Maybe there’s already one near you. Just go to https://www.meetup.com/, enter your location and the kind of group you’re interested in. Start with “Unitarian Universalist.”
If no UU groups show up, try entering “Welcoming and Affirming Spiritual Community.” You might be surprised by what you find!
If you can’t quite find what you need, consider starting your own group. And remember, people aren’t necessarily looking for religion or church these days, but they might have some of the same interests you identified from Ortberg’s seven spiritual pathways.
Think about starting a book club, or a hiking group, or a meditation circle. You might even find some like-minded people who would be willing to explore forming a group that might meet even more of your UU needs. Like a…
Once upon a time, there was only one way for a group of people to be part of the Unitarian Universalist Association—become a full-fledged congregation. But as I mentioned earlier, fewer and fewer people are looking for that kind of church these days.
As we’ve seen, however, folks are still gathering together for a variety of other reasons. Maybe you can identify just a few other people who’d like to meet regularly as Unitarian Universalists, but you doubt you’ll ever see the kind of numbers that would qualify as a congregation.
In that case, the Covenanting Community status might be right for you. This program is just coming out of the “pilot” phase and is currently being revamped. But very soon we’ll be able to give you full details on what it means to be a Covenanting Community with the UUA.
For more information on the current Covenanting Communities program, visit http://www.uua.org/association/emerging/covenanting-communities. And if you’d like to know what the future of Covenanting Communities might look like, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.