Five Stages of Religious Change

One of the most important parts of my job as a Congregational Life Consultant for the MidAmerica Region of the UUA is to keep up with the religious and spiritual changes in America. So I love it when I find a clear and concise explanation of just what the heck is going on, like these “Five Stages of Religious Change”* I found in the Fetzer Institute‘s publication Where We Belong: Mapping American Religious Innovation:

  1. A crisis of legitimacy means that individuals cannot sustain the common set of religious understandings by which they believe they should act. The questioning of conventional doctrines and practices, leads to an uncertainty in one’s sense of identity.WhereWeBelong
  2. Cultural distortion leads to individuals concluding that their problems are not due to personal failure, but institutional malfunction. They start seeking to change structures or reject them.
  3. A new vision emerges. New understandings of human nature, God, spiritual practices and ethical commitments are articulated.
  4. Small communities start to form to experiment and innovate with religious, political, economic and family structures in search for a new way of life. New practices give meaning and make the world different. Others are recruited to join the new path.
  5. The process of institutional transformation. The movement of the religious middle ground towards the new, which makes transformation possible.

According to the Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston (authors of Where We Belong),

it is clear that a significant number of Americans today are grouped around stages 3-4, with a host of new small communities experimenting with structure and practices…and a growing vision for human nature and God that no longer can be housed easily within traditional denominational structures and houses of worship.

I have to say that this really helps me get a handle on where congregations are right now in our society. Not sure what else to say about this at the moment, but I just wanted to share this great resource. I’ll have more to say later, I’m sure!

* This is historian William McLoughlin’s adaption of Anthony F. C. Wallace’s map for cultural change to a religious context.


Spiritual Direction in Progressive Congregations: Introduction

NOTE: One of my sabbatical projects has been working on a book about spiritual direction in progressive congregations, and I’ve found it helpful to think of the sections as blogs posts. So over the next few weeks I’m going to be sharing some posts on the subject.

Unsettled Ministry

When I was in theological school (way back at the beginning of this century), I was, for admittedly selfish reasons, concerned about the future of religion in America. What kind of opportunities will there be for me and my peers once we left the sanctuary of divinity school? Would there be enough congregations looking to call full time clergy? And would the salary and housing allowances be enough to not only support new ministers and their families, but also help us pay back the tens of thousands of dollars in student loans some of us had accumulated?

The fact that these questions even came to mind show how much things had changed since I first discerned my call to the ministry just a few years earlier. Mainline Protestant denominations were in the midst of a sustained period of 9decline in membership, a decline that showed no sign of abating. And although I was part of a tradition (Unitarian Universalism) that was still showing a slight increase in membership each year, I was aware that the changes were happening in the larger world of religion in America could eventually affect us (they did).

There was one piece of news I heard at the time about this shifting religious landscape that really hit home—my religious home. You see, like most Unitarian Universalists, I came out of a different tradition. I was baptized a Christian in the Lutheran Church of America (the denomination of my father’s family), and when my dad got a job as the choir director of a United Methodist Church (the denomination of my mother’s family), our family made the relatively easy transition from Lutheran to Methodist. This early LCA/UMC combination put me squarely in the moderate to progressive camp of mainline Protestantism in America. So when I heard the news that sometime in the first years of the this new century mainline Protestants would no longer make up the majority of Christians in the United States, I was troubled.

Why? Because my perception of what “church” should be like was naturally based on my experiences growing up. As a minister-in-training, my attitudes toward worship, Sunday school, pastoral care, even potlucks had all been shaped by my mainline Protestant upbringing. And up until that point I assumed that this upbringing was one that I shared with a majority of Americans who identified as Christian. But now, in at the beginning of the 21st century, all if this was changing—for good.

So I entered my ministerial career with more than a bit of anxiety. Yes, things were changing rapidly. We freshly minted ministers needed to stay on top of things, make words like “bi-vocational” and “entrepreneurial” part of our vocabularies, keep an eye on the latest trends and seek out the best practices of congregations that were bucking those treads. That’s more or less what I’ve done—to varying degrees of success. It would have been nice to have some sort of GPS system to help us navigate this new terrain. But the truth was (and still is) that more and more ministers are scrabbling to keep to up with it all.

The new reality is that there is no such thing as “settled” ministry any more. No matter what position a clergy person takes, it’s bound to have a fair amount of uncertainty built into it.

What about the Laity?

Of course, ordained clergy aren’t the only ones being affected by these uncertainties. Most congregations in the United States have a lot of lay leaders. Board members, committee members, religious educators, building and grounds volunteers, social justice activists—congregations exist because so many lay people are willing to invest their time and money. Obviously, the seismic shifts in the America religious landscape have shaken things up for the laity, too.d991c3b377e529a64b6df5bb24e11427

Anyone who has been a member of a congregation longer than five years or so has probably seen a lot of changes. Worship attendance is down. Regular attenders are attending less regularly. Balancing budgets has become impossible. And there are fewer and fewer denominational staff members to turn to for help. In a word, things are tough—for everyone.

All of us who are involved with congregations in the United States—paid or volunteer, lay or ordained—are experiencing what some have called “the dark night of the church.” Sanctuaries and meeting rooms that used to be full are now routinely well below capacity. Successful pledge drives are a thing of the past. Staff members are seeing their hours reduced or their positions eliminated. Deferred maintenance is a way of life. It’s enough to make anyone question their commitment to their religious community.

Clearly, the heyday of congregations is the United States is over. And for all of us who believe that progressive religious communities affiliated with established faith traditions still have something to offer, this is unsettling. Being unsettled, however, in not necessarily bad. If we are, indeed, going through a “dark night of the church” in the United States, this could actually good news. Why? Because crises of faith like this—be they individual or collective—are actually invitations to something better.

How, then, do we get to that better place? Those who speak of the dark night of the church follow the lead of Saint John of the Cross by saying “that in the dark night one needs a spiritual director, a soul friend.” I believe this is more true today than ever. The good news is that at the same time mainline Protestantism and other moderate to progressive religious traditions have been changing, so has the practice of spiritual direction. While progressive religious traditions have been waning, the number of spiritual directors, as well as the number of people seeking spiritual direction, has been increasing.

Perhaps more importantly, the spiritual direction has in the last 30 years or so transcended the traditions commonly associated with the practice—primarily Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox—to become a truly multifaith, interspiritual movement. Spiritual direction, spiritual guidance, spiritual companionship—no matter what you call it, I believe that this ancient practice can give both clergy and laity the tools we need to make it through the dark night of the church and into a new era of progressive religion in America. My hope is that this series of posts will end up being a comprehensive guide for making that so.

Are You an Isolated UU? Here Are Five Things That Can Help You Stay Connected

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.churchblueprint1-jpg_1_20160329-633

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:

  1. Intellectual Pathway
  2. Relational Pathway
  3. Serving Pathway
  4. Worship Pathway
  5. Activist Pathway
  6. Contemplative Pathway
  7. 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, 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

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; for a UCC congregation, try; and for a Disciples of Christ church, see

Use Meet Up

Some UUs have found some luck using to get small groups together. Maybe there’s already one near you. Just go to, 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…

Covenanting Community

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 And if you’d like to know what the future of Covenanting Communities might look like, feel free to email me at for more information.

Now That Love Is Reaching Out, The Question Is “To Whom?”

I’ve been going a little overboard with this “Love Reaches Out” thing. By “thing,” I mean the workshops that UUA Outreach Director Carey McDonald has developed. And by “overboard,” I mean asking at the end of almost every conversation I have with a congregational leader, “Would you be interested in a ‘Love Reaches Out’ workshop?”

lroActually, we’re all pretty excited about these workshops here in the MidAmerica Region. They’re a great way to engage congregations large and small in the process of “discovering who they are, what they do, and why it matters.” And we get to share the UUA’s cool branding resources, too.

If you’re not acquainted with these workshops, here’s what they’re about. Carey’s put together three ninety-minute workshops designed to help participants wrap their hearts and minds around these goals:

  1. Understand how the American religious landscape is changing and how UU congregations can respond to that reality,
  2. Examine who we are as Unitarian Universalists, both in our congregations and as a faith movement, and whether we are effectively communicating this to the wider world, and
  3. Develop a plan for getting started with your congregation or group reaching out into the community while staying grounded in your core identity or mission.

Friends, I’m here to tell you that these workshops deliver. Every time I’ve offered a full day of these workshops, participants leave with a lot of energy, a fistful of good ideas, and a renewed sense of how our faith can bring more love, justice, and peace to their communities and the world.

Truth is, these workshops couldn’t be more timely. Carey created them over a year ago, but in many ways, it’s like they were designed specifically as a response to the presidential election. Why? Because one of the final exercises in the last workshop asks participants this question: What are things about your community that truly break your heart?

I think we can all agree that there’s a lot of heartbreak in our communities already as a result of the election, and unfortunately, there’s the potential for even more. So when participants get to this exercise at the end of the day, the lists they’re making are pretty long.

So at this point in the workshop, I like to have people think about what Jim Wallis, president and founder of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners, calls the Matthew 25 Test. Wallis asks,

How do we decide where and how to focus our ministry, energy, staff, time, and gifts? How do we be good stewards of our calling? I think that Matthew 25:31-46 provides the answer. The key moment in the passage is when Jesus says:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Speaking in Washington, D.C., last month with a group of clergy and families protesting against Trump’s cabinet appointments, Wallis said that this “test” has become a “simple pledge”: I will protect and defend vulnerable people.

I will protect and defend vulnerable people.

Say it with me: “I will protect and defend vulnerable people.”

When the leaders of any of our congregations—large or small, urban or rural—look beyond their sanctuary walls and ask “To whom should love reach out?” I believe the the answer should be, first and foremost, to the vulnerable people in our communities.

No matter where a congregation is located, there are undoubtedly countless vulnerable people to protect and defend, to reach out to in love: black, brown, native, Muslim, immigrant, LGBTQ, folks with records, folks with disabilities, and poor communities.

That list is from Opal Tometi, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. She says, these are the people we should show up for in the wake of the election, and I couldn’t agree more.

Now, more than ever, we need each and every one of our congregations and communities reaching out in love to protect and defend vulnerable people.

What Are You Seeking?

One of the things I love about reading books on spiritual direction is that I always—always—learn something new. Take this excerpt from Rabbi Howard A. Addison’s Show Me Your Way: The Complete Guide to Exploring Interfaith Spiritual Direction for example:

  • If you are interested in learning about the beliefs, observances, and texts of a religion because you want to know more or seek to more fully identify with that faith community, you are seeking religious education or formation.
  • If you want to relieve your anxieties and learn how to understand and deal with their causes, you are seeking psychotherapy.
  • If you want insight into how the wisdom of religious tradition might help you understand and respond to your problems, you are seeking pastoral counseling.
  • If you wish to deepen your relationship with God so that you can recognize how God’s spirit might be calling you and moving in your life, you are seeking spiritual guidance.

While I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out the difference between spiritual direction and pastoral counseling, I haven’t been able to come up with something this succinct.inwardsprings-1

And even though I consider myself a religious educator, I’ve never really bothered to think about where, exactly, religious education or formation fits into the scheme of things.

As always, my Unitarian Universalist friends, feel free to replace “God” with language that’s consistent with our religious tradition. My go-to phrase is “transcending mystery and wonder.”

So I’d change the last bullet point to

If you wish to deepen your relationship with the transcending mystery and wonder so you can recognize how the spirit is moving in your life, you are seeking spiritual guidance.

And speaking of spiritual guidance, I’m current accepting a limited number of directee’s (not thrilled with that word, by the way) in my spiritual direction practice. You can find out more at

What’s Your Congregation’s #100DayCounterAgenda?

A week or so a go I wrote about a post by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, called “Now Is Liberal Religion’s Moment.” In it, Yoffie suggest that liberal religious communities need to “strengthen the ritual and liturgical elements of your congregation’s religious life” in response to the coming administration.

A week later I read another post that is a perfect illustration of what that might look like: “Joining the resistance: A 100-day counter-agenda for the Church,” by Cody Sanders, pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Harvard Square and American Baptist chaplain at Harvard.

Sanders asks,

How might our congregations seize this window of time as an opportunity to develop a prophetic vision that ruptures the taken for granted status quo of the world-as-it-is with a compelling vision of the world-as-it-ought-to-be?

100daycounteragendasslHis response? Use “the first 100 days of the Trump presidency” as a “time to develop our own ‘100-day counter-agenda’ in our congregations.” These 100 days encompass “most of the season of Epiphany, all of Lent, Easter Sunday and the following two Sundays of the Easter season. That’s 15 Sundays during which our worship and work can explicitly witness to another way.”

In his congregation, “this 100-day counter-agenda is beginning to take shape around the themes of sanctuary (Epiphany), reparations (Lent) and resurrection-as-resistance (Easter).”

Note that while Sanders is using the standard liturgical calendar for Christians, he’s also added themes. What would it look like if Unitarian Universalist congregations using theme-based ministry took these same 100 days to offer “a compelling vision of the world-as-it-ought-to-be” through “liturgy, hymns, holidays, and festivals” built on those themes?

I checked out some of the theme-ministry resources I’m aware of and found some intriguing possibilities. The Soul Matters Sharing Circle, for example, is exploring the following themes during the same period: Prophecy, Identity, Risk, and Transformation. A lot can be said about our vision of the world-as-it-ought-to-be using with them.

Unity Church-Unitarian in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is covering these themes in January, February, March, and April of next year: Resistance, Prayer, Sin, and Redemption. And the themes at All Soul’s Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, are Creation, Freedom, Religious Authority, and Redemption. The Church of the Larger Fellowship has its themes for the first quarter of next year ready as well: Change, Embodiment, Covenant, and Creativity.

I could see any and all of these themes acting as starting points to “prophetically worship and work in the space between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-it-ought-to-be.” If your congregation is already using themes, consider how they might work as a #100DayCounterAgenda to the new administration.

And if you’ve never used themes, consider this: there are 15 Sundays during these 100 days. What would it be like to take three of these themes and do 5 Sundays on each one? Resistance, Risk, Embodiment. Prophecy, Prayer, Creativity. Identity, Covenant, and Transformation.

I’d love to hear your ideas about what this might look like! So please share in the comments or on social media using the hashtag #100DayCounterAgenda.

4 Essential Posts for Religious Progressives, Part Four

So to recap. Post one suggests that the first thing progressive congregations need to do in response to the results of this election is to fortify the faith of their congregants by ritually and liturgically reinforcing the most progressive and compassionate aspects of their tradition.

In post two I say that along with fortifying the faithful, progressive religious communities need to make some very specific commitments, commitments that lift up a progressive vision for the world: striving for social justice, embracing different beliefs, extending warmth and welcome to everyone, showing up for civil rights, LGBTQ equality, immigration reform, environmental sustainability, reproductive justice, racial justice, and more.

The third post offered some suggestions on how a progressive people of faith can respond as individuals: defend an institution, stand out, be courageous, speak the language of faith, etc.

For this last post, I’d like to cover what may be one of the most difficult things for religious progressives to do: have a care-frontational conversation with a neighbor, family member, fellow congregant, or stranger who voted for Trump.

I was just about to get started writing this when I found John Gehring’s An open letter to white Christians who voted for Donald Trump. Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, closes his letter with these words:

Even as I speak up for what I believe in and what I think this country stands for I’m also going to try and lower my voice. I’m going to listen to you. We should meet. The words between us will not be easy. Let’s keep faith and stumble ahead together through the fog.

“I’m going to listen to you.” That’s the last of the 10 commitments Jim Wallis makes to the readers of Sojourners, too. “We will listen to you,” he says, “and we can all listen to each other if we desire healing—and we all should.”

But as Gehring says, it “will not be easy.” So how do we begin to do this?

Thanks to Jacqui Lewis, Senior Minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York, for giving us a place to start. Her blog post “Tools for Table Talk” offers four simple questions to get those conversations going.

  1. static1-squarespaceWhy did you vote the way you voted?
  2. What were you hoping your vote would accomplish?
  3. How are you feeling right now?
  4. Is there anything we can do together?

Lewis closes her post with these words: “And then listen. Really listen.”

Amen to that.