Bringing a Spiritual Formation Focus to Lay-Led Congregations, Part 1

While the Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association clearly state that we covenant together to affirm and promote “encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,” it’s not something that’s high on the list of priorities when it comes to running a small, lay-led congregation.

After all the time spent figuring out what’s going to happen on Sunday mornings, meeting with committees, and coordinating social justice events, there isn’t a whole lot of time leftover for lay leaders to plan adult faith development experiences on the subject of spirituality.

And just what did they have in mind way back in 1985? What does “encouragement to spiritual growth” entail, anyway?

For Unitarian Universalist, spiritual growth might mean a variety of things. As I mentioned in a previous post, Erik Walker Wikstrom’s Tapestry of Faith curriculum Spirit in Practice offers an excellent introduction to what spiritual growth might mean for Unitarian Universalists and other spiritual progressives.

In fact, offering some of the more spiritually-oriented curricula from the UUA’s Faith Development Office is an excellent place to begin. In addition to Spirit in Practice, there’s also Spirit of Life, a nine-session program by Barbara Hamilton-Holway based on Carolyn McDade’s hymn of the same name. Both are available online for free.

There are also a number of books published by Skinner House with a emphasis on spiritual growth. Two books by Christine Robinson and Alicia Hawkins, Soul to Soul and Heart to Heart (each subtitled Fourteen Gatherings for Reflection and Sharing), are excellent resources for engaging friends and members in “the spiritual practice of sharing in community.”

DSCN0009And let’s not forget good old-fashioned book groups. The UUA Bookstore publishes a number of study guides to go with their titles, like the guide [PDF] to Forrest Church’s Love & Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow, an excellent resource for exploring Church’s definition of religion: “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.”

Another great resource for book groups are the small group guides from HarperOne. There you can find guides for a huge number of books on spirituality from authors such as Henri J. M. Nouwen, Paulo Coelho, Thich Nhat Hanh, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Sue Monk Kidd. In fact, book groups studying authors like these might appeal to spiritual seekers in the wider community in addition to friends and members.

Once you’ve offered a few of these opportunities, you may detect a yearning to go deeper from some friends and members in your congregations. That’s where an ongoing small group ministry program built on spiritual themes comes in. The process is simple: you take the standard covenant group model already used in many UU congregations and choose topics that encourage participants to go deeper and share more about their spiritual lives.

I believe that any lay-led congregation that regularly offers spiritual deepening opportunities like these is likely to find some folks who want even more. The next step would be developing an intentional small group spiritual direction program.

But it’s difficult to do this without the aid of someone actually trained in the process of small group spiritual direction. In part two, we’ll look at how a lay-led congregation could work with a qualified religious professional to make this happen.

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