Common Read

The Unitarian Universalist Association began selecting a Common Read every year starting in 2010.
"A Common Read invites participants to read and discuss the same book in a given period of time. A Common Read can build community in our congregations and our movement by giving diverse people a shared experience, shared language, and a basis for deep, meaningful conversations."
The UUA Common Reads:

2015-16: Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy. CLICK HERE.

A powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice -- from one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time.

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

Rev. Meredith Garmon's sermon, "Just Mercy": CLICK HERE.

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2014-15: Paul Rasor, Reclaiming Prophetic Witness. CLICK HERE.

In Reclaiming Prophetic Witness, Rasor argues that conservative Christianity is not the only valid religious  voice in our national social policy. His book invites Unitarian Universalists to explore and claim our c ontribution, as religious liberals, to the pressing moral and ethical debates of our contemporary world.

This year's selection is an elegantly written, 105-page gem. Rasor observes that many liberals are uncomfortable with talking about our faith as the well from which spring our social justice commitments. The book includes insights from our theological heritage and our history that have bearing for us today, and calls us to prophetic, faith-based justice work.

In Reclaiming Prophetic Witness, Rasor argues that conservative Christianity is not the only valid religious voice in our national social policy. His book invites Unitarian Universalists to explore and claim our contribution, as religious liberals, to the pressing moral and ethical debates of our contemporary world. This elegantly written, 105-page book, is a gem. Rasor observes that many liberals are uncomfortable with talking about our faith as the well from which spring our social justice commitments. The book includes insights from our theological heritage and our history that have bearing for us today, and calls us to prophetic, faith-based justice work.

Rev. Meredith Garmon's sermon, "Reclaiming Prophetic Witness": CLICK HERE.

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2013-14: Saru Jayaraman, Behind the Kitchen Door. CLICK HERE.

Behind the Kitchen Door "reveals how restaurant workers live on some of the lowest wages in America and how poor working conditions—discriminatory labor practices, exploitation, and unsanitary kitchens—affect the meals that arrive at our restaurant tables. The author, who launched a national restaurant workers organization after 9/11, tells the stories of ten restaurant workers in cities across the United States as she explores the political, economic, and moral implications of eating out: What’s at stake when we choose a restaurant is not only our own health or “foodie” experience but also the health and well-being of the second largest private sector workforce—10 million people, many immigrants, many people of color, who bring passion, tenacity, and insight into the American dining experience.

"Behind the Kitchen Door invites Unitarian Universalists to intentionally consider their practices in restaurant dining. It makes visible the lives of people who are subject to discrimination and oppression based on economic status, race, ethnicity, gender, and/or immigration status. Common Read groups are encouraged to let Behind the Kitchen Door inspire follow-up action, such as advocacy for just working conditions for restaurant workers, as part of a commitment to ethical eating. Use the UUA's economic justice resources to learn about minimum wage campaign and actions you and your congregation can take to help." (UUA Website).

Rev. Meredith Garmon's sermon, "Behind the Kitchen Door": CLICK HERE.

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2012-13: Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow CLICK HERE.

Once in a great while a book comes along that changes the way we see the world and helps to fuel a nationwide social movement. The New Jim Crow is such a book. Praised by Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier as "brave and bold," this book directly challenges the notion that the election of Barack Obama signals a new era of colorblindness. With dazzling candor, legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues that "we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it." By targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control — relegating millions to a permanent second-class status — even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness. In the words of Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, this book is a "call to action."

Called "stunning" by Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Levering Lewis, "invaluable" by the Daily Kos, "explosive" by Kirkus, and "profoundly necessary" by the Miami Herald, this updated and revised paperback edition of The New Jim Crow, now with a foreword by Cornel West, is a must-read for all people of conscience.

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2011-12: Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith. CLICK HERE.

Acts of Faith is a remarkable account of growing up Muslim in America and coming to believe in religious pluralism, from one of the most prominent faith leaders in the United States. Eboo Patel’s story is a hopeful and moving testament to the power and passion of young people — and of the world-changing potential of an interfaith youth movement.

Patel, a former Rhodes scholar with a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford, is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that unites young people of different religions to perform community service and explore their common values. Patel argues that such work is essential, manifesting the faith line that will define the 21st century. Patel's own story is more powerful than the exhaustive examples he provides of how mainstream faith failed to reach young people like Osama bin Laden and Yighal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin. With honesty, Patel relates how he suffered the racist taunts of fellow youth, and, in response, alternately rebelled against and absorbed the religion of his parents — Islam — but in his own way. Meanwhile, he continued to pursue interfaith work with vigor, not quite knowing his end goal but always feeling in his gut that interfaith understanding was the key. This autobiography of a young activist captures how an angry youth can be transformed—by faith, by the community and, most of all, by himself — into a profound leader for the cause of peace.

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2010-11: Margaret Regan, The Death of Josseline. CLICK HERE.

Dispatches from Arizona—the front line of a massive human migration—including the voices of migrants, Border Patrol, ranchers, activists, and others

For the last decade, Margaret Regan has reported on the escalating chaos along the Arizona-Mexico border, ground zero for immigration since 2000. Undocumented migrants cross into Arizona in overwhelming numbers, a state whose anti-immigrant laws are the most stringent in the nation. And Arizona has the highest number of migrant deaths. Fourteen-year-old Josseline, a young girl from El Salvador who was left to die alone on the migrant trail, was just one of thousands to perish in its deserts and mountains.

With a sweeping perspective and vivid on-the-ground reportage, Regan tells the stories of the people caught up in this international tragedy. Traveling back and forth across the border, she visits migrants stranded in Mexican shelters and rides shotgun with Border Patrol agents in Arizona, hiking with them for hours in the scorching desert; she camps out in the thorny wilderness with No More Deaths activists and meets with angry ranchers and vigilantes. Using Arizona as a microcosm, Regan explores a host of urgent issues: the border militarization that threatens the rights of U.S. citizens, the environmental damage wrought by the border wall, the desperation that compels migrants to come north, and the human tragedy of the unidentified dead in Arizona’s morgues.

Pathway to Membership

For the Powerpoint slides click here.

At General Assembly 2011 (Charlotte, NC), one of the workshops I attended featured Mary Jones and Kaaren Anderson describing what they do at the UU Church of Rochester, NY.

Fortunately, the presentations were videotaped, and you can watch them too! I have embedded them below.

Part 1: Mary Jones (Director of Member Services, UU Church of Rochester)(9:11)

Scott Tayler and Kaaren Anderson were called as co-ministers, and Jen Crowe as associate minister in 2004. In 7 years (2004-2011), the Rochester congregation grew 36% from 727 members to 990 members. (See what averaging 4.5% growth per year can do if you keep it up for seven years!)

Everything is mission driven.
Thus, the pathway to membership arises organically from the mission.

Here's the mission:
"Healing spiritual disconnection by helping each other:
listen to our deepest selves
open to life's gifts, and
serve needs greater than our own."
Notice that the mision is NOT about what the church offers or what our church does. The mission is about what we are inviting people to become.

Central question: Who are we asking you to become?

A Unitarian Universalist church asks members to become people who LISTEN, OPEN, and SERVE -- someone who heals spiritual disconnection by engaging with others to:
LISTEN to our deepest selves
OPEN to life's gifts, and
SERVE needs greater than our own.
At Rochester, the staff spent some time operationalizing the mission into a sequential step-by-step process. At the end of that process, the member has become someone fully engaged in listening, opening, and serving.

Newcomers follow the systematic pathway to/of membership, and that pathway is the model for the long-time members, too. Getting the long-time ("seasoned") members re-oriented to UU is important. A mission can't function as a real mission unless everyone is on the same "operating system." (Including clarity of expectation for pledging-- 3 to 5 percent of Adjusted Gross Income.)

Get the first three months of membership very mapped out for new members. This prevents "wandering in the wilderness." The newcomers should always know the next step.

At Rochester, the paid staff total on the membership team is 35 hours/week, consisting of:
  • Director of Member Services (15 hrs/wk)
  • Membership Database Administrator (10 hrs/wk)
  • Director of Lay Ministries (10 hrs/wk)
Also involved: The minister and the volunteer lead of the Hospitality Team.

Part 2: Mary Jones (10:38)

Steps Along the Path to Membership

1. Welcome the visitor. The Membership Director is the "Master Connector" -- has high visibility, up in front of the congregation every Sunday. Newcomers always hear from just the one person. That consistency is very helpful for newcomers.

2. UU 101: Newcomer Orientation. A class of 45-mins, after service on many Sundays (at least twice a month -- preferably every Sunday). Led by Membership Director. Keys: short, frequent, and low commitment. (Can drop in, no advance registration). This class begins the introduction to the listen, open, serve mission; asks people where they came from and how they came to us; provides a tour of the church; and invites participants to the next step.

Visitor follow-up: Invite them to a specific event.

3. Starting Point Class: an 8-hour class (sometimes offered in two 4-hour blocks on consecutive Saturdays; sometimes offered in four 2-hour classes on a weekday evening). Offered 3-4 times a year.
This is led by the minister. It introduces people to listening, opening, and serving. Participation in the Starting Point Class represents an increased commitment.
This is the boat to get people across the lake.
From Starting Point, they go either to Journey Groups or to membership class (UU 201) -- preferably both.

In the last couple hours, we explain journey groups, and ask them to continue the journey by joining one of our journey groups.

4. Journey Groups. These can be interest groups -- writing group, a Buddhism study group, etc. However, also create a new journey group out of the people who were in each the Starting Point class.

Part 3: Mary Jones (5:51)

The step of joining a journey group is a step of DEEPENING commitment. Step 5 invites them to BROADEN commitment.

5. UU201: Membership. Led by minister. Covers expectations and benefits of membership -- and covers some governance and finance matters. Not a long class because the main work has already been done.

Upon joining we get their gifts and talents info entered into database. Then we connect them with the leaders of the groups they're interested in.

Watching the Back Door.
Measurement of visits is important.
Ongoing touchpoints: Call every member at the 6-month anniversary and the 12-month anniversary of joining. Use a telephone survey to assess how they are integrating.

- Recognize service.
- Hold a special service of recognition for the seasoned members.

Part 4: Rev. Kaaren Anderson (co-minister, UU Church of Rochester)(8:17)

Resource: Andy Stanley podcasts.

Resource: Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church

Map out the steps from beginning to end -- then you can look to see where you're losing people.

Small groups are essential. Journey groups usher our people toward the soul matters covenant groups.

From Integration to Leadership:

1. "Creating Disciples": You want your members to be able to understand the mission -- articulate and help others come on board with it. That's "discipleship."

2. RE-START: seasoned members need to be brought into the same operating system. We ask the long-time members to take the Starting Point Class.

3. Leadership training.
In house is leadership training is helpful (instead of having to send folks away to a UU Leadership school).

Steps of leadership: A member can't be on the governing board, or other high-level leadership, until they've done some "early leadership," then progressed to "ministry leadership."

1. Early Leadership: project leader; RE teacher; group facilitator.

2. Ministry Leadership: Pastoral Care Team; Task Force leader; major project leader.

3. Church Leadership: Board member or officer; nominating (leadership development) team; fundraising chair; capital compaign leader.

Theme-Based Ministry

Monthly Themes at Community UU -- and, starting in 2015, also at 1st Unitarian Society of Westchester (Hastings), and, starting in 2016, at all Westchester UU Congregations: Past and Upcoming

Covenant /Democracy
Letting Go
Religious Authority
Presence /Mindfulness

By design, each year's themes duplicate many of the themes from three years before -- allowing for returning to important themes and exploring them in more depth, and from the different vantage point at which we find ourselves after three years.

The following account of theme-based ministry borrows liberally from the website of our Tulsa congregation.

Each theme plays a part in the development of a well-grounded religious and spiritual life. The church’s offerings each month are by no means limited to the themes. However, these topics provide an axis around which many elements of church life gain more meaning and depth. The themes provide us with a set of common stories and ideas that become elements of an ongoing community conversation.

Be warned: Seriously engaging these themes could transform your life!


To engage and empower CUC and its members to think theologically and live our ministry and calling at home and in the wider world -- thereby also strengthening the Unitarian Universalist network of congregations so engaged and empowered.


That North American Unitarian Universalist congregations adopt a transformational approach to ministry that includes the entire congregation and equips members with resources for living each day with faith, integrity and wisdom; that Unitarian Universalists across the continent are prepared with the language and religious understanding to play a substantial role as shapers of our country and its culture, and to engage in dialogue with people of other backgrounds regarding issues of faith, values, ethics and religion.


The monthly theme is the focus of church life and programming across the lifespan. Each theme has a story associated with it and the story offers language, symbols and metaphors on the theme. The congregation is offered multiple ways to engage the themes through worship, classes, small groups, newsletter articles, spiritual homework, at-home family practices, a reading list for further reading on the theme and more.

The resources are provided so that members can decide at what level and depth they want to engage a particular theme. Children maintain journals on the themes each month, so that if they are in our program for 12 years they will have 4 sets of reflections on each theme at different stages of their own personal, spiritual and cognitive development. The themes offer the congregation (across the generations) a common set of stories, ideas and topics to be in conversation about each month. The story each month will usually come from World Scripture -- the Tanakh, New Testament, Sutras, Vedas, Quran -- or from Unitarian or Universalist history. Additional stories will reflect how the theme is addressed in a variety of traditions. Thus members attain religious literacy and have the opportunity to develop a theology informed by many faiths and rooted in Unitarian Universalism.


1. Religious Competence: A Need Currently Not Well Met

Most Unitarian Universalist congregations today do not offer their members a common language of faith, a common set of stories, or a clear and systematic map for developing their own understanding of theology and liberal religion. Members are rarely provided with ways to engage their religious life at various levels of depth and understanding. The result is many congregations with members who are not being offered competency in the areas of liberal theology, biblical literacy, familiarity with World Scripture, or religious ways of dealing with loss, betrayal, addiction, evil, etc.

2. Integrating Worship, RE, and Small Groups

UU congregations rarely have significant coordination or collaboration between the Sunday school programming for children and what is being discussed by the adults in worship, classes and small groups. The lack of integration across the lifespan is a missed opportunity for community building and hinders intergenerational religious learning.

3. Resources for Coping

"Religious Competence" means having resources for dealing with challenges, tragedies, crises -- as well as all the the day-to-day minor annoyances -- and finding deepening joy in simple, ordinary life.

Offering a systematic approach to theological learning in churches gives people the resources for dealing with life's challenges prior to encountering particular challenges. It is often difficult to suddenly try to develop a spiritual life and an understanding of the most important concepts for living when one is in the midst of dealing with a major life crisis. For example, it is often when someone receives a terminal diagnosis that they begin to explore death and the meaning of life or when they have been betrayed that they begin to try to understand forgiveness. However, when a person has a basic understanding of major life issues prior to encountering them and also has an ongoing spiritual practice, this allows the person to move through life's travails with greater integrity, gracefulness and acceptance.

Life is never the same after a significant loss. Spiritual deepening, however, allows the bereaved to grieve well, heal, and move into the new life that awaits them.

Through a theme-based approach, Unitarian Universalists may develop resources for living throughout their lives, and at times when they are not in the midst of a crisis. Therefore, they carry these religious resources with them and are able to draw on a well-established religious understanding and perspective as they deal with the vicissitudes of life.


Here are ways that the All Souls UU Congregation in Tulsa suggests that their members go deeper with the 3-year cycle of themes. We'll look to implement or adapt many of these ideas for CUC.
  • Attend the First Sunday of the month service where the minister will explore the theme in detail in Sunday worship and we will introduce the story for all ages that is used in our Children's Religious Education program for the month.
  • Attend Soulful Sundown on the first Friday of the month where we use a more secular exploration of the theme using popular culture including: live music, drama, video, slam poetry, and improv.
  • Attend our Wednesday Night Adult Religious Education Programming throughout the month that relate to the theme.
  • Read Simple Gifts. Simple Gifts (SG) is our monthly journal and can be used to explore ideas on the theme (ideally to begin considering the theme before hearing the sermons)
  • The SG list of quotes. Inside Simple Gifts is a pull out list of quotes on the theme to consider as part of a daily journaling or meditation practice.
  • The SG book list. Inside Simple Gifts is also a book list for further reading. Choose one to add to your reading for the month.You're probably getting the idea that SG is a great resource!
  • SG Theme tips for parents.In most issues of Simple Gifts is also a section designed especially for parents including practical help about how to answer our children's questions on the themes.
  • Consider sharing your gifts and talents with our children by volunteering in our All Souls Kids program as a workshop leader.
For a more in-depth overview of Theme Based Ministry, visit

See also, "Interconnections," 2011.01:


Monthly Themes at All Souls, Tulsa, Help Congregants Go Deeper

At All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla., the theme for the month of January is “Creation.” In February the theme shifts to “Religious Authority.” When March comes around “Redemption” will be taken up.

Going out further, Senior Minister the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar knows what themes he will be preaching on for the next three years, at which time the themes will start over.

Theme-based ministry—adopting a specific topic for a month and focusing on it in depth in worship, religious education, and other aspects of congregational life—is catching on in Unitarian Universalist congregations. All Souls adopted theme-based ministry nine years ago, shortly after Lavanhar arrived.

“When I was in my first year of ministry here I realized I needed something with a little more structure,” he says. “UU ministers have to work a little harder to come up with sermon topics because for the most part we don’t follow the lectionary that traditional Christian ministers do.” A Christian lectionary is a list of specific scripture passages that are used in developing worship for any given Sunday.

Here’s how theme-based ministry works at 1,800-member All Souls: On the first Sunday of the month Lavanhar preaches on that month’s theme. On other Sundays of the month he is free to preach on other topics. As he does that he finds ways to also touch on the monthly theme.

The themes are not limited to sermons but are infused through the rest of congregational life at All Souls, including religious education and small group ministry. There are newsletter articles on the theme and take-home study materials each month to help congregants go deeper with the topic and talk with their children about it.

There is a more significant reason for using monthly themes than just Lavanhar’s need to be better organized, he notes. “I want our members to have a systematic theology. There are certain core topics that people need to know about to have a good grounding in liberal theology. For example, if I only preached about ‘evil’ every six or seven years there could be people who come and go from All Souls without ever hearing anything on that topic. With theme preaching they’ll hear about it at least every three years.”

The themes also provide a way to introduce Bible stories, he notes, giving children and adults a cultural literacy foundation that’s often missing in Unitarian Universalism. Stories from other traditions are also included “so children learn that stories about forgiveness, for example, are not just found in the Bible.”

Too often, Lavanhar says, we as UUs don’t have the theological grounding we need when we are confronted with life’s crises. “We get a diagnosis, or someone dies. Then we want a crash course on seeking redemption and forgiveness. All the big questions come up. What we need to be doing in our UU congregations is giving people resources when they are well, not when they’re in the middle of an issue. Then when there’s a crisis they’ll have the wisdom and the resources they need. Theme-based ministry helps with that.”

Case in point: Lavanhar’s three-year-old daughter Sienna died suddenly four years ago. Earlier that year death had been one of the monthly themes at All Souls, along with a discussion of brokenness and how it can be transformed into something of value. “We found that during this crisis the congregation had a spiritual maturity that we were able to draw on,” Lavanhar says. “Because we had talked about death earlier people knew how to respond. That brought home the value of the themes to us.”

Lavanhar meets with RE teachers quarterly to talk about themes for the next three months. Then the teachers create and design classes to fit those themes. The All Souls RE program for children and youth has adopted a “rotational” model. Children learn about the monthly themes by rotating through classrooms that use visual arts, drama, movement, yoga, and music to explain the lessons.

Having topics come up every three years means that by the time youth at All Souls have graduated from high school they have been exposed to each topic at least three times. Throughout their time at All Souls they are given journals and asked to write in them monthly. “When they graduate they have a stack of journals that document their theological and spiritual growth through their childhood,” says Lavanhar. “They can look back and see how their thinking on a particular topic, such as their view of God, has changed over time.”

Adults too, he says, can chart their own growth. “The themes become yardsticks for a spiritual life.” All Souls member Toni Willis says the monthly themes are her family's spiritual practice. “We take the theme of the month and we talk about it all month. I have a son who is five, and he knows exactly what the theme is, and we have conversations about how we view it in the world around us, and that’s really beautiful.”

Kathy Keith, executive director of All Souls, and formerly the director of its religious education program, says the inspiration for theme-based ministry came in part from the children’s program, which had its own monthly biblical themes before the church-wide program was adopted. “Here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Bible literacy is a survival skill,” she says.

“Theme-based ministry has closed the chasm between ‘big church’ and religious education,” she adds. “It has knit our congregation together. And now adults can volunteer in RE for a month at a time without giving up their entire adult experience.”

Jaclyn Rusher, 17, believes the monthly themes and the opportunity she’s had to experience them during the past nine years through various mediums, has given her a better RE experience. “I don’t remember much of church before we started doing themes and moving from room to room and using drama and acting out what we were learning. But I remember many of the things we’ve done since then. Having something to focus on for a month and having different ways to look at it made church something to look forward to every week.”

All Souls has created a website for its resources on theme-based ministry, including newsletter articles, sermons, discussion ideas for small groups, poems, music, and video clips. Lavanhar says other congregations are also contributing to this database. “We’re increasing the possibilities for what Unitarian Universalism can offer. If we take theme-based ministry seriously it can really raise the quality of Unitarian Universalism and help us have a larger role in shaping U.S. culture.”

The Rev. Thomas Wintle introduced theme-based ministry to his congregation, the 600-member First Parish Church in Weston, Mass., in 2006, after learning about it from Lavanhar. He does a three-year rotation of themes and preaches on the theme all four or five Sundays in a month.

As a Christian UU minister he’s used a lectionary for 20 years to determine worship topics. He was intrigued by the possibility of exploring a topic for a full month in worship and RE. “You can go much deeper than if there’s just one sermon or one RE lesson,” he says. “It assures we have a theologically literate congregation. Our families go home on Sunday and I hear later about these amazing dinner table conversations. And I have to say theme ministry has rejuvenated my preaching.”

He says monthly themes help him collect information for sermons. “I have a file for each topic. When I read something about mercy, or redemption, it goes in the file.”

At the beginning of each year First Parish creates a five-page brochure laying out the themes and mails it to every resident of Weston. “It’s a terrific PR piece,” says Wintle.

Other congregations using or exploring theme-based ministry include West Shore UU Church in Rocky River, Ohio; Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minn.; First Parish in Concord, Mass.; the UU Church of Arlington, Va.; Pathways UU Church in Southlake, Tex.; and the UU Society: East in Manchester, Conn.


More information on All Souls Unitarian Church’s use of theme-based ministry can be found here, including a list of themes, resources for each, and an explanation of this approach to ministry. All Souls and several other congregations using theme-based ministry have created another website -- -- with additional resources. Congregations using theme-based ministry are invited to submit resources to this latter site.

The “Journeys of Faith—Year at a Glance” brochure for theme ministry at First Parish Church in Weston, Mass., can be found on the church’s website:

Spiritual Practice

Christian churches talk about "making disciples." What they mean by this, when the particularities of Christian doctrine are removed, is a process for helping people become more mature:
  • spiritually;
  • emotionally;
  • ethically.
Unitarian Universalists are interested in this, too!

The path of transformation entails spiritual practice.

We might start a spiritual practice wanting our spiritual muscles strong, toned, trim, and limber. If we do keep at it, we might gradually come to see that there's nothing to attain – except the knowledge that there’s nothing to attain. A visitor to a Zen center heard the master give dharma talk. In the talk, the master spoke of how Zen is about being ordinary. Afterwards the visitor asked the master, “Ordinary? So, then, what is the difference between you and me?” The master said, “There is no difference – only, I know that.”

We do the practice not to attain something. We do the practice just to do the practice. Dish-washing becomes spiritual practice when it is done just to be doing it. As Thich Nhat Hanh says:
"There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes."
With the second way, dish-washing is a spiritual practice; with the first way, it is not. There are many, many forms of spiritual practice. The traditional idea of spiritual practice in the West has been Bible study and prayer.

The Innumerable Possibilities for Spiritual Practice

Here's a partial listing of activities that could be spiritual practices:
  • using prayer beads;
  • fasting;
  • attending peace vigils;
  • listening to music;
  • serving on the congregation’s Board of Trustees;
  • walking a labyrinth;
  • needlepoint;
  • antiracism work;
  • writing letters to the editor;
  • painting;
  • sculpting;
  • cardio kickboxing;
  • bath time with your kids;
  • taking a bubble bath by yourself;
  • saying “hello” to cashiers and clerks;
  • dancing;
  • teaching RE;
  • washing dishes;
  • chanting;
  • camping;
  • running;
  • creating sacred space;
  • tai chi;
  • going to an art museum;
  • surfing;
  • making pottery;
  • attending worship;
  • caring for an ailing parent;
  • writing haiku;
  • playing an instrument;
  • playing with children;
  • yoga;
  • hosting coffee hour;
  • having dinner with friends;
  • studying astronomy;
  • quilting;
  • knitting;
  • cycling;
  • recycling;
  • singing in the choir;
  • nature walks;
  • going to a beach;
  • cooking;
  • martial arts;
  • marching for social change;
  • reciting mantras;
  • e-mailing your governmental representatives;
  • gardening;
  • studying evolution.
Many other activities and intentional commitments might be spiritual practices. Any number of things can be spiritual practices if they are approached with a deliberate intention to get out of our judging mind for a while, and just accept, affirm, and appreciate. If we invite ourselves to equanimity as we undertake the activity, or if the commitment brings attention to compassion, or if we find the activity a vehicle for self-forgetfulness and transpersonal identification, then it can be, for us, a spiritual practice.

At the same time, none of these activities is necessarily or inherently spiritual. Bible study for the purpose of getting an "A" in a Bible class is not a spiritual practice. Nor is a "prayer" asking God for a Mercedes Benz.

Not Goal Directed. If you're new to the concept of spiritual practice, I recommend beginning with an activity that is as utterly without a goal or purpose as possible. Purpose invites judgment about accomplishment or not. Later on, though, it's OK for your practice to include a goal: as long as the goal isn't really the reason you're engaging in the practice. For example, it's OK to give some notice to whether or not the dishes are getting clean as long as your real reason for washing them isn't to get them clean . . . but just to wash them. Any hint of being upset or disappointed if the goal isn't met indicates the activity isn't a spiritual practice.

Think about something you do just to be doing it, something you do without thinking about achieving anything, without thinking about whether you're doing it the way you supposedly should be doing it. There's your spiritual practice. If it helps you nonjudgmentally affirm and appreciate reality just as it is, then I'd call it a spiritual practice.

Spiritual practice is the place in your life where you are liberated from your own judgmentalism, freed from the pursuit of goals and purposes, and allowed to bask in just being.

Four Ways “Something I Do” Becomes “My Spiritual Practice”
  1. Engage the activity with mindfulness.
  2. Engage in the activity with intention of thereby cultivating the hallmarks of spirituality. As you do the activity -- or just before and just after -- reflect on your intention to manifest those symptoms of spiritual development in your life.
  3. Engage the activity with a group that gathers expressly to do the activity in a way that cultivates spirituality. Group members share spiritual reflections before, during, or after doing the activity together.
  4. Establish a foundation of spiritual orientation through the Three Base Spiritual Practices (below).
The Three Base Spiritual Practices

Whatever else you might do as a spiritual practice, it will benefit from also taking up these three practices to provide a solid foundation:
  1. Study. Daily. Choose writings that seem to you to offer spiritual wisdom and insight. Spend some time studying them every day for at least 15 minutes.
  2. Journal. Daily. Journal about your reflections on spiritual subjects, your experiences of the last day and what they meant to you, and what you're grateful for. Journal every day for at least 15 minutes.
  3. Silence. Daily. Sit still and quiet. Bring your attention to the sensations of your breath coming in and going out. When thoughts arise, make a note of what sort of thought it was, and then return to awareness of the sensations of breathing. Set aside some time -- at least 15 minutes -- every day to experience stillness and silence.

In the children's story, "Stone Soup," a traveler comes to town. He claims to have a magical stone that, when cooked in water, will produce nutritious soup. "But it will be even better if we add a little potato," he says. The traveler proceeds to coax the villagers to add cabbage, onions, carrots, etc. In the end, the stone didn't really add anything. Or did it? The stone was the starter without which the other ingredients would not have been brought to the pot. That's pretty potent magic.

These three "base practices" are like the soup's secondary, supporting ingredients -- nice additional enhancements. Yet if you'll keep the pot cooking, over time, these "secondary" practices will make the soup. Your primary practice -- the first ingredient -- may turn out to be the stone. Its magic was that it got you started.

These are not the practices that will make you and me perfect. We're already perfect. They might not change anything at all -- and that's going to be discouraging for that judging mind that wants results.

My intention is for my Judging Mind to just do its job and stop being such a totalitarian tyrant. I can't make that happen, I can only keep inviting Judging Mind, over and over, day after day, year after year, to step aside when its work isn't needed.

My faith is that an awakened life is possible. I am called toward that possibility -- not because it's better -- that would be a judgment -- but just because it is who I am. You?

Please see our growing list of good spiritual practices at "Practices of the Week" index: HERE.

Centered on Process for Growth and Deepening

Process-Centered Church Leadership

Thom S. Rainer & Eric Geiger, Simple Church (2006, 2011), surveyed church leaders at hundred of churches. They compared "vibrant" churches (those that had grown by 5 percent or more per year over each of the previous three years) with "comparison" churches (those that didn't meet the "vibrant" criterion).

The results of their study support a process-centered approach. Their book is titled Simple Church, though that wasn't the original title.
"The original title of the book was 'Process Centered Ministry,' but many friends told us that it was a horrifically boring title and that only nerdy research people would read a book with that title while on vacation." (254)
For Rainer & Geiger, the process in question is the process for "making disciples." Their research supports the conclusion that vibrant churches are more likely to be churches where the central ministry is guiding and directing a process of making disciples. UUs don't often use the word "disciples," but we, too, are concerned with personal transformation -- with growing in our spiritual, emotional, and ethical awareness.

Rainer & Geiger found that vibrant churches were more likely than comparison churches to be process centered. And process-centered churches were more likely than non-process-centered churches to be vibrant.

Being "process centered" means:
  • having a clearly defined process for moving a person from salvation to spiritual maturity to significant ministry;
  • having a visual illustration of the process;
  • having a system to measure how people progress through the process;
  • frequently discussing the process as a leadership team;
  • the church members have a clear understanding of the process;
  • the programs are placed along the strategic process;
  • the programs are sequential, based on the process;
  • being intentional about moving people from one program to another;
  • being clear on what the steps are in the spiritual transformation process;
  • having a class or group to move new people into the life of the church;
  • recruiting and hiring leaders who are committed to the process;
  • the staff/leaders are held accountable for how the church process is implemented in their respective areas;
  • the basic process is the same across the various ministry departments, though the styles and methods vary;
  • the process is the unifying factor that keeps all leaders focused;
  • no new ministry is begun unless it is clear that it fits within the process;
  • eliminating programs that do not fit in the process, even if they are good;
  • using existing weekly programs for special emphases/initiatives instead of adding new programs;
  • limiting the number of conferences and special events that the church does;
  • the process is easy to communicate
  • the process simple for people to understand.
Here are the item-by-item results, comparing the vibrant churches to the comparison churches. Rainer & Geiger presented church leaders with statements and asked them to respond by agreeing or disagreeing with the statement.
SD = Strongly Disagree
D = Disagree
MD = Moderately Disagree
MA = Moderately Agree
A = Agree
SA = Strongly Agree

ITEM 1. "We have a clearly defined process for moving a person from salvation to spiritual maturity to significant ministry."
(Even a plurality of the Comparison churches "moderately agree" with this.)

2. "We have a visual illustration of the process."
(Ten percent of even the vibrant churches "strongly disagree." Even so, agreement tends to characterize the vibrant churches.)
3. "We have a system to measure how people progress through the process."
(It's comparatively rare for any churches to "strongly agree." But notice the preponderance of "disagree" among the comparison churches.)
4. "We frequently discuss our process as a leadership team."
5. "Our church members have a clear understanding of our process."
6. "We have placed our programs along our strategic process."
7. "Our programs are sequential, based on our process."
8. "We are intentional about moving people from one program to another."
9. "After someone becomes a believer, the next step for them in the spiritual transformation process is clear."
10. "We have a class or group to move new people into the life of the church."
(On this one, it's quite pronounced how the stronger the agreement, the more vibrant churches there are.)
11. "We recruit and hire leaders who are committed to our process."
12. "Our staff/leaders are held accountable for how the church process is implemented in their respective areas."
13. "While the styles and methods vary in different ministry departments (such as children and youth), the process is the same."
14. "Our process is the unifying factor that keeps all our leaders focused."
15. "Before we begin a new ministry, we ensure that it fits within our process."
16. "We seek to eliminate programs that do not fit in our process, even if they are good."
17. "We use our existing weekly programs for special emphases/initiatives instead of adding new programs."
18. "We limit the number of conferences and special events that we do as a church."
19. "Our process is easy to communicate."
20. "We have made our process simple for people to understand."
You'll notice that there are always some Comparison churches who "agree" and "strongly agree," and there are always some Vibrant churches who "disagree" -- and usually some who even "strongly disagree." Thus, agreement with these statements is neither necessary nor sufficient for being Vibrant. Nevertheless, being a church centered on the process of spiritual development ("making disciples," as Geiger & Rainer put it) clearly correlates with greater likelihood of being Vibrant -- i.e., growing at least 5 percent per year for at least a three-year period.

Mission: The Gym and The Infirmary

A church is both a gym and an infirmary. It's a place for "working out," for improving our (spiritual) health, for doing the exercises and following the discipline that lead to greater (spiritual) strength, flexibility, and stamina, for developing the "muscles" of wisdom, compassion, insight, and equanimity. When our spirits are sick or exhausted, it's also an infirmary for healing, rest, replenishment, and convalescence.

A mission statement is necessary to point a congregation toward the types of exercises and medicine that our spirits needs. Note: it doesn't specify the exercises and medicines -- it only points us toward the types of exercises and medicines toward which the congregation agrees to direct itself.

Let me ask: Who owns the congregation? The most natural answer is: the members own the congregation. In reality, the "owner" is not a "who." It's a "what." The mission owns the congregation. The members, in choosing to join, choose to belong to the mission. A church's members need to say what they belong to -- and they need to say it in a way that provides meaningful guidance. Otherwise, it's a church without a compelling reason to be -- or to be part of.

A serviceable mission:
  • is brief and memorable.
  • identifies the work each member is there to do.
  • says how the members of that congregation want to be changed.
The mission that CUUC adopted in 2014 Jan meets these standards. Our mission is to:
Nurture each other in our spiritual journeys,
Foster compassion and understanding within and beyond our community, and
Engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.
In three words: spirituality, compassion, service.

The project of living into any serviceable congregational mission requires that we think in some ways to which we may be unaccustomed.

1. Not the consumer’s mindset. The relationship of a member to a congregation is not primarily the relation of a consumer to a product. The question isn't "what do I want the congregation to provide to me?" Though there are definite benefits of congregational life, that's not the main question for members of a congregation with a mission.

2. Not a strictly service orientation. Nor is the relationship of a member to a congregation primarily the relation of a servant to a cause. The question isn't "what can I give to the congregation?" Though the gifts of your time, talents, and treasures are necessary for the life of the congregation, that's also not the main question.

To paraphrase JFK: Ask neither what your congregation can do for you, nor what you can do for your congregation.

Instead, think about the ways you'd like to grow, learn, deepen, and develop that congregational life might, conceivably, help with. This will involve some service to you from the congregation, and it will involve some contribution from you to the congregation, but not in a way that the receiving and the giving can be easily or neatly separated. It will also involve you doing your own work: much of it on your own, while guided by your congregational connection. This is how we live by our mission.

When we ask how you'd like to grow, learn, deepen, and develop, we aren't implying that you aren't good enough already. You're plenty good enough. You are, in fact, perfect -- exactly the way you are. So now what? What are you going to do next with your wonderful, perfect self? What's next for you in your ongoing growth?

Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. Victoria Weinstein has written:
If I go to the gym and people are sprawled out napping on the floor of the aerobics studio, I will think the gym management is not just remiss, but nuts. It’s no different in church. We’re all there for heart strengthening of a different kind. Leaders should be empowered to be able to say: “Get off the aerobics floor, please. You can nap at home.” This isn’t about not loving people. It’s about being clear what church is for. “Napping on the floor of the aerobics studio is not part of our mission, so we won’t be addressing your complaints about the pillows.” (See the full blog post here.)
To say that a congregation is a spiritual gym is not to forget that often the church is also a spiritual infirmary. There are times in life when we come to church sick at heart, soul weary, broken-spirited. Before we can think about the exercises and disciplines which cultivate and strengthen our wisdom, compassion, and equanimity, we just need to be cared for. We need replenishing rest. Yes, CUUC has that pastoral function in addition to its prophetic task. Congregations exist to comfort the afflicted as well as afflict (encourage in the spiritual disciplines) the complacently comfortable.

The CUUC mission statement captures in three phrases the yearnings that are most alive in our membership -- as of 2014. It identified the work that we come to CUUC to do, and it said how we wanted to be changed.

It remains for us to use this mission to organize every program and every policy toward being a place where people are transformed, where their spirituality is deepened, their compassion is expanded, and their service is exercised. The world needs – cries out for -- mission-driven institutions embodying a spiritually deepening liberal religion.