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Spiritual Practice and the Distraction of Growth

When we talk about long-range or strategic planning the topic of “growth”

always seems to hover around the room like Tinkerbell® promising to take
us all to “Neverland”. We lament its nonoccurrence and commit to its
service with a gambler’s anticipation. We eschew “growth for growth’s
sake” (i.e. malignancy), yet I cannot help but compare our views of growth
with modernity’s notion of “progress”; in growth we will manifest our

Initiatives around numerical growth strike me as a distraction from the work

that congregations need to undertake within the existing group. Alice
Mann, a consultant with the Alban Institute , in Raising the Roof: The
Pastoral-to-Program Size Transition, a book dedicated to organizational
preparedness for growth tells us that a sense of “calling” in a congregation
is a prerequisite to growth. She goes on to say:

“I believe that each congregation has a responsibility for the spiritual

growth of its current members, and an equal responsibility to offer a
trustworthy spiritual path to those who are searching for – or
estranged from - the sacred center of their lives.” (p. 68)

Before we can talk about numerical growth, we need to understand our

function in relation to spiritual growth. I use the term “spirituality”1 in an
expansive sense that embraces such formulations as authenticity,
wholeness and equanimity. Our function as an institution is the cultivation
of an ever-deeper spirituality. Yet, whose “religion” are we to
institutionalize? Shall it be the religion of the theist, the pagan or the

As Michael Durall, in The Almost Church and Davidson Loehr in his essay,
Why “Unitarian Universalism” is Dying point out, the congregations of the
Unitarian Universalist Association have been struggling with an identity
crisis for decades. In my forty-year experience with this faith, I find our
denominational sense of self to be increasingly confused. The “Elevator
Speech” project is a clear symptom of a misplaced vitality. Leaving the
issue of identity between floors for a moment I would like to turn to the
ministry of the local congregation.

“The free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” (Principle 4)
should be seen as promoting a spiritual path. “Acceptance of one another

and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,” (Principle 3)
explicitly refers to spiritual growth. While “ministry” should refer to
whatever is undertaken in the service of members or the community, the
principles above place spiritual growth at the center or our articulated
concern. A ministry supporting spiritual growth is necessary because as
Davidson Loehr reminds us in, Why “Unitarian Universalism” is Dying, that
the actual disciplines of the many faiths of the world require hard work,

“All the enduring religions of the world have been clear that the
treasures of honest religion must be earned, and make the highest
demands on us. That’s how those traditions raise our sights to see
and hear what Lincoln called, ‘the better angels of our nature.’”

Tom Owen-Towle reports in Growing a Beloved Community, that Unitarian

Universalists are not deterred by the hard work ahead, but are in fact,

“…searching for ways to be held accountable – personally,

vocationally, and prophetically.”

Durall reports that this willingness to take on the hard work of a spiritual life
may be generational. He says:

“….people born after 1965 are theologically more conservative than

liberal, and are seeking meaningful spiritual journeys. They are
seeking a faith that expects a commitment of them. They do not
expect this journey to be easy. Churches that are vague about the
meaning of membership, or that have low-expectation policies
established many years ago that are ingrained in the culture will
most likely see these potential new members pass them by.” (p. 69)

When Owen-Towle, Durall and Loehr talk about the hard work and the
accountability of spirituality they are referring to “spiritual practice”. Loehr
goes on to say that our religious culture is in an imbalance because of a
much greater emphasis on individual rights over individual responsibilities
toward the community. I believe this imbalance appears in our communal
relationship with the individual level as we have an assumption that an
individual may believe almost anything, yet we have been hesitant to
similarly assume that individuals should be accountable, even to
themselves, for their actions, behaviors and choices. There seems to be a
lot of concern about behavior that is anti-social or destructive, but I am
discussing something else.

I believe that Unitarian Universalist congregations should commit their
ministries to encourage, empower and support not only our spiritual
searching, but most importantly our spiritual practices. Durall reports that
Anthony Robinson’s answer to the question, “Can churches deliver the
goods and create more compelling communities of faith?” was:

“…if..we view church as not a place for accumulating information but

as a process of forming a people; if the church engages not the
intellect alone, but the whole person; and instead of reflecting the
consumer society, churches provide members and alternative way of
life.” (p. 18)

He also says,

“The prevailing culture in too many UU congregations is that

churches offer programs that people attend. Parishioners are
educated, informed, enlightened, fed, and entertained – but not
challenged to lead lives of meaning and purpose. (p. 57)

He Quotes William Murray, former president of Meadville Lombard

Theological School in Chicago,

“… Too often we have understood our task as relegated to the

private sphere, the personal lives of our members. We have
encouraged and facilitated their turn from a religion of love and
justice to a religion of personal spirituality. Too often content simply
to help people feel better about themselves, without challenging their
self-centeredness. (p. 10)

I am suggesting a sea change in congregational expectations toward the

spiritual practices of congregants. It is not enough that parishioners are
offered a smorgasbord of spiritual beliefs. Spiritual growth eventually
requires that beliefs inform behavior. Increased expectations around
spiritual practices may take a variety of forms, but might include:

Vows – Public commitments around a person’s spiritual discipline.

Missions – Intensive projects undertaken in fulfillment of a spiritual
Sabbaticals – Retreats taken with a purpose of deepening a spiritual
Discipleship – Public recognition that a person has placed her life in
service of a spiritual path.

Confession, Forgiveness and Contrition – Public admissions that we
have broken our vows, acceptance of our fallibility and the commitment to
heal the wounds we create.

I am intentionally using “loaded words” in an attempt to drive home the

point that I am proposing serious expectations and public accountability.
And while all commitments would be voluntarily undertaken, I am
suggesting that our congregational culture begin to include the expectation
that members will undertake a specific spiritual practice. I look forward to
the day when the world is sprinkled with Unitarian Universalist nuns and
monks: not just community ministers, but laity on extended or indefinite
missions. Our bridging ceremony for high school graduates could bring
our youth into a mission project at home or abroad.

There are many traditional vehicles or modes of spiritual practice. They

include, but are not limited to meditation, mindfulness, yoga, devotion,
ethical living, compassion, social or economic justice making, renunciation,
intellectual refinement, charitable works or giving and prayer. All of these
vehicles are found within Unitarian Universalist congregations. Yet, any
spiritual practice requires commitment and discipline. Developing and
supporting the spiritual practices of parishioners should be the primary
function of the ministry of our congregations. Loehr reminds us that any
spiritual discipline is hard work.

Loehr describes an historical wrong turn in our institutional approach,

“These were good ministers, but they did a bad thing. In the midst of
a religious vacuum, they exalted the social and political profile of the
seekers rather than the depth or ontological power of the religious
center that was being sought – which means that center was no
longer being sought, and the seeker were now learning to be
pleased with themselves.”

A congregant’s claim that they are a “seeker” postpones or defers, often

indefinitely, any claim to wisdom or spiritual authority. We should all be
committed to a perpetual deepening of our spiritual lives and in this sense
we are still traveling on a spiritual path, but surely there is some wisdom
each of us has found. Congregations should be transforming “seekers”
into “finders” and “finders” into “practitioners”.

A “seeker” is someone with a curiosity about the human condition and an

open mind. A “finder” is someone who can articulate important truths in
her life as in the development of a credo. A “practitioner” is someone with

a spiritual discipline or practice. While our congregations should minister
to the entire range of spiritual engagement, we should be encouraging and
supporting members to progress along this continuum. Of course a
practitioner incorporates the proceeding stages continuing to seek and to

I believe that it is only at the point where a person becomes a practitioner

that the transformative power of a faith comes into play. And yet I believe
our programs are primarily designed to serve seekers through the
exploration of different beliefs. There are some programs such as BYOT
and Credo writing specifically designed to move seekers into finders, but
even fewer programs designed to support spiritual disciplines. Programs
designed for practitioners are often on-going groups which include
meditation, Tai Chi, Dances of Universal Peace and perhaps even the
occasional workshop designed to raise the Seven Principles to a living
practice. These practitioner groups often do not have clergy involvement
and when they do, the involvement in my experience is more likely to be as
a co-participant rather than as a coach, director or leader.

At each of these points on the progression of spiritual development the

individual member maintains full authority. Accountability is ultimately self-
accountability. Expectations are self-expectations. Goals, objectives and
strategies are all self-selected. I am suggesting that the ministry of the
congregation assert its spiritual authority and begin to initiate spiritual
expectations, accountability, strategies, goals and objectives as a way to
support the spiritual needs of the congregation. I am saying that
congregants should submit to the spiritual authority of the congregation’s
ministry. Just as membership is voluntary, any acknowledgement of the
spiritual authority of the ministry of a congregation would be freely given.

The analysis of the membership of Unitarian Universalist congregations is

that we are fiercely individualistic. While I believe this to be true, I still
believe that more that half of our membership would be counted
somewhere between willing and eager to enter into the kind of relationship
I have described. Of course we will find that not everyone will stay with a
practice. I expect attrition in any program that expects people to, in
Davidson Loehr’s words, “earn” their spirituality through hard work.
However, I believe that the membership within the UUA understands the
importance of a spiritual practice, whether or not they have always been

My suggested emphasis on spiritual work, pushing towards the

development of a practice, will not be uniformly embraced in the pews.

Change never is. Yet, I actually expect more resistance from clergy. The
two primary objections I anticipate are that the minister does not have the
experience or training to set individual practice goals, provide
accountability or offer spiritual direction to members. Congregations can
help meet this objection by offering additional training. Furthermore, while
a settled minister may be responsible for a program of supporting a
spiritual practice, she may bring in others with more expertise or
experience as needed.

The other main objection will be that adding what amounts to spiritual
direction to the duties of the minister will demand more time and energy
than the position allows. While it is true that there is only so much time
and energy available in any position, the more important issue concerns
the priority of existing time and energy. Congregations should insist on the
priority of spiritual development and be willing to fund alternative provisions
for other needed services in congregational life. Spiritual development is
the importance we offer. In the terms of the Alice Mann model, ministers
should be offering individual assistance in spiritual practices in pastoral
sized congregations. In program sized congregations this support will be
increasingly delegated to professional consultants, affinity groups and
trained laity groups supervised by the minister. Labels for laity such as
“Deacon” may be appropriate for those members with experience, training
and discerning wisdom necessary to provide this kind of support.

One of the reasons we are so reluctant to establish normative expectations

is that our conversation is stuck around the experience of seekers and
finders. The world of the seeker and finder is the world of ideas and
beliefs. UUA bylaws prevent a creedal test. Beyond that, I do not feel it is
productive to have a discussion about which ideas or beliefs one should
possess. While we might all agree that certain beliefs arise out of a selfish
or xenophobic perspective, value judgments about the relative merits of
the various belief systems referred to in the Sources of our Living Tradition
are not helpful. However, when it comes to assessing movement within a
Spiritual Practice, value judgments relative to a commonly understood goal
are possible.

The movement from seeker to finder and from finder to practitioner

represents spiritual growth or a spiritual deepening. This deepening is the
most important calling we have as a religious institution. If our mission in
this Information Age is to acquaint seekers with new and different ideas
and beliefs, we will never be able to compete with Google®. Assisting
finders in the articulation of their beliefs begins to distinguish us from
Barnes & Noble®, but when we launch and support practitioners in a

Spiritual Practice, we offer a unique and precious gift to congregants. I
believe this is a gift members are generally requesting. The truth of the
matter is that a significant portion, maybe more than half, of Unitarian
Universalists are now attempting to work within a Spiritual Practice. Some
are tentative and some are headlong into commitment. In the most recent
issue of The World, the Rev. Dr. Galen Guengerich argues that Unitarian
Universalists should adopt the spiritual practice of Gratitude. While
Gratitude may not be everyone’s expression of spirituality, I applaud the

My experience with Unitarian Universalism programming is a bit like the

movie Groundhog Day. I am forever being introduced to Unitarian
Universalism. But the chapters where the hard work of practice take place
never seem to appear. There is more promise than performance. We are
all foundation and no edifice. Each Sunday finds us parading out of the
worship service filled with challenging ideas and as powerful as ideas can
be they are alone not sufficient to enable us to practice what has been

Moving our focus along the continuum from finders to practitioners

changes our promise from one about information to one of transformation.
Personal transformation is the goal of all wisdom traditions. Durall
suggests that we should be raising expectations around the elements of
membership such as attendance and financial generosity. I submit that
these indices of membership will rise as the commitment to a spiritual
practice deepens. I see issues with attendance and generosity as a
symptom that our congregations are failing to engage us in the creative
depths of our becoming.

Viewing our lives as the embodiment of our spirituality is an important step

in deep engagement. Davidson Loehr claims that we have sacrificed our
religious heritage in favor of a political secularity. Yet, I see political action
as a legitimate expression of a spiritual practice. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. are both exemplars of the way politics can be an
expression of spirituality. The problem, if any, around political action is our
frequent neglect in framing political action within the context of a spiritual
practice. Justice seeking will not be everyone’s spiritual expression, but
those so called are a blessing to us all.

I do not have a specific model for the structure of a congregation, which

engages more fully the spiritual practice of congregants. No single model
is necessary or desirable. However, I believe, some shifting focus in this
direction is critical in our search for relevancy and meaning. Deepening

the spirituality of parishioners should be our top priority. What would
happen to membership, if we adopted the approach I have suggested? I
believe this shift would satisfy an unmet need and increase membership,
but I consider this effect to be irrelevant.

Consider, as a thought experiment, that an increased expectation around

spiritual practice was adopted. Perhaps, as many as ½ of the membership
may resign because they were not interested in the “hard work” of a
discipline. Assume those remaining are four times as committed to their
spirituality as the average congregant before the new policy was adopted.
In fact, because of the increased commitment, there would be increased
generosity and effort offered for community continuity such that the
organization might continue without loss of staff or facilities. How do you
balance numerical membership and spiritual commitment? This is
probably an unanswerable question, but I envision a kind of analysis,
analogous to the Hedonic Calculus of Jeremy Bentham whereby the
product of membership and commitment determines the value of the
policy. In such an analysis, the much smaller more committed
congregation should be more valued.

While there no reason to believe that a congregation devoted to supporting

spiritual practices would be antithetical to membership growth, because I
value the former over the later I am in favor of staying focused on the goal
of a deepening spirituality and allowing membership levels to rise or fall as
this policy shapes the congregation. I am not opposed to growth and
believe that an understanding of the systemic barriers to growth discussed
by Alice Mann should be part of our institutional toolbox. I appreciate that
the care of members and a ministry of hospitality as described in the video
Ideas for Growth – Video Workshop: Welcoming the Newcomer, produced
by the Jefferson Unitarian Church, may be a spiritual practice for some
within the congregation, yet there is an odd objectification in the desire to
recruit additional members upon which a spiritual discipline may be
practiced. It makes more sense to simply strive to minister as effectively
as possible to those who are in fact present.

Growth in membership solves neither financial nor organizational

problems. Growing for the purpose to supporting “varied programs” makes
little sense, because the problem would be the right kinds of programs not
the variety. Growing to spur vitality makes little sense, because there is no
reason to suspect that a lifeless congregation would become something
better with additional bodies.

Membership growth serves our collective self-image by confirming that we
are likable and useful. But, to use the terms of commerce, supersizing a
product does not make it better, just bigger. Aggressive marketing can
offset deficiencies in product quality, but only in the short run.

In the long run, it may be that we are not quite as useful as we believe.
Those who leave may have liked something else better. Rather than
setting quotas for growth, I believe it may be time to re-imagine what we
can become. I believe that by focusing on spiritual practice, satisfaction
will grow around our programming and we will become more nourished by
what we find in our religious community. Our self-image will be formed in
the transformative power or our collective focus on living the life we are
called to live. We will reach for our own authenticity in this faith and find
that we are right with the world, whether or not others find us likable or
even useful.


Mike Mallory,

I would suggest for purposes of this paper a definition of “spiritual” found in The Spiritual Aspect
of Nature: A Perspective from Depth Psychology, by Herbert W. Schroeder.

“…I want to offer a tentative definition of what I mean when I use the word “spiritual.” This word
carries many nuances of meaning and refers to a complex range of phenomena. Any definition
must therefore be viewed as provisional and incomplete. Most of the uses of the word that I have
encountered in regard to nature however, can be summed up in the following statement.

“’Spiritual’ refers to the experience of being related to or in touch with an “other” that transcends
one’s individual sense of self and gives meaning to one’s life at a deeper than intellectual level.

“In a spiritual experience, one encounters something larger or greater than one’s individual self.
The ‘other’ that one encounters need not be conceptualized in traditional religious terms.
Depending on the individual, the transcendent other may be seen as a supernatural deity (e.g.
God), or as a natural entity (e.g. the Earth). It may be something that exists objectively “out
there” (e.g. the process of evolution), or it may be a subjective, inner phenomenon (e.g. creative
inspiration). It may originate independently of the human sphere (e.g. wilderness), or it may be a
product of human culture (e.g. a community). For some people the ‘other’ may not be a specific
entity at all, but the undefinable “ground of being” that gives rise to all existing things.”