'Gathered Here' helps UUs share experiences, hopes

'Gathered Here' helps UUs share experiences, hopes

UUA initiative encourages community conversations to strengthen denomination.
Donald E. Skinner


Gathered Here, a denomination-wide listening campaign initiated by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Board of Trustees and administration, got under way in November with pilot sessions at the UU Church of Berkeley (UUCB) in California, Jefferson Unitarian Church in Colorado, and a youth assembly in Maine.

Gathered Here invites congregations and individual UUs across the country to share hopes for the faith through “Community Conversations” and one-on-one interviews during the next eight months. The board and administration will use that information to help determine the UUA’s future.

Participants in Gathered Here will respond to questions about how being Unitarian Universalist helps them to think and act, and how UUs working together might bring about change in the world. Using “Appreciative Inquiry,” individuals and groups are invited to talk about their most positive experiences, including strengths, successes, values, hopes, and dreams. Community Conversations and individual interviews must be completed by August 31.

At the Berkeley event for Gathered Here, around 30 people paired up and interviewed each other, then formed larger groups for more sharing. The Rev. Jeanelyse Doran Adams, director of Congregational Services for the UUA’s Pacific Central District, was one of those who participated. “The interviews brought people to an energized and hopeful place,” she said. “By sharing information with another person, and learning about that person and talking about their faith, people came away truly inspired by each others’ stories. They also saw their faith in a new light.”

The Rev. Bill Hamilton-Holway, UUCB’s co-minister, added, “The process solicited stories of our experiences of Unitarian Universalism at its best and allowed us to name our hopes and dreams for the future. The experience deepened relationships and grounded people in their experiences of and commitment to Unitarian Universalism. The Appreciative Inquiry approach shifts people into looking for what is going well instead of always looking at what needs to be corrected.”

At Jefferson Unitarian Church (JUC) in Golden, Colo., two groups of 14 and 28 people convened for Gathered Here sessions. “We talked about our peak experiences with Unitarian Universalism,” said Sue Parilla, volunteer coordinator at JUC. “Through storytelling, we shared what’s important to us about our faith.”

She added, “People seemed to like the process. One of the big benefits I see, aside from the value to our association, is that people got to know each other better. We talked about what people love about our faith and where our strengths are as a denomination. From that, we can look at areas we want to make stronger.”

JUC member Leslie Light said her experience in the conversations was transformative. “And that was not what I expected. It challenged me to understand and express why I was a UU, why I participated at my church, why I made it a priority in my life. I was challenged to see what the future of Unitarian Universalism could be. Now, when I see small opportunities to contribute to this vision I am compelled, from this new understanding, to take them.”

Gathered Here was also piloted by a group of 15 youth at the Northern New England District’s Youth Assembly at the Ferry Beach Camp and Conference Center in Saco, Maine. The discussion was facilitated by the Rev. Karen Brammer, a Northern New England District staff member.

Kimberly Paquette, the district’s director of Multigenerational Ministries, said, “When we started, the energy in the room jumped by about 500 percent. Once the youth were asked to talk about their faith, they could hardly be contained. Each comment seemed to spark a similar thought in another youth. They were animated and energized by engaging in this process. They seemed grateful for an opportunity to reflect on the best our faith has to offer. When the session ended they still had more to say.”

One of the youth, Jessie Knight, said that the session helped her connect with a supportive community and gave her hope. “As a UU youth, I sometimes feel like the outcast among friends when the conversation turns to beliefs. This was a common view in our workshop, and it brought the group closer together.”

Knight, a member of the UU Church of Belfast, Maine, added, “Some things that people said were repeated over and over: `I feel accepted in this faith;’ `I can be myself in this faith;’ `This faith makes me feel supported and loved.’ An underlying theme of this was that Unitarian Universalism builds community, and we are strengthened spiritually through this community.”

Amanda Trosten-Bloom, with Corporation for Positive Change, has been retained by the UUA to serve as the project consultant for Gathered Here. She said that all UU congregations and non-congregational communities are being encouraged to participate in Gathered Here, starting this month and continuing through the end of August.

“All those who participate will be inspired and renewed,” she said. “People will form strong new relationships that will give life to their faith and their UU communities.”

Trosten-Bloom said the Gathered Here program has been simplified since its pilot sessions. “A two-hour guided conversation with carefully crafted questions is the cornerstone of the initiative. This is ideal for members of a congregation who want to come together for an evening gathering or other small group sessions. And groups that can’t participate before summer can host conversations during a leadership institute or camp.” Another option, she said, is to explore one question a week as part of an adult education series or a weekly youth gathering. “The possibilities are endless and creative approaches are strongly encouraged.”

A Community Conversation can be facilitated by a member of the congregation with little preparation or training, she said, using materials that are free and available for download at uua.org/gatheredhere. The Gathered Here program also includes volunteer facilitators who will help congregations organize Gathered Here sessions if they would like assistance. (Email gatheredhere@uua.org.)

Jon Hassinger, chair of Jefferson Unitarian’s Strategic Planning Group, participated in one of the sessions at JUC. He said he believes that Gathered Here will help with strategic planning that’s currently underway at JUC. “There was a richness to the conversations I was part of. There’s nothing better than getting UUs in a room to talk about what binds us together and what our passions are.”

The Rev. Peter Morales, UUA president, encourages congregations to participate. “Gathered Here is an opportunity for us to share our deepest values and highest aspirations for our faith,” he said.

In addition to the participation by congregations, individual UUs are also encouraged to pair up with another person for a one-on-one Gathered Here conversation. Individuals can either pair with someone locally, using questions from the website, or the Gathered Here staff will connect them with someone in another part of the country. Using an interview guide downloaded from the website, conversations can take place by phone or video chat. At the conclusion of the interview the participants complete a Conversation Summary form, also on the website. All of the forms required for Gathered Here are available on the website.

Trosten-Bloom said she’s optimistic that many congregations will participate in Gathered Here this winter and through next summer. “The more people who participate in these conversations, the more likely we are to really grow and make a difference. We’ve made participation very easy. Gathered Here gives us a way to make Unitarian Universalism a real force for good in the world. May we make it so.”

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