Home grown Unitarian Universalism

Developing home-based community rituals that root UU adults and children.


It was 1980. I had been a Unitarian Universalist for about two years when my seven-year-old son Eric said to me, “Dad, what happens to us after we die? Is there a heaven?”

“Well, some people believe that after we die we go to heaven where we live forever,” I replied, “and other people believe that when we die, our life is over and we live on through the memories of people who have known and loved us.”

“What do you believe?” said Eric.

“Well, some people believe that after we die we go to heaven, and other people believe. . . .”

“But what do you believe?”

“OK,” I said. “I believe that when we die we live on through other people but not in a heaven.”

Eric took this in and responded with words I will never forget: “I’ll believe what you believe for now, and when I grow up I’ll make up my own mind.”

My seven-year-old was teaching me something. He was being a developmentally appropriate UU child, but I was not being a developmentally appropriate UU parent. He knew he needed answers, for now, to an important religious question, and he also knew that he could seek his own answers when he was ready. For my part, being a former Roman Catholic still fleeing dogmatism, I was afraid of imposing my beliefs on my child. So I responded to him as if he were a 20-year-old taking a course on world religions. I had a better sense of what not to do as a UU parent—don’t impose my beliefs—than of what to do, namely, give him religious guidance.

A few months ago I heard the most prominent broadcast journalist in Minneapolis/St. Paul mention on the air that he was raised in a Universalist church. I thought, “How cool! Maybe he will put in a plug for Unitarian Universalism.” When asked by his co-host what Universalism was, however, he said all he could remember was visiting a lot of other churches; he didn’t recall much about Universalism itself. Ouch.

I’m not telling you anything new. Unitarian Universalists have been aware of this problem since at least the 1970s, and we’ve been changing our Sunday school curricula to try to give our children a better grounding in Unitarian Universalism. We no longer keep our own tradition in hiding. But we need something bolder, something bigger than curriculum change because we are still raising children who are unsure what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist and are more likely than not to leave it as adults.

As a professor of marriage, parenting, and family systems, I’m convinced that religion is caught more than taught, and it’s caught most fully in the family. Church programming can supplement but not replace the home. Most parents and religious professionals would agree, but we UUs know more about running programs in church buildings than we know about supporting faith formation in the home. When thinking about how to get parents more involved in the religious development of their children, our instinct is to start a new class for parents on talking to their children about spirituality. Nine parents will enroll, six will attend any given session because of schedule conflicts, and even though the parents involved will benefit, nothing much will change in the congregation.

Traditional church-centered programs are not enough. We need a new way of thinking and a new set of practices. For the last decade I’ve been learning a different approach to solving community problems by becoming a cultural change activist and community organizer. For the past several years I’ve been applying this way of working, a citizen-engagement approach rather than a service-providing or educational approach, to the Family Chalice Project in Minneapolis/St. Paul. A collaborative effort of sixty Unitarian Universalists, the Family Chalice Project is forming networks of families and developing home-based traditions that are strengthening our ties to each other and to our UU tradition.

My goals for the religious education or faith formation of Unitarian Universalist children are twofold: First, that they grow up spiritually alive, free, and engaged with the world; and, second, that they grow up as citizens in our living religious tradition. The first goal reflects our traditions of spiritual seeking, personal freedom of mind and conscience, and commitment to building a just and loving world. The blend of these elements is what makes us unique as Unitarian Universalists. My second goal refers to citizenship in our tradition, which means active involvement in building and maintaining local congregations and the Unitarian Universalist movement. It means more than membership, more than being on the rolls and showing up on Sunday. Citizens are engaged stakeholders.

There has been tension between these two goals in the history of liberal religion. Our nineteenth-century forebears acknowledged the distinctive value of each of the world’s religions. Religious liberals grew reluctant to promote allegiance to any one religion, even our own—ironically the very religion that produced such bold insights into the universal value of faith traditions. Religious liberals are also nervous about tradition, authority, and conformity because history has witnessed the tyranny of the community over the individual.

We have to get over this ambivalence, and I think we can. There is a way between conservative domination by authoritarianism and liberal weakness that emphasizes only individual rights: The emerging public philosophy of communitarianism emphasizes a balance between the “I” and the “We” and teaches that individuality only exists within a community and a tradition. Look deeply into the self and you see a web of connections to others. Look deeply into community and you see individual selves each with inherent worth and dignity. From a communitarian perspective, a fundamental task of a democratic community is to nurture citizens from childhood in the habits of the heart and mind that are necessary for human flourishing within a democratic community. A communitarian approach to religion says that there are no personal religious beliefs, practices, or experiences that are not connected in some way to a tradition of beliefs, practices, and experiences, even if the individual is rejecting that tradition. No one is a religious island, and religious history is part of us whether we like it or not.

This third way beyond authoritarianism and individualism in religious education steers away from molding a passive child into a fixed tradition and away from treating every child as the creator of his or her own religious universe. The first path is stifling, as we know, but it’s a fantasy that getting out of our children’s way or teaching them a little about all religious traditions will release them to find their own path. The reality is that we hand our children over to the gravitational pulls of a me-first mainstream consumer culture that does not satisfy their spiritual needs or help them flourish—and that sometimes leads them to turn to a more authoritarian religious community.

Because our children feel strong pulls from the culture of self-absorption and the culture of authority, our ambivalence about exerting our own gravitational pull towards Unitarian Universalism leaves them religiously abandoned. If we want our children to grow up spiritually alive, free, and engaged with the world, we must offer them citizenship papers in our UU tradition. They will be free to decline this citizenship when they grow up, but they will feel a gravitational pull back as they mature, ask new questions about life, and have their own children.

How can we meet both goals at once? How can we help our children grow up to be truly free as citizens of the Unitarian Uni­versalist tradition? I see two main venues:

The family is where core values are lived, modeled, and developed. The key people in children’s lives are their families, through which they are connected to larger communities and to faith traditions. We start with the home in faith formation or we don’t start at all. But the individual family is too small a unit. The faith formation of children is too hard for most of us as parents to do alone, even if we were born and raised in this tradition, which is usually not the case for UUs. A larger We is necessary: families coming together in community.

To combine spiritual richness and citizenship, such a larger community would offer settings where children and adults come together over time, where spirituality is experienced as alive and free, and where people are contributors to the activities, not just consumers.

Many youth experience something like this sort of community at camps, especially when youth are active participants in shaping what happens. What these youth experiences generally lack, however, is meaningful parental involvement and continuity with the home.

Intergenerational worship services and UU family camps also offer opportunities for families and communities. But they too often miss a key element. Intergenerational worship tends to be a passive experience, lacking the co-creative, citizenship element. And UU summer camps, while strong on family, community, and participation, are often surprisingly light on the Unitarian Universalist tradition. Some camp leaders have told me that they don’t want non-UUs to feel left out, which presumably would happen if we were bold enough to honor and celebrate our own rituals and symbols and traditions. Yet people who go to a Buddhist meditation center are not offended to see Buddhist symbols—it’s a Bud­dhist center, after all! How can we raise our children with the feel of Unitarian Universalism if we are afraid to expose them to the sights, sounds, and symbols of our tradition?

To achieve both goals for the religious formation of UU children, I believe the central venue for faith development is the home linked to an intentional UU community. The essential ingredient that makes this work is not what we spend most of our time on when we “do” conventional religious education: Sunday school classes, worship services, and youth activities. Instead, the key ingredient is the spiritual development of parents and other adults, and their grounding in both a local church community and the Unitarian Universalist tradition. Our children will not advance much beyond our adults, and if parents have allegiance only to a local congregation (and, even more limiting, to a particular favored minister) but not to the larger Unitarian Universalist movement, then why would we expect their children to join another UU church after they leave home and move away from their local community?

Meanwhile, gravitational forces in the larger culture threaten to swamp the efforts of parents and religious communities in shaping children’s values, and I’m afraid we pay too little attention to these forces in our churches.

Our me-first, materialistic, consumer culture, for example, ingeniously turns wants into needs and luxuries into necessities. Our children convert to being eager consumers as soon as they can see a TV screen and listen to a jingle. In my own community organizing efforts, I’ve been working with parents to blow the whistle on one prominent example of the consumer culture invading childhood: out-of-control children’s birthday parties, which for the middle class have become competitive extravaganzas where even balanced parents feel pressure to turn birthday parties into annual coronations and young children into entitled princes and princesses who do the party circuit year round.

The frantic culture of busyness among adults and children also threatens the values our tradition celebrates. Widespread time famine, particularly in the achievement-oriented middle class, is an outcome of overscheduled kids and overworked parents who don’t have time for family meals, let alone regular attendance at Sunday school or volunteering in church religious education programs. And sometimes our churches encourage an unbalanced life by running our staff and lay leaders into the ground. This is a spiritual issue, not just a logistical issue.

Another threat is the culture of disengagement, not citizenship. We Americans have become a nation of customers and clients, not active citizens. And that’s how we often think of religious education: as a service we pay professionals to provide for our children to consume—soccer schedule permitting. The result is that our religious professionals overwork and don’t have time to innovate, parent volunteers give very limited time to Sunday school teaching, children grow up with too little knowledge of their own religion, and even large churches have trouble recruiting leaders.

These three interrelated social pathologies of contemporary middle-class life—consumerism, time famine, and civic disengagement—are a real life curriculum, or an anti-life curriculum, for our children. If we don’t find a way to counteract this curriculum, we will end up with feel-good faith formation that looks and sounds fine but lacks power and depth. I am focusing my own career these days on community organizing around these themes in various settings, including health care, schools, and churches. Traditional faith formation programs get swamped by the larger culture, and while we have focused our social justice work on one set of serious cultural problems, we have yet to face the toxicities of middle-class life that threaten us, our children, and our communities. We are in the belly of this beast; confronting it will be uncomfortable but prophetic.

We need an approach to faith formation that puts family and home and intentional community at the center, that combines the I and the We, spiritual freedom and rich tradition. We will have to go beyond our traditional programming silos of worship, social justice, and separate faith formation activities for children, youth, and adults. Instead we will have to bring the generations into closer involvement and create experiences of spiritual depth and participatory engagement. It will have to address powerful cultural forces that inhibit spiritual living and active citizenship.

We have spent five years developing the Family Chalice Project at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis and Unity Church–Unitarian in St. Paul. “Because we recognize that the religious development of our children occurs mostly in the home,” its mission statement says, “the Family Chalice fosters the spiritual growth of families through home-based religious practices and conversations tied to the church community. The Family Chalice is a democratic, family-led initiative that engages the energy, knowledge, and experience of the whole community.”

The sixty parents and other adults who have been involved in the project so far use the Families and Democracy Model, which I developed at the University of Minnesota. It’s a community organizing approach where groups come together for open-ended periods of time to tackle a challenge, go deep into it, interview others in the community, and develop initiatives that call on the energy and knowledge of the community. In the Family Chalice, we have used this grass-roots process to develop and field-test a ritual designed to accomplish the goals of spiritual depth and connection to the UU tradition through engagement with families and the larger community. We call it the Sources Supper.

We hope the Sources Supper might do for UUs what the Seder does for Jews: tell the UU story as our story, in a way that is home based, binds us to our past, and speaks to us about our struggles today. It is a ritual designed to be celebrated year after year until its themes, figures, and stories get into the consciousness of the congregation and the hemoglobin of our members, so that we know them like we know about the journey of Mary and Joseph or Moses and the parting of the Red Sea; a ritual where we gather in one another’s homes and share something about our current spiritual dilemmas in light of what our forebears faced; a ritual that our children can be part of, then rebel against when they are teens, and eventually feel drawn back to when they have their own children; a ritual that is never set in stone but keeps evolving as more congregations try it and own it. We’ve piloted the first version in our homes and are now working on the second version.

As we read about the origins of Unitarianism and Universalism, we keep asking ourselves what the stories say to us now. We’ve seen how our history is part of the stories of religious freedom in Europe and democracy in America. We have also been looking for a big narrative frame in UU history, a message and storyline that cuts across the centuries and the particular ways that our ancestors wrote, spoke, and acted. Here is the overarching frame that we have woven into the Sources Supper:

The universe is one, it’s good, and we are its children. So we are open to all sources of revelation, and we push back with courage against the forces that block spiritual growth and human flourishing in our time.

We learned that our ancestors were rebels against the established order, and they created new ways to be religious by absorbing the special spirit and knowledge of their times—such as the spirit of individual freedom and knowledge about the Bible or the science of evolution. Revelation for them was open-ended and everywhere. Our ancestors were always restless; they kept resisting, getting in trouble, and then building something new. They were skeptics and idealists, critics and creators—and they took many risks along the way. To our surprise, we also found that many of our ancestors were mystics, people of the spirit who experienced the oneness and goodness of all creation. Both reverence and reason—affirmed, integrated, fought for, and sacrificed for.

To give you an idea of the patience involved in the Family Chalice process, it took us more than two years of reading, reflecting, arguing, consulting, and distilling to come up with these two paragraphs.

For the first Sources Suppers, we concentrated on four founding stories of Unitarian Universalism and two key turning points in our history. We hope churches will sponsor suppers annually in members’ homes on or around the anniversaries of the historic dates connected to these founding stories:

October 27, 1553: Michael Servetus, a scholar and mystic who dared to read the Bible in its original languages and published a book stating his own heretical opinions, is executed holding his book.

January 13, 1568: King John Sigismund of Transylvania issues the Edict of Torda, the first legal declaration of religious tolerance, which was written by Unitarian Francis Davíd. For the first time, a king does not impose religious uniformity on a people. “For without freedom,” the Edict says, “their souls will not be satisfied.” Unitarians go on to realize that freedom is not merely necessary for the practice of religion—it is the heart of the spiritual life.

September 30, 1770: John Murray lands in America and preaches a sermon that launches Universalism here. God’s love, Murray teaches, permeates all creation and saves every soul. Murray’s cry: “Give them not hell but hope and courage.”

May 5, 1819: William Ellery Channing preaches “Unitarian Christianity,” the defining sermon of early Unitarianism, in Baltimore. Openly defending Unitarian theology, Channing’s sermon becomes a widely read and debated pamphlet in early America.

July 15, 1838: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” electrifies a younger generation of Unitarians with its Transcendentalist call to see the divine within nature and the human spirit.

May 1, 1933: “The Humanist Manifesto” challenges the supernatural basis of religion. This world is all we have, but we find deep religious meaning in it.

For each date and event in the Sources Supper, we tell the story in a compelling way and pose questions that adults and adolescents can respond to in our lives now. (We are working on a version suitable for younger children.) For example, after telling the story of how Servetus was transformed through reading a book (the Bible), we share stories of books that have made a difference in our lives.

Through the Sources Supper and other Family Chalice initiatives in the incubator stage, we are learning to create contexts where adults, children, and youth can experience moments of transformation through spiritual and community experiences. But the process of getting to these contexts is as important as the product. The Family Chalice process involves going deep into a challenging area on behalf of the community and not surfacing until we have something that reflects the lived experience of those involved and the lived religious tradition we share. The I and the We, inseparable. Collapse to the “I” and you have a traditional class for individual consumers, something that does not transform the community. Collapse to the “We” and you have a history lesson that does not touch the spirit or connect to the pressure points in our lives today. Led by Unity Church in St. Paul, other congregations are now pilot-testing and refining the Sources Suppers. We will soon share the whole Family Chalice process with other congregations, too.

I have been transformed through this work. I have converted to the religion I joined in 1978. I feel connected to its past and committed to its future. I can not only articulate what I believe but also recognize how my own spiritual journey merges with and sometimes departs from the journey of Uni­tarian Universalism. I feel part of a larger We that goes back over 400 years. And I believe that because of our unique religious tradition, we can create something new out of the tension between personal spiritual depth and freedom on the one hand and deep ties to community and tradition on the other. The resources are there in our tradition, if we will only retrieve them. What we learn can help address one of the crucial questions of our time: how to be free and deeply who we are as individuals while also being richly connected to flourishing families and communities that offer much to and expect much from all of their citizens.

Adapted from “Home Grown Religion,” the Sophia Fahs Lecture delivered June 22, 2007, at the UUA General Assembly in Portland, Oregon. © 2007 by William J. Doherty.

Related Stories

  • Sources Supper.Website for the home-based community rituals developed by the Family Chalice Project in Minnesota. (SourcesSupper.org)

Related Resources

  • Home Grown Religion.Full text of William J. Doherty's Sophia Fahs Lecture at the 2007 General Assembly. (LREDA, pdf)

From the Archives