At Historic Convening, Global UUs Have Candid Conversations on Future of Leadership Development

At Historic Convening, Global UUs Have Candid Conversations on Future of Leadership Development

Unitarian Universalists from six continents carried their aspirations to Prague, Czech Republic, and explored possibilities to sustain and grow the faith.

Renee Hills
A group of people each hold candles and light a chalice together.

U/U leaders from 10 different countries light the chalice together at the Czech Unitarian Church in Prague.

© 2023 James Hills


A historic international gathering of fifty-four Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists from fourteen countries across six continents took place in Prague, Czech Republic, on October 26–29, 2023.

Titled “Leading into the Future: A Conversation on Global U/U Theological Education & Lay Leadership,” the conference explored possibilities for sustained global collaboration around leadership training, following the discontinuation of the International Council of Unitarian Universalists (ICUU).

Hosted by Unitaria, the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians, this was not just another international UU meeting but the launch of a new collaborative era. As Kristýna Ledererová Kolajová of Unitaria explained in her opening welcome:

What does “U/U” stand for?

The term “U/U” is used as a shorthand to represent the diversity of traditions in the global Unitarian, Universalist, Unitarian Universalist, and Free Christian community.

“The intent is not to replace ICUU; rather this is an opportunity to meet and work together and discuss how to lead our communities to the future, working together as a global community.”

The conference was made possible due to generous funding from the UUA Funding Program, the Hibbert Trust, and Unitaria.

The participants represented a wide range of voices, speaking an amazing nineteen different languages and carrying the collective aspirations and curiosity of many more members of their home communities.

Each person brought the hopes of their local fellowships and churches for future leadership support, theological education, and what might sustain and grow U/U faith in the face of challenges ahead.

Mornings began with poignant worship services, blending elements from the United States, United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Transylvania, and India. A circle of people representing U/Us from vastly different contexts lit the Unitaria chalice with long tapers as musician Amanda Thomas led meditative chants to ground the community.

A Magical Setting for Complex Discussions

The very setting reinforced the historical weight and diversity of this gathering. The back wall of Unitaria’s expansive, multi-function worship space (it becomes a dance studio during the week) was adorned with a mural capturing each day’s presentations, created during the event by Jon Dorsett.

A short walk away, the Gothic architecture of the main square in Old Town holds Prague’s own narrative of religious dissent and turmoil from the proto-Protestantism of Jan Hus to centuries of enforced Catholicism, followed by decades of communist repression of all faiths after World War II.

On display in the foyer outside the worship space was the story of Unitaria’s steady growth over the past one hundred years, even as Czech society became mostly secular. Of particular relevance to Unitarians all around the world is the fact that this church was founded by Norbert Čapek, who in 1923 first created one of the most beloved Unitarian rituals, the Flower Communion. This was indeed a fitting historical Unitarian setting for the groundbreaking and complex multi-layered conference discussions.

International U/Us Explore Prague Together During Historic Gathering

U/U leaders from 17 countries gathered in October 2023 in Prague, Czech Republic, to explore unique needs and collaborative opportunities in theological education and leadership development. Hosted at the Czech Unitarian Church, participants had an opportunity to learn about the congregation and historical city of that church's founder, Norbert Čapek.

Through a provocative keynote, panel discussions, and small group conversations, the conference embraced this complexity head-on. Participants identified what they celebrated about U/U faith, the challenges they faced, and what they felt was most needed for the future.

Qualities to be celebrated included words like: freedom, reason, spiritual journey, wonder, community, and justice. Identified challenges were as diverse as the communities represented and included geographical isolation, politicking and tensions, and the urgent need to rethink how to connect with younger generations.

Decentering from Western Assumptions

For many from North America and Europe, this gathering was a powerful wake-up call to decenter from ingrained Western assumptions about leadership, ministry, theology, and even the nature of faith itself.

As highlighted by the Kenyan minister Justine Magara, who trained via a UUA scholarship, and the challenges raised by leaders like Dr. Mphala Mogudi —from South Africa and now living in Oxford, England — access to quality, affordable, relevant theological education remains profoundly inequitable globally. Voices raised the need for more equitable support models, low-cost or free training options, and leadership education that is culturally appropriate to local contexts.

The conference’s keynote speaker Dr. Bayo Akomolafe further upended conventional Western assumptions by proposing a post-humanist understanding of faith itself. Defining faith not as a private, human-centric experience, but an ongoing act of co-creating existence within the web of all life on this planet, Akomolafe called on U/U communities to become sanctuaries practicing radical hospitality amid grief, loss, and societal upheaval.

During the panel presentation, UUA President Rev. Dr. Sofía Betancourt suggested further unpacking of how North American UUs can engage with international partners in new ways, in the context of leadership education.

Perspectives like these can nurture conversations that decenter Western traditions. Upcoming opportunities for such conversations are the UUA General Assembly Cohort “Becoming a Post-Imperial People of Faith” and a November program on the same topic, offered by Meadville Lombard Theological School LIGHT program and UUA International Office (registration details coming soon).

During the panel presentation, UUA President Rev. Dr. Sofía Betancourt suggested further unpacking of how North American UUs can engage with international partners in new ways, in the context of leadership education.

“We need to weave together faith education and ministerial education; religion has been about coming in and telling people how to do it…this is a kind of violence and violation...we need to learn how to offer resources, applied to each context…theological education needs to be broader,” she said.

Four Pathways for Engaged Collaboration

The core work of the gathering was to launch an ongoing collaborative process by identifying four key pathways for moving U/U global cooperation forward:

1. Education & Leadership Development

One clear priority that emerged was the need to assess global requirements and to create accessible pathways for both lay leader training and ministerial education. These efforts must center on how to make such education affordable and culturally relevant in each regional context.

Varying programs were represented. Some countries have formal theological schools including in the USA, Canada, Czech Republic, United Kingdom, India and Transylvania. Other communities including Kenya, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Bolivia, and Brazil focus on lay leader training.

2. Young Adult & Peer Network

With many U/U communities aging or shrinking, a priority is fostering the next generation of global U/U leadership, connection, and energy. This pathway aims to build relationships, especially among young adults, grounded in the core values of encouraging participation, collaborative decision-making, and working together with intentionality as developed by the Leadership Design Team.

For more information on this team’s work see this booklet.

3. Funding & Sustainability

Making any global U/U initiatives sustainable will require new collaborative funding models and partnerships. This pathway invites groups like the UUA International Office, Unitarian College, the Hibbert Trust, and others to explore how they can collectively underwrite and nurture this emerging cooperation.

4. Theology & Histories

A fourth pathway lifts up the need to honor the rich diversity of how U/U theologies and communities emerged organically around the world, by capturing those stories, histories, and narratives.

The goal is to develop a living text that highlights the gifts, practices, and challenges of this global complexity as a source of ongoing learning.

As Liz Slade, chief officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in the UK reflected, for communities facing an uncertain future, the enduring essence of all these efforts may simply be free inquiry itself and being open to creating what comes next from the grassroots up.

A Vision for International U/U Collaboration

A person sketches a mural during a conference that happened in Prague. The mural has a big tree with the words "Leading into the Future" and the muralist is adding images that depict collaborative conversations happening at the conference.

Jon Dorsett, UK-based Visual Facilitator, produces live graphic harvest of main topics at the international U/U convening held in Prague, Czech Republic, in October 2023.

© 2023 Juban Lamar

Convener Rev. Alicia Forde, director of the UUA’s International Office, said that the 2023 Prague gathering had been an experience of “touching the past while reaching forward to shape, and be shaped by the future.”

The conveners of the gathering hope that the seeds of connection planted in Prague will become an ongoing collaborative movement with the potential to revitalize and strengthen U/U faith worldwide.

Leaders in Prague also engaged with the Leadership and Design Team, which is the group responsible for forming the next iteration of global U/U collaboration following the dissolution of the UU Partner Church Council and the International Council of U/Us. In their work over the past two years, despite daunting challenges, such as extreme time zone differences and diverse cultural contexts, this team grew effective working relationships based in trust and mutual respect. Global U/Us are invited to collaborate in new ways within an equitable organizational framework.

In doing so, U/Us might embody the radical hospitality demonstrated by Unitaria towards their Ukrainian neighbors. When a choir of Ukrainian refugees performed folk songs for the conference, they told the gathering that “Unitaria opened their doors to us from the first minute we arrived.” A noticeably moved audience joined the Ukrainian singers in hope.

It remains for U/Us across cultures and continents to tend this collaboration after Prague by nurturing new ways to learn, fund, and organize, so that ultimately our liberal faith will be strengthened globally for generations to come.