Q&A: Rev. Dr. Sheri Prud’homme On the Appeal of Our Faith

Q&A: Rev. Dr. Sheri Prud’homme On the Appeal of Our Faith

As religious traditions across the country report dwindling memberships, Unitarian Universalism continues to attract new congregants.

Headshot of Rev. Dr. Sheri Prud’homme

Rev. Dr. Sheri Prud’homme

© Becky Leyser


Rev. Dr. Sheri Prud’homme is assistant professor of religion and education at Starr King School for the Ministry in Oakland, California, and co-creator of the successful Chalice Camp program for youth. Prud’homme spoke to UU World about how living out our values may contribute to new interest in our congregations, as well as how we can encourage the youngest UUs to continue their engagement into adulthood.

What do you think continues to attract people to UU congregations when other denominations are struggling?

"Our theology is responsive to the unfolding of the human experience..."

I’ve heard other people say, “I love the ritual or the tradition of the faith I’ve been brought up in, but I don’t actually agree with the theology anymore.” That’s a trade-off they have to make. Our theology is aligned with our values. People don’t have to trade one for the other. For people who come to our congregations, there’s more alignment. Because our theology is responsive to the unfolding of the human experience, we draw our sources of faith from science and the wisdom of all kinds of authors, poets, and other thinkers, as well as a variety of traditional scripture sources.

I’ve been really moved by the number of times I’ve heard activists or movement organizers talk about the trustworthiness of Unitarian Universalists in places of direct action, like doing work at the border. Unitarian Universalists are showing up in actions on the side of love and working for justice. That reputation is out there, and it spreads.

A 2017 Pew Research Center survey showed that more Americans consider themselves “spiritual” than “religious.” How does our faith meet this growing need?
I might argue with those two terms’ meanings, spiritual and religious. I would actually say spirituality is part of our religion as Unitarian Universalists. When I think about spiritual tasks, I think about people seeking to make meaning out of their lives, to deepen the meaning of mourning, celebrating, marking transitions, facing the heaviness of suffering in our own lives and beyond our lives, but still somehow managing to find the beauty and the goodness in life, to really learn spiritual practices that bolster wisdom and compassion.

Unitarian Universalists do so without the confines of a credal faith that draws from only one scriptural source.

What are some unique things Unitarian Universalism provides in our communities?
We all know that we are living in unprecedented times. I’ve been thinking a lot about climate disruption and mass migration of humanity. In the coming century, I think our congregations are uniquely poised to provide leadership in our communities around our values. We’re going to have choices to make. We can defend borders, hoard resources, lock people in cages, collect weapons, and exert power through violence and control.

Or we could greet this moment of mass migration and climate disruption as an opportunity to create something that we have never seen before on the planet: a global commonwealth of humanity that’s in balance with the earth.

How does the UU faith support people, including children, to interact with today's complex world?

"Our youth in particular are on the front lines of the despair, the anxiety. They see what’s happening without the tempering of the wisdom of adult years."

We’ve been very aware of wanting to balance accurate information with empowerment. Our youth in particular are on the front lines of the despair, the anxiety. They see what’s happening without the tempering of the wisdom of adult years. It looks to them like it’s over. They know what increasing planetary temperatures mean for human communities. They are dealing with a real threat of gun violence in their schools. They see fascism on the rise. It’s terrifying.

I think we have some work to do to align what we offer youth in our congregations with the heart of what they are dealing with. I’m not sure we’re showing them how to live with these realities because I’m not sure we adults know how to yet: how do we live with these realities and keep—as activist Joanna Macy calls it—“active hope”?

How can we create opportunities to more clearly express our welcome to young people and families across cultures and identities?
As religious educators, we focus on creating a warm, loving environment where young people are seen, known, and valued in their fullness. We help people of all ages work to understand their own cultural identities. We intentionally teach about systemic racism, systemic oppression, understanding privilege, power, and how they can be part of dismantling and resisting those systems. We want our young people to have that kind of experience in religious education and to have a variety of representations of cultures and identities in worship, in books, in stories.
How do you think supplemental RE programming like Chalice Camp, which you co-created, can help us retain young UUs into adulthood?
In just one forty-hour week of summer camp, that week of continuity really helps kids explore a topic deeply and build connections across age groups. You have counselors, junior counselors, and then the campers, all together for that intense week of programming. They build relationships that last for the rest of the year. It changes how weekly church is experienced for those kids: now they’re coming to church to see their friends from camp!

But that doesn’t really answer the question of retention of our young people. I think that actually requires our congregations to become the multicultural, multigenerational, spiritually alive, justice-centered, vibrant communities that our young people want to be part of.