I finished the first part of my presentation on Family Ministry in Milwaukee with a discussion of the importance of values, specifically the need to clarify and promote our values.

First, we took a look at what is probably the most well known statement of our UU values, our Principles and Purposes (along with the sources):

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Now I’m a pretty strong proponent of using our principles as a guide for faith development, and I certainly think we should teach them early and often in our religious education programs. However, the way they are worded makes it a little difficult for persons unfamiliar with our faith to discern what are the values we actually promote. And if we’re unable to clearly articulate the values we share in our communities of faith, then we’re probably not offering a comprehensible message to families looking for a spiritual home. Our Principles and Purposes are an excellent example of limited comprehensibility. We know what we mean when we say things like “the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” or “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” but for an outsider, these phrases may be seen as more evidence that Unitarian Universalists are just a bunch of over-educated elitists.

How, then, do we make our message clearer? By grounding it in the language of our shared values. So at the risk of sounding like an over-educated elitist, I’d like to suggest that we do more “collective values clarification” or CVC for short. Truth is, identifying our shared values is a relatively easy process, and it can even be fun. Here’s one I’ve done repeatedly and successfully. Gather the people. Generate/show them a list of values (I often use the 21 values George Lakoff mentions in his book Moral Politics). Give the people multiple votes to identify their top three values. Tally the votes. Take the top six or so values and use them in all of your congregation’s promotional material—welcoming brochures, websites, descriptions of religious education classes (for children, youth and adults), etc. Do a sermon series on them. Teach them to your children. Design small group ministry plans around them. Incorporate them into your shared spiritual practices. Use them to guide your social justice activities. You can even build your mission and vision statements around them.

What we need to do is speak the language of values, so that families will know what they’re getting when they walk through our doors. I mentioned my home congregation’s insistence on articulating these values from our mission statement over and over: Unity Church-Unitarian is here to help us live loving lives of service, integrity, and joy.

So, beginning with “service, integrity, and joy,” we generated a list of values on newsprint and ranked them by giving each person three votes. We were able to come up with seven values that would service very nicely as a basis for a family ministry initiative (or for an RE program, or to help build a congregational mission statement). Folks noted that different kinds of congregations would need to use different processes. The important thing is that every family ministry initiative needs to have a set of six or seven values that it’s trying to affirm and promote.