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Now that I’m almost done with my semi-regular Sunday feature of small group gratitude, gratefulness, thanksgiving, thank youministry sessions based on resources from SpiritualityandPractice.com (32 down, 5 to go), I’m feeling like I’d like to continue the practice. So once I’m done with Zeal, the final practice, I’m going to go back and revisit them all, beginning with Attention. However, since I haven’t posted much this month, I thought I’d slip in a extra session in honor of Thanksgiving (and to give me a chance to see what it’s like to come up with a completely new session on a practice I’ve already covered). Here, then, is another session on one of the foundational practices for anyone seeking to live a more spiritual life: Gratitude.

Chalice/Candle Lighting

Opening Words:

I think the dying pray at the last not “please,” but “thank you,” as a guest thanks his host at the door.
— Annie Dillard quoted in Super, Natural Christians by Sallie McFague

Check-in/Sharing

Topic:

An Excerpt from A Listening Heart: The Spirituality of Sacred Sensuousness by Brother David Steindl-Rast

Brother David Steindl-Rast salutes the spirituality of sacred sensuousness and the importance of the listening heart. Here is an excerpt on the spiritual practice of gratitude.

Day and night gifts keep pelting down on us. If we were aware of this, gratefulness would overwhelm us. But we go through life in a daze. A power failure makes us aware of what a gift electricity is; a sprained ankle lets us appreciate walking as a gift, a sleepless night, sleep. How much we are missing in life by noticing gifts only when we are suddenly deprived of them! But this can be changed. We need some methodical exercise in gratefulness. Years ago, I devised a method for myself which has proved quite helpful. Every night I note in a pocket calendar one thing for which I have never before been consciously thankful. Do you think it is difficult to find a new reason for gratitude each day? Not just one, but three and four and five pop into my mind, some evenings. It is hard to imagine how long I would have to live to exhaust the supply.

Questions: Share one thing for which you’ve never before been consciously thankful.

Check-out/Likes and Wishes

Closing Words:

One chief idea of my life . . . is the idea of taking things with gratitude and not taking things for granted.
— G. K. Chesterton quoted in Celebrate Your Child by Richard Carlson

To Practice This Thought: Be lavish in your gratefulness.

Based on resources on Gratitude from www.spiritualityandpractice.com.

For a PDF version of this small group ministry session, click here: Gratitude #2.

For more information on small group ministry, visit the UU Small Group Ministry Network.

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I was reading an article in Huffington Post by Skye Jethani about Megachurches (Megachurches: When Will The Bubble Burst?) when I ran across this unsettling quote: “On average 50 small churches close their doors every week in America.”Unitarian, universalist, church, online, ministry, welcoming, religion, beliefs, megachurches, small congregations, small churches What? Fifty small churches are closing their doors every week? That’s not very encouraging, especially for a denomination, like, say, the UUA, where two thirds of its congregations have 150 members or less. Does not bode well, if you ask me. And I think small congregations know this, too. Business as usual is not going to cut it any more. Small congregations in any denomination are going to find it more and more difficult to maintain the status quo, let alone grow. Which I why I’m so pleased that the Prairie Star District offered a Small Congregation Conference last weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.

The conference was the brainchild (love that word!) of the Rev. Michael Nelson of our congregation in Manhattan, Kansas (Go Wildcats!). Michael noticed that the UUA regularly sponsored conferences for large and midsize congregations, but had never, as far as he could tell, sponsored one for small congregations. So Michael contacted me and we talked things over and decided this needed to be done. Thanks to a Chalice Lighter grant from Prairie Star, we were able to afford to bring in a topnotch keynote speaker. And knowing that a prophet is seldom welcomed in his or her hometown, we decided to ask someone from outside of the district to be the main presenter at the conference. I’m happy to say that our choice, the Rev. Andrew Pakula from London, England, delivered the goods. Andy offered three presentations over the course of two days. On Friday he gave us the recent history of his congregation in London (check out their website at www.new-unity.org) which has gone from six members in the 2001 (yes, six) to around 35 in 2006 under the leadership of his predessor, and then from 35 to over 100 members in the last 5 years under Andy’s leadership. What’s really exciting about that growth is that 50% of those new members are young adults.

Andy’s follow up presentations on Saturday dealt with using social media and attracting young adults. We also had a variety of workshops led by some terrific people: the Rev. Meg Riley talked with folks about what CLF (Church of the Larger Fellowship) is doing to help small congregations; the Rev. Charlotte Cowtan offered information on the demographics of various communities around the district; the Rev. Thea Nietfield presented information on right relationships and conflict engagement; Lori Emison Clair and Moria Leu of the Des Moines congregation did workshops on membership and music, the Rev. Jill Jarvis & al. talked about moving toward ministry, and Tandi Rogers, UUA growth specialist, did two workshops on faith development in small congregations. The participants were equally stellar as well. We had 12 affilitated congregations from throughout the district represented, along with folks from three new fellowships forming in Prairie Star. All in all, it was a fantastic weekend. Hopefully there will be more events like this in the future.

Okay. Before I get to the main point of this post (increasing the Spirituality Quotient of the average UU congregation), I’d like to offer a couple of great resources that can help congregations that may be putting a “greater emphasis on social service programs or church committee work than on promoting spiritual growth” (see yesterday’s post for what that’s all about). The first resource is called “The Spirituality of Service.” The second resource is called “Spirituality & Service.” The first is an article by the Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom about how “giving our time to our congregations can be spiritually transformative.” This resource addresses the lack of spirituality in committee work. The second resource is primarily for young adults, but I think it would be great for anyone looking to deepen the spiritual aspects of social service programs and social justice work. Taking these resources seriously could help almost any congregation turn committee work and social service programs into opportunities for spiritual growth.

But on to the real point of this post: offering congregations with little or no emphasis on spiritual growth something from our tradition that might help themTranscendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Transcendentalism, philosophy, American romanticism bring spirituality to the fore. It’s a resource that I’ve been aware of since the mid-90s, and I really find it odd (and a little disheartening) that it isn’t used more often. I’m talking about “The Roots of Unitarian Universalist Spirituality in New England Transcendentalism” [PDF] by the Rev. Dr. Barry Andrews. As I said, I’ve been familiar with this article since I started working as a religious educator in Bloomington, Indiana, and the first thing I did when I discovered it (I believe it was printed in a REACH packet with an introduction by Judith Frediani) was to develop an adult religious education class so others in the congregation could benefit from Barry’s wisdom.

I’m not going to go into much detail about the article because I really really really want you to read it (and check out Barry’s website on Transcendentalist Spirituality while you’re at it). But I’ll tell you what I think the coolest thing about it is: the spiritual practices of the Transcendentalists (Emerson, Fuller, Thoreau, et. al.) that Barry describes are 100% applicable to the 21st century. In fact, the religious education class I developed gave participants a contemporary example of each one. Here there are: excursions in nature, contemplation, reading, journal writing, conversations, simple living, and social reform. The class I developed took about three hours, with a half an hour or so devoted to each practice (with some practices doing double duty, like an abbreviated small group ministry session on simple living). I could easily see expanding the experience so that it would take several weeks, with a session on each practice.

At any rate, I could imagine an adult religious education experience like this being part of the membership journey offered by UU congregations. It would introduce newcomers to Unitarian Universalist history and theology, and give them a taste of the spiritual practices that the congregation might offer on a regular basis, like book groups, small group ministry, field trips, etc. All of these sort of things can become opportunities for spiritual growth if we let them. And if they were good enough for our Transcendentalist forebears, they’re good enough for me.

I normally wouldn’t use the word “stupid” in the title of a post (or in the post itself, for that matter, unless I was referring to something stupid I had done). But in this case, I’m taking the title directly from something I found recently inChristianity, Prayer, Spirituality, Religion In America, Church Growth, Decline Of Religion, Evangelicals, Faith In America, Religion, Religion In Decline, Scripture, Spirituality In America, Religion News the Huffington Post (which has an excellent “Religion” section, by the way)—an article by David Briggs, a columnist for the Association of Religion Data Archives, called “It’s the Spirituality, Stupid: Vital Congregations Cultivate Personal Piety.” In the article, Briggs notes that

There are times when research findings are so obvious they are almost beyond questioning. So it is puzzling that growing evidence showing the importance of congregations cultivating the spiritual lives of the faithful is so routinely ignored.

The research findings he’s referring to come from our old friend the latest Faith Communities Today survey, which states that “the percentage of U.S. congregations reporting high spiritual vitality declined from 43 percent in 2005 to 28 percent in 2010.” Yet at the same time, “the No. 1 reason people gave for moving from a spectator to an active participant in their congregation was this: ‘I responded to an inward sense of call or spiritual prompting.'”

Long story short, attending to the spiritual needs of members, friends, and seekers is a must for any congregation that wants to thrive and not merely survive. This might be a tall order for some Unitarian Universalist congregations that insist on maintaining their humanist identity at all costs. Nothing wrong with humanism, mind you (I consider myself to be one). But if spiritual seekers are coming into the door of a congregation looking “to connect with God and a community that connects with God,” only to find a community that places a “greater emphasis on social service programs or church committee work than on promoting spiritual growth,” those seekers may not stick around too long.

And here’s the thing. All signs point to fewer and fewer people in our country even bothering to check churches out, let alone become regular attenders. That means there are going to be, as UUA President Peter Morales says, fewer and fewer visitors for us to repulse. But how are congregations with little or no experience in promoting individual spiritual growth supposed to suddenly become adept at it? Where would one even begin?

The best place to start, I believe, is with our own tradition. A tradition about which Unitarian Universalist scholar David Robinson has said

Like a pauper who searches for the next meal, never knowing of the relatives whose will would make him rich, American Unitarians lament their vague religious identity, standing upon the richest theological legacy of any American denomination. Possessed of a deep and sustaining history of spiritual achievement and philosophical speculation, religious liberals have been, ironically, dispossessed of that heritage.

More on that tomorrow.

find, use, summarize, evaluate, create, communicate, information, digital technology, social media

My recent webinar on Digital/Spiritual Literacy is now archived and ready to go. Here’s some blurbage about it:

Digital media and web technologies have already changed the way many congregations do church, leading some observers to ask: “At what cost?” In this webinar we will examine the potential for these new media and technologies to diminish or strengthen human relationships, with special attention given to ways congregations can use digital media and web technologies to nurture individual spiritual growth and facilitate interpersonal relationships.

You can find all of the resources I referred to during the webinar here: http://bit.ly/r4kuED.

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