Sky at SunsetHas something like this ever happened to you when you’re travelling during the summer and decide to check out the local UU congregation?

You check their website, find out the service time and see that the topic is “The Secret Life of Bees,” the title of one of your favorite novels.  But when you arrive, you realize that the speaker is a professional bee-keeper, and the service feels more like a commercial for beekeeping than a worship experience.  The person playing along with the hymns gets the right notes, but the tempo makes it hard to sing.

If you are already a committed UU, you might just roll your eyes or curse under your breath. But if you are someone looking for a spiritual home, you will likely cross this church off your list — even if other members give you the standard not-so-great-lay-led-service caveat “We pride ourselves on having many voices in the pulpit. We hope you come back because the service is different each week.”

In a recent conversation on Facebook about a similar experience, the Rev. Jake Morrill shared this story:

My sister and I both grew up very active as UU’s.  When she and her new husband moved to (a new community) twenty years ago, she took him to a summer service that featured a chemistry professor giving a dry lecture and a slide-show.  They never went back.  Now, she’s a dynamos for the Methodists, organizing mission trips, community-wide justice projects, etc.  Theologically, she’s as Universalist as they come.  I always think what a loss it was for Unitarian Universalism that we lost my sister and her family  that summer Sunday…

As I read this story, I began to think about the covenant between Unitarian Universalist congregations, and in relation to our covenant with our highest values and commitments.

When someone walks through a Unitarian Universalist congregation’s doors for the first time–after having read the promise of the “free faith” on UUA and congregational websites–don’t we have an obligation to offer the best expression of Unitarian Universalism that we can muster?  And if one of our congregations falls short of that promise, don’t we have an obligation–as Unitarian Universalists committed to our best expression of who we are– to share our observation of this disappointment and invite them to do better?

And if we are leaders or members of a congregation who receives such feedback offered with a loving heart and an eye to our highest aspirations, isn’t it our obligation to hear it with an open a humble heart?

Being in covenant with one another requires both courageous truth-telling and open-hearted listening.  Our UU leaders need to develop both skills…


Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion.  I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the UUA website.
  • Shane Montoya

    This is a great conversation to have, and I find it frustrating that the spirit seems to go on vacation during the summer.

    However, the other piece of that is that staff often feel exhausted and “beat up” by the time June comes around. I believe that starting this conversation about full summer services needs to include discussions about boundaries for the rest of the year, so that its not as much of an issue.

    Also, at least in New England, we tend to have older churches without air conditioning, which can make things unpleasant, at best.

  • jfbriere

    OTOH, when I went to a “summer service,” I was so intrigued withe church, that I overlooked the poor production and execution of the worship service. It led me to seminary and the ministry.

  • Mark Bernstein

    While I understand the logistical problems associated with holding summer services, I do think that we clearly give the message that summer is “down time” when we have an “end of church year” picnic in mid June and an expansive and welcoming In-gathering in September.

  • moonlight51

    I wrestle with this issue in my own heart quite a bit. At some point our services need to appeal to newcomers and visitors. Certainly we’d not want to turn off newcomers and visitors (and a dry lecture on anything will likely not only turn off those folks, but our own members as well). However, what newcomers and visitors find interesting and appealing, what touches their hearts and their minds just isn’t cookie cutter.

    One visitor needs intellectual stimulation and is uncomfortable with too much discussion of feelings or overt “God-talk”. Another has a hurting heart and does not care if there is intellectual rigor in a sermon. Still another needs to hear religious words framed in familiar ways and is turned off by the very language which is needed for other people.

    I fear putting services through a “must appeal to a visitor” filter may serve only to remove the very facet of UU summer services which so many other folks find appealing.

    We had a service last summer on our upcoming shift to Policy-style Governance. We had visitors who walked out, and we had visitors who came up afterward and told us they were fascinated by a church which openly discussed its governance and the spiritual implications of that governance. They are now members.

  • Don Roberts

    I have never liked a fellowship closing for the summer, I think it stems from a consumer mentality have that if their needs are being met there is no need to change. Fellowships should be there to serve the needs of the community not just its members.

    Shorter services, combine services, abbreviate services – do something.

  • Anna Zander

    Exactly what my minister spouse warns me about when I tell friends to check out the local UU church in their community. Summer means the service is likely lay led. Which is a mixed bag. Including when I am the guest preacher.

  • Michael Schafer

    In Mississippi most UU churches are lay led most of the time and it’s not just a Summer issue. I know of one church that is closing down completely for the Summer which in my mind is sad. I think that a lay led service does not have to be a poor quality service it just needs a level of commitment and passion by the congregation in question that lets people know that though it may not be perfect it is an important part of their lives and community. With so many people looking for alternatives to traditional/conservative churches it seems ever more important to have open doors and open hearts and a willingness to share what works for us.

  • Randy Becker

    Ironic — our national Association holds its General Assembly in late June, desiring (and often creating) good items for national press that might draw people into our midst. But, those good vibes come at the lowest point in congregational life in terms of worship, programming, etc. Also, we know that the juts before start of the new school year is often a time when families move and go shopping for spiritual communities, but that is also the time we most often provide minimal everything (worship, education, child care).

    In my mind, there is no time of community worship which should be less than the best!

  • Diggitt

    So we have a woman who grew up as an active UU. She went to a new community in the summer and the service [it is implied] drove her into the hands of the Methodists. I am not going to bite on this. I am supposed to wring my hands and say how terrible this is. But one less-than-wonderful service drove an “active UU” away for good? What does she do with her husband when he has a bad day?

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