A Little More on "Soul Matters"
By Rev. Antonia
Small group ministry has swept into our UU congregations over the past 20 years. People longing for something beyond Sunday services found congregationally-based small groups, a.k.a. covenant groups, provided the spirituality and intimacy they needed. Groups are organized in different ways, some following a program and others creating their own topics, some involving pre-reading and others being spontaneous, some having a set facilitator and others sharing the responsibility. Over time, I’ve witnessed books and online materials become more available, best practices better appreciated, and programs become stronger. Small group ministry, as it has come to be named, has bound people together in spiritual community and brought friendship and meaning to the lives of many UUs.
On a different track, a number of UU ministers have experimented with theme-based worship in recent years, taking up a theme each month or sometimes each year, i.e., a UU Principle. The goal for many ministers was to create some structure for preaching and a means of going deeper into a topic than a one-shot sermon allowed for. Whereas 50 years ago, people fatigued with traditional religion craved new ideas, today people are overwhelmed by others’ voices and messages. What’s wished for now is some coherence and ways that people may find a sense of meaning. A theme can help bring that about.
Soul Matters is an innovation of "theme-based church" developed by Rev. Scott Tayler, formerly co-minister of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, and now the UUA’s head of Congregational Life. Soul Matters ties theme-based worship to small-group ministry, and turns it into a feedback loop for the ministry as a whole. The format’s cycle circumvents what Rev. Tayler identifies as our culture’s ADHD tendencies and pervasive disconnection, offering a lifeline to forgiveness and compassion. The small group materials focus on experiencing something, not simply talking about it, and offers questions to walk with. The overall theme bridges the divides inherent in church life — between Sunday worship and other programming, between adults and children, between members and newbies. The approach shifts a fellowship’s spiritual emphasis from individual development to congregational exploration, from discussing ideas to changing daily living, from stand-alone small groups to spiritually connected programming.
In May of 2014 I spent two days with Rev. Scott learning about this approach, along with 50 ministerial colleagues. Several colleagues used theme-based church this past year and were united in their appreciation of its impacts in their congregations despite the fact they each approached the themes slightly differently. They reported it strengthened and deepened their congregation’s sense of spirituality as a whole and made the community more accessible to new arrivals. All saw the approach exceed their expectations.
As I listened and learned, it seemed this approach to congregational life would be a benefit to UUFCO as we navigate a church-year full of change and business. These realities can pull us apart and away from our purpose as a spiritual community. And so we’ll try it! If it doesn’t work, at least we tried. Who knows? It could become a rich means for all of us to connect and deepen together as we journey the years ahead.