Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Rose By Any Other Name

Indulge me in a bit of shop talk.

Imagine an entrepreneur pitching a new venture to a VC over lunch in a swanky restaurant.

The concept is a spiritual community, a church.

"What makes this different from all the other churches, all the other religions?" asks the VC.

The attraction for people (value proposition in marketing parlance) is a DIY (do it yourself) theology — meaning the freedom to form your own spiritual beliefs. Add to this a strong and supportive community that welcomes and affirms everyone, and programs that engage the members to make the world better.

"What members? Who's the target market?"

The entrepreneur responds enthusiastically that there's a huge pool to draw from. First, many people in the country don't have a religious affiliation, yet feel the need for meaning and community in their lives. Many others feel constrained by their present church, where asking questions isn't comfortable, at best, grounds for excommunication, at worst. Add those who are marginalized or rejected by their churches, like many in the GLBT community.

The VC gets it. The concept makes sense. It's compelling and could even go viral. That raises areas to probe, like how the support infrastructure scales and the quality of the management team. Can they manage the growth, articulate the message to the market?

"So what is the name? What do you call this spiritual community?"

"Uh, Unitarian Universalism."


I serve on the board of a credit union. The credit union was formed in 1958 to provide financial services to the employees of a company. 52 years later, the company has been bought and sold, sliced and diced, and is no longer the raison d'etre for the credit union.

Seeing the pending demise of our target market, several years ago we opened a branch in the center of the city and are refocusing our strategy to serve that community. However the credit union still carries the name of the company.

Earlier this week, the board met with a branding firm to discuss changing the name, creating a new brand — name, logo, theme — that will be relevant to the community we now wish to serve. The creative director of the firm, in pretty strong language, confirmed what we had feared: despite the downtown location with lots of foot traffic, we are losing potential members who not only don't identify with the name, but who feel the name excludes them.

Many names of religious denominations tie to the origins of their movements, relevant even today to the core of their beliefs. Baptist, Buddhist, Lutheran. Unitarian Universalism, too, reflects the ideas that led to the Unitarian and Universalist movements, although perhaps the name is not as relevant to the theological diversity found in our churches today.

Without disparaging any of the richness and history of our tradition, I wonder how many potential members of our churches don't get beyond the 10 syllables of our name. If we are, indeed, to become the religion of our time, we should understand the image and visceral reaction that our name creates — especially if it is impeding the realization of our vision.


(Chalice art by Deborah Stille, All Souls UU Church, Shreveport, LA)

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Be Spiritual - Episode 16

Gail Donahue is our guest for Episode 16 of Be Spiritual. Gail was raised Irish Catholic, both religiously and culturally. Ironically, it was the Catholic Church that pointed her to Unitarian Universalism. Today, Gail considers herself a proud atheist with a church — not at all paradoxical for a UU.

During the conversation, you'll hear Gail refer to Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. If you're interested in more information about this curriculum in feminist theology, check this web site.

Episode 16 runs about 37 minutes. You may listen with the above audio player, download the mp3 file here, or access it via iTunes.

I welcome your feedback, which you may leave by posting a comment below or by sending an e-mail to comments at bespiritual dot info.

The theme music is Floating Souls by Ambrish, courtesy of the Podsafe Music Network. The chalice artwork was created by Inga Johannesen, of the UU Church of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009


I came across a couple of items this week that you may find interesting.

Garrison Keillor wrote a column in Salon, Don't Mess with Christmas, in which his subtitle reads
It's a Christian holiday, dammit, and it's plain wrong to rewrite "Silent Night." Unitarians, I'm talking to you!
Keillor's thoughts have prompted a bit of a tempest, judging from the response by UUs.

You can sample the discussion coursing through a number of blogs. A good place to start is Peter Bowden's response on his UU Growth Blog. Peter is the growth consultant for the Ballou Channing district and the creative energy behind UU Planet Media.

From my own perusing, I found Paul Oakley's blog post a thoughtful response to Keillor, which he articulated without jumping over the proverbial horse.


The Word of Mouth program on New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR) featured an interview with Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and author of the recent book Good without God. You can hear the interview here.

Listening to Greg, I was struck by two items.

First, he articulates humanism very eloquently and understandably, which is inspiration for honing our own elevator speeches.

His advocacy for faith communities — for non-believers as well as those who identify with a religion — is the second and more profound thought. At one point during the interview, Greg says that congregations are more about community than their underlying religious beliefs. Yes. Through community we can nurture each other and combine our efforts to do good works in the world.

Greg is working hard to build such a community at Harvard. If you're not in that neighborhood, though, and don't have such a community, try a UU church. Whether your inclinations are humanist, atheist, agnostic, Pagan, Buddhist, or your own mash-up, you'll be most welcome.

And do try one of our Christmas Eve candlelight services, where you'll get to sing our version of Silent Night.

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