Oak Park's Unitarian Universalist congregation has been steadily attracting new members

Why is Unity Temple growing?

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Unity Temple is growing. That's news because denominations that have been around for more than a hundred years haven't been doing so well lately — last year Southern Baptists were down .42 percent, United Methodists down 1.01 percent, ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) down 1.96 percent, Presbyterian USA down 2.61 percent, Episcopalians down 2.48 percent. (National Council of Churches Yearbook)

When Rev. Alan Taylor became the senior minister of Unity Temple in 2003, he walked into an old (completed in 1908) albeit famous building and a congregation founded in 1879 that belongs to a denomination (Unitarian Universalist Association) started in 1825.

Since 2003, Unity Temple has bucked the trend with its membership growing from 350 to 525 and its budget increasing from $350,000 to $800,000. In addition, the amount of money the congregation gives away to charities and other organizations has gone up from $8,000 to $50,000. Spiritual growth, Taylor added, has kept pace with statistical increases.

Unity Temple was recently identified as a "Break Through Congregation" by the Unitarian Universalist Association for its growth in membership, budget and as an organization.

Taylor resists taking all the credit for the growth of his congregation, saying that the foundation for change was laid prior to his coming. Ellen Wehrle, who has been a Unity Temple member for 30 years, said it started a few years before Taylor arrived.

"The stage," she said, "was set with some of the decisions made, such as taking the risk of hiring a full-time religious education director at a time when we weren't certain that the money was there to do that. We became aware that we had to talk money and not skirt the issue as we had been doing. That laid the groundwork to be able to expand staff, hire good ministers, make some necessary repairs to the building and develop a good curriculum for welcoming new members into the congregation."

Taylor said he had some misgivings about coming to a congregation that worshiped in a world-famous building.

"Most ministers outside the congregation fear that the building wags the congregation, that the building takes so much attention," he explained. "I chose to come here because they had done significant work before I got here. I came to Unity Temple seeing my ministry as extending the congregation's mission beyond the shadow of the building. I came confident that this congregation was in a place ready to support strong ministry."

Direction

With organizational momentum already moving the congregation forward, Taylor's first move was to tighten up the administration to achieve a "stronger degree of professionalism around policies and procedures." Hiring David Wilke as director of administration, he said, was a significant step.

With the business end of the congregation running in a more professional manner, Taylor began to add staff he hoped would facilitate growth. As it turned out, each staff member added has expanded his or her area of ministry.

Martha Swisher was hired as the music director in 2006. Six people showed up for her first rehearsal. Rich Pokorny, who admits "My wife made me join 30 years ago," raves about the job she has done.

"Martha puts great music into the service every Sunday," he said. "We have an approximately 50-member volunteer choir that sounds awesome. Our pianist and organist, Peter Storms, is top-notch."

"Some people seem to think we just sit around singing Kumbaya," Swisher said. "The choir sings an eclectic mix of sacred classical music, contemporary, folk, gospel and world music, celebrating religious traditions from all over the globe."

Emily Gage, hired as minister of Faith Development, helped move the already successful religious education program to a new level. Clare Butterfield, ordained a UU minister in 2000 and a Unity Temple member for over 20 years observes,

"Our youth education programs have undergone some wonderful transformations in the last few years with Emily, so young families who are attracted to our lack of doctrine, our thoughtful approaches to faith and theology ... and the rich experience for adults on Sunday, also know that their children are going to have a wonderful time." Sunday services include a "children's sermon" with the entire congregation before they are "sung out" of the sanctuary for religious education.

Tina Lewis, the congregation's membership director, agrees with Butterfield. The reason she and her husband joined Unity Temple 13 years ago? "We were looking for a religious home to raise our children in."

Raising expectations

Butterfield gives much of the credit for the congregation's growth to Taylor.

"I think the changes Alan has made to the worship service give a range of experiences for the intellect, the emotions and the senses in a world that is pretty hungry for those things."

Ron Moline, a Unitarian for 31 years and a member of Unity Temple since 1993, says Taylor contributes to what he calls a "snowball effect."

"We have a young minister with young children who appeals to young families," he explained. "When a certain level of such membership is reached, this in itself further attracts similar families."

At a recent national UU gathering, Taylor led a workshop on church growth in which he said, "I've provided leadership to do three things: raise expectations, raise expectations, raise expectations."

"I provided a vision of what we can be," he says, "[that is] more than what we are today. I believe many people who come into our doors are looking for a community that really asks something of them."

In his second year as minister, for instance, Taylor convinced the congregation to give away the Sunday morning offering once a month. Then he persuaded them to give away the offering to other ministries and nonprofit organizations every Sunday.

Not only has the weekly offering increased by over 600 percent but giving by members through the annual fund appeal has gone up by $450,000.

He describes it as counterintuitive. "Church literature states that congregations that have taken this kind of risk and done it thoughtfully," he says, "have discovered that the members become more generous." To view a testimonial on this approach, check out a video titled, "Taking a Path of Risk," available at the congregation's website (unitytemple.org).

Wehrle says her minister not only raised expectations and challenged his people to risk pursuing bold dreams, he also provided them with the resources needed to go in the direction he was pointing.

"He helped us find the self-confidence we needed to extend ourselves," she said. "He challenged us to accept the premise that we were a place where we would take care of each other."

Taylor also brought a renewed piety to Unity Temple, if you will — what he refers to as "depth spirituality."

"My theological vision," he said, "is faith in a transformative love that's part of reality. When I talk about faith, what I mean is cultivating the inner resources as well as the communal resources to engage in creative interchange in the face of challenging forces, as well as cultivating the resilience to carry forth in the face of tragedy."

Taylor prays at every Sunday service, which is not the default setting in all Unitarian Universalist churches. In a sermon he delivered on March 14, 2010, he revealed much about not only his approach to ministry but the values and attitudes of Unitarian Universalists.

"I appreciate the thoughtfulness and honesty of members here who recently brought to my attention their struggle with prayer. When I pray on Sunday mornings, they don't feel at home. Their buttons are pushed by the use of 'God language.' ... Prayer is challenging for Unitarian Universalists, I think, because praying is not a rational activity. ... Rationally, I struggle with the concept of God. ... If you are like me, and rationally don't believe in God, consider my prayers as appealing to what is most human within you. When I say the word God, understand that it is a placeholder for the mystery of life, that the language is metaphorical."

In that sermon, Taylor also called his prayer "the most vulnerable and potentially the most sacred moment of the service."

Spiritual vulnerability describes how he ministers.

"By depth spirituality," he explained, "what I mean is a willingness to be vulnerable. I think a lot of my own strength as a minister comes from my capacity to be vulnerable and touch other people."

Community connections

Moline speculated that one reason for his congregation's growth is its location in a liberal village.

"I think Unity Temple has been growing because it is a religion that appeals to a large Oak Park demographic: politically and socially liberal people who are troubled by the theology and creeds of traditional religions."

Many members said their church's liberal theology and landmark architecture may be what attracts people initially, but it is the caring community they experience within the congregation that makes them stay.

"We are growing because we offer many ways for people to connect with one another," Lewis said. "Besides being a safe and loving community in which people can share their joys and sorrows ... we provide opportunities for people to connect with one another through small group ministries, social events and service work."

Shared values, different beliefs

"The members of our congregation act out their beliefs in many ways," said Pokorny. Many of us are active in community affairs, charities, peace and justice groups, interfaith activities, music and so on."

The congregation's website, which has a page titled, "What We Believe," states, "Our congregation is made up of individuals whose religious beliefs represent a variety of perspectives: Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, pagan, naturist, pantheist, deist, atheist, agnostic, and many others. We strive to bring a variety of perspectives to bear on our spiritual growth as individuals and as a congregation."

How can there be any unity in the midst of such diversity? Many members believe the glue that holds their congregation together is the values they share — in addition to their experience of community.

Steve Bankes, a member since 1999, observes, "Many people my age grew up with religion but as they grew older stopped feeling a spiritual connection to the church. When they started having kids, they missed the emotional connection they had with their church and the church community. Unity Temple offers both the spiritual (you are free to believe what you actually believe) and the emotional (a beloved community of people with shared values but different beliefs).

Carrie Bankes, Steve's wife, put it this way: "So many people think Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want to believe and that's just not true. Our beliefs as UUs need to be in line with our personal, ethical values; informed by history, science, and other religious traditions; and most importantly, be able to grow and change enough to reflect our own inner wisdom and spirituality."

Swisher, who is not a member, nonetheless believes "Unitarian Universalism is truly a religion for our time, promoting religious acceptance — not just tolerance of other's spirituality."

As Taylor says at the beginning of each Sunday service, "Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life's journey, you are welcome here."

Reader Comments

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Pam A Pomilee from Oak Park  

Posted: March 5th, 2012 8:04 AM

I love the article. I go to Unity Temple. And know Pastor Taylor and he is awesome.

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