What will a comprehensive “UU Review” reveal?

UUWorld.org reports that at the October UUA board meeting UUA President Rev. Peter Morales announced plans for a comprehensive review of UU ministry. According to the article President Morales said “the comprehensive review of the UU ministry was necessary considering the changing demographics of the United States”.

Sounds good to me.  Why?

As someone who has spent a decade studying relational growth strategies* I’ve been working with the resources put out by the Willow Creek Association for years.

*Relational Growth Stategies is my umbrella term for relationally driven group based ministries including small group ministry and group based youth, young adult and campus ministries. More on this another day...)

So it was quite a surprise to me to learn that Willow Creek did an assessment of their ministry around 2004 and came up with shocking results. Seems when they asked the right questions they discovered there were some real problems. They identified a series of clear faith development steps and some sort of barrier keeping people from moving beyond a certain point.  Sound familiar?

This sparked the larger  “Reveal Now” project which has involved many congregations in an extensive research process. Here is a brief summary of their work to date from the Reveal Now FAQ :

In 2004, key leaders at Willow Creek Community Church connected with Eric Arnson, the founder and director of ORIGINATE, a cutting edge research and strategy consulting firm. While meeting together, God revealed in their hearts a new vision about spiritual development. Cally Parkinson, Greg Hawkins, and Eric Arnson collaborated to write Reveal: Where Are You?, which presents REVEAL’s approach, key findings, and heart for the church. As the number of churches involved with REVEAL and the Spiritual Life Survey grew, further research and continued vision produced the second REVEAL book, Follow Me, which picks up where Reveal left off, focusing on movement and growth along the spiritual journey.

Back to the research… They looked closely at what I think is a brilliant and relevant question, one we should also be asking:

“Does Church Activity Drive Spiritual Growth?”

They started this investigation thinking they’d find a correlation between involvement in church activities and spiritual growth. Makes sense.  Participate more, grow more. Right? Wrong! They did not find a correlation.  What was the headline finding that sent shock waves through the system?

Church Activity Has Limited Impact on Spiritual Growth

Not a good thing to learn if you’re in the religion, church, and or spiritual growth “business.” You can look at their key findings here. When you scroll down to the findings, note that the highlighted text (white on blue) expand to reveal charts and details.

After I read the first two REVEAL books I thought a lot out our faith formation and how it tied in to my work at the time, small group ministry as a vehicle for community building, faith formation, social justice work, and outreach/evangelism.

I’m glad we’re going to take a hard honest look at our ministry. Does UU congregational participation correlate with spiritual growth? What ARE the stages of Unitarian Universalist development?  Do we know what these are?  What are our ministry objectives? What ongoing struggles within our association of congregations are connected to a failure to understand the way we develop and mature as people of faith?

If you look at our retention of born UUs as an indicator (and it may or may not be) we could be look at being off the “does your church really matter mark” by up to 90%… Urgency anyone?

Note I personally credit our loss of youth as a catastrophic failure in leadership development,  failure to develop a relationally driven lifespan group ministry approach, and an associated lack of depth and action in Unitarian Universalism. Our children aren’t going to stay and play in the shallow end of the pool past 6th grade. No depth, no leadership opportunities, no action, no youth.

May our review of UU ministry be as REVEALing as Willow Creek’s!

REVEAL videos and podcast

REVEAL NOW main site

REVEAL Spiritual Life Survey site

Church Activity Has Limited Impact on Spiritual Growth

Instead, we discovered results that looked like Chart 2:

Chart 2: The research showed some increase in spiritual behaviors as participation in church activities increases, but very little correlation between low-medium-high levels of participation and increasing “love for God, love for people.”

We found that those who were the most active in the church did not necessarily report higher levels of spiritual attitudes (“love for God and others”) and spiritual behaviors (evangelism, tithing, etc.) than those who were less active.

This led us to discover a Spiritual Continuum centered on a relationship with Jesus Christ, which was much more predictive of spiritual growth (Chart 3):

The Spiritual Growth Continuum

Chart 3: This framework emerged as the most powerful predictive description of how people grow spiritually. That means attitudes and behaviors associated with spiritual growth increased in lockstep with movement along the continuum.

Charts 4 and 5 demonstrate the powerful nature of this continuum. Virtually all spiritual attitudes and behaviors measured in our research increased significantly from one stage of spiritual maturity to the next.

Spiritual Attitudes Increase Along the Continuum

Chart 4: The percentage of people who “very strongly agree” with spiritual attitude statements about surrendering the most important aspects of life to God rises significantly across the Spiritual Continuum, and especially in the Close to Christ and Christ-Centered segments. This demonstrates a spiritual heart shift from a self-centered identity to an identity defined by a relationship with Christ.

Spiritual Behaviors Rise Along the Continuum

Chart 5: The frequency of tithing, serving and evangelism rises dramatically across the Spiritual Continuum, illustrating the outpouring of spiritual behavior associated with increasing spiritual maturity.

We also discovered a high percentage of people who fell into two groups who were struggling with their spiritual lives:

1. The Stalled:

a. More than one in five in total (22%) said that they “have stalled spiritually.”

2. The Dissatisfied

a. Almost one in five in total (17%) expressed a level of dissatisfaction with their church’s role in helping them grow spiritually.

Chart 6 shows that those who are stalled exist in all segments across the Spiritual Continuum, but most of them fall within the first two segments of spiritual growth.

Many Have Stalled Spiritually

Chart 6: The highest percentages of people who say “I have stalled spiritually” fall in the Exploring Christ and Growing in Christ segments. This means that becoming stalled is much more likely to occur at the earlier stages of spiritual growth.

Those who are dissatisfied with the church’s role in their spiritual growth also exist in all segments across the Spiritual Continuum (Chart 7).

Dissatisfaction Exists with the Church’s Role in Spiritual Growth

Chart 7: The people who are dissatisfied with their church’s role in their spiritual growth are distributed fairly evenly across the four spiritual segments. In total 17 percent of those surveyed expressed some level of dissatisfaction.

We are particularly concerned about those in the more mature spiritual development segments (Close to Christ and Christ-Centered) because the dissatisfied are the most likely to express that they may leave the church (41%) and these more mature segments represent our best evangelists, volunteers and donors (see Chart 5).

There is an overlap between the stalled and dissatisfied groups, which is not surprising (Chart 8). Unhappiness can turn into a magnet for greater unhappiness. Someone who is stalled could blame their circumstances on the church. Likewise, because the church is so central to the early stages of spiritual growth, it’s possible that dissatisfaction with the church could cause someone to stall out spiritually. So, not unexpectedly, our two most disillusioned spiritual segments share common characteristics and, to some extent, feed off each other.

Over 30% Are Stalled, Dissatisfied or Both

2 thoughts on “What will a comprehensive “UU Review” reveal?

  1. I am in general agreement with your coclusions Peter and especially with your statement:

    ‘Note I personally credit our loss of youth as a catastrophic failure in leadership development, failure to develop a relationally driven lifespan group ministry approach, and an associated lack of depth and action in Unitarian Universalism.”


  2. It will be interesting to see what the UUA’s review of UU ministry tells us. I’d love to know association wide who we are losing and who we are keeping. Different study, I know. You can tell a lot by who you keep and who you lose. AND are we willing to lose some of our numbers in order to refocus our ministry? Our congregations don’t do well handling criticism. Growing up involved with lay leadership I’ve witnessed many a process held hostage by a single naysayer. Are we held being held back by the casual UU?

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