One of the most useful aspects of the recent Conference in the Netherlands organized by the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), the global Unitarian body, was the opportunity to share practical experiences of congregational life. Congregations remain the way that our Unitarian faith is expressed in most parts of the world; recognizing of course that for some the online experience is now part of the mix.
We had the one-to-one chats over coffee and meals and drinks; we do this’ what do you do? Really! There were more formal networking opportunities and also a day of workshops and a day of more substantial learning sessions. There were excellent programmes for individual personal development which should enhance leadership capacity around the world.
I was particularly struck by the similarities as well as the differences between the UK and The Netherlands, who were represented by the Vrijzinnigen Nederland (VJ) a liberal religious group about the same size as British Unitarians; but with fewer groups. I already have good contact with them and their director Wies Houweling has been to a British Unitarian Annual Meeting.
In one session I heard about a self led congregation and the phrase “professional amateur organisation” was used, which I interpreted to mean that all that was done, although there was no paid “professional” leader, was of the highest quality. This congregations has grown from 60 to 100 members; with Sunday attendance from 10 to 40. They asked the members initially “if we change, do you want to be part of it?”
Over more than ten years they have changed the:
• Role of the Board (ie the committee)
• Role of the community – which is seen as a source of creativity as everyone has a special gift
• Role of Sunday services (which is seen as the most important change)
• The building – especially the symbols used
A positive approach was adopted to change but quality was key. Other learnings were that nothing is permanent and that renewal never stops. Infact; knowing that those activities that are going well will not last should make us look to the future and new ideas. Another lesson is to resist the temptation to compare yourself to others and that in the end you must find your own solution. Also, look to your roots for keys to the future.
This was reinforced by another session on the Dutch experience where it was emphasised that the liberal religion should be about connecting rather that separation as with orthodox religions with their focus on maintaining group identity. In a group we talked about how locally Unitarians can play a leadership role in connecting people. We of course often do this is individuals. The challenge is to reach out to other religious people and other groups; often simply to get them around a table when they would not otherwise be able to do so. So are their issues in your community that needed to be talked about but are not?
I shall be developing our relationship with Vrijzinnigen Nederland further as we have much to share and learn from each other. Their connections especially with other liberal groups and in the academic arena are particularly impressive and raise issues for us. So lots to do all round.
This blog first appeared in The Unitarian (September 2016) as "A View from Essex Hall"