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Fulfilling the Promise: A Response to the Survey Results

A Speech by Clark Olsen, Fulfilling the Promise (FTP) Committee Member


I speak today as one member of the Fulfilling the Promise Committee. The purpose of this talk is to present some of the interesting results of the "Fulfilling the Promise" survey sent to every Unitarian Universalist (UU) household last fall, facts about the Fulfilling the Promise process in which we are all engaged, and a vision of what we might achieve together—

  • in your congregation,
  • eventually, in our association,
  • and, as a personal speculation, what our work together could mean for the global human community.

How We Got to Today

Two years ago the UUA Board of Trustees appointed a Strategic Planning Team to consider how our Association might think about and plan for the years ahead. No time frame was defined. Our committee met for the first time in January of 1997 and, after what I believe was some deep thinking and appropriate historical perspective, we proposed to rename ourselves as the Fulfilling the Promise Committee. Soon the UUA Board approved our name change as well as our statement of purpose, which is: "to call the UUA member congregations into a participatory process of ongoing renewal so that:

  • needs and aspirations will be made explicit,
  • a covenant of shared goals, resource commitments, and supportive structures will be realized, and
  • Unitarian Universalism will fulfill its promise in the world."

Meanwhile, the Commission on Appraisal was working on its fundamental thesis: that as an association we needed to reconsider the implications of our congregational foundation. In last year's report to the General Assembly, the Commission asked us to reinforce the genius, power and potential of the congregation, and to examine, for our time and into the next millennium, how and why congregations in association need each other and need to better understand and define what they owe each other, what they need to commit to each other. They made the fascinating and challenging point that a congregation is defined not just unto itself, but also in relation to other congregations.

At last year's GA, I had the privilege to give the Fulfilling the Promise Committee's reaction to the Commission's report. In brief, we were enthusiastic, and, happily, we could also report our intent to follow-up the Commission's urgent call with a specific association-wide process, including the Survey which was distributed last fall.

Here at this GA, we invite you to move forward with this process. My intent in this talk is to give you an overview of the process results so far, invite you and your congregation to take the next steps in the process, and tell you where and how to get more details. But you will find many other pieces to help you understand the process and to inspire you with the possibilities.

Pay attention, please. Stir your imagination. There is power in our presence together. History is in the making.

The Historic Challenge

The challenge is to better understand, for our time and the future, what we shall do together, in our congregations and in our association of congregations. That may seem abstract, but beneath the words lies a deep sense that we have not yet understood our potential, not yet put our purposes and principles adequately to work, not yet discovered the full promise of our faith and of our association.

Let me set the stage by spotlighting our past emphasis on individualism. Without providing a broad analysis, allow me please to simplify by referring to one part of our Unitarian heritage. In the American Unitarian Association forty years ago the Laymen's League conducted an advertising campaign: "Are you a Unitarian without knowing it?" Some of us remember seeing those ads in the New York Times Sunday Magazine section. An unspoken assumption underlay that campaign—that the associational dimension, the covenant with others, played a minor role in our liberal faith. I won't try to speak for the Universalist heritage, but perhaps it's fair to say that the same characteristic prevailed.

In the 1920's Earl Morse Wilbur wrote his famous one volume description of our Unitarian history. Tracing our roots in Transylvania, Poland, Holland and England and our emergence in North America, he summarized Unitarianism as the "progressive development of freedom, tolerance and reason in religion." Against the backdrop of Europe's "ancien regime" and presaging the rise of totalitarianism, Wilbur's summary spotlighted liberalism's challenge to prevailing orthodoxy. But with hindsight we can say that behind Wilbur's celebration of progress lurked a future problem of deep significance.

Those code words "freedom, tolerance and reason" bespoke a heavy emphasis on the autonomous individual and her or his religious stance. In 1985, Robert Bellah's book Habits of the Heart carried the message that individualism in American life had gone too far. We had underestimated the importance of community.

Now we begin to understand that, putting it simply and perhaps too boldly, one cannot be a Unitarian Universalist by oneself. There is no such thing as a "closet UU." Integral to our faith there now emerges an understanding something like: "To know what I believe and to practice my faith—more accurately, to be a Unitarian Universalist—I must be in covenant with others."

It is that understanding, that "something is missing" in our emphasis on individualism, that we now seek to address.

Some 14 years ago, our association went through a thoroughly congregational and associational process of defining our "Purposes and Principles," which described the sources, evidence and reason for our association. In effect they described who we are.

That Purposes and Principles process achieved much. We have been enriched by it. Some of the phrases that emerged have become deeply significant to us, such as "interdependent web of all existence."

Our current process proposes to move further, asking additional significant questions that were not covered by Purposes and Principles.

Here are some critical questions of Fulfilling the Promise:

As individual Unitarian Universalists—How does our faith inform our daily lives, hold us together in times of crisis, enable us to celebrate life, and empower us to act justly in the world?

As Unitarian Universalist congregations—What hopes do we share, how shall we treat one another, what are we willing to promise each other?

As the Unitarian Universalist Association—our bylaws say we are member congregations in covenant with each other. How do we define that covenant? What does it mean to be "We, the member congregations"? Given who we are, what shall we do together?

About that last question—both as individual congregations and as an association of congregations, "What shall we do together?"—if we answer only in terms of committees, structures and programs, we shall have failed to accept the depth of the challenge. If we answer in terms of fundamental understanding of our covenant, we shall find we have said something deeply important to ourselves and the world.

The Survey

To begin the process of understanding, the Fulfilling the Promise Committee designed a survey last year. We felt we needed to stimulate deep thought and as profound conversation as possible throughout our association, and we judged that a continent-wide survey, directed straight to individual UUs, provided an effective tool. Announced at the `97 General Assembly, the survey was printed in the September-October issue of our denominational magazine, World. The survey appeared on the internet as well, at the UUA web site.

I wish to state briefly how we developed the survey questions. Our committee began the survey's creation by each of us, solo, trying to compose what questions we thought would help us define or describe theneeds and aspirations of UUs today and moving into the future. Each of us hesitated at first. We pondered. A half-hour later, though, we were genuinely pleased with our individual and collective effort. We had 30 to 40 good questions. But we also knew that our questions were only a small sample of possibilities.

Over the next three months we gathered some 450 questions from other UUs. We winnowed the list back down to about 30, each with multiple-choice answers. At last year's GA we tried out the questions with some focus groups. We then had the survey reviewed by research professionals.

When the survey was published, each congregation was invited to encourage their members to complete the survey. We also sent materials to congregations suggesting ways to facilitate discussion about the survey questions among their members, or even to create their own survey questions.

We made a separate outreach effort to include youth by creating a somewhat modified version of the survey that was included in the fall issue of Synapse. Youth attending conferences were invited personally to participate in the process.

And now—I hope you find it as thrilling as those of us on the committee do—nearly 10,000 UUs answered the survey. About 100 of those answered through the internet.

This is the largest UU survey response since 1966—when an association sample of 12,000 UUs from only eighty carefully-chosen congregations responded for the Report of the Committee on Goals. The purpose of that survey effort, headed by Robert Tapp, was to produce a sociological analysis of our denomination, leading to the creation of denominational goals by the Goals Committee. Tapp's research was funded in part by the Social Science Research Council, indicating the survey's core intent.

Our survey has a different focus: to stimulate individual and congregational reflection in every congregation about who we are and what we aspire to, and to have those reflections result in deepened congregational and associational life. That is why we sent the survey to all UUs and invited all congregations to an active process of survey creation and dialogue. Our Fulfilling the Promise Committee's task is to facilitate an association-wide process, not to determine the results.

Survey responses came from all across the country. No region dominates the results. No congregation or groups of congregations dominate. Here's a preliminary list of the congregations with the highest number of responses:

  • First Church in San Diego 87
  • University Unitarian Church in Seattle 55
  • First Unitarian in Rochester 49
  • First Church, San Francisco 47
  • Fairfax County, Virginia 38
  • First Unitarian in Portland (OR) 37
  • West Shore, Cleveland 37
  • Eno River (Durham, NC) 36
  • First Unitarian Universalist, Houston 34

The overwhelming number of medium and large size congregations had 10 to 30 responses. Nearly all congregations had at least one respondent.

Our committee feels confident about this conclusion: The 10,000 responses broadly represent our association.

The key points about these congregational statistics are these:

  1. Probably no congregation can look at its survey results and claim confidently, "Those statistics accurately represent our congregation." For that confidence, you need more respondents.
  2. Every congregation with more than 20 respondents will receive the survey results for that congregation. You can make your own judgment about the statistical accuracy of your congregation's results.
  3. Every congregation will receive a report of the survey results for the whole association. Those results are in the GA Packet, and they will be mailed to all congregations over the summer. You can dig into the results for whatever riches you may find.
  4. Most important: In your own congregation you can start a process of taking a survey for yourselves. We recommend two alternatives: use the existing survey, or develop your own survey instrument. Either way, you can be deeply enriched by the conversations.

Using the existing survey, your congregation will be enriched by discussing the questions and your answers. In addition, you'll be able to compare yourselves to the whole association, for whatever insights that comparison may give you. Three workshops are scheduled on Monday at this GA to help you with planning your congregational response to the survey. Each of the workshops is designed for a particular size congregation: small, medium or large.

Results of the Survey 

Now, I want to share with you some fascinating points about the 10,000 responses we've had to the survey.

First, we asked some demographic questions:

  • How long you've been a UU
  • Level of activity in a current congregation
  • How long you've been a part of this congregation
  • Do you attend church on a regular basis?
  • Name of the church you attend
  • City, and state or province
  • Which best describes your theological perspective—theist, humanist, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Earth/Nature centered, Mystic, Moslem, Hindu or other?
  • Layperson, minister, other religious professional?
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Sexual or affectional orientation
  • Partnership/marital status
  • Children living with you?
  • Racial/cultural identify, or biracial or multi-cultural?

What seems most extraordinary about our survey results is this: There is an amazing coherence of responses to our religious questions which crosses over all the survey's demographic categories. I do not mean that to each question, all of us chose the same answer out of the multiple-choice possibilities. I mean instead, that to each question, the weight of responses to each multiple-choice question was amazingly similar across all our demographic categories, including age, years of UU experience, and theological perspective. Not for every question, for every demographic category. But, again, we showed an amazing coherence. We are "family" more than we might have imagined.

Before I begin sharing data, for the sake of those who can add quickly, I want to warn you that often the numbers add up to more than 100%. The reason is simply that some people chose more than one answer to a question.

Here's an example of the coherence I was talking about:

Question #15:

How does being a Unitarian Universalist sustain you in times of crisis, tragedy, or pain? 
There were five answers from which to choose.

First choice of every age category as well as theological category—theist, humanist, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, earth/nature, mystic, Moslem/Hindu and "other" was the answer:

  • "It provides a community of love, support and renewal."

The other multiple-choice alternatives to how being a UU sustains you in times of crisis were answered in this order:

  • "Reminds me that I am not an exception to the human condition" 
  • "Comfort of beloved friends" 
  • "Provides a sense of transcendence, God or a healing power" 
  • "Addresses oppression which affects me"

That exact order of choice was in the responses of UUs from all theological orientations.

And among the age groups, the only exceptions to that same order of choice were for those Under 18 years old and Over 75. For those two age groups, "Comfort of Beloved Friends" ranked second choice rather than third.

In many of the questions, the survey gave the same kind of results. Not absolutely, not every time—but often enough to conclude that something very interesting and powerful seems to be going on among us.

Another example:

Question 16:

What factors in your life influenced your decision to join a UU congregation? 
All theological categories answered overwhelmingly with the same #1 statement:

  • Search for belief system and faith community that made sense to me 62%

In all theological categories the much less important #2 answer was the more negative statement:

  • Dissatisfaction with another church or belief system 22%

But note that in all theological categories but one, that "negative" answer received only 1/3 of the answers compared to the more positive #1 choice. "Christians" gave the negative "Dissatisfaction with another church or belief system" a bit more often than persons of other theological positions.

Here were the other answers to the same question about "what led you to join a UU congregation":

  • Wanted religious education for my children 13% 
  • I was born into UUism 10% 
  • Acceptance and support when I needed it 9%

I want to show you some more examples of this coherence across theological and other categories:  

Question 19:

What needs for a child's religious development could ideally be best served within the community of UU faith?

"A Sense of Belonging, Along With Respect for Difference" 

  • Theist 48.2% 
  • Jewish 62.1% 
  • Humanist 56.7% 
  • Earth-Centered 55.8% 
  • Christian 46.7% 
  • Mystic 52.1% 
  • Buddhist 50.0% 
  • Other 55.2% 

Total: 53.4%

Question 1:

What things should your congregation be most intent on helping children learn?

"A Sense of Their Inherent Worth, Self-Respect" 

  • Theist 50.9% 
  • Jewish 63.7% 
  • Humanist 52.7% 
  • Earth-Centered 56.3% 
  • Christian 51.0% 
  • Mystic 51.1% 
  • Buddhist 54.7% 
  • Other 51.5% 

Total: 51.8%

Question 8:

What is the "glue" that binds individual UUs and congregations together? 

"Shared Values and Principles" 

  • Theist 52.9% 
  • Jewish 55.0% 
  • Humanist 56.1% 
  • Earth-Centered 49.5% 
  • Christian 41.8% 
  • Mystic 48.1% 
  • Buddhist 55.1% 
  • Other 49.5% 

Total: 52.1

One of the strongest internal initiatives taken in our association the past few years has been for greater racial/cultural diversity in our membership. The survey results on this are I think profoundly important to us. One could ask if our "rank-and-file" are truly supportive of our leaders making this effort. Are many of us cynical about it, possibly viewing it as mere political correctness? Here are responses on the survey to the question #7:

Question 7:

How do you respond to the call for greater racial/cultural diversity in our membership? 
Note again the substantial agreement across most theological lines and ages. Note also that the number one choice of almost all categories—41% on average—is the answer:

  • "It's about time. This is central to my faith and theology."

Note as well that 41% compares to only about 6% who chose the answer: "This whole thing is just about political correctness."

On this theme of coherence across theological and age categories, look at the results for Question 10:  

Question 10:

What are your dreams for the Unitarian Universalist movement? 
The overwhelming choice was "Become a visible and influential force for good in the world."

A couple of variations on this question are interesting. The one group having a much stronger second choice answer, almost 40%, was those who labeled themselves "Mystics," whose second choice answer was "Develop deeper, more spiritual worship." Humanists ranked that answer at the bottom of their dreams. (Only 8% of Humanists chose "deeper, more spiritual worship" as their dream for the UU movement.)

Now I'd like to show you some other interesting data.

Among the 450 or so questions that were originally proposed for the survey, we were tickled to find the one which read:

What tickles your spiritual funny bone? 
We liked the question, but you can imagine the awesome responsibility we felt in trying to define the alternative-choice answers to that question. But again, we were amazed at the coherence of answers across so many demographic groups: how many years a UU, how active, regular attendance or not, theological orientation, sexual orientation, racial/ethnic identify, etc.

  • That UUs claim to be seekers at the same time we act like we have the answers: 31.3%
  • People who stand amidst the wonders of nature arguing about belief in miracles: 24.5%
  • Laughing at my UU pomposity, laughing at other UUs' pomposity, taking life too seriously: 18.9%
  • "Forgive, O Lord, any little jokes on Thee, and I'll forgive thy great big one on me" (Robert Frost): 18.8%
  • A "reasonable" UU coping with people who are moved by the spirit: 13.7%
  • No Answer: 10%

Note that only 10% chose not to answer this question.

The results of another question strike me as profoundly interesting and important. The question was:

Question 2:

How has your life been changed, affected or supported by your UU faith? 
And here the interesting thing is that all seven answers received approximately equal numbers of choices across most of the demographic/theological categories. Without trying to show you all the data, these "equal choice" answers were:

  • It shapes my engagement with the world.
  • Provides a place to recognize and develop my gifts, and to address my needs.
  • Encourages growth in tolerance for ambiguity and difference.
  • Has transformed my way of being in the world... How I live, what I spend time and money on and what I give away.
  • Eases isolation.
  • Gives me courage to challenge society's norms and work for social change.
  • Provides a common faith for my partner and me/my family.

Again, ten thousand UUs from all over the continent gave approximately equal weight to all answers. It could be an important focus for congregational reflection if your congregation's answers to this same question were heavily skewed to just two or three of these answers. What might that say about your congregation? I do not have the answer. I'm not suggesting what the judgment should be. But I raise the possibility of helpful, thoughtful self-examination through comparison of your congregation's results with those of our larger association.

Here's another interesting result, comparing answers to two different questions.

Question #4:

What is missing for you in your UU experience? 
Virtually tied for first choice were:

  • Greater intensity of celebration, joy and spirituality 
  • More racial and cultural diversity and diversity of perspectives

Thinking only of "Greater intensity of celebration, joy and spirituality" for a minute, look at:

Question #18:

What do you expect to happen for you when you attend a UU worship service? 
For that question, the least answered "expectation" was "Music and community singing".

Is it possible we have a lot of work to do among ourselves to achieve "greater intensity of celebration, joy and spirituality" precisely by developing higher expectations about music and community singing?

Another question to ponder:

Question #6:

What gifts do you offer your congregation? 
Here were the possible answers:

  • Leadership, commitment and energy for the long haul
  • Specific skills (singing, business, teaching, etc.)
  • Financial support
  • Organizational ability
  • My personal story and experience

I am delighted that first choice was "Leadership, commitment and energy for the long haul."

But I am personally troubled and see much richness that we have not yet discovered in the fact that so few named as their gift "My personal story and experience." My experience tells me that congregations—people in covenant—need to know that their own stories and experiences are among the most important gifts they bring to each other. And if our congregations are not encouraging people to know that—to experience that gift—then perhaps something important awaits discovery.

Question #9:

What are the deepest yearnings of your heart? 
The answers were fairly well balanced across all six choices:

  • To make a difference, help build a more just world
  • To become whole/find meaning
  • Happiness, nurturance and love for my children/family
  • Peace and harmony
  • To be known and loved
  • To feel I am part of a wondrous creation

Somehow, that rather balanced response to the question seems good to me.

Overall, the highest scoring answer was "To make a difference, help build a more just world." And, in a delightful indication of hope, the two age groups which clearly marked that their highest choice were:

  • Under 18 years old, and 
  • Over 75 years old.

What does that indicate? You try to fathom it. But it also seems good to me!

There is more food for thought in the survey results, looking at our association as a whole.

There are very important data I have not tried to discuss, but here are some tidbits:

  • We did not ask demographic data about income levels. We have learned little about what coherences of faith there might be across socioeconomic lines—and if there is such a thing as denominational myopia, perhaps this ought to be considered.
  • The demographic picture shows that our "Humanist" population is generally older.
  • No matter what your theological orientation, you are in a minority in this association.
  • Some 1/3 of us have considered leaving UUism? And should one say "as many as one-third have considered leaving"? or "two-thirds have never considered leaving"?
  • "Congregational conflict" was the second highest reason for considering leaving (of the one-third who have considered it).
  • We sometimes assume that our theological differences conflict, but the stunning coherences I've mentioned across so many theological categories, suggests that there's little justification for our assumptions about theological tension.
  • Of those who had considered leaving, "Too much spirituality" was a reason for leaving for 9%; but twice as many—-18%—of humanists gave "Too much spirituality" as a reason.
  • We asked, "If Unitarian Universalism were somehow not available, what would be missing in your life?"

Fifty percent of the ministers said they would miss "An outlet for my deepest understanding in a community of faith, experience and spiritual growth."

But only thirty percent of lay persons said "An outlet for my deepest understanding...." would be missing.

Wouldn't it be better if a higher number of lay persons answered that way? At least it's a point for discussion in your congregation.

  • Our age profile confirmed a median age of 55. Less than a quarter of our people say they have children at home.
  • Isn't it a surprise that as many as 8% of the respondents indicated they are multi-cultural or multi-ethnic? Our UU staff people say "multi-cultural" or "multi-ethnic" is dramatically more prevalent in our church schools. Therefore, our language about being almost totally a "white" movement is not accurate. It's more complex than that.


Question #13:

To what extent should your congregation contribute to spreading the UU faith? 
The overwhelmingly first-choice answer was 

  • "Be outspoken in our community, a voice for justice based on our principles." 66% We certainly are unified across virtually every category on this answer. It's good to know of this passion among us.

I return to my starting point about the survey results: Despite our differences, the coherences are quite stunning. The survey results provide rich data to be pondered, powerful information to stimulate further exploration—especially when you join in the process of surveying your own congregation and discussing your own data.

Other Reactions to the Survey Results

I've given you some of the data, and a few of my reactions. I'd like to share some reactions from other people who have seen the results. Here they are:

"Unitarian Universalists appear to be much more of a continental community than the oft-heard rhetoric of independence, contrariness and aloofness might portray."

"The statistics indicate a strong commitment to our anti-racism work and a willingness to move as a faith community into justice work beyond our church walls."

"I particularly like the similarity of numbers of Christians and Humanists whose funny bones are tickled by our denial and concurrent acceptance of the miracles of nature."

"I saw how consistent the responses to so many of the questions were, regardless of theological perspective, sexual orientation or gender. I began to believe that we might actually be a community....That there is more than enough that we share to believe in a common future. I have preached this `on faith.' It will now be easier for me to have hope."

"The results confirm that I am not alone in my deepest spiritual longings: that we are a community whose aspirations are more in concert than I even imagined. I find affirmation ... of my being in this community, and that we are on a journey together."

"That so many people took time to thoughtfully reflect on our lives together is quite important. That we share as much—have so much in common—is quite a comfort. That I can see where we are heading together is exciting. Our journeys are individual but share a direction—toward a deeper inclusivity that can inform our work to visibly transform the larger community together."

There you have a few of the reactions and some of the data. You have an excited voice and an excited Fulfilling The Promise Committee urging you to see that your own congregation begins to take part in this 3-4 year overall process of deeply reflecting on yourselves, your congregational covenant, and eventually the larger process of associational, covenantal relations.

We passionately believe that these survey results, coupled with a survey-and-discussion process in your own congregation, can bear fruit. We can explore, as we have never done before, the foundation of our spiritual, democratic, congregational community.

Exploring these questions—our answers and the implications of our answers for how we shall be together—promises us much

  • as individuals desirous of deepening the meaning of our lives
  • as congregations discovering more profound community
  • as an association of congregations finding promise and commitment .

What we do can have profound implications for the next century. We have not done this before. We have never, in entire denominational history, engaged in such a process. We have never reached out to everyone in our congregations, inviting all members in all congregations to join in such a common endeavor.

Previously we appointed commissions and engaged leaders. But this is different. Our theological roots nourish us with trust for what people—all of us—might do together.

And what we do together might just provide a spark for a more universal quest.

A century ago, two centuries, three centuries, four centuries, most of the world's peoples knew little of "freedom, tolerance and reason" in religious life. What our forebears did to forge the "progressive development of freedom, tolerance and reason" in our small faith community had enormous repercussions in broader society.

Earl Morse Wilbur described Unitarian history as the the story of the "progressive development of freedom, reason and tolerance in religion." His distillation of the importance of our history emerged naturally in the context of historical forces of seventy years ago.

Since the 1920's, some nations have succeeded in becoming fairly cohesive democratic communities. But billions in the world must learn that democratic community is possible among profoundly diverse people. One need think only of headlines in our daily papers to remember the danger of ethnic and religious conflict. The world needs to know that diverse people can find coherence. That beyond legal structures and international treaties, beyond commerce and technological invention, people of the world can find some foundation, a spiritual foundation—on which to build a global community.

What billions of people need today, perhaps more than anything else, is precisely the knowledge and experience of discovering how in deed and in faith to be together

What we do in the next three years can have significance far beyond our church walls or our scant numbers.

Our legacy to the world: "The progressive development of freedom, tolerance and reason" in religion is a powerful legacy. But perhaps we are not yet through. We have more to give.

Maybe—just maybe—in a few decades we shall know that in discovering the promise of covenantal relations in and between congregations, we have created a new gift to humankind. A gift that transcends Wilbur's formulation.

The 21st Century story of Unitarian Universalistm may be that in fulfilling our promise we provided a light for many of the world's peoples, now conflicted by faith and ethnic differences, to move toward a new understanding of how all peoples can be truly together in a democracy.

In effect, by exploring how we in congregationally-governed association can be together, we will have led the way to "the spiritual foundation of democratic community."

And what a legacy that shall be!

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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