Report from October, 2019 Discussion Sessions

Our church is changing.  And as we transform, we will need to discuss a variety of topics. Some may be polarizing. However, these topics are important to the congregation and to the development of our next round of strategic planning.  It will be important to talk to each other, to hear, understand, and appreciate each other’s perspectives.

In October, Imagine the Future provided opportunities to start having those conversations. Members and friends of the First U community were invited to participate in one of three discussion sessions. What follows is a report of the results of the three sessions. The report was produced by the Imagine the Future team: John Simmonds, Caroline Mailloux, and Michael Cappelli.

(Note: To view or download a PDF of the slide presentation of this report, click here.)

Goals of the Three Sessions

  • Create space for deep listening, diverse voices, and transformative conversations regarding fundamental concerns of congregation life
  • Provide leadership with a better understanding of people’s viewpoints for strategic planning purposes
  • Provide congregants with an opportunity to come to a wider and shared understanding of people’s viewpoints as they imagine and move into the future together


October Session Dates 27th 24th 12th Totals
Total Registered 71 44 27 142
Total Attended 55 41 25 121


  • Each session lasted 90-100 minutes and was facilitated by two UUA New England Regional Facilitators.
  • Attendees were placed in small groups of 5-8. PruComm members and ministers facilitated these small groups to manage listening, sharing, ground rules, and timekeeping.
  • Attendees answered two of the following three questions on post-it cards and shared them within their small group (Part I):
    • What role do the church buildings play in your worship experience at First Unitarian?
    • What does a growing congregation mean to you?
    • It is five years from now. Imagine the social justice work First U is doing.
      • What does it look like?
      • How does it differ from what we are doing today?
      • How is it living our faith?
    • Selected responses from each small group were read aloud by small group facilitators.
    • Attendees were then asked to reflect on what they heard and to respond to the following two questions on post-it cards and share responses within their small group:
      1. What surprised you in what you heard? What are you curious about?
      2. What trends did you notice as you were listening to responses from Part I?
  • Themes from each small group were read aloud and shared by small group facilitators.
  • The session ended with attendees providing one word to describe how the session was for them.
  • Post-it cards were collected and later transcribed.


The following are general observations made by session organizers:

  • It was a challenge to recruit younger and more diverse participants.
  • The majority of participants were older, long-term members.
  • Members who do not normally speak out were appreciative of the opportunity.
  • Participants were open to hearing additional perspectives and reconsidering their own.
  • Participants acknowledged what they love about our community and that some things need to shift to accommodate change and growth.

What role do the church buildings play in your worship experience at First Unitarian?

Following are the percentages of attendees who responded either positively, neutrally, or negatively to the question along with words or phrases they used in their responses:

Postive: 61%

  • uplifting
  • love
  • symbol
  • sacred space
  • spiritual
  • inspirational
  • beautiful essential
  • wonderful
  • central
  • worshipful
  • amazing
  • supportive
  • home
  • joy
  • essential
  • treasure
  • special
  • meaningful
  • contemplative

Neutral: 22%

  • historic – limiting
  • high pulpit- mixed feelings
  • improve acoustics
  • historic – nonfunctional
  • spiritual – improvement needed
  • beautiful – requires updating
  • inspirational – requires updating
  • functional- expensive

Negative: 17%

  • constraining and expensive
  • un-welcoming
  • accessibility issues
  • jaded and dark
  • needs redesign
  • safety issues
  • limiting

In five years, what does social justice work look like at First Unitarian?

Responses included:

  • impact community
  • justice events
  • civil rights
  • impact government
  • unknown future
  • sanctuary
  • environment
  • help all ages
  • develop the spiritual
  • marriage equality
  • fighting poverty
  • more action and less talk
  • partnerships
  • charity
  • education
  • youth
  • connected
  • ideals
  • increased visibility

What does a growing congregation mean to you?

  • Reaching out into the broader community, ethnic collaboration
  • Bring in more families with young children for the religious education program
  • Encourage more cultural and ethnic collaboration
  • More young adults, more families, and more racial and ethnic diversity
  • Attain generational and racial diversity
  • Targeting non-member populations and find other ways to get the word out about First UU
  • Giving equal focus to spiritual growth and social justice
  • Judging by the content of UU world, our church is focused on social action only. My concern is that something is missing in our general practice and that is faith.
  • Growth is both internal and external
  • Internal awareness of our faith and spiritual practices which can grow
  • Bring more diversity to our community. That is part of spiritual growth.
  • Support each other and not spread ourselves too thin
  • More numbers means being open to people joining us
  • Remember welcoming? Don’t be afraid of failing, learn from our mistakes
  • Growing connections within congregation
  • Age, race, economic background, different perspectives
  • More programs of smaller group discussions
  • Increasing new members while retaining long-time members
  • Expanding operations and capital support by at least 15-25% over next 5 years
  • Meaningful relationships, more resources (teaching, lay ministry)
  • Support relationships and stay connected to prevent silos
  • Strengthen opportunities for fellowship
  • We need to invest in bigger staff and better infrastructure
  • More young people along with us gray hairs
  • Many more decisions should be made by staff

Parking Lot: Other Topics that Came Up

The “parking lot” includes ten other topics that came up during the three sessions for future discussion. They included:

  • We think we are welcoming; we really only talk to each other.
  • It’s time for First UU to adopt a formal statement in support of gay and LGBTQ rights.
  • No focus on children in the congregation.
  • How do we decide where our social justice efforts go?
  • Ways for small groups to contribute to worship service; poems, sharing shared experience.
  • Get rid of the bad folding chairs upstairs, they are awful.
  • Feeling welcome: Why do some feel welcome and some not?
  • Wanted the questions; “Why are you here?”, “What brought you here?”
  • Let’s be open to change and other ideas, like compromise between differing ideas.
  • The parlors are very formal – like a set from Downton Abbey.

What’s next?

  • Share the Imagine the Future report with the congregation
  • Share the information with the Strategic Planning Team
  • Strategic Planning to work closely with Commitment Drive
  • Additional opportunities are coming up, including a potluck with UUA consultant David Pyle in February