Reflection on Imagining the Future

By Cheryl Bartholomew, President

This past month I had the privilege of attending all three of the Imagine the Future conversations that were held in the auditorium. For some time now the Prudential Committee has wanted to provide a forum for members of the congregation to come together to discuss important topics in the life of this church. Three topics that have come up in conversation over the past several years with and among members of the congregation were chosen, and the following questions were crafted to investigate and unpack these topics.

  • What role do the church buildings play in your worship experience at First Unitarian?
  • What does a growing congregation mean to you?
  • It is 5 years from now. Imagine the social justice work First Unitarian is doing. What does it look like? How does it differ from what we are doing today? How is it living our faith?

We were guided in our work by members of the peer facilitation program affiliated with the UUA’s New England Region. John Simmonds, Caroline Mailloux, and Wendy Oliver met with the facilitators several times to plan the sessions. Together they created a format which focused on small groups and active listening. Each small group had a facilitator. Each participant responded to 2 of the 3 questions, writing their answers on post-it notes which were then posted on newsprint. Facilitators read responses to each question aloud to the whole group. After listening to responses, the small groups focused their attention on discussing what had been shared on the post-it notes. Each person spoke one at a time without interruption, speaking from their own experience and using “I” statements. Small group members were encouraged to listen with heart. Participants were asked to leave problem solving at the door. The purpose was to hear each other as we spoke about our feelings, concerns, and visions, not to try to solve problems. In the small groups, participants responded to the following questions:

  • What surprised you in what you heard? What are you curious about?
  • What trends did you notice as you were listening to responses?
  • After listening to your small group, what has shifted or opened in your thinking? What caused the shift?

121 people participated in these conversations. The participants included long-time members, newer members, friends, and representation from people mostly 35 and up. So where do we go from here?

  • The content and themes of these conversations will be shared with both the church leadership and the congregation at large over the next several months.
  • We need to reach out to our youth and those under 35 who did not attend the conversations to find out what they think. This demographic is critical to our future. If you have ideas about how to do this, please talk to me.
  • We will be offering continued opportunities throughout the year to share your hopes and dreams for our future.

What struck me most as I participated in these conversations, was the sense of belonging and deep attachment people have to this church, and to each other. People were open and vulnerable as they shared their thoughts and feelings about what they love, and about what frustrates them about this congregation. People took risks. People listened with kindness and openness. There was greater understanding of each others viewpoints. There was shifting in thinking, and there was acceptance even when people shared different views. At the conclusion of the conversations individuals shared one word that summed up their experience of the session. I would like to close with a sampling of these words: hopeful, refreshed, controlled, needed, frustrated, amused, intrigued, unchanged, grateful, thoughtful, open, and invested.

Thank you to all who participated!