Many of us want to experience growth in our congregation. When we say “growth,” it’s important to distinguish between numerical growth and true growth, which is spiritual maturity as we grow in the conscious practice of spiritual principle in a collective such as a Unity community.
When I was called to do the work of spiritual leadership at Unity by the Bay in Severna Park, Maryland, my focus and my heart’s intention were to bring Unity Truth teachings and Unity Truth principles to the people who gathered on Sundays. Initially, we experienced rapid numerical growth. Within the first year, the number of people showing up for services doubled, and we were all nearly bursting with joy. In the second year, a great deal of conflict arose, and the board split. Subsequently, the average attendance fell back to where it had been. This was the third such upheaval in the history of this community.
Many people looked at the numbers and cried, “Oh, my! Things are going downhill fast.” Some of them put the blame and responsibility for the decline squarely on my shoulders. It was a challenging time for all of us. My decision and commitment to the interim board was this: We would lay a foundation for a Unity community that knew and understood its bylaws, had a clear identity, and, most importantly, practiced Unity principles. I made this statement (and meant it):
I would rather have 40 committed people who are fully on board with the purpose, vision, and mission of the church than 400 grazers who are here as consumers, not fully in line with and support of the vision, mission, and purpose of this spiritual community.
During the next 10 years, we built a solid foundation. We sponsored a board training session and a church dynamics workshop, which helped everyone understand what we were experiencing and why. We delineated how a Unity community and board should operate. We stopped focusing on numbers and began to gauge our health on how well we were Unifying under Principle. I was advised by Rev Barry Vennard that a spiritual community does not truly function as a democracy, with opposing sides. Rather, a Unity community must be unified under the leadership of one who sees the church as whole and holds the vision of Unity.
We adopted Practice the Presence of God as our mantra and began the work of putting our principles into action. We began to grow, and this time the growth was based on a solid foundation of a clear identity.
A Lot to Offer
Many programs, activities, and decisions have been instrumental to our growth process:
- We implemented a mandatory class for new members to help everyone understand Unity and its principles, in addition to what is expected of members of a Unity community.
- We began offering classes for Unity credit, which were well received.
- We began more outreach into the community. We supported our local hospice, we collected shoes for Soles4Souls, and we found many ways to let the local LGBT community know about our welcoming community.
- We formed a welcoming committee that helps newcomers feel welcome and integrated in our spiritual community.
- As we began to grow in earnest, we found that many people still craved the intimacy of smaller groups. So we created a variety of options. We began to offer Tuesday evening meditations, with a different theme each week. We started an adult discussion group that meets before Sunday services and welcomes lively conversation on spiritual topics in a flexible format that encourages sharing and fosters a deeper connection among its members. This group has become a strong component of our ministry and is particularly helpful in integrating newcomers. We have regular classes on prosperity and a very active prosperity program. We offer classes on Wednesday nights, during which small-group discussions create an ever-deepening experience of the principles brought forward in our Sunday lessons.
- We have an eclectic mix of musicians, who enhance our services with a variety of musical genres. Our music director is a highly accomplished pianist, who enthralls everyone with a delicious mix of music during our services. Music is a very important part of our ministry!
- We developed a strong prayer chaplain program, whose members are deeply involved in the prayer ministry of our community. We honor the Unity principle of prayer and meditation by encouraging silent, introspective meditation before and during services, a quarterly chaplain-led service, and regular prayer support by our chaplains and prayer team members.
- Banners of many of the world religions adorn the walls of our sanctuary. Upon entering the church for the first time and seeing these banners, many people have said they knew they were ‟home” because of this expression of our respect for all religions. These banners are a very visible sign of what Unity really means.
- We began Second Sunday Community Potlucks, which give congregants the opportunity for more fellowship with one another. This gathering is often followed by an open forum that I host, along with our board of trustees, giving members of the community the opportunity to ask questions and receive information. These times of fellowship and open communication have strengthened our bonds.
- We are completely transparent about our financial health and balances. We post our financial reports, in detail, on our website. For many people, the full disclosure of every single penny spent in the ministry is an important component of creating trust and encouraging the flow of information.
A Time of Fruition
For the past 23 years, Unity by the Bay has been located in a strip mall behind a bowling alley. This long, narrow, windowless structure has served us well and given us the space to grow. As a manifestation of the thriving community we have become, we recently purchased and began the development of a new home. This accomplishment is the most visible outward manifestation of our numerical and spiritual growth, and it is generating more of both.
Unity by the Bay is in an exciting time of expansion! Our beautiful new space, on high ground, situated on five acres of beautiful wooded land, with a sanctuary lit by sunlight streaming through many windows, is a reflection of the inner expansion of spaciousness we are experiencing as we delve deeper into the realms of Spirit. We are extremely excited about the opportunities our beautiful new space will afford us, and we know that the keys to our kingdom lie with Practicing the Presence of God as Love and Wisdom in ever-deepening ways in our daily walk.
The world is hungry for what Unity has to offer. I see it in the tears of relief and the joy on the faces of the people who find their way to us. I have learned the essential truth of H. Emilie Cady’s statement in Lessons in Truth:
At the great heart of humanity there is a deep and awful homesickness that never has been and never can be satisfied with anything less than a clear, vivid consciousness of the indwelling presence of God.