Unity Temple on the Plaza: A Diverse & Thriving Community Center

Published on: November 11, 2015

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In his article, “Meeting People’s Needs in Today’s Spiritual Community,” published in Unity Leaders Journal, Duke Tufty, the senior minister at Unity Temple on the Plaza, Kansas City, Mo., identified three core reasons people become involved in a spiritual community today: spiritual inspiration, social interaction, and being of service. “These are deep humanistic needs,” Reverend Duke writes, “If people’s needs are met, they will ‘stick.’ ”

This is the philosophy behind Unity Temple’s ongoing success as a thriving ministry with an annual budget of over a million dollars and in which five thousand people walk through the doors on a weekly basis. We recognize the importance in today’s world of meeting not just the need for spiritual inspiration, but also the need for authentic connection and the need to be of service (not only to the ministry itself but to the community). In considering any proposed activity or program, our ministerial team thinks in terms of whether and how all three needs will be met by the proposed event, activity, service, small group, etc.

With these guiding principles in mind, over time Unity Temple has seen itself operating increasingly like a community center and less and less like a traditional church. Following are a few examples to illustrate what operating as a de facto community center means to us:

Rental Venue

Early on in Reverend Duke’s tenure as the senior minister, he made the Temple building available as a free rental for not only Unity congregants but the local community to gather for spiritual inspiration, social connection and acts of service. Because of this, groups like Alcoholics Anonymous began to fill the rooms. Only over time, when these groups were able to, did they start to pay rent or otherwise tithe back to Unity Temple. From the outset, Unity Temple has operated on a deep trust that it can give freely and the ministry will ultimately be supported by those who value what we are offering to the community and the world.

Unity Temple has, since those early days, become a very notable local rental venue. Organizations holding events at the Temple include the KC Chamber Orchestra, the Festival of Faiths, Nelson-Atkins Museum, St Luke’s Hospital, the KC Film Festival, and the Truman Institute. Unity Temple is also a second home to Rainy Day Books, which has rented space at the Temple for several decades now and brought in prominent authors like Stephen King, Hillary Clinton, George Bush and Laura Bush.

Beyond opening our doors to the community as a forum for a variety of community events, Unity Temple has hosted its own events designed to serve not only Unity members but also the larger community. Notable among them are Spirituality and All That Jazz and various events offered by The Cornerstone Foundation.

Spirituality and All That Jazz

Twenty years ago, Reverend Duke started an event called Spirituality and All That Jazz, which continues to this day. Spirituality and All That Jazz is a family-friendly music event held in Unity Temple’s gorgeous main sanctuary the first Wednesday of every month. This event was originally intended as a top-notch but relatively inexpensive alcohol and smoke-free musical venue for those in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction. Ultimately, however, we have found that this event has wide appeal for another important demographic: senior citizens. For the low cost of $7 per person, an average of 200 people eagerly attend each month—folks not only people from the Kansas City community, but residents of various local senior care centers. People’s faces during and after the event glow. Spirituality and All That Jazz is underwritten by Unity Temple, which pays the overhead costs and keeps 100% of any profit.

The Cornerstone Foundation

Another brain-child of Reverend Duke’s, The Cornerstone Foundation was founded in 1992 as a 501(c)(3) non-religious nonprofit separate from the church. Its purpose is to offer the community a variety of presentations that were of interest to people of all religions or no religious affiliation. Presentations have included lectures, workshops, seminars, book signings, music and comedy. By purposely keeping The Cornerstone Foundation legally separate from the Unity church, The Cornerstone Foundation has been able to obtain sponsorship, grants, and partnerships from prominent organizations that might not wish to affiliate with a religious organization. Since its inception, Cornerstone has brought to Unity Temple many famous speakers, including Deepak Chopra, Sonia Choquette, Jean Houston, Wayne Dyer, Joan Borysenko, Neale Donald Walsh, Paula Poundstone, Gregg Braden, Maya Angelou, Marianne Williamson, Huston Smith, Gloria Steinem, Shirley MacLaine and Louise Hay—just to name a few.

Of course, in order to remain a thriving community, Unity Temple endeavors to stay abreast of the ever-changing needs of the population. To this end, we are currently exploring creative new formats for servicing the spiritual, connective and service-orientation needs of people today. Following are three exciting new projects:

Fearless Fridays Open Mic

First, I am very excited about Fearless Fridays Open Mic, an event I started at Unity Temple in February 2015. Held on the third Friday of each month, Fearless Fridays is designed to offer a family-friendly social and entertaining environment to which people can comfortably bring their children and grandchildren. Attendance thus far has ranged from thirty to seventy-five people per evening and we ask for a love offering of $10 per person.

This open mic includes presentations of art, poetry, photography, dance and music. We encourage people to stretch beyond their comfort zones, such that if there is an artist who normally paints in acrylics but who is venturing into watercolors, we will encourage that artist to share the new work at Fearless Fridays. Certain people have performed publicly for the very first time at Fearless Fridays.

Fearless Fridays has brought in a very diverse group of people to Unity Temple. The youngest performer was a three-year-old singer whose family came from over an hour away to allow him to perform with us! My husband, conscious musician Victor Dougherty, who MCs the event, and I were both recently interviewed on the KC community radio station, KKFI, about this exciting new offering at Unity Temple.

U-Nite

By the start of the new year, Unity Temple plans to launch U-Nite, an alternative worship experience that will take place in our Meyer Hall (aka Eden Alley Café) early Sunday evenings. I will be delivering the message for this service and my husband, Victor Dougherty, will be in charge of production and music. We will be offering refreshments and fellowship in a café-styled venue to explore ways we can more fully embody and demonstrate in our everyday lives the spiritual truths taught by Jesus Christ and other enlightened, spiritual teachers.

Simple Ceremonies

Finally, in response to Jackson County’s recent decision to no longer do courthouse weddings, this fall Unity Temple on the Plaza will be implementing a Simple Ceremonies program, which will afford couples the opportunity to have a free, quick, and simple wedding ceremony performed by an ordained minister in one of our chapels. Couples will be able to reserve a time slot and select from a very short list of possible prayers (or no prayer at all), a vow, and a blessing/ring exchange—all online. This offering, thought up by Duke, is yet another way Unity Temple plans to provide a needed public service while gaining exposure for our spiritual community.

At Unity Temple on the Plaza, we believe that while a traditional church model still works, it does not work for everyone. While our Sunday morning service remains traditional in its music and format, which supports the needs of the 750, on-average, Sunday service attendees, we recognize the need for additional forums for meeting the changing ways people seek spiritual inspiration, human connection, and to be of service to one another. By doing this, we hope and expect to remain a thriving spiritual community center for many decades to come.

Nhien Vuong Dougherty
Associate Minister at Unity Temple on the Plaza

Rev Nhien Vuong Dougherty is associate minister at Unity Temple on the Plaza, Kansas City, Mo. She heads up adult & youth education, social action and small group ministries. She serves on the UWM Expansion Ministry Team.


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  • Elizabeth Mora

    Great sharing of such innovative programming. Thanks.

    • Nhien Dougherty

      Thanks, Elizabeth!