Doing Church Through Learning Communities

I often ask those who are newer to the church – what brought you here? Perhaps not surprisingly – I don’t get too many who say “I was really hoping to join a Committee!”

And yet, without the loving hands and hearts of those within a religious community giving freely of themselves, often in a format we know of as a “committee,” there would be no church. And so, as more and more people come seeking spirituality while remaining skeptical of institutional religion, we are faced with an urgent need to consider how we can better align what people do come to church for a sense of belonging, a desire to connect with something greater, the possibility of making a difference – with the literal and practical work of the church.

One way that I have started to imagine bridging this gap is through the formation of Learning Communities. As Wikipedia puts it “A learning community is a group of people who share common emotions, values, or beliefs, [and who] are actively engaged in learning together, from each other, and by habituation.” Learning Communities actively engage their subject through an action and reflection process, immediately applying what they learn to real life needs. They make and lead change through their shared reflection, and through the wisdom that arises in a small group of learners bound by those common values, emotions and beliefs.

While a Committee might be charged with executing a set of specific tasks, a Learning Community investigates a set of questions, responds creatively, and seeks to expand possibilities.

Over the past few months, we have begun the formation of one Learning Community. Building on the foundation set by our Worship Associates program and our Summer Services committees, and all the work that goes into making our regular Sunday services such a wonderful experience, we have gathered up a small group of artists, storytellers, musicians, poets and philosophers from amongst the congregation – all of them nominated by staff members – and begun to form what we are calling our Worship Learning Community. We intend this group to be diverse in age, gender, sexual orientation, class, personal background, theology, length and time in the congregation – though singular in their passion for creativity and excellence in worship.

Our goals for our Worship Learning Community include:
1.  To grow together in knowledge, meaning, purpose and practice of Unitarian Universalist worship.
2.  To be leaders in the church in crafting a long-term vision for the practice of worship for the
congregation.
3.  To deepen our collaborative practices in worship, including strengthening the lay-clergy partnership, and the creative processes with music, family ministry, and other elements of church life.
4.  To be a resource for worship planning and participation, including summer services, particularly when one or more of the professional ministers are not present, offering our particular gifts and interests freely and enthusiastically.
5.  To deepen the participants’ individual spiritual life and practice, and to grow in relationship across a small group in our shared learning and commitment to Unitarian Universalism and our congregation.

We will gather monthly for about 2 hours, reflect on our experiences in worship from the prior month, and share around particular learning goals we have set. Participants will be working with me to craft and coordinate summer services, and will be helping to lead music in Ryan’s absence when he is off in July and August. As we return to two services in the church year, they will continue to be resources for worship coordination and leadership, on Sunday morning, and beyond.

As is hopefully clear from our stated goals, our intent is to bring the tasks of church life more in line with the experiences we come to church to find. We are not only checking off tasks that need to be done – we are practicing our covenant, and embodying our mission – growing, learning, and serving together in love.

We are still looking for additional members of our Worship Learning Community. If you have a passion for worship, and have gifts in poetry, storytelling, the arts or in mixed media, are open to learning with others, and the goals of this Learning Community feel exciting to you – I’d love to have a conversation with you to see if this might be a good fit. You can reach me at the church office, or by email at gretchen@foothillsuu.org.

As our culture continues to change, I can imagine that other pieces of church life might take a similar form in the coming years. Gathering in Learning Communities makes the work fun. It builds community. It connects us to a larger purpose. This is what brings me to church – I think it brings a lot of us. And I think it will keep us coming back, building the church of the future, creating together the Beloved Community.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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