Rev. Emily Conger, MDiv '17 (left), created Nourish with Rev. Aisha Ansano (right) to help Unitarian Universalists feel fed in body and spirit through embodied worship experiences. We asked them about their call to ministry, about dinner church, and their hope for Unitarian Universalism.
Rev. Emily Conger: I grew up Unitarian Universalist at the Unitarian Congregation in Montclair, NJ. I felt called to ministry when I was in high school. I was at the time leading the youth group, on the board of trustees, on the Minister of Religious Education search committee, and doing all sorts of things in the church community and in the larger community. I had this really strong sense that Unitarian Universalists were my people, that this is where I was supposed to be and supposed to be leading. I also knew that I was called to a Unitarian Universalism that was the kind that I was experiencing at the time, which was youth worship that was connective, embodied, and participatory.
It was deeply heart-centered and vulnerable. To say explicitly, it was not sermon-centered as the core of a service for me. As I moved through the rest of my growing into young adulthood, I continued engaging in Unitarian Universalism from that place. I became a leader of my young adult group when I moved to Boulder, Colorado, and I was part of the UU Church of Boulder. Quickly I was hired as the youth coordinator for Boulder Valley UU Fellowship where I was leading Our Whole Lives (OWL): Lifespan Sexuality Education and Coming of Age and doing more participatory worship materials there. I was the chaplain at youth camps and the other training that they had for youth leadership and chaplaincy.
At that point, I was fully living my call. I was doing embodied worship in powerful, transformative ways. At the same time, I was working at Planned Parenthood and loving the sexuality education and training that I was providing there and through OWL as well. I knew that in order to get better at all of it, I needed to go to seminary to deepen my work for my own personal transformation and in order to better serve the communities that I hoped to serve. I had noticed some gaps too, where I didn’t have the full depth that I was hoping for. The people around me were saying, “Okay, when are you going to seminary officially?” I eventually caved to that peer pressure (or mentor pressure, I should say!) and enrolled in seminary.
What convinced me to go to Meadville Lombard in particular was the class I attended as a prospective student. It was led by Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, who had been my childhood minister, and it was called Ministry for the Post-Denominational Age. I was blown away by all of the possibilities for ministry that I saw. I said, “When the president of the school is teaching a course about ministry that I am called to do, this is the right place for me to be incubating my ministry and to deepen and grow beyond the pulpit as the central place. This is where the experimentation can happen.” I went to a school that was deeply grounded in UUism because my call was to push the boundaries of what was possible within Unitarian Universalism. For me, going to a school where I had to translate from my own UUism to another tradition wouldn’t have worked, because I wanted to push the boundaries of everything. Within a UU school and context, I felt the freedom to innovate and expand the possibilities for myself and my peers.
Rev. Aisha Ansano: I did not grow up Unitarian Universalist. I grew up in a few different Christian denominations and was really involved in youth group, especially in middle school, and then ended up being a religious studies major in college. I think growing up in a few different traditions and experiencing that led to me being really fascinated by and really interested in conversations about religion and why people were religious and what their religious experiences were.
I look back a lot to when I was a religious studies major in college and people would ask if I was going to become a minister. I would say, “No, you can do anything you want with a religious studies degree,” which is true, and also ministry is the path I ended up on. I was actually applying mostly for Ph.D. programs in religious studies and wasn’t getting into them straight out of college. I got into the Master of Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School and I thought, “Oh, actually that’s great!” because I had been doing a lot of interfaith work. I thought I’d be in a really interfaith environment and get to know people and try some things and take classes and figure out where I want to go when I go into a doctoral program.
About two weeks into my program, I realized that I did not want to go into academia and suddenly was in a graduate program on a track that I no longer wanted to be on. I ended up switching to the MDiv because it was a more practically oriented degree. I thought I’d do some field education and take some ministry classes and figure out what it was I wanted to do. I started thinking maybe I wanted to be a college chaplain. I had a really, really great chaplain when I was in college.
Around the same time that I switched to the MDiv, someone said, “I think you would enjoy the UU student group. You should check it out.” I’d been going to a couple of different things. So I went to the UU student group at Harvard Divinity School. I went every Friday for the rest of the school year, and I still thought of myself as a guest. I lit a candle every week. I said, “Thank you so much for letting me visit your worship every Friday.” I went on the retreat and I still did not consider myself a member of the group. Then through the process of doing my MDiv, I was starting to figure things out and I was realizing, “Oh, I think I might be a Unitarian Universalist!”
I went to General Assembly that year. It was in Providence, and so it was just an hour’s train ride from Boston. That was a really powerful and slightly overwhelming experience to go from essentially a 12-person student group to a 5,000-person General Assembly. I got more involved in UU spaces and started going to a UU church. When I graduated, I went into an internship. At the same time, at the church I had joined, I took on a really part-time youth group position supporting the youth group coordinator. That was my first time working with high schoolers and it was transformative. So I worked three years with that youth group, including one year as the youth program coordinator running the programming.
I think the form of worship and the form of community that being in a youth group was offering was really powerful. I loved Sunday morning and was church hopping and going to all these places and starting to preach. I was interning and I loved that too. But Sunday evening with the youth group was really powerful.
So, while I was in seminary, I became a UU, started to become a religious professional, and got interested in dinner church through a Christian dinner church. I thought, “I love this and this works for me. I can do this translation just fine.” It feels like around the same time I became a UU, and around the same time I started considering ministry very seriously, I also got deeply involved with this idea of dinner church and embodied ministry. Those things feel completely intertwined to me in the way that I do ministry, that it all happens at the same time.
Rev. Emily Conger: Dinner church is simply a meal and a worship service that are woven together. This ancient spiritual technology goes back to early Jewish Passover meals, Seders, where spiritual practice and food are woven together. There were also early Christian agape feasts where Jesus and early followers would meet around a table to have meals together, worship together, and have communion practices that stemmed from those early Christian practices that have been sustained over the centuries. There are other religious traditions that also draw on food-based spiritual practices and food as a central hub of gathering and connecting.
We are using those practices, those ancient spiritual technologies in a modern context, and translating them from a primarily Christian audience to a Unitarian Universalist audience that draws its inspiration from those early teachings. The way it shows up for us is also heavily drawn from Unitarian Universalist youth and young adult culture, which leverages the wisdom of the room in order to have our church services together. With youth and young adult worship services, there are small groups that often talk with one another and share their own personal experiences around a topic. There are often activities and invitations to embodiment. Songs are taught in more of an oral tradition rather than read from a hymnal, and we are all focused on each other around a circle or around a central altar. We do similar things in dinner church.
Some of the ways that we talk about dinner church are that this style of embodied worship is so inherently Unitarian Universalist. It is not of some other tradition, but it comes out of the practices of youth and young adult culture for people who have fully grown up within this faith, me included. I started at age five, so I say, “nearly lifelong”, but for all of my waking and memory faith years I have been UU. This style of practice is deeply, deeply Unitarian Universalist by those who have known no other tradition.
At dinner church, we gather to sing songs that are simple and repeatable, following the spirit. We do activities and share stories that engage participants in the process of learning and growing together. We have small groups that reflect on the topic and share from their hearts and their bodies more than their heads. We gather to bless one another, knowing that we are each ordained with that ability to bless and serve as Unitarian Universalists, and we decentralize the sources of wisdom and authority in the room, which is deeply countercultural and anti-oppressive.
Rev. Aisha Ansano: One of the pieces for me is that my introduction to dinner church came in a very Christian way, and my immediate response was that I want more people to be able to experience this. As I dug into it and was trying to figure out how to take out these really Christian parts and keep something, I learned, “oh, these are ways that we can and do worship in Unitarian Universalism”, and I don’t actually need to take the Christian thing and make it UU. I was first thinking, “How do I mold this Christian thing to fit?” The thing that I learned was that you don’t have to do that. We have this in Unitarian Universalism, and people are so ready for it.
We talk a lot about how youth bridge into young adulthood and then are like, “Well, I don’t have all the spiritual tools that I had as a youth that were the way I was UU.” We are speaking to those folks, but we’re also speaking to everyone. Everyone is yearning for community, communication, collaborative and embodied ways of being together, being reminded that you are a human and that you have a full body, and that is part of who you are as a spiritual being. We don’t just have to sit and listen to sermons and think about them. We can also be present as our full selves. That feels like such a crucial part of the way that our faith has been and will continue to be.
Dinner church is the vehicle through which Emily and I do this work, and that is not because we think everything needs to be dinner church. Dinner church is a manifestation of embodied participatory worship. It’s a worship style, a way of being together, a spiritual practice that is accessible in many, many other ways. One thing that we’ve talked about a lot is that our goal is not that everyone does dinner church all the time. This style of worship really speaks to us and can meet the needs of community. What are the other ways that communities can find what they need in embodied, participatory, communal ways? They don’t have to be dinner church. What dinner church looks like has shifted even in our work over the last three years and the work we were doing before the pandemic. Dinner church is not the central thing. Dinner church is a way of doing this form of worship and community.
Rev. Emily Conger: Each of us were part of in-person dinner churches before the pandemic. As Nourish, we have led most of our services online. One of the gaps that we saw early in the pandemic, and frankly before the pandemic, was that we know that there’s a shifting landscape of religious education and religious communities and how they want to be together. There were deeper needs for sure. People were craving embodiment and connection, especially early in the pandemic when we were physically isolated from one another. Having services that very intentionally connected people back to their embodied selves was vital, and still is vital.
Rev. Aisha Ansano: We were on Zoom by necessity at the beginning of the pandemic. Especially as that continued much longer than anyone thought it was going to at first, there was something really powerful about saying, “Even when you’re not in the same room with people, and even when all anyone can see is this box, you still have a full body. You still are an embodied human, even though you’re now spending basically all of your interaction on the computer, you are still a human with a body, and that can still be part of worship and experience and community.” That feels really, really important in a particular way in the pandemic, in different ways in different parts of the pandemic. We were both called to this work before the pandemic, but there was this particular need as the world shifted in this really specific way.
Rev. Emily Conger: To give a little background as to how I came to dinner church in particular, I was leading an emerging ministry in Colorado. It was launched from a few local congregations where we were working to create a ministry that was outside of a congregational box, that was meeting people in the third space outside of work and home and church. We were specifically focused on young adults and younger folks with kids. I said, “Okay, I know how to lead embodied worship. Let’s do this.” We started leading participatory worship services that were not dinner church. The group that we were able to reach the most were seniors. They showed up in droves to be in full community with full participation.
We were blown away because everybody had told us that that’s not what seniors want. Yet here they were in my space where I was having people do improv games and play with kinetic sand and do all sorts of things that were outside of a traditional church box. They loved it and showed up every time and brought snacks and special muffins that they crafted just for the community.
We were building the building blocks of a dinner church without even planning it. We also had folks who had grown up UU returning to this sphere because they hadn’t yet found their place in congregational life as it had been, but they were seeking this level of connection. This is one example from one community, but it was what I was hearing across the country from religious professionals. At the time I was also deeply involved in the LREDA (Liberal Religious Educators Association) chapter of that area. We were talking about innovations and exploring this every time we gathered.
We recognized this deep need for connection, and one of my lay leaders proposed, “How about we have a meal and a spiritual practice?” I started doing some research and seeing what was possible, and dinner church kept popping up because there are other modern Christian dinner churches that were just arriving on the scene. I said, “What if?” I brought it to my people and they said, “Let’s try it.”
I wrote a liturgy template for us to modify each week based on a particular theme and launched the first ongoing UU dinner church in Longmont, Colorado. We went for multiple years of in-person, participatory, connective dinner church, before the pandemic. Then we had to shift that to be online. When you’ve had ongoing in-person dinner church, online dinner church is not quite the same, we have learned. Yet there is still power in connecting and being together in an online sphere too.
Rev. Aisha Ansano: We started doing this work together as the pandemic was beginning. This very specific iteration is in response to seeing a need that we can help build around. Both of us were doing this work before and talking about it together, so this manifestation could happen quickly because we had already been doing the work. As Emily said, when you have a years-long thing that’s been in-person, moving it online is really hard.
However, when you say to people, “You have never experienced this and we are going to offer you something virtually that is really going to speak to you and meet your needs,” people are all in. There are so many different ways that you can do basically every form of worship, and the need that we were meeting was people who were struggling with having the church they’d been going to suddenly be online and be different. What we presented was, “Here’s another option and another way you can be together.”
In the first year, we led a lot of Sunday morning and evening worship for families, congregations, and groups. That has shifted as the pandemic continues to shift and what people want and need is different. In that first year, we did a lot of “just show up, bring your meal, and we’re going to lead you through an activity and a story and conversation and some singing and grounding ourselves in embodied worship.”
Rev. Aisha Ansano: One of the big things we have done is being hired by a congregation to lead a worship service. That is open to any congregation to reach out. One of the things we learned from starting with that work is that a big piece of the community that we serve in doing this is religious professionals. We work with ministers, DREs, and religious professionals of all kinds who are trying to serve their people and need something to support that—whether it’s just regular brainstorming support, dedicated time to think through how to do this, or a staff retreat to ground their staff.
That has become a big part of whom we serve. We talk about nourishing the nourisher, providing sustenance to them so that they can take it broader to their people. That’s one of the ways we’ve reached a really wide range of people, by offering support to their religious professionals and equipping them to be able to bring that work back to their communities.
We’ve also done, especially in these later years, a lot more national-level services. We just did a service with Side with Love from the UUA. We did one with the UU Ministry for Earth last year. We did a LREDA retreat and worship at the UU Ministers Institute. These worships are open to folks, not just from one congregation, but open at a national level.
Rev. Emily Conger: We have also launched a Nourishing Network for religious professionals to become members and subscribers where we are gathering to nourish and equip those folks who are doing this work every day. We are continually adapting what that looks like to match the needs of the religious professional community, as well as our call as ministers. We see that as a place to experiment and connect and be together.
Rev. Aisha Ansano: Big picture, my hopes and dream for Unitarian Universalism is that we can continue to expand. We can continue to push the boundaries of who we are and how we show up together. I hope that we can be willing to try different ways of being together and meeting people’s needs in different ways.
I don’t think Sunday morning church needs to go away. I think it meets a lot of people’s needs, and it also doesn’t meet a lot of people’s needs. How can we offer both at a smaller community or congregational level and at a broad denominational level, offer support and resources that meet a wide variety of needs? Again, not everyone has to do dinner church, but I hope embodied worship and participatory worship become infused throughout the denomination. The Unitarian Universalism I want to be part of is one where that is widespread and it is not a one-off thing or a surprising thing to find that. I hope that that style of worship isn’t just found in youth spaces or only in religious professional spaces, but that any Unitarian Universalist feels like they have access to that way of being together. I think what’s going to help us keep expanding, not by numbers per se, but just expanding who we are and what Unitarian Universalism can be.
Rev. Emily Conger: Amen. I feel I could have said every one of those words, every single one. Those are in my heart too, and it really speaks to our alignment as co-ministers here. The only piece I would add is about anti-oppression and the ways that we have woven that into our work very intentionally as ministers and leaders in this faith. We want to keep up with this work of embodied worship that de-centers one voice, that honors our whole selves and our whole bodies. It is liberatory work and liberatory ministry. We are part of the larger picture of anti-oppression, because the ways that we worship and gather have opportunities for fundamental changes.
Rev. Emily Conger has served as the minister of the Longmont UU Presence (The LUUP) for more than four years. The LUUP is an emerging ministry based in Colorado invested in food justice through dinner church and garden church. Emily received her Master of Divinity from Meadville Lombard Theological School in 2017. She has served for many years as a leader in youth and young adult communities. Emily is committed to working toward intersectional justice, especially racial justice and queer justice. Rev. Aisha Ansano believes there is room at the table for everyone, and that gathering over a meal is one of the best ways to build and strengthen community. By cooking and eating together, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in a way we often are not, and open ourselves and our communities to deeper and fuller connection. Aisha received her Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. For her MDiv project, she interviewed dinner church pastors around the country, researched the anthropology and theology of food, and crafted a non-Christian dinner church liturgy that was the beginnings of her UU dinner church dreams. She has led dinner church for various groups of different ages at several different churches, and plans on planting a dinner church community.