The expansion of a Unitarian Universalist church in Sandy Springs is just part of the faith’s metro Atlanta growth at a time when some other religious congregations are struggling or shutting down.
The Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, located at 1025 Mount Vernon Highway N.W., is part of a Boston-headquartered religion that teaches from all major world religions and allows members to read any religious text. The city Planning Commission recently recommended approval of the church’s request to expand its footprint by 2,400 square feet to expand the sanctuary and build a fellowship hall.
“One of our huge strengths is that we are welcoming to all people,” said Hannah Cowart, the church’s Board of Trustees president, about the growth of Unitarian Universalist congregations.
Other UU churches in metro Atlanta have grown as well. Unitarian Universalist Metro Atlanta North in Roswell recently moved to a larger building that was formerly a Baptist church, according to David Zenner, chair of the Sandy Springs congregation’s expansion steering committee.
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, the faith’s mother church in metro Atlanta, voted to sell its property to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for its massive Brookhaven campus in 2017. The church is currently renovating a new property on North Druid Hills Road for its new location, according to its website.
Some other local churches have shuttered or struggled in recent years with declining membership and the burden of expensive buildings. A Lutheran church and a Southern Baptist congregation were among those closing down over the past two years.
Zenner said the Sandy Springs UU church’s current sanctuary has a capacity of 165. In recent years, the church’s membership has grown to 200, and, although not everyone comes every Sunday, it means people have to squeeze in for big events, he said. The fellowship hall is planned to be built over the existing patio, Zenner said.
“We’re a church that, like most churches, fellowship is really important to us,” he said.
Rather than leave the church for a new, bigger location, the congregation voted to pay for a $700,000 expansion, not wanting to give up its home since 1971.
Constance Derricks, who spoke on behalf of the congregation at the planning meeting, said that, despite the expansion, the church is not looking to become a large congregation.
“A big part of our identity has always been that we are small,” Derricks said. “But we are crowded, and uncomfortably so.”
Cowart said the church members are drawn to the rural feel of the church’s location. The building is surrounded by trees on its large lot, which is encircled by single-family homes.
“If you ask any of our members, they’ll call the church our home in the woods,” Cowart said. “Everyone kind of considers it a haven from the busy city.”
The church’s website notes they welcome people regardless of “religious background, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender expression, age or ability.” It’s also part of the “Welcoming Congregation Program,” a 1990 Unitarian Universalist Association initiative that encouraged congregations to take steps to be more welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
“People come to us when they feel the religion they grew up with is not welcoming to them,” Zenner said.
The church supports other liberal policies, such as access to healthcare, living wages, family-oriented immigration policies and workplace equality, according to its website.
In 2012, the church was recognized by the Unitarian Universalist Association as an “Accredited Green Sanctuary,” in part because it installed solar panels on its roof, the website said.
Zenner said he believes people are drawn to the religion because it allows members to explore other religious beliefs and build their values based on a combination of different teachings. Many members were previously in other faiths and denominations and found their teachings too rigid, he said.
“It’s more about defining your own spirituality,” Zenner said. “That’s very appealing to an awful lot of people.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled David Zenner’s name.