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'Nones and Dones' helps conflicted reconnect to their spiritual side

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ANN ARBOR — Where do you go for community and meaningful conversations?

To the religious, it’s likely an easy question: Their houses of worship, ideally, meet these universal needs.

To the nonreligious, on the other hand, it could pose more of a dilemma.

Enter Michigan Nones and Dones, a community group based in Ann Arbor that caters to the “spiritually curious but institutionally suspicious.” That covers the religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”) and the religiously de-affiliated (the “dones”), although the spectrum of spiritualities that chime into twice-monthly conversations over coffee or meals is often even broader.

Created and largely facilitated by Renee Roederer, a chaplain under the Presbytery of Detroit, the group stands as a way to recognize and respond to a growing minority of U.S. adults who aren’t inclined to turn to faith institutions for the meaning or fellowship they often still seek.

Despite her own religious affiliation, Ms. Roederer is clear that gatherings aren’t a bait-and-switch geared at steering participants toward church doors. And, as surveys continue to track a growing disinterest in formal religious institutions, she also sees these gatherings as important spaces that have the potential to spread.

“I can see these kinds of groups popping up,” she said. “Community groups that are making meaning of [participants’] lives, especially for people who struggle or who don't have interest in doing that in formally affiliated spaces, there’s so much hope and possibility in that, I think.”

The “nones” and “dones” have been making waves in church circles since surveys began to identify them as a rising trend over the last decade. The Pew Research Center called attention to a relatively sharp increase in this demographic —  those who responded “none” when asked about religious affiliation in surveys — between 2007, when they constituted 16.1 percent of U.S. adults, and 2014, when they constituted 22.8 percent.

Consider this uptick in relation to less dramatic drops among those who identify as Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, and Mainline Protestant over the same period, and it’s perhaps only natural that the “nones” are on the minds of church leaders and church-goers.

“Everyone is trying to figure out how big these movements are going to become, what it’s going to mean for their culture, for the church,” said David Barbee, an assistant professor of Christian Thought at Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Findlay. “Some people are a little paranoid, maybe, about what this will be in 10, 20 years.”

Ms. Roederer is familiar with the discourse.

“A lot of churches are doing hand-wringing: ‘What do we do to get people back in our doors?’ We’re worried about our own survival,” she said. “I think that’s understandable, but not always the best impetus to maybe want to connect to a community. In a way, it can sound like, ‘Hey, we want to be in relationship to you so you can bolster us.’ ”

In creating Michigan Nones and Dones in 2015, getting the word out on the online platform Meetup, Ms. Roederer took a different approach. It’s the same one she said she encourages when churches invite her to discuss how to best engage these “nones” — to do so for their sake, and to learn from them, without an eye toward any benefits to membership rolls.

“What would it look like for your church to go out and meet your neighbors and to care for them for the sake of your neighbors? How would that enrich your neighbors? And how would that change your church? How would that change who you are?” she asked. “That kind of calling can be really energizing for a church community too.”

Ms. Roederer isn’t so much a chaplain when she’s with the group as she is a conversation facilitator, who raises questions on ways to express spirituality, how to cultivate hope, and the lessons that can be gleaned from the late PBS personality Fred Rogers. (Her chaplain role is actually that of “community chaplain,” so her opportunities to engage her neighbors both in and out of church circles are much more broad than just Michigan Nones and Dones.)

Participants at the gatherings — some of whom are regulars and some of whom drop in — bring a wide variety of perspectives to the conversation, views that, in turn, are influenced by a wide spectrum of spiritualities.

It’s a good fit for participants like Jen Haines, 59, of Ann Arbor, who thinks of herself as an inter-spiritualist. She grew up in a mixed religious household, Christian and Jewish, without really identifying as either and said she’s spent much of her adult life “trying to find a spiritual fit.”

Although her experience with religious institutions has not been positive, generally speaking, she’s long seen spirituality as an integral part of her life.

“I think since the age of about 15 on, it’s been really important to me,” she said. ”I was very clear that there is spirituality in me, but I couldn’t figure out how that is expressed. That kind of stayed with me. I tried this and I tried that.”

So Ms. Haines appreciates the opportunities she’s found through Michigan Nones and Dones to connect with this spiritual side of herself without the weight of an institution. She said her experiences with the group have actually encouraged her to engage with a faith environment again.

Suzanne Prichard, 53, Ypsilanti, is another regular at Michigan Nones and Dones. For Ms. Prichard, an agnostic, it was primarily the promise of community that drew her to the group. She had recently relocated to Michigan from New Jersey when she connected with the group on MeetUp, she said, and appreciated that she could have meaningful interactions through it.

“The topics seemed like I would meet people who were interesting and wanted to talk about real things,” she said. “I don’t really do sports,” she continued, referencing some of the other community groups she could have connected with through the website, and past experiences with religion led her to write off a church as a possibility. So Michigan Nones and Dones “was more along the lines of the person I am.”

They’re two of countless approaches that are welcomed at Michigan Nones and Dones, as Ms. Haines, Ms. Prichard and Ms. Roederer all agree. It’s OK to bring a worldview based on theology. It’s OK to bring a worldview that’s entirely atheistic. And it’s certainly OK to bring a worldview that’s messy and complicated and somewhere in between.

“It’s all good,” Ms. Haines said. “Whatever you’re showing up for, it’s all good.”

For more information on Michigan Nones and Dones, go to https://bit.ly/2vQ7Diz.

Contact Nicki Gorny at ngorny@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.

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