Posts Tagged encouragement

Thank you, Michael Piazza, for restoring my faith in church.

Dear Michael Piazza,*

Thank you for restoring my faith in church.

Oh, I don’t mean “a church”.  I have great confidence in the congregation I serve, after all, and I know there are other good faith communities out there, too.  And I don’t mean “the church”, in the larger sense of organized religion.  Rather, I mean “church”, as short-hand for “the institution of congregational life”.

You restored my faith in the institution of congregational life when I attended your workshop at the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s “Institute” at the beginning of February.  Your title was “Preaching and Worship for the Future Church and the Future of the Church”, and though in the course of our three days together you certainly talked about good preaching and good worship, what came through most clearly was your passion for doing church well.  It was clear that you so dearly want to do congregational life well — and that you sincerely wanted every UU minister in that lecture hall to do like-wise, too — because you believe that congregational life really, really matters.  It was your passion and your heartfelt belief that restored my faith in church.

For anyone following religion news these days, it’s not hard to see and hear a lot of doom and gloom about “the future church and the future of the church”.  Oh, the demographic shifts are real enough, combining the generation-spanning decline in trust of institutions generally with younger generations’ rejection of religion that is judgmental, exclusionary and irrelevant.  And it would certainly be foolish to do church as if credit cards and social media didn’t exist, or with notions of “sacred music” limited to what was written by a few long-dead white men.  But the doom and gloom seem to go beyond noticing that congregations can’t keep pretending it’s the 1950s, to declaring that the congregation as an institution not only has no future but is already on its death-bed.

I can handle the seemingly endless stream of articles with titles such as “Nine Reasons Why People Aren’t Coming To Your Church” or “Seven Ways You’re Repelling Newcomers”; for all that their titles are sensationalistic, the articles themselves do make some valid points.  But I have been disheartened by the apparently exclusive emphasis on other forms of religious group-making, including the earnest promotion of ministry as a vocation that in the future will require either independent wealth or a submission to poverty.  The cynic in me says that we’ve given up trying to find the formula that will magically make congregations perfect, only we did so not by accepting that there are no such things as “magic” or “perfection”, but instead by abandoning the congregation as a viable way of doing religion.

The fact is that it takes hard work for people to actually be in community, particularly religious community.  And when a congregation is doing well, by which I mean when it’s doing community well, then more people will want to be a part of it, which means it will grow, which means it will change, and then it will take more hard work to respond to that change in healthy ways so that the congregation continues to do well as it grows.

Now I’ve spent fifteen years figuring out that simple fact, thanks to my experiences first as a lay church member, then as a seminarian, and now as a minister serving a congregation that really values community and hospitality.  But in the last couple of years, following in particular the publicity around “the rise of the nones”, it increasingly felt like I was being told that I was on a fool’s errand.  I so want to see the congregation I serve thrive and grow and fulfill its considerable potential, but again and again I’ve seen the consultants and the experts gleefully preparing a casket for the idea of church.  (Last year, you may remember, the Alban Institute even shut its doors!)

That’s why I’m thanking you, Michael.  You made it clear to me that what I and my colleagues in parish ministry are doing really does matter.  You made it clear that church really does matter, not because any of us might think we have the right theology or the right music or the right programs, but because congregational life matters.  Church is where we listen to one another and support one another and help one another, where we can respond to the deepest of human needs to know each other and to be known.  The forms and trappings of church may change with the times — and, indeed, they must change — but the core reason for being of the institution of congregational life continues, because our human need for comforting, encouraging, transforming community continues.  Thank you for showing me that I’m not the only one who still believes that.  Thank you for restoring my faith in church.

Yours, in faith and service,

Andrew.

~)<

* Piazza started as a Methodist preacher and then moved to the Metropolitan Community Church when he came out.  In the 1980s, he began serving an MCC congregation in Dallas that was dying.  Literally dying.  It was the height of the AIDS crisis, there was little understanding of what AIDS was or how to treat it, and while gay men were dying across the country, the White House press corps was laughing about it.  Piazza turned that church around, and, as the Cathedral of Hope, it’s now the largest LGBTQ-friendly congregation in the world.  And it’s in Dallas, Texas.

Four years ago, Piazza began serving a United Church of Christ congregation in Atlanta.  It was dying, too, given the age of its members. But in those four years, that congregation has quadrupled in size, and it’s now racially diverse, too.

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To Be Good Stewards of Our Own Power

UUFP Changing the World

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
– Our Fifth Principle

I spent two of January’s Tuesdays in Richmond, the first for the Virginia Interfaith Center’s Day for All People and the second for Equality Virginia’s Day of Action.  Both were opportunities to learn about the legislative process and the bills before the Virginia General Assembly and then to meet with our elected representatives or their legislative aides to share with them our opinions of those bills and other views on what matters to us.

Now most of us experience some anxiety or at least nervousness when it comes to approaching those who make the laws that govern our lives.  I’d…

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Appreciation and Encouragement

UUFP Changing the World

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

I attended my first General Assembly in 2001.  The congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association were meeting that year in Cleveland and I stayed with a group of Ohians I’d met through the World Pantheist Movement.  I probably could have gone to GA as a delegate of the Unitarian Society of Hartford, but I’d only just become a member there and I was still figuring things out.

I was excited to be going to my first General Assembly, and a few months before I had filled out the registration form with considerably more anticipation than I did those of any of the academic conferences I was used to attending.  When the form asked for a title to go along with my name, I didn’t think much of putting “Dr.” in the box.  From what I already knew of the…

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A Place of Gratitude and Encouragement

UUFP Changing the World

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

We had a lovely trip to England during the first half of October.  We celebrated my father’s seventy-fifth birthday with a special dinner at the inn where my sister was married ten years ago.  Olivia spent more time with her grandparents and her aunt and uncle, and she also met her cousin, who is older only by a few days.  And we even managed to squeeze in a quick side-trip to Paris, thanks to the “Chunnel”, which was the first time either Allison or I had been there.  It was a very full two weeks that went by very quickly, but Olivia took it all in stride, coming home with a bigger vocabulary and a more clearly individualized personality, too.  She’s definitely not a baby any more!

Other than a couple of pointless difficulties before we even boarded the…

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Multigenerational Worship

What did the mystic say to the hot dog vendor?
“Make me one with everything!”

Throughout my childhood and adolescence I attended church services of one sort or another.  As a young child I remember going to Sunday School — though I don’t remember much beyond crusty modeling clay and singing “All Things Bright and Beautiful” a lot — but from time to time I also sat in services with my father.  During the week, at the schools I attended from kindergarten through high school, we’d begin each day with “assembly”, which was in large part a religious service that included hymns, Bible readings and prayers.  I was in every school choir and we would often sing anthems, too.  Morning assembly at my high school also included a sermon, usually by the school’s chaplains or sometimes guest speakers or even students; that’s where I was first in the pulpit, giving sermons on such topics as Albert Einstein and the Chernobyl disaster.

At some point, before reaching adolescence, I realized that many of theological specifics that were presented in those school assemblies simply didn’t mean a lot to me.  Lessons about treating other people with respect, sharing our gifts with one another, doing what we can to make the world a better place: sure, those made sense, and hearing them probably helped me to be a better person, too.  But there’s something about saying the Lord’s Prayer five times a week, ten months a year — and in “King James” English, no less — that soon emptied it of significance.

Nonetheless, I generally looked forward to morning assembly.  For one thing, I enjoyed singing, particularly, once my voice broke, singing hymn tunes in harmony with other voices.  Looking back, I’m also glad that it was part of my daily routine.  I was something of an unruly child and didn’t always treat other people nicely, so it was good for me to learn the self-discipline of sitting still and paying attention.  (That certainly came in handy during the 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis when I found myself on screen for much of the Service of the Living Tradition, right behind the minister giving the sermon!)  It taught me the importance of what I would now describe in terms of the Third Principle — acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth — even, or perhaps especially, when another’s worldview didn’t align with my own.

For these reasons and more, I believe it’s important for children to experience worship with adults, to understand not just what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist in theory, but in practice as well.  The first ten or fifteen minutes of our services are not just time to rush through so we adults can get to the “more important” parts, but offer real opportunities to show our living tradition to our children: sharing the significance of lighting the chalice, discovering what it means to raise voices together in song, and hearing a short story that celebrates life and our search for truths no matter our age.

Intentionally multigenerational services go one step further, from family-oriented rituals such as the Water Communion to services based around an extended story that is told or enacted by a variety of voices.  As was the case last year, my congregation is planning some of these story-based services, but we recognize that they’re not everyone’s cup of tea.  So, though we’ve recently extended the capabilities of our sound system and are working on making it more hearing-aid-friendly, and will take into account issues of visibility, only the second (11am) service will feature actors, while the first service (9:30am) will follow the traditional format with a sermon.  On such Sundays there will be no Religious Education classes: adults are then free to choose which service to attend, while children can stay with their parents so that families as a whole can participate in services together.

Whoever you are, whomever you love, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, I look forward to seeing you on Sunday!

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