Posts Tagged membership

The Meaning of Membership

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on September 7th 2014.)

For many congregations, today is known as “Ingathering Sunday” or “Back to Church Sunday”.  Well, this week has been “Back to School”, it’s true, with public schools at least here in Virginia and other places on the East Coast waiting to start until after Labor Day.  But I can’t say that we’re now “Back to Church” with any sincerity, given that we’ve been here all Summer, going strong with a full slate of worship services and religious exploration programs every Sunday throughout July and August.  After all, we can’t come back if we didn’t go away.

What’s more, we weren’t just here in August: we were busy in August.  We’ve had lots of newcomers, many of them families with children, doing their Summer “church shopping” before the busy-ness of the school year starts.  A good number of you who are here this morning, in fact, came to services for the first time one Sunday last month, and I’m so glad that you made the choice to keep coming back.  And naturally, many of you who are newcomers have had questions, about the congregation, about our programs, about becoming a member.

That, of course, is the natural progression.  A first-time visitor enjoys what they experienced or likes the people they met — hopefully both! — and plans to come again.  That makes them a newcomer, when they get to know the place a bit more and figure out if this is where they feel they can belong.  And, in time, they receive a letter from me, inviting them to a Membership Orientation, like the one we have planned for late October.  That’s where we talk about what it means to be a member, what’s involved in joining us in creating a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, and why that matters.  (For those who cannot attend an orientation given their schedules, there’s also the option of meeting with me.)  And then for those who choose to become members, who have made the decision to embrace the rights and responsibilities that come with that commitment, they demonstrate that by signing the membership book.

Now joining a congregation is rather different from joining almost anything else.  It’s not like being part of a book discussion group that meets at Barnes and Noble.  It’s not like being on a mailing list or Facebook.  It’s not like going to talks offered by the Sierra Club nor is it like sending a nominal contribution to the World Wildlife Fund and getting a newsletter.  It’s not like dropping children off at an after-school program at the Y nor is it like being part of a life-long learning course at CNU.  It’s not like having dinner or coffee with friends nor is it like getting together to watch a TV show and then talk about it.  It has aspects of all of those things, of course, but it’s rather different from all of them, and with more and more of the people who find themselves here never having had much prior church experience, we’ve found ourselves being very intentional, when it comes to membership orientations, to explain what it really means to be a member.

I want to give you a couple of perspectives on why this matters.  Here’s the first.

Back at the beginning of May, I began my sermon on the topic of understanding ourselves in relation to those around us by reflecting on how many non-members benefit from the presence, here on the Peninsula, of this congregation.  Between those who pledge their financial support as if they were members without actually being members, those who participate in programs and put money into the offering basket but have made no formal commitment otherwise, those who might only come to special services such as on Christmas Eve or to special events like the Luau, as well as those who might simply visit in the course of a year, there are, by one estimate, something like four hundred non-members as compared to some 160 members.

Beyond that, of course, if we guesstimate the number of people we serve at St. Paul’s or PORT, the number of people we impact through our Share-the-Basket partners like LINK, and the number of people we reach through other outreach efforts, we may well be talking about a few thousand people whose lives benefit from the presence of this Fellowship, from what this congregation is and from what it does.  That’s something in which we should all feel quite a bit of pride.

So here’s the obvious question:  If it’s possible to be almost as much a part of the life of the Fellowship as a member without actually being a member, if it’s possible to be connected to or supported by the congregation without even being here in person, then what does it mean to be a member?

Here’s another perspective on why this matters.  Whenever I’m at another Unitarian Universalist church, whether to preach or just to be part of their services, I like to check out the materials they give to visitors.  I know I’m not alone in this.  One such item I came across recently was this bookmark, produced by the Unitarian Universalist Association and sold to congregations in packs of twenty-five to hand out to newcomers.  It’s entitled “Ten Good Reasons for Joining a Unitarian Universalist Congregation”, and I was intrigued to see what those were.  Here are some of those reasons.

Because here we join with open hearts and minds to worship together, seeking what is sacred among us.

Because here we honor our Jewish and Christian roots, and also reach out to know the great truths found in other religious expressions.

Because here we nurture our children’s enthusiasms and encourage their questions.

Because here we join our strength with others to create a more just society.

Because here we encourage each other to be true to ourselves.

Now, without doubt, those are all good reasons to participate in the life of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  They’re all great reasons, for that matter, why such things as UU churches should exist.  But reasons for joining a congregation as a member?  Compelling, necessary reasons?  I’m not so sure.  Again we come back to the obvious question:  If we welcome non-members to come to worship services, to learn about our tradition as well as other religions, to give our children a religious education, to work with others to make a better world, even to help one another become our best selves, if we welcome non-members to all of that, and we do, then what does it mean to be a member?

Now some might say that the reason to be a member is to pay for those services and benefits.  That’s a reasonable claim, particularly since that’s the way our culture works as a whole.  After all, in almost all other areas of modern life, it’s the case that you get what you pay for.  So let’s think about that for a moment.

In any other setting than a church, what would you pay, if you’re a parent, for someone to not only look after your child for an hour, but to teach them about what it means to have an open mind, a loving heart and a helping hand?  Even if it were just baby-sitting, it might be ten dollars for the hour, probably more for actual teaching, and more still for youth.  For Sunday school over the course of a year, then, and assuming all but one Sunday each month, that’s at least four-hundred dollars a year.  That’s probably a good ballpark figure for an hour or so a week of quality adult programming, too, such as the Sunday Morning Forum that takes place over in the Office Building.  For comparison, registration in the LifeLong Learning Society at Christopher Newport University is $235, and that’s with CNU’s own subsidies and the sponsorship of some local businesses.

Or what about coffee or tea plus assorted snacks, sandwiches, cakes, fruit and other food?  Well, those are unlimited here as part of hospitality, and though some places might offer free refills, go to Panera or Starbucks for coffee and a brownie and you’d pay $5 or more.  Again, consider being here more often than not each month and that adds up to a couple of hundred dollars each year.  And what about the price of Sunday service?  Well for the music alone, a professional musician could reasonably expect to be paid, so Robin has told me in the past, at least a hundred dollars per service.  And the going rate for a professional speaker, according to the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, is somewhat more than that, making it in all, again, a couple of hundred dollars per person each year.  Add it all up, for the average person, and we’re talking about something like a thousand dollars each year if you went somewhere else and paid for what we offer here, freely to everyone and gladly to everyone, every single Sunday morning.

Now for those of you checking your calendars, no, it’s not pledge drive time, and no, this is not the Sermon on the Amount.  I’m simply offering you these back-of-the-envelope numbers to show you that the idea that someone become a member in order to pay for the services and benefits they receive, well that idea is hogwash.  We’re not here as consumers, and in most cases we’re not getting what we pay for: we’re actually getting much more than we pay for.

So if someone isn’t a member because they must be a member in order to participate in our services and programs, and if they’re not a member in order to simply pay for those services and programs, then what does it mean to be a member?

Well I put it to you that being a member means wanting this to be a place where those services and programs are and will always be available, not only to members but to everyone.  It means a commitment to this congregation so that it can be a place where, member or not, anyone can join in seeking the sacred, in learning about religion, in nurturing our children’s souls, in striving to make the world a better place, and in encouraging one another’s authenticity.  It means promising to make that possible through the direct contribution of volunteer hours and, yes, volunteer dollars.  It means investing one’s mind, one’s body and one’s spirit in the vision of this congregation as a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.

That’s no small order, of course.  As I say on those occasions when we welcome our newest members of this Fellowship, “joining is easy, but membership is not”.  Joining is, after all, a matter of attending an orientation, or otherwise meeting with me in person, and then signing the membership book.  Sure, the orientation is three hours long and takes up a whole Saturday morning, but we feed you a great breakfast!  And there are plenty of congregations out there that have a much more involved process of joining, in one case that I know taking one whole year to be accepted as a new member.  But if joining only takes a Saturday morning, membership takes a lifetime.  We do expect our members to actively participate in the life of the Fellowship, in whatever ways are appropriate, and to contribute financially, to whatever extent is reasonable.  That’s the easy part, though: something else that I say when we recognize new members is that “a member accepts responsibility for continuing and sharing the faith journey that brought them to this place, and also covenants to live in community with others whose journeys may be different.”  And that is the work of a lifetime, because it’s what life is actually about.

Now from time to time, you’ll hear on a Sunday morning a member testimonial.  Though they tend to be associated with the aforementioned pledge drive, for obvious reasons, we ask those members who give testimonials to speak to the same matters regardless of whether they’re doing so at pledge time or not.  We ask them to speak about why this congregation is a special place.  We ask them to speak about what it means to them to be a member.  We ask them to speak about why it’s important for them to be here.  We ask them to speak about how they have been transformed by being part of this Fellowship.  What I’ve noticed is that rarely do any of these members describe membership as a static state, where they joined, met some nice people, liked the music, and they’re done.  Rather — and of course this is particularly noticeable when, over the course of a few years, a member gives more than one testimonial — being a member is a dynamic reality, where there are always opportunities to grow our own souls while also growing the soul of the congregation so that together we may grow the soul of the world.

So if you are one of our many newcomers who first visited over the Summer, or perhaps even before that, and you’re interested in becoming a member here because you’ve found that this is a place where you feel you can belong, then I encourage you to continue asking questions about what it really means to be a member.  Or if you’re one of our newer members, who, within the last few years, attended an orientation and signed the membership book and was welcomed by the congregation one following Sunday morning, then I encourage you to think beyond your current participation in congregation life to consider some of the many ways in which you can get the most out of becoming a member.  And if you’re one of our members who’s been here for some larger span of years, who has served on some committees and taught some classes and led worship from time to time and taken on any of a thousand responsibilities large and small, I thank you for being one of our “long haul people” but I also encourage you to reach out to our new members and to our newcomers, to bring them into the work of making this congregation a spiritual home for our common endeavor.

I’m going to close with a reading I happened to rediscover this week.  Talk about good timing!  It was written by Unitarian Universalist minister Clarke Dewey Wells, and was read right here thirty-four years ago, as part of the service dedicating this very Sanctuary building in 1980.

This is the liberal church:

a place to go where you know you belong;

where the mind is free to soar beyond the coercions and crudities that inevitably beset all orthodoxies;

where the heart is free to extend that larger love to all, unencumbered by notions of dogma, tradition, race, religion, country or class,

where the rights of individual conscience and action are guarded with vigilance, out of belief in the fitness of diversity, the liberty to be different, out of eternal hostility to every form of tyranny;

where the hands are free to work and create for the cause of community and the hope of peace;

where the soul is free to open, stretch, discover, develop, change and grow, always, continuously and progressively;

where human promise is nurtured, supported and blessed, and never cursed, degraded or despaired of;

where people are invited to be themselves in joy, in sorrow, in the struggle of the deeper self to be born, in the resolution of some great issue, in the witnessing to high ideals, in living and dying, seeking, finding and serving.

A place to learn, to grow, to sing, to stand.

A place to encounter, reckon, judge, accept, and be accepted.

A place to be challenged by new insight, and be reminded of what one already knows.

A place to go where you know you belong.

This is the liberal church.

To these words I would add the following:  This is the liberal church that was built by those members who were part of that building dedication service thirty-four years ago.  This is the liberal church that those members here today are building through the dedication of their minds, their bodies and their spirits.  And this is the liberal church that will continue to be built in the years and decades to come, in ways that we expect, in other ways that we may only dimly see, and in some ways that will surprise and delight the world.  This is the meaning of membership: to be the past, the present and the future of the liberal church, a place to go where you know you belong.

So may it be.

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What We Bring to It

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 23rd 2014.)

I first stood here a little less than four years ago.  It was Candidating Week, the final stage in a months-long process where your Search Committee and I figured out together if you and I were a good match.  It was a process a lot like on-line dating, starting off with sharing profiles through a web site, then moving on to e-mail exchanges, then telephone conversations, then that first “date” known as pre-candidating weekend, and then, when the courtship, as it were, had reached that critical point, I was introduced to the congregation as a whole, to this Fellowship, during Candidating Week.

I remember many positive impressions from that time back in 2010, but this morning I’m going to focus on just one of them.

A Candidating Week typically begins and ends on a Sunday, giving the prospective minister two sets of Sunday services, one at the start and one at the finish.  Preparing for the week, then, I needed to know how services were conducted here.  After all, each Unitarian Universalist congregation has its own way of doing worship, even if just about every place uses the grey hymnal and includes many of the same service elements, from the lighting of a chalice to the preaching of a sermon.  But each congregation does them in its own way, with different words used in different places to introduce, say, the offering.

In some congregations, the offering may be introduced pretty literally:  “In support of the work of this church, we shall now receive the offering.”  Here, by contrast, the introduction to the offering begins with the words you heard just a little while ago:  “All that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it: our time, our talents, our capabilities and concerns, and our money.”  Amongst many positive impressions from Candidating Week, those words impressed me very much, because those words, my friends, present a simple yet incredibly profound theology.

Let me explain why that matters.

Cynthia Grant Tucker is a Professor of English at the University of Memphis, but in Unitarian Universalist circles she’s better known for her studies of our history.  One of the books all would-be UU ministers are required to read, for example, is Tucker’s book about the Unitarian women ministers who served on the Iowa frontier during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, about how those women brought the inspiration of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other “Boston Brahmins” to life in mid-Western fire-side parlors.  Indeed, some have said that Iowa becoming the first state outside of New England to recognize marriage equality is part of the legacy of Mary Safford, Eleanor Gordon and the other Unitarian women who formed that Iowa Sisterhood.

And yet Tucker does not passively relate such history in order that we may know our own past, as important as that is.  She also engages with it actively, that we may know our own future.  Writing of “the hunger for greater spirituality and community in the church”, for example, Tucker advises that “preachers [must seek] their texts in the life of the parish, past and present, and build on the theology that they discover among the people.”  Most seminaries, after all, teach would-be ministers how to analyze and interpret and explain texts found in the Bible, and yet they also stress the importance of meeting people where they already are.  What scripture long since frozen to paper could be more relevant, then, than the living text found in the life of the congregation?

The words we use to introduce the offering every Sunday morning are such a living text.  Now many of you have heard them so many times you probably don’t really listen to them anymore, particularly when you’re looking for a suitable bill in your pocket or trying to find your checkbook.  So listen to them again now, when you don’t have anything to distract you:  “All that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it”.  What simple yet profound theology.  So, following Tucker’s advice to preachers, let me build on that theology.

Unitarian Universalist congregations are part of a tradition that is more than three-and-a-half centuries old, in which individual congregations enter into cooperative association with one another for mutual support and encouragement but are otherwise governed independently.  This Fellowship, for instance, elects its own Board, calls its own ministers, hires its own staff, runs its own programs, maintains its own facilities and funds its own budget.  There is no regional bishop nor outside council of elders that does those things for us.

We are associated, for instance, with other congregations in Southeast Virginia, and, in fact, we’re hosting this year’s meeting of the Tidewater Cluster at the end of March; the Unitarian Universalist Association’s new Moderator, Jim Key, is our featured speaker, so you don’t want to miss it.  But while being associated with other UU congregations allows us to do some things together that we wouldn’t be able to do by ourselves, such as the Hampton Roads UU Revival that took place this time last year, it is ultimately the case that this particular congregation, this UU Fellowship of the Peninsula, is precisely what we bring to it, no more and no less.

Before I get to the practical consequences of this, though, let’s consider it from another perspective…

There was once a village that was much the same as villages everywhere.  It had grown up by a ford where the road between distant cities crossed a river.  First there was an inn, since travelers on the road might find that the river could not be safely forded, and an enterprising innkeeper gave them food and a place to stay while they waited.  With a regular clientele, a farrier and a cartwright and a brewer soon set up shop, followed by a blacksmith and a carpenter and a baker.  A mill was built upriver, and a tannery downstream, and soon enough there was a tidy collection of houses within the village, and farms scattered around it.

One afternoon, the owner of one such farm was leaning against a fence where it ran alongside the road into the village.  When she had a quiet moment, the farmer liked to rest here, for there was a good view of the land with the road cresting a gentle hill before heading toward the river.  Sometimes there would be travelers, and she enjoyed exchanging greetings with them as they passed.

And on this particular afternoon, there was a traveler.  He came over to the farmer and, after the usual pleasantries about the weather, asked what the village was like.

“I’m thinking this might be a place I’d like to live,” the traveler said.

“Really?” said the farmer.  “And what was it like where you lived before?” she asked.

“Well,” answered the traveler, “everyone was really friendly and they treated one another well.  I do miss them.”

And the farmer smiled and said, “You’ll enjoy living here, then.  You’ll find that people here are like that, too.”

And the traveler thanked her and continued on into the village.

Only a little while later, another traveler came along the road.  He went over to the farmer and, after further pleasantries about the weather, asked what the village was like.

“I’m thinking this might be a place I’d like to live,” the traveler said.

“Really?” said the farmer.  “And what was it like where you lived before?” she asked.

“Well,” answered the traveler, “everyone was rather unfriendly and they treated one another badly.  I don’t miss them.”

And the farmer frowned and said, “You won’t enjoy living here, then.  You’ll find that people here are like that, too.”

And the traveler thanked her and turned around to go back the way he’d come.

The farmer, of course, knew that the village was much the same as villages everywhere, in that it was simply made up of the people in it.  So she also knew that if those people could see all the good in their lives together, then their lives would be better, whereas if they only saw the bad in their lives together, then their lives would be worse.

Now, if such a bucolic parable isn’t to your taste, how about this modern tale?

In 1979, Pauline Phillips received a letter.  That name might not ring a bell, and that’s because Phillips used the pen name “Abigail van Buren” when she answered such letters in her advice column, “Dear Abby”.  This particular letter, and Phillips’ response back in 1979, were as follows:

“Dear Abby,
Two men who claim to be father and adopted son just bought an old mansion across the street and fixed it up.  We notice a very suspicious mixture of company coming and going at all hours — blacks, whites, Orientals, women who look like men and men who look like women.  This has always been considered one of the finest sections of San Francisco, and these weirdos are giving it a bad name.  How can we improve the neighborhood?
[From,] Nob Hill Residents.”

“Dear Residents,
You could move.”

So what are the practical consequences of this simple yet profound theology, as presented by the words that are part of every Sunday service?  “All that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it: our time, our talents, our capabilities and concerns, and our money.”

In this Sanctuary alone, what we experience as a Sunday service is the result of many people’s dedication.  About half of my work week is spent preparing for services, but of course this is hardly a one-man show.  Ahead of each Sunday, your Fellowship Administrator Mary-Elizabeth Cotton compiles and produces the printed Order of Service, for example, while a local janitorial company comes in to clean the building and make sure it’s ready to be used.  The service musicians, whether Nickie or Robin or Cheré or Jeffrey or the UUFP Winds, need to practice ahead of time, and the ChorUUs practices every Thursday evening for those Sundays when they’re singing, too.  The services themselves rely upon lay leaders and ushers to go smoothly, but perhaps even more they rely on all of you to be here and to bring your minds and your hearts and your voices and your hands into this place of worship, too.  So between what you pay staff, and what our member volunteers give of their time and talents, and what all of you give of your whole selves, each of our Sunday services is what we bring to it.

Part of each service, of course, is the Children’s Focus that your Director of Religious Education Joanne Dingus provides, and I know for a fact that the adults here get as much out of what Joanne says to our children as they do, maybe more.  But the rest of the time on Sunday morning, Joanne is to be found either teaching a religious education class herself or moving about our campus assisting and supporting those she and the RE Committee have recruited to teach our children and youth.  There is also our nursery, where Mary-Elizabeth Cotton and Mary Robertson look after our very youngest members, while for our grown-ups — who are still, I hasten to mention, young-at-heart — there are Sunday morning Adult RE programs over in the office building, too.  So, again: between what you pay staff, and what our member volunteers give of their time and talents, and what all of you give when you participate, each of our programs of religious education is what we bring to it.

Then there’s what happens before and between and after services and RE classes.  Since the Summer, we’ve been implementing a model of Sunday morning hospitality that is based on teams, working together to cover all the necessary tasks from getting the coffee going to setting up food, from greeting newcomers to ushering people into services, from helping with coffee and food to cleaning everything up afterwards.  It’s also a great way to get to know more people here at the Fellowship and make new friends.  There are plenty of volunteer slots still available — you don’t have to be a member to be on a hospitality team, you don’t even have to be here on a Sunday morning for some of the tasks — so if you’re not yet on a team, please see one of the team leaders — Rosalee, Bobbie and [Sarah] — to join one today.  In short, Sunday morning hospitality is definitely what we bring to it.

Then there are a number of programs that take place after services on Sundays, such as Goddess Circle and Second Sunday Lunch and Got Kids? and Fourth Sunday Soup Social as well as presentations and movies here in the Sanctuary.  Between the efforts of our member volunteers to plan and run these programs and your participation in them, each of these is what we bring to it.

There are similarly programs at other times and on other days of the week, such as the Book Club and Fifty and Better and Resist Apathy! and Saturday Game Night and Women’s Drumming.  And there are our outreach programs, such as the third Friday dinner at St. Paul’s and the PORT Winter Shelter.  There are other programs for spiritual development, such as Fellowship Circles and the meditation groups and EarthRising and softball.  (I’m sure Mason would agree with me that softball offers plenty of spiritual development.)

There are all the ways we care for one another, from hospital visits to telephone calls, from going with someone to their court appointment to bringing one another meals following sickness or childbirth.  There are special annual events, such as the auction and the casbah and the yard sale, all of which need lots of volunteers.  There are the buildings and grounds clean-up days.  There are the staff and the volunteers who help to publicize all these ways to be involved.  There are the dedicated committees that plan and run all of these efforts, and maintain our facilities so that we can do them, and raise the money we need for programs and outreach and utilities and maintenance and staffing.  There are the committee chairs and Policy Board members who work with staff to find all of these ways to fulfill our mission.  And, perhaps most importantly, there is each and every one of you, contributing your time, your talents, your capabilities and concerns, and your money.  For every single thing that we do here, every single thing that we can do here, is what we bring to it.

Now I’ve just given you an awfully long list of what it takes to run a thriving, growing congregation like this Fellowship.  I’m sure I didn’t mention a few things that ought to be on that list, too, so if you didn’t hear a program you run or love, I apologize, but please do tell me or e-mail me to let me know that I didn’t mention it.  And it’s easy to see that just about everything on that long list needs volunteers to make it happen.  But it also takes money.

This is a growing congregation that is asking our staff to do more in response to and in support of that growth.  And with a growing number of programs, we’re using our buildings more and using more heat and light and water, too.  The state may not require us to pay taxes, but Dominion certainly expects churches to pay for electricity.  And to run those programs, from bringing in quality preachers for those Sundays when I’m not in the pulpit to obtaining the resources and supplies needed for Religious Education, from completing certain projects in order to become a Green Sanctuary to assisting with some of the costs that our members bear in order to represent us as congregation delegates at General Assembly, well, that takes money, too.

As it says in the brochure in your Order of Service this morning, “All members volunteer in various ways, and that’s crucial in sustaining the Fellowship’s mission and ministry.  However, we cannot function (much less grow) as a congregation without funding for our programs, our staff and our facilities.  There are many congregational functions which require more than volunteerism can provide.”

So this service is officially the start of this year’s Canvass, our pledge drive.  We ask all of our members, as well as those non-members known as “friends”, to pledge financial support to the Fellowship for the coming church year, which starts in July.  We ask members and friends to pledge so that, quite simply, we can create a budget, and we need a budget so that we can plan for programs and outreach and utilities and maintenance and staffing.  Some of what we spend our money on is more fun, or at least more interesting, than some of the other things we spend our money on, of course.  I don’t know of many people outside the Green Sanctuary Committee who get excited about utility bills.  And of course those whom you elect each May to lead the congregation and run these programs in turn pledge to be as wise and conscientious stewards of our collective time, talents and treasure as possible.

But to many ears these are just words.  And spoken words at that.  And there’s really just one word that matters right now.  And perhaps you’re like me and sometimes wish that life came with a great soundtrack, so maybe what we need to do with that one word… is set it… to music!

[“The Pledging Song”, words by Alan Sheeler, set to “The Drinking Song” from The Student Prince by Sigmund Romberg]

Pledge!  Pledge!  Pledge!
Pledge to a cause that is just, we call it the UUFP!
Pledge!  Pledge!  Pledge!
You’ll be helping to fund those wonderful kids in RE!
Here’s to hoping our UUs will shine,
lovingly giving both money and time!

I can foresee a time in May,
the budget made, the FiComm* at play!
Pledge!  Pledge!  Let the bucks start!
May all UUs show heart.
Pledge!  Pledge!  Pledge!
Your Fellowship needs you, so UUs don’t wait!
Let’s pledge!

[* Finance Committee]

So when, in the next few weeks, the time comes for you to pledge, whether that’s at one of the dinners to which everyone is invited, such as the Big Canvass Event on Saturday March 8th, or whether it’s in person with one of our UUFP canvassers, I would ask you to remember that everything we do — from worship services to religious exploration, from community building to public advocacy — is possible only because people like you contribute their time, their skills and their money.  All that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are precisely what we bring to it.

May it be so.

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The Church of First Resort!

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 27th 2013.)

Reading: from Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

In her essay, “An Expedition to the Pole”, Annie Dillard alternates historical information about various attempts by explorers to reach either the North Pole or the South Pole with descriptions of her experiences of a church service she decides to attend.  In the process, she draws some conclusions about the parallels between the two enterprises: on the one hand, those who explored either the Arctic or the Antarctic were attempting to reach the navigator’s map point known as the “Pole of Relative Inaccessibility”, which in the north is that imagined point in the Arctic Ocean farthest from land in any direction and in the south is equivalently the point on the Antarctic Continent farthest from salt water in any direction; on the other hand, the goal of religion — as Dillard sees it — is to similarly attain a metaphysical Pole of Relative Inaccessibility.  Explaining herself, she writes, “It is that point of spirit farthest from every accessible point of spirit in all directions.  Like the others, it is a Pole of the Most Trouble.  It is also — I take this as given — the pole of great price.”

Going on to describe the various mishaps faced by polar expeditions, whether arising from unfortunate events or bad planning or, in the case of the 1845 expedition under Sir John Franklin, downright stupidity in caring more about their china place settings and sterling silver cutlery than, say, warm clothing and enough coal for the engines, Dillard describes some of the things that make it hard for her to keep from laughing out loud in church.  She writes, for instance, that “No one, least of all the organist, could find the opening hymn.  Then no one knew it.  Then no one could sing anyway.  There was no sermon, only announcements.  [Then the] priest proudly introduced the rascally acolyte who was going to light the two Advent candles.  As we all could plainly see, the rascally acolyte had already [lit] them.  […]  During communion, the priest handed me a wafer which proved to be stuck to five other wafers.  I waited while he tore the clump into rags of wafer, resisting the impulse to help.  Directly to my left, and all through communion, a woman was banging out the theme from The Sound of Music on a piano.”

Dillard concludes that, whether people are trying to reach a geographical pole or a spiritual one, “there seems to be only one business at hand — that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”  As her historical accounts of the polar expeditions and her description of the church service start to blend together, she sees the church itself as one of the ships trying to make its way through the ice.  And in a passage that religious professionals and church consultants love to quote, Dillard asks, “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful […] tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?  […]  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ […] velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

Sermon: “The Church of First Resort!”

Last Sunday I responded to the idea, apparently held by some people who don’t really know much about Unitarian Universalism, that we are the church of last resort.  I challenged this idea, explaining why it’s not true, and ended with a teaser for this sermon about how we could be the church of first resort instead.

Now this pair of sermons came out of a conversation with a member who in last year’s auction was the highest bidder for the auction item that is essentially getting to choose the topic for one of my services.  This year’s auction is coming up very soon, of course, so you could be the next person to give me a sermon theme, and who knows, maybe you’ll get two services for the price of one!

While my sermon last Sunday was about the vision that other people have of us, today I want to talk about the vision we have of ourselves particularly in terms of how it is either similar to or different from our vision for ourselves.  I realize I’m using the word “vision” here in a couple of different ways, so let me explain.

First, there’s our vision of ourselves, in the sense of how we see ourselves right now.  Like our self-images as individuals, sometimes the ways in which we see ourselves are influenced by more than just reality, so one of the responsibilities of a parish minister is to hold up a mirror to congregational life so that the congregation can see itself — warts and all, as it were.  A vision of ourselves that’s a little bit more positive than reality isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s a form of self-confidence, after all.  But it is a sign of spiritual maturity — both for individuals as well as for congregations — to want to face up to shortcomings and areas for improvement rather than to gloss over them.

Second, there’s our vision for ourselves, in the sense of how we want to see ourselves in the future.  The Fellowship’s vision in that sense is articulated in our by-laws, and lent its words to my invocation this morning: “We offer a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.”  As much as that’s written in the present tense, as a vision statement it describes an ideal that serves to guide us into the future, that calls us to always be better in the future.  So another responsibility of a parish minister is to keep reminding a congregation of its vision for its own future.

Now I want to talk about our vision of and for ourselves, particularly in terms of how that relates to becoming the church of first resort, but let me begin by setting up something that I’ll come back to later on.

In January, we held a day-long social justice workshop where we considered what we’re doing as a congregation to create a more just and caring world.  Our Social Justice Chair led an exercise that had us think about our geographical location, starting with our street and our immediate neighborhood, then moving to the larger neighborhood of Denbigh, then the city of Newport News, then Hampton Roads, then Virginia, then the southeast, then the United States, then the whole planet Earth.  And at each level, we brainstormed the characteristics of that level: what was good, what was bad, what we liked, what was a problem.

What I found fascinating about this exercise was that we tended to have more good things to say about the smaller scales of our geographical location — our neighborhood, our town — while at the larger scales — from the state up to the whole planet — we had increasingly bad things to say.  Apparently we really like where we are, and we think that things are generally good right here, but we don’t like the bigger picture of where we are and we can see a lot more problems there.  But if we think that things are generally good here, and if, in all likelihood, most people in most other places think that things are generally good where they are, too, then how come when all those good places are put together, they result in a larger place that’s so much worse?  Keep that in the back of your mind for a few minutes, because I’ll come back to it.

Earlier this month, there was some discussion on Facebook of a blog post written by a former Unitarian Universalist.  It was actually written a couple of years ago and was titled “A ‘Dear John’ Letter to Unitarian Universalism”.  It’s evidently done the rounds amongst many UUs during those two years, because the letter itself is followed by one hundred and ten comments, indicating that the author touched quite a number of nerves.

Now the “about” page of the blog doesn’t give a name for the author herself, nor does it name her former congregation, but a number of the comments call her as Cindy, so that’s what I’ll call her, too.

The first part of Cindy’s “Dear John” letter expresses some general dissatisfaction with Unitarian Universalism, even though she makes clear that there are plenty of things she loves about our faith, too.  She also makes it pretty clear up front in the letter that she’s a liberal Christian, and though that does feed into her dissatisfaction, I don’t take it to play into her decision to leave our faith that much.

As well as general dissatisfaction, though, Cindy does give some tangible reasons for leaving Unitarian Universalism, and these are definitely worthy of our consideration.

First she calls to the stand an “ambivalence about membership”.  She’s certainly not the first person to note that Unitarian Universalist congregations typically expect very little of their members, whether in material or spiritual terms, and yet it’s well known that it’s actually the churches that ask a lot of their members that tend to be large and thriving.  Cindy writes that as much as she dislikes the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations”, it did describe what she experienced.  She was appalled that, in her old congregation, it was actually okay that people would hardly ever show up on Sundays, and never participate in any other ways, but still come to congregational meetings to hog the floor and provoke arguments.

Now in our membership orientation program, we do actually focus on what it means to be a member here at the Fellowship.  Hearing myself say that, it seems weird that a membership orientation would not highlight what it means to be a member, but the weirder thing is that many such orientations don’t.  We also talk about the rights and responsibilities of being a member here, and part of the information about that says: “We expect our members to participate in [any of] a number of ways: by attending Sunday services; by working on their own spiritual development; by putting their faith into action; by taking part in our various programs and activities; by pledging financial support; by engaging with our democratic process; and by connecting to the wider world of Unitarian Universalism.”  Yes, there is a healthy, reasonable alternative to the dysfunction of ultra-low expectations that Cindy witnessed that does not make us into the sort of ultra-strict church that demands to see people’s tax returns.  There’s nothing wrong with articulating what it means to actually be a member, and I’m glad that we do that, though there’s always more that we could do to help people get the most out of being here as members.

Next in her “Dear John” letter, Cindy tackles what she names “accepticemia”, which is a systemic “reluctance to label toxic behaviors and assign them consequences”.  That’s part of the dysfunction that allows congregational meetings to turn into shouting matches, something that not too many years ago used to happen here, so I’m told.  Cindy attributes this to a perversion of the first of the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism: “We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  I’m not sure that that’s the only, or even the main reason, and in any case part of the First Principle is respecting people enough to hold them accountable for their actions, not letting them get away with toxic and disruptive behaviors.  As Cindy points out, there is a very real difference between welcoming all people, which is definitely something our faith calls us to do, and welcoming all behaviors, which is at best unhealthy and at worst dangerous.

From my perspective, “accepticemia”, to use Cindy’s new word for this syndrome, was a result of Unitarian Universalism forgetting that we are a faith based on covenant, or the promises we make one another about how we’ll behave when we’re together.  We always knew — and were proud of the fact — that we weren’t a faith based on creed, or an officially sanctioned list of beliefs, but we forgot that we were supposed to be based on covenant, with agreed upon standards of behavior, and as a result we were effectively a faith based on, well, nothing.  When I first joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation a little over twelve years ago, I don’t remember hearing anything about covenant.  In the last decade, thankfully, we’ve been rediscovering our heritage and remembering who we are called to be.

I’m guessing that Cindy’s old congregation didn’t know much about how to be in covenant.  She comments on how accepticemia manifested at its worst during Joys and Concerns, when people aired their personal grudges or abused it to vent on political issues.  Cindy saw that part of the service go toxic more than once, and while she says she can forgive the people who probably didn’t even realize the damage they were doing, she cannot forgive the lay leaders who refused to set up healthy boundaries between what is appropriate in worship and what is not.

Now I know that here we have a range of opinions over the value of doing Joys and Concerns, but I have to say that we do Joys and Concerns well here.  Sometimes somebody talks for too long, or the whole segment runs long simply because of the number of people who want to light a candle and speak, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in over three years’ worth of my services that someone has made even a mildly inappropriate comment.

And that brings us to Cindy’s criticism of what she calls “negligent worship”.  Here she’s talking about Sunday mornings that offer university lectures and passion-less music, but we could just as easily be talking about the sort of poor planning and lousy execution that made it hard for Annie Dillard to keep from laughing out loud in church.  Other than her own unmet need for a meaningful worship experience, Cindy found herself feeling guilty when someone came to services and shared some major loss in their life — “a child, a spouse, a job or their hope” — but her old congregation had nothing to offer them in consolation.

Now there’s some truth to Dillard’s observation that, whether we’re talking about a physical voyage or a spiritual one, what we are often challenged to do is figure out “workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”  Even with services designed with theological consideration for spiritual meaning and impact, well, things can still go wrong.

I’ve done services where it turned out nobody could sing one of the hymns.  When I was a teenager and was asked to read a pre-written prayer, I accidentally mixed up the order of some of the words, which I think made it an invocation of hell rather than heaven.  And it’s not unusual here for our own chalice to stubbornly refuse to light.  But those things don’t make or break what we do as a religious experience rather than a secular exercise, though we always recognize that there’s room for improvement.

You might be interested to know that the Sunday Services Committee devotes part of each monthly meeting to a book we’re all reading, namely Worship That Works: Theory and Practice for Unitarian Universalists.  I’ve noticed that it’s already made a difference in how we do services here.  And I am also asking the committee to evaluate at least one of my services each month, given that I fully recognize that I can always do better at this, too, even if becoming better isn’t usually easy or pain-free.

Let’s return to the exercise we did at January’s Social Justice Workshop where we found that we had much more positive things to say about where we are on the local level as contrasted with increasingly negative things to say about the state and national and global levels.  Perhaps you’ve been coming to your own conclusions about it over the last few minutes, but what jumped out for me was the ease with which we identified the Big problems like attacks on women’s reproductive rights, the disappearing social safety net and global climate change.  Those are “Big with a capital B” problems not just because of their scope and wide-ranging impact, but because they exist at a larger scale.

And yet we also know, even if it’s apparently harder for us to name them, that there are “big with a lower-case b” problems, too.  You don’t have to spend long reading the Daily Press or watching the local news to know that Newport News is not a perfect city, and frankly we stand to have a much greater impact on local issues than we do on any national or global issue.  It’s easier to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, and if you don’t think there’s any way that our Fellowship could ever be a big fish, just remember that of all the congregations that support the Living Interfaith Network (or LINK) of Hampton Roads, the UUFP is actually LINK’s biggest supporter.

Then there are the “big with a lower-case b” reasons for which people often start coming to church services, their need for help in dealing with feelings like anger, or with personal dilemmas over relationships or conflict or sexuality, or with life passages including death and loss, or with spiritual growth and that yearning for a metaphysical “Pole of Relative Inaccessibility” that we have only been able to imagine is actually there.  Perhaps the biggest of the “big with a lower-case b” reasons that people have for seeking out a church is the simple need for community, to feel connected to other people.  The paradigm of church life used to be that if you believed a certain set of things and you behaved in certain ways, then you could belong to the church that required you to believe and behave as such.  These days people are recognizing that it’s belonging that needs to come first, and it’s certainly the first thing that matters when it comes to Unitarian Universalist congregations.

It’s common to hear at our membership orientations that somebody wants to join the Fellowship as a member because they feel that they belong here.  That’s what we want to hear, of course.  And many of the programs and activities in which we expect our members to take part, from Fellowship Circles and the Softball League to Second Sunday Lunch and Hospitality Teams, are really about celebrating and deepening that sense of belonging.  And they’re not exclusively for members, either, of course.

At the same time, we’re trying to be better about really living our vision of ourselves as an inclusive community, too.  That’s not about giving in to accepticemia, of course!  Rather, in regards to the “safe place” part of becoming “a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious [exploration] and service to the wider community”, the Board is developing an Allergy Policy to help us be more aware of those in this community who have what are in some cases life-threatening sensitivities.  To be clear, I’m not talking about merely disliking somebody’s perfume or aftershave, or having a personal preference against sliced onions in a salad.  I have a visceral loathing, for instance, of the overpoweringly “cinnamon” scented things that clog up the supermarkets at this time of year, but that’s not an allergy.  No, I’m talking about the person — adult or child — who needs to carry an epi-pen with them in case they accidentally ingest peanut and must then hope that, on the off-chance that they do, somebody else will have the gumption to slam that epi-pen into their thigh.  I’m talking about the person who’ll end up in hospital if they’re exposed to even the smallest amounts of an allergen, so we have a responsibility to ensure that how we do things, from serving food to maintaining our buildings, helps this to be a safe place for people with allergies, just as we want it to be for everyone.

And that, really, is what being the church of first resort is all about.  Obviously we have a responsibility to ensure that we don’t suffer from the sort of gross negligence of our faith that former UU Cindy called out in her “Dear John” letter, but that’s not enough.  We also have to be who we say we actually are, to be better at being who we say we actually want to be.  So, affirming our commitment to care for one another, we have a Caring Committee that regularly helps out individuals and families following child-birth or surgery or illness.  And we’re relaunching our Stewardship Committee as a reaffirmation of our year-‘round commitment to hold all of our members in community.  And I’m excited to report that we’re also starting a new program of home visits to help those members who have a hard time getting here for services or other programs.  It’s all about connection and belonging, and it’s doing that well that’ll make us the church of first resort.

We’re not there yet, but there are some signs that we’re getting there.  I already mentioned that, as a congregation, we’re LINK’s biggest supporter. That’s obviously something in which we should take great pride.  What you might not know is that we’re also known, by at least one local therapist, as a warm, welcoming community that can help people in their personal search for emotional and spiritual healing and wholeness.  And that’s the other part about being the church of first resort: it’s not just about actually being who we already say we are and should be, it’s also about being known for it.

So next Sunday, I invite you to share your love of this Fellowship by bringing a friend or a relative to services with you.  This is, I should emphasize, an invitation: you won’t be turned away at the door if you don’t have someone new with you, and I certainly don’t want to make anybody anxious about this.  But if there’s somebody you know in your life who might be interested in being part of this community, who might benefit from being here and belonging here — and trust me, there almost certainly is — then I invite you to ask them to come to services with you next Sunday, November 3rd.

My friends, let’s let our light shine.  Let’s live into our own vision for ourselves, let’s welcome all those who still haven’t found what they’re looking for, let’s be that safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth, let’s tend our own souls by caring for one another, let’s embrace that present moment that is such a gift to us, let’s help each other with all those “big with a lower-case b” challenges that life throws at us, and let’s share our good news with all those people who need us in their lives.  Let’s be the church of first resort.

So may it be.

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The Bittersweetness of Human Relationships

UUFP Blog

The good good-bye includes: acknowledging feelings, sharing memories,
offering praise, making a promise, and giving a final blessing.
— Danita Nolan

Olivia has recently started to wave good-bye to people when they’re leaving our house.  She seems to have an easier time saying words that begin with ‘B’, so the fact that she’s able to say “bye bye” isn’t too surprising; the fact that, in addition to the young child’s usual finger-bending wave, she sometimes does the wrist-twisting “royal” wave was rather less expected!  In any case, we haven’t really had much success getting her to wave hello — or if she does, she still says “bye bye” as if it were like “aloha” or “shalom”.  Of course, when she does wave “bye bye” it’s almost always in a context where “au revoir” or “see you again soon” would be appropriate.

Life is filled with many occasions to say either…

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