The words church and God in the reading may have made some of you uncomfortable. Listen to your discomfort. It can be a good thing. In the story I told the children, I imagine the person who was asked the question about the purpose of the church was more than a little uncomfortable.
So why are we here? Why are you here? Why does the Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma even exist? History could be referred to of course; there were reasons this congregation was formed. We could ask some of the founding members what they were trying to do, what they dreamed, but that isn’t the whole answer. Congregations are living things, and they change over time as the members change. New people add something, others leave and we lose their continued contributions, although something of their spirits always remains. The individual members change as well. Our founders are not the same people they were when they formed this congregation. Life brings change to the world, to individuals, and to congregations.
Think back, if you will, about what you were looking for when you first attended this church. How has that changed over time, and how have you changed?
I love questions. I think most Unitarian Universalists love questions. One could even say that asking questions is a part of our free faith.
We don’t have creeds, but instead we have guidelines for ethical behavior, which is what our seven principles are about. This is not a faith tradition where everyone can do whatever they might feel like doing, whenever they feel like doing it. It is an accepting tradition; we do acknowledge our imperfection. We aspire to high ideals and know we will still sometimes fail, sometimes dismally. That is OK, but the demanding part of our faith is that we keep trying. We have goals and visions of the world we would like to create. It isn’t an easy task.
We have a mission statement here. It says what we are supposed to be doing here together, on Sundays and throughout the week.
The mission statement is on the banner behind me. “Live your sacred, transform with love, act with courage.”
It is a pretty great statement, I think. Do you all like it too?
But what does it mean? Sacred means a lot of different things to people, which is why it says “your sacred” not “the sacred.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson said,
“A person will worship something – have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts – but it will out.
That which dominated our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”
Some people worship money or success. Some are dominated by a quest for power. Some worship beauty or truth, the quest for knowledge, or simple happiness and joy.
Some people come to services on Sundays to learn how to be a better person. Is that true for you? It matters how we live our lives and how we treat each other. Character also includes other things like integrity and responsibility, practicing compassion and forgiveness, being open minded, curious, inspired to make a positive difference with our lives, both for the people we are close to and for the wider community and world. Learning to transform through love is part of that.
Some people come to enrich their own spirits, to feel whole and to experience joy and sorrow in ways that are real. A religious community needs to provide comfort to those that are hurting. Has this community ever done that for you when you were having a hard time?
Unitarian Universalism is not a “sit back and enjoy your own spiritual understanding.” We aren’t navel gazers. No, we are called to serve, and spiritual growth is what fuels our social action. We can learn to love the whole world, including ourselves – and we can learn to “act with courage.”
But why do you come here? Why do we need a congregation like this one here in this town? Why do we need a religion like Unitarian Universalism in the world?
Think for a minute about why you came here this morning. Not why you came in the past, but why you came today. You are here after all, so you must have a reason for coming.
What are some of them? Go ahead and shout them out. I know some of you are not shy.
Robin Bartlett, a Unitarian Universalist Religious educator, in her blog post from which our reading was taken, has heard a lot of people say they come to church for their children, because the children are asking questions about God, or because a neighbor or friend is trying to recruit them into a more conservative religion.
Some people say they come to church because the sermons are entertaining. The crazy preacher can be really funny; you never know just what she will say. You could find much better entertainment, however, on TV, in the movies.
Maybe you come for the music, but you can find great music a lot of places, at concerts, festivals, and on I-tunes.
Some people say they come for the intellectual stimulation, to hear words and ideas that make them think. Of course, you could attend a college level lecture for that. There are a lot of other places you can go to stimulate your brain cells.
Maybe you come because you care about social justice. This community works very hard in many ways to bring more justice, equity, and compassion into our world.
But if social justice action is your only reason, there are literally thousands of other groups you could join that are doing fabulous work for a wide variety of social causes.
If you are looking for inspiration here, for motivation, for ideas on how to live in this complex world, you could read poetry, listen to TED talks, or join a self-help group.
If you are hurting and looking for comfort or if you are trying to find yourself, you could go into therapy.
Some people come to church to make friends, or even to find a life partner. You could also do that at a bar, a health club, a bowling league, or through social media.
Some people also come to church to find God, the holy, to connect with their inherent spirituality. There are also other ways to do that. Go out in nature, watch a sunset, plant flowers, or play with your children. You will surely find the holy there.
Did I cover everything?
I did forget one, which reminds me of a joke.
It’s Sunday morning and the alarm goes off. A woman turns over in bed and groans. She turns to her partner and moans. I don’t want to go to church today. I know the sermon is going to be boring.
People will ask me to do things I don’t have time for. I’d rather just stay home and sleep in today. Her partner turns to her with a sigh.
Honey, you have to go to church today. “Why? Why do I have to go to church?”
The answer? “Honey, you have to go to church because you are the minister.”
There are many reasons to come to church, but unless you are the minister, there are many other options. Even ministers can decide on a different career choice. Almost none of us are do it for the money in any case.
But how many places can you go where all of those reasons can apply?
Robin Bartlett tells us to go to church
“for community, for learning, for solidarity, for a good word, for love, for hope, for comfort, even for salvation. Go to church because you can’t imagine not going. Go to church because (of what) your church …demands of you. Go to church because you cry in the worship service at least once a month. Go to church because you look forward to seeing the people.
Go to church because your church forces you to put your money where your mouth is–to use your financial resources to make a statement about what has worth. Go to church because you are known here. Go to church because you want to be known. Go to church because you pray for this same imperfect, rag-tag group of people all week until you meet again. Go to church because you need to in order to get through your week.
Go to church because if you miss a week, you feel like something was really missing in your life. Go to church because your church community helps you to go deeper; to risk transformation; to yank you further down a path–to ultimate reality, to truth, to God–kicking and screaming. Go to church because it is a statement to yourself and your children about what has value and meaning. Go to church to find your purpose and live it. Give yourself the gift of church.” http://uuacreligiouseducation.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/dont-go-to-church-for-your-children/
She goes on to say, specifically addressing parents who say they come to church for their children,
“If church is not a gift for you, it won’t be a gift for your children.
You know that old (line) that we borrow from (the) plane instructions we hear read by flight attendants–… apply your own oxygen mask first before you apply your child’s, right? Well, you are your child’s religious educator and oxygen mask. Not our (religious exploration) curricula. Not our volunteer teachers. Not (the) minister. You. That’s a big responsibility, and (maybe) you don’t feel up to the task because (few) of us do.
But if we aren’t getting our spiritual needs met–our religious yearnings satiated; our deepest cries in the night soothed; our need to serve and be served; our God-sized hole occasionally filled, emptied and then filled up again– then we are never going to be up to the task of helping our children do the same.”
She says, “Don’t go to church for your children; go to church for you. You deserve it. Your children deserve it. And this brutal and beautiful world needs you to.”
That last line is worth repeating, “This brutal and beautiful world needs you to.” How important is this congregation, how important is Unitarian Universalism, not just to those of us who gather here each Sunday, but also to others in our town, in our state, in our country, in our world. I think we offer a vital service by thriving as a faith. We offer hope to the young person wondering if their life is worth living because they are gay, to the man just released from prison expecting to be shunned by everyone he meets, to the recovering alcoholic, to the person who is homeless, to the eccentric thinker who everyone else thinks is just crazy, to the members of conservative religions who worry that their questions are somehow sinful, and to all the people who are suffering in so many ways from a culture that is far from accepting of differences and difficulties. Even if they never find their way here, even if they never sit in this room with us, if they know about us, we have given them some hope. We have made a difference. We have offered an alternative, a radical alternative, a community based on love.
So if you have been thinking this morning about the reasons you come here, I assume you have thought of more than a few.
I have another question for you.
How much would it cost if you went other places to get what you find here at this church? How much more would you be spending on tuition, on therapy, on concert and movie tickets, or on drinks in a bar, if you did not come to church?
What about the things that are truly priceless? How could you possibly meet anywhere else the diverse and wonderful people we have here in this religious community? Where else would you be welcomed with such open and loving arms no matter who you are and how you are feeling? Where else are tears and laughter both not only acceptable, but treated as precious?
Our theology is about life, about continual new beginnings, second, third and fourth chances. It is a life-saving, life enhancing theology.
This congregation is at a point of transition and there are some decisions to make about your future. There will be plenty of time to explore the options, but as you do so please keep in mind not only why you are here, but why others might be here, and why this faith is so needed in our world. Amen, As-salāmu alaykum, and Namaste.
I have held a lot of different jobs during my life, but after that reading, maybe I should add spiritual bartender to list. Like many bartenders, ministers are listeners and we try to provide what our congregants need in terms of pastoral care and spiritual nourishment.
So, what kind of spiritual cocktail are you looking for here? Is it pure humanism, with maybe just a dash of the mystical? Do you want a pagan chaser or how about some wisdom from the Bible as the olive in your martini? Some of you like wine, and some of you prefer beer. Some just want the seven-up of social justice or the pure clear water of the spirit. We serve up all sorts of theologies here, but we try to serve all of them from the perspective of Unitarian Universalism. It is the container that holds us together and reminds us that reason and science are equal partners with mystery and spirit.
Being a minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not an easy thing. Everyone wants something different, and crafting a worship service where every individual’s spiritual, emotional, and intellectual needs will be met is nearly an impossible task. It is also very easy to trigger someone’s bad memories with a word or phrase. It is nice if folks can try to remember that they aren’t the only person that this congregation is trying to serve. You might prefer coffee, but we need to offer tea as well. If you hate it, no one will force you to drink it, but let other people have their caffeine in a way that works for them.
It is also possible that we may not have everyone’s preferred brand of spirit here. Some people may want clear cut answers to all their questions and a set of beliefs that exactly match their own understanding of the world. Those folks might need to find what they want at another bar – er – church.
Enough with the bar metaphor! I want to talk about church growth dynamics.
This congregation has been what is called a family church for most of its existence. The easiest definition of a family church is an average of not much more than 50 people attending the Sunday services.
Congregations, particularly small ones, are called family churches because they tend to function in very similar ways to real families. Some of this functioning is very emotionally satisfying. Family churches can be wonderful. Everyone knows everyone else, and love and trust can be built over time. When an issue comes up, people just talk about whatever it is. The board has very little actual power in a family church, but a few trusted individuals can usually be depended upon to offer wise counsel to the group.
Those folks are the ones that usually welcome new people, bringing them into the circle and introducing them around. Joining a small family church is kind of like being adopted. It can feel great! You have a new family, people that will love and accept you no matter what!
How we yearn for that, especially those of us who may have grown up in families that were less than accepting.
In a family style church, people that show up, do the work, and who often also donate a lot of money have the most real say in what happens. Almost all of these folks sincerely believe that they have the best interests of the entire congregation at heart. But it is not really democratic, at least not in the sense of “one person one vote.” Families just aren’t very democratic, something Anne and I made clear to our kids, but new church members can take a while to understand how decisions are really made in family sized churches. It takes some time to be adopted and even longer to be known as a valued member of the family, someone whose opinion and feelings matter to almost everyone else.
As I said earlier, UUP has been a family church for years, and is, in fact, a very healthy one. You have had smart and dedicated leadership. You have had vision and courage. You have also taken some steps toward growing larger. Moving to this location was one such step. You also increased Rev. Mary’s hours until she was half-time and you gave her some authority as your minister. You hired me, also half-time, to help you decide what you wanted to do about the future.
I have said to you before that there is nothing wrong with being a congregation with 50 or so members, functioning as a family church.
I have now changed my mind about that.
Up until a couple of weeks ago, I did not think there was anything wrong with deciding to stay a small close knit family church, tending mainly to the needs of the current members, and just inviting in a few new people every so often, people that fit in and that like the way you already do things.
But our world has changed. We saw that when our attendance at worship right after the election doubled. Many people in our wider community are looking for exactly what Unitarian Universalism can offer. If we can have a truly open and inclusive theology, if our worship services are usually both deep and spirit-filled, we can help people renew their energy and soothe their souls so they can go back out into the world to do the work of justice. We could actually be a center, a focal point, for justice making in this community, and a real-life model for what the world could be if we all really lived according to our life enhancing principles.
I don’t think deciding to stay small would be an ethical decision in these times. Our town and our world need us too much now.
And I know that if I asked each of you, the vast majority of you would say that the growth of Unitarian Universalism is important to you and to the world at large.
But growth brings change and also requires change.
Continuing to function as a family church just won’t work if you want to grow.
The reason is a simple sociological truth.
The maximum number of people who can all know each other relatively well is roughly 50. If you want to grow much beyond that then your organizational structure needs to change to accommodate growth. Your membership is in the 90’s but the average attendance at most worship services has been well under 50.
The way to do that is to move into being a pastoral church. This type of church was described in our reading.
“The Pastoral Church averages 50 to 150 people on Sundays. In this size of church, the role of both the minister and the board shifts toward the center of the system. The board’s responsibility for making decisions on behalf of the church increases.”
In this representative style democracy, the influence of some individuals will decrease, especially for those who are not on the board or on a committee. At the same time, the influence of newer members can increase because when the board of a pastoral church gets input from the membership, everyone is invited. It is one person one vote.
The board holds the vision of the congregation and works to fulfill its mission. The minister is both a member of the board and in an equal partnership with them in both caring for and leading the congregation.
In a pastoral church, the minister usually full-time, preaches at least 3 times a month and is granted full authority over all worship services so that there is consistency both in quality and grounding in our faith tradition. New people in a pastoral sized church tend to connect with the minister first, rather than being “adopted” by one of the church lay leaders. Everyone no longer knows everyone else, but the minister can know almost everyone. One person can easily know 100-150 people. 150 people can also know the minister and all of the board members.
If attendance increases, but the style of functioning doesn’t also change, some people will inevitably become marginalized. There just isn’t room in the family-style system for more that 50 people. Marginalized people will leave.
Change is not easy. All change involves some loss.
For those of you who have really loved being part of a small church that feels like family, where you know almost everyone, where you are comfortable, the idea of growth can be frightening.
So, what will need to change if you really want to grow?
Worship is one area. You have a fine worship committee, they understand worship and they work very hard. But some of the services you have can work against growth.
Sometimes you pass the microphone around during the service and everyone gets a chance to comment on the topic. Services like that can be great for a small group of people that all know each other well. It can increase intimacy for people that are already part of the family system. Even a less than stellar lay lead service can be heartwarming for the members that know and love the individual presenting. Both of those types of services, however, can be very off-putting and alienating for many new people. If you want to grow, services like that won’t work well anymore. Chalice Circles, our small group ministry, can fulfill some of need for intimacy, but not having it in worship would be a loss that most of you will grieve.
And then there is content. I have been asked if using “God” language is necessary for growth. The short answer is “yes.”
No one expects that everyone in the congregation will want to pray or will find meaning in the language of reverence, but excluding the spiritual, not talking about the great mystery of life in all kinds of different ways, including prayer and “God” language excludes people that are looking for that very thing in an atmosphere of acceptance and diversity of beliefs. If you want to grow, your worship needs to feed the spirits of people with a wide variety of beliefs.
We can’t turn hungry people from our doors, people that need us, people that we need. We need to offer them bread that will feed them.
None of us are here to hurt each other, but it is hard work learning how to be in a really diverse religious community. If we can accept and be gentle with one another here, we can heal some of the old hurts of our individual pasts, while finding the courage to really embrace diversity. It is part of how we can bring more hope and compassion into the world.
There is one more change I have to mention. At our last congregational listening circle, no one said their name before they spoke. The assumption was that “everyone knows everyone.” It wasn’t true that day and it definitely won’t be true if we continue to grow. Please say who you are and wear your name tags. You may know everyone, but everyone doesn’t know you.
The board will be scheduling a meeting after the first of the year to discuss issues of growth and some of the possibilities for a future minister after my time with you is done. I hope most of you will attend, to listen and learn from others, as well as to express your own opinions and preferences.
It was hard for me to do this sermon today, focusing on issues that don’t seem to have much to do with what is happening in the world. I do believe, however, that it is all connected. I believe that love is deep and love is wide. I will end with this poem I read at the gathering last Thursday, where people gathered to begin the work of creating safety for Petaluma’s diverse population. It is by Denise Levertov. I will read it twice,
For the New Year, 1981
I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.
I need more.
I break off a fragment
to send you.
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.
Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.
Only so, by division,
will hope increase,
like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source–
clumsy and earth-covered–
May we all share our small fragments of hope, may we all find the grace to meet fear and hate with grace and love. Always love. Blessed Be.
After last week, with all the Dog and God jokes after the service, the line in the reading about the minister of a pastoral-sized church being a spiritual bartender, made me wonder what sort of jokes we would come up with this week.
What kind of spiritual cocktail are you looking for? Is it pure humanism, with maybe just a dash of the mystical? Do you want a pagan chaser or how about some wisdom from the Bible as the olive in your martini? Some of you like wine, and some of you prefer beer. Some just want the seven-up of social justice or the pure clear water of the spirit. We serve up all sorts of theologies here, but we try to serve all of them from the perspective of Unitarian Universalism. It is the container that holds us together and reminds us that reason and science are equal partners with mystery and spirit.
Being a minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not an easy thing. Everyone wants something different, and crafting a worship service where at least some of every individual’s spiritual, emotional, and intellectual needs will be met is nearly an impossible task. It is nice if folks can try to remember that they aren’t the only person that this congregation is trying to serve. You might prefer coffee, but we need to offer tea as well.
It is also possible that we may not have everyone’s preferred brand of spirit here and some people will need to find what they want at another bar – er – church.
Enough with the bar metaphor! I want to talk about our family church.
This congregation has been what is called a family church for most of its existence. The easiest definition is an average of not much more than 50 people attending the Sunday services. You were much larger at one time, however, and I have heard you even had a very large religious education program with many children enrolled.
Congregations, particularly small ones, are called family churches because they tend to function in very similar ways to real families. Some of this functioning is very emotionally satisfying. Pretty much everyone knows everyone else. When an issue comes up, people just talk about whatever it is. They have “town hall meetings” where decisions are made. The board has very little actual power in a family church. Family churches can be wonderful. Everyone knows everyone else, and love and trust can be built over time. A few trusted individuals can usually be depended upon to offer wise counsel to the group and to get the important things done.
Those folks are the ones that usually welcome new people, bringing them into the circle and introducing them around. Joining a small family church is kind of like being adopted. It can feel great! You have a new family, people that will love and accept you no matter what! How we yearn for that, especially those of us who may have grown up in families that were less than accepting.
Those same trusted individuals, in a family church pretty much run everything. They decide what newcomers get adopted. They usually have veto power over anything new that that they don’t think is a particularly good idea. They have this power because they are loved and trusted, because everyone knows them well and listens to them. In the literature on church governance, they are referred to as the matriarchs and patriarchs. There can be one or two, but usually not more than four. Usually they are elders, but not always.
A matriarch or patriarch can be anyone who has a lot of personal power and influence, regardless of whether or not they have an official role as a board member or committee chair.
All of you who have been around for a while can probably name several people who have had this kind of personal power here over the years.
The individuals with the power can change over time, lay leaders can be driven out if the congregation feels they have exceeded their authority – or worse, made a bad decision. I suspect this has happened more than once here.
People who challenge the authority of the church leaders can also be driven out. I also suspect that has happened here.
There is an emotional component to all of this too.
Most of the matriarchs and patriarchs do a lot of the work, or give a lot of the money, and as a result feel like their opinion really should count for more. In a family style church, that is exactly what happens. They insist, and no one really wants to offend them so they get what they want most of the time. If they don’t get what they want, sometimes they leave in a huff, taking their money and their time and energy elsewhere. Almost all of these folks sincerely believe that they have the best interests of the congregation at heart. But it is not really democratic, at least not in the sense of “one person one vote. “
Family churches are just like real families in other ways. Some are healthy and others are, well, pretty dysfunctional. Some of you probably gathered with some difficult family members over the holidays. Healthy families and churches establish good boundaries for their more troubled members. All of us have some issues; all of us have been damaged in some way by our life experiences. No one is perfect and we all have a need for both healing and growth. But sometimes it is more than that. All families and all churches have members whose issues are so serious that clear boundaries on their behavior need to be established for the protection of the other members and the family or church as a whole.
A real family might invite the cousin who has a conviction for child pornography to dinner, but they don’t let him hang out after dinner playing computer games with the kids.
The uncle who can’t seem to help making sexual and sexist comments, might be tolerated by his family. But he is also told to be quiet when he gets really offensive. No one ever asks him to say grace.
We all also have different skill levels. Someone who can’t cook isn’t asked to bake the pies for a family dinner, at least not without some serious supervision.
Boundaries are important in families and in churches. Everyone can be accepted and loved, but not just any one should be on the board of trustees or chair a committee.
As I said earlier, this fellowship has been a family church for years, sometimes growing toward health and sometimes struggling.
You have worked hard on improving how you are with each other, and you have tried to grow. It has worked for a time, but in reality, things have stayed pretty much the same over the long term: 50 members, a few more of less. There have been periods of good boundaries and improved communication styles and times where dysfunction has ruled and people were even known to disrupt the Sunday service.
There is nothing wrong with being a congregation with 50 or so members, functioning as a family church.
It is important to understand, however, that in order to grow beyond that number and to become financially sustainable, continuing to function as a family church just won’t work.
The reason is simple. The maximum number of people who can all know each other is roughly 50. If you want to be larger than that, and frankly you need to be larger to be able to afford both a minister and a building, then your organizational structure needs to change to accommodate growth.
In the meetings you held with your interim minister, the Rev. Joy Atkinson it was clear that most of you wanted to change. An overall goal was described by the phrase.
“Catalyzing the transformation of BFUU into a sustainable and vibrant congregation, capable of thriving in a challenging future.”
This is what your board of trustees and I have been trying to achieve.
The only way to do that is to move into being a pastoral church. This type of church was described in our reading as well.
The Pastoral Church averages 50 to 150 people on Sundays. In this size of church, the role of both the minister and the board shifts toward the center of the system. The board’s responsibility for making decisions on behalf of the church increases.
The individual power of the matriarchs and the patriarchs decreases. Town hall meetings are no longer where most decisions are made. The board gets input from the congregation when needed, but they establish almost all the policies during their meetings. They hold the vision and work to fulfill the mission. The minister in a pastoral church is also granted full authority over the worship services so that there is some consistency in quality and grounding in our faith tradition. People in a pastoral sized church tend to connect with the minister first, rather than being “adopted” by one of the church lay leaders. Everyone no longer knows everyone else, but the minister can know almost everyone. One person can easily know 100-150 people. 150 people can also know the minister and all of the board members.
If attendance increases, but the style of functioning doesn’t change, some people will inevitably become marginalized. There just isn’t room in the family-style system for more that 50 people. Marginalized people leave.
Alice Mann, in her GA workshop on navigating size transitions in congregations, said this,
“When a church is changing sizes, it has to dismantle one way of doing things, and construct a new way…that’s called transition, and it is always uncomfortable. It can be stimulating and life giving, but it is always uncomfortable. Sizes can go upward and downward…but it is hard to be in a growing church that doesn’t want to let go of the old way of doing things.
People need to sociologically ‘rearrange the chairs’ to accommodate the change.”
Transformation, a fancy word for deep substantive change, is not easy. All change involves some loss. Even leaving a bad relationship involves some grief over what might have been. This congregation is undergoing deep change. It is undergoing fairly rapid change. We are rearranging the chairs, sometimes literally.
Some think we are going to fast, but slow and very incremental change usually fails, as the desire to retain what is comfortable and safe is strong. Sometimes you just have to go cold turkey. We need to make the changes that need to be made and get on with what we need to do. Has anyone ever successfully quit smoking by just “cutting back” on a few cigarettes a day?
The board has been stepping up to their role of being a real governing body. As your minister, I have changed the Sunday service format and content so that the services are hopefully more focused and more spiritual. Some elements that were popular with some have been eliminated. Joys and sorrows is the big one and having a variety of different people making their own announcements is another. The restriction on announcements is simply to limit the “business aspects” of our gatherings so that is clearer that we are a religious gathering and not just a social club. That we have stopped passing a microphone around for people to express their own joys and sorrows is very hard for some people. I understand that.
We all remember times when something particularly moving was shared. Sometimes speaking of a deep pain in front of a congregation of friends is been truly healing. Something very special and precious was lost when we stopped passing the microphone around. It is OK to grieve that loss.
But we have lost other things too. Things most of you likely don’t miss very much. Because always, there will be someone in any room, if given a microphone, who will take the floor and just ramble on. People will share trivial things just to have a chance to speak. Sometimes what they say can be deeply offensive. In a small family church, inappropriate behavior is often excused. Oh, that’s just Joe, he always talks about the same thing. We know him and love him anyway. Mary always sounds like she is angry with the whole congregation, maybe the whole world, but we know her and know she is doing it from a place of love.
If you have experienced joys and sorrows in this or other Unitarian Universalist congregations, you likely have your own examples of things that most likely should have been better left unsaid.
My sense of this congregation is that while some people would like to return to that practice, there are others who are quite relieved that we aren’t doing it anymore. Anyone?
But the truth is, even if most people like it, it is a practice that tends to keep a congregation small.
It can work OK when “everyone knows everyone” and excuses can be made when individuals get carried away, but if you have more that 50 people in the room, there will be some people who have no idea who the speaker is and it can be a real turn off and embarrassing – especially for an introverted newcomer who is looking for a safe and meaningful Sunday morning experience.
The shift from family church to pastoral church, trying to break the 50 member maximum is what the board and I have been working on as a way of “Catalyzing the transformation of BFUU into a sustainable and vibrant congregation, capable of thriving in a challenging future.”
Even if we can accomplish this change, and the jury is still out although I believe much progress has been made, it doesn’t mean we can’t keep the feeling of being a family. We can be warm and welcoming to everyone who enters this space, whoever they are. We can love each other. We can forgive each other. We can honor our past and move boldly into the future. May it be so!
Money is part of it. How much you have (or don’t have) relates directly to the power you have in the world. Money buys security. It you have enough of it, you can even buy a Congressman, or at least a member of the state legislature. In some states, they go pretty cheap. If you don’t have money, you can’t take care of yourself and your family. You are at the mercy of the generosity of strangers or the rapidly shrinking social safety net. People who have money have class, at least most of the time. Remember all that talk about old money vs new money? Old money was classier than new, even if you didn’t have it anymore. I think I got that from old novels. Maybe it isn’t true any more. There are a lot of homeless people these days that grew up middle class or even wealthy.
Education is part of it. It isn’t just the degrees or the academic knowledge, it is understanding the cultural references, and how you compose your sentences. Remember My Fair Lady? Liza had to lose her accent. She had to learn to speak all over again.
But class is more than money and education. It’s how you move in the world. It is what you take for granted. Its how cultured and refined you are. Do you speak bluntly or do you talk around an issue? There a millions of class based clues to try and navigate. Ethnicity matters too, but class can even trump race at times.
I worked for the Social Security Administration in Richmond, CA for twenty five years. It was a large office with close to 2000 employees before the work was computerized. There was a clear class divide between the file clerks and the technicians and the managers. The office was very racially diverse at all levels of the organization, and the class lines seemed more firmly drawn than those of race. There were a lot of opportunities for promotion, however, and only about half of the technicians and managers had been to college. Even among the college graduates, very few had grown up middle class and I never met anyone there who had grown up wealthy. It makes some sense. A government job, at least in those days, offered security, something very important to those of us who grew up in families that struggled to pay the bills. Money and education created a divide, but there was still a common language and a common culture because most of us had come from similar places. The higher status employees could relate to the clerks and their lower income level because they had been there themselves. It was a culture I was very comfortable in.
Then I discovered Unitarian Universalism. The seven principles seemed to be very clear. Wealth, power, education, and status didn’t matter, everyone had inherent worth and dignity and we would work together for liberty and justice for all.
I still love Unitarian Universalism, but it is well past time to start dealing with the class issues within our movement. We are still a largely white and middle to upper middle class denomination. Most of our congregations, although they say they welcome everyone, can feel like a foreign country to people who are working or lower class. Like beer better than wine? Watch TV? Sitcoms or reality shows – not just PBS, the History Channel, or the Daily Show. Do you have a job in retail – or worse the dreaded Wal-mart? I don’t shop at Wal-mart because I can afford not to and because I don’t like the way they treat their employees. But should I roll my eyes and look down my nose at someone who does? Can’t I respect their inherent worth and dignity too? Should I greet a first time visitor the the church with a question about what they do for a living? If they are a young adult, should I ask them where they go to college?
Our faith, our wonderful faith, should not be reserved for those that already have power and privilege. If anything, those that are struggling need us even more. We don’t have to dumb down the theology, but it would help if we could be a little more concrete in our preaching and use some examples that regular people can relate to. If we just have to use 75 cent words to get our point across, for goodness sakes it wouldn’t kill us to define them. How about some variety in the music? Classical is fine, but if you did not grow up with it it gets boring really fast. It wouldn’t change our theology to include more rock, hip hop, show tunes, and (shock) even some country. Singing Kum Ba Yah doesn’t cut it. (I actually like Kum Ba Yah, but only once every two years or so or around a campfire.) Increase the tempo of your hymns. Make the sermons more interactive. Appeal to the heart as well as to the intellect.
That’s some of what you can do in your churches. On a national level, I also think we need to start giving some financial help to the churches that struggling because they have more economic diversity among their membership. My experience is that those with lower incomes actually tend to be more generous than the wealthy as a proportion of what they have. They know what things costs. But if you have a lot of poor people in your church, even with their generosity, it can make it hard to pay the bills, especially if you are trying to pay your fair share to the Annual Program Fund. Yes, we say we honor the “widow’s mite”, but do we really?
We also say we want to grow Unitarian Universalism. How can we grow if we restrict our message to those in an increasingly narrow demographic.? The middle class is shrinking rapidly, in case you haven’t noticed.
One of the many things I love about the church that I serve is the class diversity we have. OK, we don’t have anyone who is super wealthy, but we have a few upper middle class folks. We also have members on food stamps or that have lived in homeless shelters. Most folks are somewhere in between: truck drivers, electricians, schoolteachers, retail, and clerical workers. It is a comfort. No one is snooty. We have a number of members who have been in prison. Try getting a job, or even housing with a felony on your record. We have wine lovers and beer drinkers and recovering alcoholics. This can and should be a large faith, much bigger, wider and more welcoming than we are now. We need to open our doors and our hearts and let everybody in.