Thursday, March 30, 2006

Sermon: "Missions, Visions, and Next Steps: Oh, My!" (Delivered 3-19-2006)

My sermon last week, which I’ve already posted on my blog (in record turn-around time, no less) was all about what Unitarian Universalists – whether they be this congregation, or other congregations in our district, or the larger movement of which we are a part, or yours truly – are doing to serve those in need, change the world, advocate for those who are threatened or oppressed, and promote our values. It was about the types of things we are involved with outside of our walls.

Last week I talked about what we are doing out there. This week I’m going to talk about some of things we are doing in here, inside of our walls.

Needless to say, this is the season in our congregation when we pledge financial support of the church and its mission for the coming fiscal year. So, I want to take a moment and talk pre-emptively about that.

This being my third stewardship drive here at SMUUCh, there are some things that I’ve learned:

+ I’ve learned that people want the see a line item budget so they can scrutinize each proposed expenditure, except for the people who do not want to see such a budget, who find all the numbers overwhelming and unbearable.

+ I’ve learned that people want pie charts, graphs, numbers, trends, etc., with the exception of those people who say, “Whatever you do, don’t give me charts and graphs.”

+ Some people want to see proof that the leaders on the finance team, board, and stewardship committee have “done their work,” while others are just happy to assume that they have.

+ Some people expect an emotional appeal, while others want a humorous appeal, while others want a rational appeal, while others would prefer no appeal at all.

+ Some people want the minister to be front and center, while others would prefer that I have no part of it. And if I say how much I pledge and what percentage of my income that is, some people will have a strongly positive reaction and others a strongly negative reaction.

+ Some people want to know what others give, in broad terms, while others want to know what people give, more specifically. Some people want to compare themselves with others, while some people only compare themselves to themselves.

The experts are equally varied, advising that the pledge should be connected to the budget, and that it shouldn’t, that people should be taught to calculate their share and asked for a straight up tithe, and the appeal should be emotional rather than rational and rational rather than emotional.

So please, if there is something specific that you want to know, talk to a member of the board, or a member of the finance committee, or the Stewardship Committee, or myself and if they can’t give you the answer, they will help you find the information you’re looking for.

But the thing I really wanted to talk about was our mission and vision process.

A couple of months ago, the Strategic Planning Committee held a meeting to finalize the mission and vision statements that would then be passed on to the Board for adoption. The Strategic Planning Committee had people write cards during worship services last Spring, attend focus groups in the Fall, and had leaders, committees, and groups give input about their program areas. The Strategic Planning Committee was then faced with the task of giving shape to all the input they received, and naming what we’re about and what we’re working towards.

I want to tell a story from one of those meetings. It was at one of these committee gatherings that one member came in and exclaimed, “Last night I had a dream… a vision.” Catching a momentary break in the conversation, I added , “Now, remember, Joel 2:28 says, ‘Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.’” The entire committee looked at me as if I was loopy and finally, one member said, “I didn’t know there was a book in the Bible named Joel.”

Fortunately, I elected not to complete the verse from Joel, which goes on to say, “I will show portents in the heavens and on earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord to come.”

Which is to say, in a Biblically apocalyptic way, that visions and dreams are not small potatoes. In fact, in the book of Proverbs, is written, “Without a vision, the people perish.”

To describe what I’m going to try to talk about this morning, I’d like for everyone to imagine riding a bicycle. Now, has anyone ever tried to balance on a bicycle while the bicycle wasn’t moving? What happens when you do that? It’s virtually impossible to balance on a bicycle if it isn’t moving. Why is this? Why is it very easy to balance on a bicycle as long as it is moving? The answer is a fairly basic physics lesson. The scientific terminology for it is “angular momentum.” The force created by the spinning wheels on the bike creates a self-regulating momentum. And now for the kicker, if you care: you do not have any better balance on a moving bicycle than you do if you were to try to sit on one that wasn’t moving. It is just that on moving bicycle, the spin of the wheels exerts a regulating force on you that keeps you in line. That is why bike racers traveling at high speeds can lean far to one side or the other without crashing: angular momentum. When the bike is moving, you actually need less balance. Wider leans to one side or the other are possible without throwing off the whole system.

This is a metaphor for church life. I’m borrowing this concept from Brian McClaren. I really believe that Mission is that force that drives a church, and that when a church is following its mission, there is an angular momentum that exists that allows us to remain balanced and to move forward.

Applying this metaphor, that doesn’t mean spinning our wheels. It does mean that when we’re actually moving, disruptions have less impact and a greater diversity of energy in the system will not cause the organization to topple. When an organization isn’t moving, doesn’t have angular momentum, the smallest variation of weight will send it falling one way or another.

I’m speaking in metaphor, in analogy, but I do want to talk a little bit about our new mission and vision statement. The Mission portion of that statement, approved by the board, reads as follows: “Our mission is to invite everyone into caring community, inspire the search for spiritual growth, and involve all in working for a peaceful, fair, and free world.” Invite. Inspire. Involve. This is what keeps the bike balanced. Invite. Inspire. Involve. This is our gyroscope. Here you are invited: Come into caring community. Here you are inspired: Growth, deepening, transformation, development. Here you are involved: There is a meaningful, fulfilling role for you. Your presence matters.

Inviting, inspiring, involving – it is what is keeping us balanced on the bicycle, so to speak.

If the Mission is what keeps us balanced, the vision part is what we see in front of us, what we’re riding towards, where we’re trying to get to. The road to some of things we envision is not all that arduous. For other things, the path is a good bit difficult. For still others, it stretches us towards the horizon. The Strategic Planning Committee has created, and the Board has formally approved, a series of statements in eight different vision areas: Membership, Worship, Religious Education, Outreach, Social Action, Staff and Leadership, Facilities, and Stewardship. It is an impressive document.

Now, that we have an articulated mission, an aligning force, and an assorted array of vision statements, describing destinations we would hope to attain, what are the next steps? Currently, the Board is concerned with making sure we have a committee, or group, or staff person charged with carrying out and facilitating each part of the various vision statements. This will include new initiatives to fill in the gaps. One change the board is considering is having each board member serve as a liaison to a specific vision area.

Beyond these changes, the Board has also created a Facilities Task Force to explore and recommend what is required of us in order to best fulfill our Facilities Vision, which reads as follows: “SMUUCh has buildings and grounds that support and reflect our mission and values. We do this by: Providing appropriate facilities for worship, fellowship, education, programs, events, and staff; Allowing for growth of the congregation; Providing a welcoming environment for members and visitors; Being accessible to people with varied abilities; Following and promoting responsible environmental principles; and Communicating our identity as a religious community.”

Our proposed budget for next year was created with our mission and vision in mind. From membership, worship, and religious education, to social action and outreach, to leadership development and responsible staffing, to facilities – our budget is tied into the vision that we have set for ourselves, that we have claimed as our own, that we have dreamed together.

One of those vision areas that are already addressing is our Outreach Vision, which says that “SMUUCh is visible and recognized throughout the Kansas City area as a liberal religious community, having a presence in the media through news stories and advertising and hosting events that promote our values and that are designed to attract people to our community.”

In my April newsletter column I make reference to the story of the UU Church in Portland, Oregon and the way they successfully showed their identity to the community. Consider these words from their minister, Rev. Marilyn Sewell, describing the church taking a public stand on a homophobic ballot initiative in the early 1990’s:

“No sooner did I walk into the church office that August when I was greeted by Kathy Oliver of Outside-In, a social service agency for homeless teens that is located in a building on our church property. Kathy said she would like to call a press conference and tie a red ribbon around the entire block, declaring it a hate free zone. What a beautiful and simple concept! I lusted in my heart to claim the idea as my own – although I could not…

“I did not go to the Board for permission. I did not go to the congregation. I mean, what could anyone possibly say in opposition: “I’m for hate.” It is important to know that our stance makes us different from most churches. We were the only one in town who could make such a witness. The Presbyterian minister down the street from us agreed wholeheartedly with my stance, but had he wrapped a ribbon around the Presbyterian block he probably would have been strung up by that ribbon. As it was, he lost two pledges that year, totaling $100,000. As I told my congregation later, I wouldn’t have to worry about losing that kind of money from two pledgers no matter what I do.

“The press conference took place at noon one day early in September. The kids from Outside In had climbed on ladders all that morning wrapping the block with ribbon and putting up signs…

“The media began to arrive, and soon we had three TV stations, two radio stations, and a reporter from the newspaper. Kathy [and I] were to give speeches. A small crowd gathered to cheer us on. By chance, the Women’s alliance was having its first luncheon meeting of the year, and when they heard us outside, they all trooped out and joined in. This group is composed mostly of the elderly, establishment-looking women, the white-glove set, and so you can imagine the legitimacy and power of their presence and their voices at this event.

“I heard a speaker from the Alban Institute say that the single most important factor in church growth is having a strong and very visible identity. I think this element is crucial to our growth. ‘Identity’ it is something I hold up before our congregation to let them know of the importance of our witness, a liberal religious witness no other church can give quite so readily or so well. For churches like ours, identity is especially important. After all, many of the folks who would thrive in a community like ours are the ones who are often the most disdainful of church people as hopelessly fanatical and out of touch. They have this image because, for one thing, it is the fanatics who make the most noise.”

First Unitarian’s membership grew 41% that year. Around town it became known as the church with the ribbon. Around town it became known as “The Hate Free Zone.”

I am very proud to announce the series of evolution classes we will be teaching during the month of April. I’m very proud, even though it has been a member who has done all the hard work of organizing the speakers. Will this be our red-ribbon moment? Who knows. But it is a risk worth taking. How do I know this? I know this because ribbons have never put themselves up. I know this because the world will continue to be exactly what it is, unless we show up.

As we are kept balanced by the gyroscopic force of our mission. As we are drawn forward by the horizons of our vision. As we dream, and plan, and carry out the next steps… we’ll do it in true UU style – with the ability to laugh, and rejoice, and say, “Yes” to life. In a world with so much hardship, sorrow, pain, hatred, oppression, and fear, it is an act of defiance and of courage to laugh, to smile, to show up, to stand up, and to stand with those who share your dreams.