Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sermon: "The Minister's Report" (Delivered 5-21-06)

It is only appropriate, on the Sunday that we gather for our Annual Congregational Meeting, that I offer some thoughts and observations. And, whereas we value such things as conciseness and brevity at our Annual Meetings, and whereas those qualities of conciseness and brevity are not traits that ministers tend to embody, I decided to exercise a bit of privilege and share my report as a sermon.

Many of you, especially those of you who are newer to this church, may be wondering what a congregational meeting is all about. It is the time in the year when the congregation votes to elect officers, hears other brief informational presentations, and, occasionally, votes on other matters of congregational importance. We do this because our model of governance is rooted in democracy. The fifth of our seven principles impels us to affirm and promote the use of the democratic process in our churches and in society at large. It has been said that democracy is the human realization of a theological idea.

One thing is certain about democracy: It has worth only to the extent that it is exercised, to the extent that it is practiced. The same thing, by the way, is true of faith. And like our faith development, our system of congregational governance and organization is a hands-on enterprise. This church, right here and right now, is whatever we cause it to be. What we are, or what we fail to be, is directly correlated to whoever shows up, or doesn't show up. It is the day-to-day efforts of all of us that cause this church to be what it is, every day and in every way.

It is only proper to begin by thanking those who have been Board members, task force members, committee chairs, and committee members. These words of thanks need to begin with the work of the Strategic Planning Committee who led us in forming our Mission & Vision statements, and the next incarnation of that work, the Facilities Task Force, who are currently working to translate what our Mission and Vision mean for us in terms of our facilities. Their work is incredibly important. We should all be interested and anticipating the work of this group.

I also need to thank several people who are on their way to concluding several years of distinguished service in leadership positions here at SMUUCh. In particular, I lift up the efforts of our outgoing treasurer and Finance Committee Chair. If you aren't serving on a committee, I'd like to encourage you to pursue a position of leadership and service.

I said this sermon is going to be a report from me, and that is sort of a truth. But while I could supply a list of my various activities (this many sermons; that many committee meetings; a certain number of hospital visits and counseling sessions; some weddings; some classes taught; some work with the youth; some leadership in the community) most of the things I am excited to report are not things for which I can claim any special credit. These are things, like the Evolution Class, Rev. Barbara Pescan visiting as our Distinguished Guest Minister, our New Mission & Vision statements, our many, many service projects and collections, for which various among you can take credit.

If I had to lift up three key themes from this past year, they would be Generosity, Growth, and Engagement. Conveniently, they all begin with G (well, except for the last one.) OK, so Generosity, Growth, and Getting Out There.

First, Generosity. This is a very generous congregation. That is the truth. I refer not only to our successful stewardship campaign, of which we should be proud. We are now a financially healthy congregation, which could not always be said of us. We are moving towards a culture of abundance, where the answer is "yes" and we look forward, rather than a culture of scarcity, where we are paralyzed by anxiety and we worry about making it through the week. We are generous with our lives, generous with ourselves, and generous with our time. We are generous with the welcome we extend.

That leads me to the second thing to mention: Growth. Thirty-seven new members joined the church this year. Thirty-seven. That is very cool. Welcome! What this says to me is that we are a church that people want to come to. People are hungry for liberal religious community. People want transformation, connection, to be a part of the good things we are about.

And finally, Engagement, Getting Out There. Increasingly, we're doing this. From a member going to Rwanda and Haiti, and then bringing the major business players in Kansas City together to make a difference in global health, to a new member leading us in Habitat for Humanity, to putting up signs for Evolution, to Sara Sautter leading the children in community projects – as a congregation we are increasingly outward-facing. This is a sign of health. According to many of the best and brightest thinkers on religious systems, being too inwardly-focused is a sign of narcissism, privilege, and poor faith. These experts say that the more outward-facing a church is, the easier the work of internal institution-tending becomes.

I said I was going to give you a report, but before I do so, I'm going to do some theology with you. This theology is important. This theology we're going to do has to do with the theology, the meaning, of what we're all about when we get together as a church.

We all are familiar with Abraham Lincoln's famous quip about government being of, by, and for the people. Many of us don't know he plagiarized that line from a sermon by the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. But I want to talk about the of, by, and for of church. So, my three theological questions are these: Who runs the church? Who is the church for? And, who are the stewards of the church?

To answer these questions, I want to go back nearly 400 years to a wonderful and tedious piece of writing called "The Cambridge Platform". That is the document written by our religious forebears, that spelled out to our religious forebears, how churches organized and operated. We've been doing church in this way for nearly 400 years. Some of you may say, “Well, who cares about this four hundred year old piece of paper?” Please, don’t head for the exits just yet. This document informs the way we organize, why we choose ministers the way we do, why we have annual meetings. We don't make board members and committee chairs read it anymore, only seminary students, but it is what shapes the way we do church. Go look it up. By the way, this document spelling out how we organize as a church is almost 150 years older than the constitution! And almost 100 years older than the Methodist system of governance.

First question: Whose church is this? What do you think? Well, according to the Cambridge Platform, the church actually belongs to God, and Christ is the head of the church. Clearly, that is not the theology we tend to use today. But I think our religious forebears were onto something. You notice, they didn't make the minister the head of the church. They didn't make the board president head of the church. They didn't make the loudest voice, or biggest pledger, the head of the church. Today, I think it would be more appropriate to say that the spirit of the liberal religious tradition, the great hope and vision of liberal religion, the principles of liberal religion – that is what we report to, that to which we owe our responsibility, our dedication, our commitment. We answer, finally, to the great hope of liberal religion. We answer finally to something larger than ourselves.

Next question: Who is the church for? I want to tell you how the biggest church in our district answered that question. Their board went on a retreat together and wrestled theologically with this question. They came to the conclusion that nothing in our theological tradition tells us that the church is solely for those in the congregation. This was a surprising discovery. They came to the conclusion that “the moral owners of [the church] are those who yearn for the Beloved Community and see [the church] as an instrument for its realization.” These moral owners included not only members, but also, “Potential members seeking an open, liberal, and inclusive church community. This includes but is not limited to those who do not have a church because of systemic oppression, sexual identity, race, economics, or incompatible theology…Community outreach partners… [and the] people served by community outreach partners.” Their church has decided that it is not accountable only to itself, but to the community, as well as to all those whose lives would be enriched by participation in their community. What would it mean for us to be able to say that? That the worship service, the music program, religious education, the group you're in, is not for you, but for a broader community than those presently gathered.

The final question: If the church is of the hope and vision and promise of the liberal religious tradition; if it is for all those who hunger and thirst for such a world as this vision would create, then, who is it by? The answer to this question is: all of us. We are the stewards, the co-creators, the foundation, the builders, the tenders, the midwives working to bring about such a world. We do this work together not for ourselves, not for our own amusement and benefit and enjoyment, but for all those who need what we envision. And we do this work not to meet our own approval, but to meet something that is asked of us that is challenging and intense and terribly demanding, but is rewarding in equal proportion to its demand.

So, that theological excursion aside, here is the minister's report: And in some ways, it has very little to do with you. That's not a slight. Actually, in many ways we are going extremely well as a congregation. We are growing in our membership. That means we are serving those who come to us seeking a meaningful community. We are looking outward, beyond ourselves. That means we understand who we are called to serve. Those are reasons why I am so happy to serve as the minister here.

But I need to tell you, my heart is restless. I have been a UU for 28 years. In that time, I have belonged to nine different UU congregations, the last four of which I've provided with professional ministry. I've served on two district committees, and I've just been asked to serve on a national-level committee. I have professional certification in its history, theology, and tradition of liberal religion. I love this faith. Some of you may even know about my flaming chalice tattoo.

But I have grave concerns about the future viability of Unitarian Universalism. As a congregation, we are growing; we’ve grown 50% in the past four years. As a movement, we are shrinking. The Unitarian Universalist Association has had flat membership for the past forty years. There are actually about 15,000 fewer UUs today than there were at merger in 1961. That's real numbers, not adjusted for population growth. More troubling, religious education enrollments are declining throughout our denomination, which is directly related to the average age of our adult members, which is climbing. The average age of an adult UU is almost sixty years old.

Beyond demographics, our denomination has not had broad program of planting new churches since the end of the Fellowship Movement thirty years ago. It hasn't had a broad national program for growing churches since the Extension Program was scrapped nearly five years ago. Increasingly, our national leaders have said, "If you’re growth oriented, you’re on your own." I consider that the anti-thesis of leadership.

For the past year I have been involved in conversations about growth with an impressive cast of characters. I've been talking with Davidson Loehr, of the UU church in Austin, TX, one of our more brilliant and more controversial ministers. I've also been talking with Stephan Papa, who has served several large UU churches. At the end of June, I have been invited to participate in a conversation about growth with members of the UUA Board, who have read a thought-piece I authored on the subject.

You might ask, what does this have to do with us as a church? More than you might think. I offer these thoughts to you as a reminder that what we do here matters – and to give you a larger context of the importance of how we do things here at SMUUCh. Unitarian Universalism is a small pond. And the ripples we make might turn into big waves.

I wonder, what if we made it our goal to effectively welcome to membership in this church one person every week? One person every week. Do you think we could transform one life a week to the extent that they would freely affiliate with the tradition of liberal religion. What if in the next year every member of this church took it upon themselves to invite in one friend who you know would grow from being here?

Here we are growing in faith. We are developing in our faith. We are actively in conversation with our history, and wise in our understanding of our roots.

Here we are generous, and generative, and growing. We welcome those seeking the hope and the vision of that the liberal religious tradition promises.

Here we are outward-looking as well as inward-looking, outward-serving as well as inward-serving. We realize that Unitarian Universalism is for more that those here gathered.

Here we know that our commitment matters. That the church, indeed the liberal religious tradition, is there for a reason that is greater than to serve us. When we gather, we help to determine the future of Unitarian Universalism and the future of the liberal religious tradition. It is far more important than we might ever realize.

Coming to church is more important than we might realize.

Serving on a committee is more important than we might realize.

Visiting one another in joy or sorrow, for celebration or comfort, is more important than we might realize.

Welcoming one who seeks us is more important than we might realize.

With the knowledge that what we do now means this church will be stronger 100 years from now.

Keep it up! Amen.