Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sermon: "How We Do Church" (Delivered 2-18-07)

We’ve all heard of Ted Haggard, right? Fundamentalist Christian pastor builds fourteen thousand member mega-church in Colorado Springs; becomes darling of the religious right; is given frequent access to the Whitehouse and becomes one of George Bush’s most called upon spiritual advisors; falls from grace when he is caught buying crystal meth and sex from a male prostitute in Denver; and, most recently, undergoes three weeks of “spiritual” counseling and announces he is no longer gay.

But, there is an angle to this story that hasn’t been covered. It is an angle that is not sleazy or sordid. It is the angle that has to with church governance; you won’t get this on CNN. So, I wondered, who at the New Life Church makes the decision about whether Ted Haggard would get to continue as the minister of that congregation, and who gets to decide whether he will be allowed to return? Well, according to their web-site, it is a board of overseers. That Board of Overseers happens to consist of four friends of Ted’s, all mega-church ministers at other mega-churches around Colorado and around the country. So, I decided to call their church to find out how the overseers are selected. The receptionist there told me that she was not allowed to give out information about the Overseers, and I would have to ask them, and did I see the link on the web-page for corresponding with them? [The link she referred me to, by the way, was the link for reporting additional misconduct by Pastor Ted. By all appearances, the overseers are a closed group, likely selected by Ted himself. If you can shed any more light on this, please do so. I tried, but the operation remained cloaked in secrecy.]

What this means, of course, is that the 14,000 members of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado have exactly zero input, zero recourse, and zero say on any decision that gets made there, including the decision of who their minister is or whether he continues there or not. By all appearances, the sole power of those 14,000 members is the power of their feet and the power of their seat. If they don’t like something, they can leave.

What this means, of course, is that each of those 14,000 people, probably many of whom gave selflessly and sacrificially to help construct that church have exactly zero power over any decision of any importance that gets made there. By all appearances, they collectively have no ownership of their own church.

Which is almost exactly opposite from the way that we do church here. Our by-laws stipulate that our board of directors is elected annually by a quorum of the membership. Similarly, the hiring or dismissing of a minister is accomplished by the voting of a quorum of the membership. So seriously is the will of the congregation taken that there are accounts from the Nineteenth century of Unitarian ministers resigning only to have the congregation then vote not to accept the resignation, a decision the minister abided by. In a Unitarian Universalist congregation, decision making on the part of the congregation, individually, in groups, or collectively, is broad. You will vote on the buying or selling of property. You voted to become a welcoming congregation. You are asked to fill out questionnaires. You are invited to sit on committees with real decision-making authority. Those meetings are always open and listed weekly in the order of service. You are the actual owners of this church. And the Free Church isn’t free.

The difference between decision making at Ted Haggard’s church and this one could not be more different. There, Ted said it. You accepted it. And that settled it. Here, the problem can be one of too little authority. Michael Durall, a church consultant, criticizes a church culture in which, when someone has an idea that may cost $1,000, “More often than not, one or more committees have to prove [the] new idea and the finance committee and board has to approve any new expenditure. Such a process can take months. This system creates ‘authority-less’ people at many levels who find themselves withholding permission for new initiatives, often proposed by the most enthusiastic and talented members of the church.” [Almost Church, p. 29-30.] Durall suggests the creation of a good-ideas fund that any member can access in order to make an investment in growing the ministry of the church. [p. 46] But, and this is the key point, the decision to hire somebody like Michael Durall and the subsequent decision whether or not to implement his recommendations is yours to make in the first place.

This morning, I’ve titled my remarks, “How we do Church; or, from the Personal to the Institutional, from the Institutional to the Transformational; or, the Free Church isn’t free.” It would be a mistake for me to venture to preach on how we do church without also asking whether it is a good thing that we have done church the way we have.

If you look at the whole of Unitarian Universalism, the picture is quite sobering. The median UU congregation has around one hundred and fifteen members. Fewer than half have one hundred people in attendance on Sunday mornings. And, of more than 1,000 congregations, only fifty or sixty are significantly larger than they were a decade ago. Ninety-five percent of our churches are stagnant. [Almost Church, p. 4] By this measure, we are among the top 5% of all UU churches. These statistics would be depressing enough without the prediction made by those who study religion in America that, in the coming decades, about one third of all churches in the United States will close their doors.

The few of you who braved it out last Tuesday to see the final movie in our documentary film series, watched a movie called, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.” There has been a “Wal-Marting” of religion in America as well. Just as a greater and greater percentage of shoppers patronize chain stores, so do a greater and greater percentage of church goers attend mega-churches. It has also been predicted that within a decade, a majority of large churches will be multi-site franchises, where smaller satellite branches receive broadcasts the service in real-time and attendees watch the service on the video screen.

What this indicates is that the Free Church tradition of religion of the people, for the people, and by the people is becoming a thing of the past. In its place, religion has become a product that you purchase.

Which brings me to my main point of the morning: there needs to be in our churches a change in the focus of our churches from the personal to the institutional and from the institutional to the transformational. What does that mean?

The personal is the sense in which the church does something for you and for your family. There is education for my child. There is music that touches me. There is fellowship that I enjoy. There is friendship. Weddings. Memorial services. And so on. The personal is based on a self-interested way of thinking. That is not necessarily a bad thing. You volunteer to make coffee one Sunday because you want there to be coffee all the other Sundays. You do your share because you want it to continue to be there for you. You teach religious education when you have children in the program because you want your children to have teachers.

There is a different way to see the church though, one that is broader than the personal, and that is the institutional way. The institutional way is a response to a very simple and elemental awareness that the church probably existed before you and it might be a good thing if it outlived you. When you came to church for the first time there was a chair there for you to sit in! The people who were there before you put that chair there, hoping you would come and sit in it. The personal is concerned with making sure there is a seat for yourself for so long as I shall wish to sit in one. The institutional says, there was a chair for me, so I will make sure there is a chair for others. The institutional is less self-centered, more centered on the greater good. It is out of the sense of the institutional that you build a bigger building, that you create an endowment, that you serve as an officer, that you include the church in your will.

Unitarian Universalism has just now finally begun to get it in terms of moving beyond the personal to the institutional. It is less common these days to hear the sentiments that were very common only a few decades ago in Unitarian Universalism. One of those sentiments was that we don’t want our churches to grow because we like them just how they are. Another sentiment said, we don’t want to advertise because if we make our churches hard to find, and hard to attend, and hard to join then only true and worthy Unitarian Universalists will come to our churches. Sentiments like these were once commonly heard; now, less so. As my colleague Rob Eller-Isaacs puts it, “We used to imagine ourselves as the leaven. Now, we want also to be the bread.” We have grown slowly into this institutional model, saying, “We want not only for our churches to be places we like, but we want them to thrive and endure and we want for others to be able to find what we have found here.”

However, just as we have caught up to this institutional way of thinking, much of religion in America has moved on, from the institutional to the transformational. If the personal says, “I want the church that I like to be there for me” and the institutional says, “I want the church that I like to be there for others just as it was there for me”, the transformational says, “I want the church to be a force that causes my life to change and causes me to change the world with my life.”

The poet Annie Dillard writes, “When people come to church they should not be handed an order of service with a smile, but should be given hard hats and life preservers; because church should be a dangerous place, a zone of risk, a place of new birth and new life, where we confront ourselves with not only who we truly are, but also who we are being called to become.” [as quoted in Michael Durall, The Almost Church.]

I have a couple of examples of this kind of thinking, from the personal to the institutional and from the institutional to the transformational. With volunteering, when there is a personal focus, you are asked, “What do you like to do?” When the focus is institutional, it sounds more like, “We really somebody to…” But when the focus is transformational, the question is, “What are you called to do? What is your ministry? Can we help you to discern your calling?”

With stewardship, you can see the distinction. When the focus is on the personal, giving to the church becomes kind of a crude arithmetic. What is my fair share of the services that I use? I plan to come to 34 worship services. My child will attend 19 religious education classes. I’ll attend three forums, and an adult RE class. I will check the church web-site 47seven times. How much is that worth to me? And what is my fair share of the real cost of those things?

The next level is institutional giving. That represents giving to things like the endowment and the capital campaign. But it also means having the sense that financially supporting religious education is important even if you don’t have children in RE. An institutionalist sees a worth in that beyond what they may receive personally.

When I first became the minister of this church, one of the first things I did was ask for a pledge card to fill out. I was given one, although reluctantly, with the assurance that I really wasn’t expected to pledge. The first pledge I ever made I understood in the institutional sense – giving not to support the services I was using, but to support the existence of an institution that I cared existed. Soon, I began to think about things differently. I began to consider charitable giving from a transformational point of view. What would it mean to live generously? I am still asking that question. This past year, I gave over ten percent of my adjusted gross income to charitable not-for-profit organizations. What surprised me most about this was how easy it was to do it! Michael Durall writes that if this talk of a tithe makes you nervous, consider giving 11%. The number eleven has no Biblical significance.

From personal to institutional, from institutional to transformational. From I like to I like and want others to be a part; from I like and I want others to be a part to I want for my life to be changed and have that change change the world around me.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are part of what is known as the Free Church tradition. It is defined that way because of a lack of orthodox doctrine, thus empowering a freedom of the mind and a freedom of practice. But there are several possible meanings and connotations of freedom. Free can mean “no obligation”. I don’t think the Free Church means the church of no obligations or expectations. Free can mean “without allegiance.” I don’t the Free Church means the church of no commitments. Or Free can mean Liberated. The Free Church, I think, is the church of the life transformed and the life liberated.

Or, as our fourth principle puts it when it speaks of the search for truth and meaning: freedom and responsibility are necessarily yoked. Think of the New Life Church: without the responsibility of ownership, there is no freedom to speak of. May you all become and continue to become the transformational co-owners of this congregation. May you all become and continue to become the transformational co-owners of this community, indeed of this world.