The State of the Church
a sermon preached by Rev. Khleber M. Van Zandt V at First Unitarian Church of Alton, June 1, 2008
In our UU&You! orientation classes, we talk in the very first session about our Unitarian tradition of congregational polity. I explain that polity means the way we constitute or govern ourselves, and that congregational polity means that the primary power in our church resides in the congregation itself - in the pew rather than in the pulpit, in the gathering of all those who elect to join with us rather than gathered into some elected official. Many other churches and denominations, of course, arrange themselves hierarchically; power in those groups is held at the top and passed down to those below – maybe. Power in our association is held across the broadest spectrum and passes out from there (if at all).
We learn in UU&You! that we UU’s have a long history, dating back to the Reformation, of this type of governance, and we learn that this springs from our basic theological understanding that all human beings possess an innate potential for goodness and wisdom, a theological contrast to those who came before and since who speak of humans as totally depraved and inevitably damned. Since we believe that each of us potentially has the ability to think and feel and make informed choices, we saw our practice of congregational polity in our churches lead to the practice of democracy in our churches which then led to the practice of democracy in our civil politics.
Hence, because we believe that you as members have the potential to make informed choices that are good and wise, today we have scheduled our annual congregational meeting after church in which you as a member have a chance to practice what you/we preach and to be involved in the governance of this church. As we said earlier, non-members are welcome to attend; as was not said perhaps explicitly enough, non-members are not allowed to actively participate – not because we want to exclude people, but because we do have boundaries and if membership in this church means anything at all, it means both a freedom and a responsibility to participate in running this congregation. So if you’re a member, you have a responsibility to attend and participate. If you’re not a member, you’re invited to come see how we do at this practice of governing ourselves.
Part of what one might glean from an annual meeting of this sort is a sense of how this particular congregation is doing at this particular time and a sense of where the congregation thinks it might want to go in the near future. As the person called to this pulpit by the membership of this congregation, I take it as my duty today to report to you where I think we are and where I think we might be going. Herewith, that report.
In the world around us, this past year has been, shall we say, interesting. Last year’s presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has slid somewhat in the present polls, perhaps even to second place; last June, the now-presumptive Republican nominee was – where? thirteenth place in a field of thirteen? All this topsy-turvy makes for certain amounts of uncertainty. Last year, the housing crisis was only beginning to chip away at the nation’s economy; maybe it’s bottomed out, but no one’s certain. Last year, gasoline cost a measly $3.25 a gallon; today it’s $4, and who knows now where that’s going?
Within this congregation, last year at this time we were coming off an incredible spurt of growth in our numbers – membership was up, attendance was up, registration in RE was booming, pledges and giving far exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations.
And we were busily looking forward at our last annual meeting to more of the same.
But let’s reflect for a moment about how we got to where we were last year: why the numerical growth? Was it the new minister? Was it the expanding RE program? Was it because we were becoming more Welcoming? Was it because we redesigned our webpage? Or was it simply because more people found us who needed our message?
Perhaps all those things played a part, but I believe one major reason for our numerical growth was a newfound deep commitment among our members to social justice activities. This church has a long history of civic involvement, and we had regained our socially-conscious voice in the last couple of years in ways I will outline in a moment.
We were in the middle last year of a renaissance of sorts – all the indicators said we should keep going in the same direction. (Parenthetically, I should say that there were those voices of dissent - everything seemed to be changing, they said, which was true, and of course, change is hard, so there was palpable anxiety about losing some of ‘the old ways.’)
This year, as we go into the Annual Meeting, it may feel to many of our members and friends as if the renaissance is over. You may hear this afternoon at the Annual Meeting that a few committees are struggling to do their jobs. You may hear this afternoon how expensive childcare has become. You will definitely hear this afternoon of a distinct budget pinch and of an extreme shortfall in our recent pledge drive.
It would be easy to read the present indicators as saying we should reverse course now to save ourselves financially. Certainly our numerical growth is no longer as explosive as it once was, even though we are certainly still growing in numbers that would have seemed miraculous only four or five years ago. But we should realize that numerical growth alone must never be treated as an end in itself. Numerical growth can even feel counter-productive at times: you’ve probably felt some of those twinges, saying to yourself, “You know, the old place just isn’t what it used to be.”
But numerical is only the simplest way to measure growth.
It’s much more difficult to measure the growth in depth – the depth of our programming, the depth of the experience of people who come here, the depth of the spirit of each of our members.
Growth – not numerical but intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth - is what we’re about, or we’re about nothing at all. Our project here, as we heard in the reading from Paul Rasor, has no concrete goal but rather simply a direction; it holds us accountable for what we do and don’t do; it invites us to accept ambiguity and paradox, and to learn to stay in a conversation even when it becomes difficult; it begs us to be open to new traditions even while holding on to old ones; < span style='mso-spacerun:yes'> it calls us to open our eyes and ears and hearts and minds and to commit to something larger than ourselves.
This project of ours is an attempt to grow ourselves in dangerous and challenging ways even as we offer others a safe place from which to explore their spiritual journeys. It is an attempt to learn from the experiences of our fellows even as we teach ways of being that prepare others for the difficulties of the real world. It is an attempt to work on our own stories even as we listen to the stories of others, and then to see if we can’t assemble all those stories together into the larger narrative of human striving and struggle.
So, yes, as we gather for our Annual Meeting this year, we face some uphill struggles that we haven’t faced in most of our members’ memories. Surely there will be some bumps in this long road, which is to be expected when we remember that we strive not for ease but for growth, and not just for an affirmatively pleasing growth in numbers but for a possibly disturbing growth in depth.
We’ve done good things together this past year. Jamie says the nursery is consistently full on Sunday mornings, the RE rooms are colorful and lively, and our youth group is becoming known around the district as a growing, active, committed bunch. The building looks great, with repairs and upkeep performed regularly by Pat Moore and other B&G Committee members. Our administrator, Becky, is updating systems and making sure we have what we need to continue to provide information from our church office. The Board is updating its processes to be better stewards of the business of the church. The website is amazing, with regular updates and lots of information for visitors – we’ve recently had people from as far away as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates say they listen to our worship services online now. We may look like a little church on a hill in Alton, but the internet extends our message of hope and love to people far and wide.
We’ve reached out beyond these walls for major successes on the social justice front as well. Mayor Sandidge (across the street) recently signed Cool Cities legislation for the city of Alton largely because of our work with our Alton UCM cluster. We sent a team to the Gulf Coast for hurricane relief work again last February, we painted a house here in Alton with the Bucket Brigade last month, and now we’re signed up to work on housing with Habitat for Humanity in this area. Continuing our social justice successes, we brought the Madison County branch of NAMI here for a presentation on mental illness issues and we hope to offer monthly programming next year of a similar nature. We even began last year to give away two of our Sunday morning offerings each month to groups like the Oasis Women’s Center and the Crisis Food Center of Alton, and to emerging UU congregations in southern Illinois and Missouri, and to other social justice organizations. We have become known, not just among those we’ve given to but in district and national UU circles as well, for our generosity of money and spirit.
[An aside: I, for one, retreat from that commitment to share with others with much trepidation. With all the cutbacks you’ll hear discussed at our annual meeting, this is the one that I can’t quite reconcile. I recognize that our commitment to outreach must be balanced against our commitment to our children and to providing a safe place for those families who bring their kids here to visit and to learn. Still, we are not here for ourselves alone – we are here for others, and as we should have learned by now from our own personal finances, giving is a strength, not a weakness, I want us to do as much of it as we possibly can…]
Reaching out beyond these walls is necessary if we are to call ourselves a church; it is necessary, but it is not sufficient. If we are to call ourselves a church, we must care for those who join us, and we’ve progressed this year on that front in major ways. We have worked this year to revamp our Caring Committee, to more effectively share the responsibility and the opportunity to care for each other; we now have care teams in place and care team leaders charged with the task of keeping up with the changes in people’s lives, connecting with members and friends to make sure individuals and families don’t fall through the cracks, and with providing care and support when needed. And our Chalice Circles continue to provide an extra layer of support and connection if people so choose.
To sum up, I believe we have more to do rather than less. I believe we can grow in breadth and depth at the same time, but the way to do so is to focus, not on numerical growth, but on intellectual growth, emotional growth, spiritual growth. When we are holding back and being overly cautious, we are not growing. When we sound the retreat because of rough patches, we are not growing. When we revel in amassing creature comforts rather than in seeking spiritual challenges, we are not growing. Good stewardship of our common resources calls for courage and hopefulness rather than fear and pessimism.
We are not done yet.
The renaissance is not over.
There is much we can do as we face these hurdles together.
In our faith tradition, we believe that each of us has the possibility of wisdom and goodness, we believe that each of us carries the potential to make informed choices.
Go to the annual meeting, be wise and good, and make informed choices that challenge us to continue on the path of spreading our message of hope and love far and wide.
So may it be.
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