Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Smart Church: All the Difference

By Connie Goodbread, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

I call that church free which enters into the covenant with the ultimate source of existence. It binds together families and generations, protecting against the idolatry of any human claim to absolute truth or authority.
- James Luther Adams

For a long time we thought that we should focus on how Unitarian Universalism was like other religions, what all religions had in common.  When we taught about our faith we looked for the likenesses we shared with other faith traditions.  For a long time people who came into Unitarian Universalism defined themselves by what they were not.  I am not a Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, or Baptist, or I am a recovering Catholic, etc.  For a long time we have been unable to teach Unitarian Universalism.  We suffered from the Buddhist idea that if you name something as big as God you diminish it.  So how could we say what Unitarian Universalism is without diminishing it?  And yet, how can we have deep discussions about our faith with one another, let alone with people of other faiths, if we cannot talk about what Unitarian Universalism is?

That is the struggle isn’t it?  What is Unitarian Universalism?  What is the truth, the wisdom and transcendent value at the center?  What makes it different?  What makes it great?  What makes it important?  What makes it worth your dedication?  What makes it worth sharing?  What is in Unitarian Universalism that we hang onto in times of joy and times of sorrow?

Ours is a living tradition. As a living tradition we are asked over and over again to reexaime our path, our faith, the truth, our assumptions and our work.  Do we love deeply enough?  Are we not merely tolerant but accepting?  Is our service to others or for our own glory?  Who cannot hear us because of the way we speak?  What is the next challenge, mine, yours, ours?  Are we supportive and not enabling?  Are we kind, trusting, forgiving, humble?  I know that can be exhausting because there is so much change.  I know there are times when we are tempted to look for what is sure, what is solid and never changing.  But - life is change, how it differs from the rocks. - Jefferson Airplane.  Because ours is a living tradition we must hit the refresh button often.

Ours is a pluralistic faith.  We do not believe there is only one way or one path to truth and goodness.  Rather all paths that lead to a loving heart are good paths.  There is no fundamentalism in Unitarian Universalism.  There is not one right way.  We covenant to walk  in the ways of love.  We covenant to uphold our values and support one another in the struggle.  We covenant to build the world we dream about.  We covenant to accept different ideas and theologies and to allow room for doubt.

In our living tradition there is no orthodoxy.  Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal not a creedal faith.  Therefore, there is no demand for people to adhere to one way of relating to the holy, the divine, or the wonder of creation.  Unitarian Universalism does not insist that to be a part of the faith all must be bound together by belief.  Rather we are bound by our deep and abiding promise to support one another and care for the world.  We are bound by love to serve.

Unitarian Universalism is a faith that teaches that revelation is open and ongoing  We do not believe that revelation is sealed.  We believe that each of us has a relationship with the divine and anyone can be touched by divine thought and inspiration.  We believe that all are worthy and all are saved.  We believe that life is sacred - all life.  We are not waiting to be saved.  We think that what we have here and now is important and that how we live together on this lovely little planet matters.  Everything is holy.

These four pillars of Unitarian Universalism (living, pluralistic, covenantal faith - that teaches revelation as open and continuous) speak to the difference between our faith tradition and some others.  While we have much in common with what is at the heart of all great religions (love), we differ with each on at least one of these Unitarian Universalist ways of manifesting love in the here and now.  Our good news of hope and love is worth sharing.  Our way of living out that hope and love is also worth sharing.  It needs to be given away with open and generous hearts. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Spring Cleaning!

By Natalie Briscoe, Congregational Life Staff for the Southern Region

Even though snow still blankets some areas of the United States, Spring is just around the corner! The Spring Equinox is on March 20th this year, which means warmer weather, singing birds, and beauty blooming all around us. We've already set our clocks forward, and the days will continue to get longer and longer as another sultry southern summer begins to wind its way into our lives. Spring is a wonderful time full of energy and new beginnings. Many of us choose to take advantage of this energy to do a little spring cleaning; it's time to wipe the dust off the furniture, shake out the linens, and let the sunshine in!

As I'm knee-deep in clothing for our annual give-away spree that our family does every spring, after a full day of digging in the closet (an aerobic activity on par with a triathlon, if you ask me), I started thinking about some of the ways in which congregations may want to go on a spring cleaning spree. In our home, we get rid of clothes that no longer fit or are no longer wearable, food that has expired in the pantry, and general clutter around the house. What are some things congregations might want to get rid of during Spring Cleaning? There are hundreds more that I can list in one article, but here are some ideas:

  • A mission that is uninspiring, inaccurate, or old. The mission statement of a congregation tells everyone who sees it just how that particular congregation has chosen to incarnate Unitarian Universalism on earth. The congregation is the means, not the end, so your mission must be inspiring as well as informative. Why are you here? What do you intend to do? How are you making the world a better place? If your mission statement doesn't answer those questions – in the span of one simple statement rather than a paragraph – then it might be time to throw it out.
  •  A vision that is too small, old, or doesn't lead you to where you want to go. If a mission is what you feel called to do, then a vision is what you feel called to be. How does the congregation see its future? Where will it be in 50, 60, 75 years? A vision should be grand and bold and big enough to include people projects you can't even imagine yet. It should be exciting and worth working toward. A congregation should be willing and able to update their vision at least every 3 to 5 years, with input from new members who have come to your congregation during that time. If you have a vision that isn't bold, big, and broad, it may be time to throw it out.
  • An old Covenant that isn't practiced in your congregation. Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal, not a creedal Faith. The covenants of our congregations should be rooted deeply in our shared core values, and we should know what it looks like when we make them, break them, and reaffirm them. Inviting newcomers into our covenant is how we extend our hand of fellowship to them, and knowing and living our covenants is how we practice our shared Faith. If you have a covenant that is old, dusty, ignored, out of sight, or obsolete, you may want to throw it out and make new promises to each other.
  • Processes that no longer serve the congregation. Has your congregation outgrown your committee structure, governance style, or communication processes? For example, a growing congregation can benefit from formalizing processes such as their path to membership and path to leadership or elderhood, which can clarify the ways in which new members can deepen their relationship with Unitarian Universalism and become integrated members of the congregation who feel their gifts and talents are appreciated, useful, and contributing to the fulfillment of the mission. In contrast, a congregation that has grown or has not evaluated its structure and process in a long while can enter what is called “maintenance mode,” where the focus is not on what the congregation can do together, but rather how it can survive through the next month. If you are experiencing burn out, problems recruiting volunteers, stagnant membership, a lack of enthusiasm, or the feeling that it takes quite a bit of work and time to get even the simplest ask done or the easiest decision made, it might be time to throw your old processes out!
  • Along with old processes, how about Old Technologies? Are you still using a membership database from 1994? Do you still have yahoo email groups for your congregation? Do you still print and mail your newsletters? Throw it all out! The internet, social media, and new database systems have infinitely streamlined our churches. We no longer need to waste our time with these outdated technologies. When we throw them out, we can get onto the more important business of saving the world.
  • Silence around financial issues. Does your congregation have anxiety when it comes to speaking about money? Is it considered impolite or uncouth to ask for pledges? Does your congregation conveniently leave the stewardship topic out of the conversation on membership? It's time to throw out the silence and start having honest conversations about what we can realistically do to financially support Unitarian Universalism in our communities. There are no tips or tricks; we just have to do it!
  • And finally, what about all that clutter? Clean out that office, those file cabinets, that RE wing full of dry markers and empty glue bottles! Let's make room for the sunshine, for the future, and for our good news to spread far and wide!