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A sermon given by the Rev. John H. Nichols to the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, on March 30, 2008

My Report to You

In 1969 when I entered the ministry they told us the church was dying. We were assured congregations could not hold their own against the modern world and that we young ministers would soon be rattling around in empty buildings. It was not true. What we have learned is that the religious spirit in everyone is real and vital and it constantly looks for new ways to find expression. To put it plainly, there seems to be something that wants us united in efforts that are open ended and welcoming to each other. So we can either work to stifle that community forming power of religion or we can work with it to enhance it. Either way, it will always be there.

This particular church is larger now than it was in the year, 1969, the year in which everyone predicted an end to religious institutions. It is larger because a religious leader and a congregation gelled here in very impressive ways and the power of community building took hold for a time. Then, something of that vital combination of elements disappeared — disappeared for almost ten years in fact. Now in the interest of inviting all of the magic of religious community back I want to give you my view of what makes a congregation strong and what could make this congregation stronger than all of the frustrations of the recent past.

It’s all about taking gifts seriously. One thing I have learned later in my life is that we are each given different gifts. God knows, as a young man I tried to have all of the gifts that are possible. Then I faulted myself for not having more of them than I had. I particularly wanted to be more gregarious, more “out there”, more athletic, even more adventurous. But, it turns out, there are is a limit to the gifts each of us has.

When we finally “get it” that everyone has some gifts but not others, then we can begin to be happy that other people have the talents they have — though their talents are different from ours — and that others are willing to combine those talents with ours on behalf of something we all want. In fact, in groups where each person is contributing what he/she does best the atmosphere that develops is electric. It changes lives and communities.

A great church is a place where we are each called to use the strengths and abilities that are in us. The fact that we can use those gifts and be appreciated for using them and combine them with gifts that others bring is one of the great pleasures in life. It also unites us at least momentarily in mysterious ways.

Many of our congregations have occasional moments when their feeling of unity in a common effort is palpable. And some congregations put it all together more often. Here’s what they look like.

They have strong worship associate programs for those who are skilled at worship leadership. They have several choral and instrumental groups for the multiplicity of musical skills that are in the congregation. They have groups for just about every active interest in the congregation.

Those who have the gift of welcoming and befriending people have organized highly effective outreach programs. Those who are adept at taking the congregation’s mission out into the world are visible every Sunday sharing their work with others. Any visitor to one of those congregations picks up the Spirit immediately because the atmosphere there reflects folks who are happily fully engaged in what they are doing.

Everyone wants to be a member of a congregation with this level of spirit and self confidence. You have some of it here. First Unitarian has the potential to be a very powerful and supportive congregation. But getting there is usually a little harder than most people expect. Here are some thoughts on what makes a strong growing congregation, and in sharing these thoughts I am clearly also reflecting on some of my experiences here.

First: A strong congregation has its arms wide open to all who come, and because their reception does not seem hesitant or conditioned by anything unsaid new members feel more comfortable joining in and volunteering.

It is true that in every congregation there are folks who come and watch for a time and folks who eventually drift away. But in strong congregation there is a core of folks who are secure enough with each other, secure enough with their minister, secure enough in their mission and goals that their welcome is like that of a good host who is greeting people he/she has invited over for dinner.

You have the beginnings of that core here in men and women who have seen this congregation through some very tough times. They are dedicated and effective, but I could wish their numbers were larger. The number of people who come to think of this as “their” congregation and not just the church they attend needs to be larger.

Second. Nonetheless, in nearly every large congregation many members have the impression that a few people make all of the decisions. This troubles them because they believe things should be more “democratic.” I’ve heard that concern expressed here as well.

Actually, having a small group of elected people make most of the choices is precisely what you do want. The decisions facing a larger congregation are simply too complex, too mundane and too boring for any group other than a small group of elected leaders to make.

However, what people in many larger churches, including this one, also believe is not true. It is not true that the leaders of larger congregations constitute a cabal of people who think they know what’s best more than anyone else. In fact your leaders feel their responsibility very deeply and they spend hours trying to understand what you want.

Ultimately this is impossible for them to do completely because you want so many different things. Finally they have to trust each other and decide; hoping that they are a microcosm of the congregation and that they will make the best decisions for most people.

In strong congregations most people conclude that their leaders are well intended and work hard but that they will never satisfy everyone. They elect leaders who can life with that, leaders who are able to think clearly and fairly and decide quickly so that the flow of congregational energy and creativity goes on uninterrupted. On the other side, the smaller, the more run down and depressed the congregation – the more likely they are to regurgitate the same internal issues forever and never resolve them. Therefore, trust your elected representatives to lead and let them know you trust them.

Third: You do want your leaders to think about the boundaries which define what’s possible and what’s not possible for the congregation. You want them to draw up guidelines so that everyone will know where the leadership believes the boundaries are. This is important because when everyone knows what’s not OK, they can assume that almost everything else is permissible.

Fundamentally, you want your leadership to give permissions far more than they withhold them. They should look for opportunities to say, “Yes, go ahead and try that.” This means everyone will have to look directly at the possibility of failure and be willing to accept it or even laugh at it if it comes. And it will come sometimes if the congregation tries to do anything new. Imagine trying to learn baseball if it isn’t OK to swing the bat and miss occasionally or bike riding if it isn’t OK to fall off. The congregation that succeeds may be the congregation that risks trying so many things that it will fail in some of them.

To be perfectly honest, this goes against my nature so I am sure it goes troubles some of you as well. I like my loose ends tied down before I try anything new. But I know the creative spirit that gets loose in a strong congregation is constantly experimenting with new ways of using the gifts that people have. The cost of saying “no” too often is that the spirit becomes quiet or goes away.

Fourth: If you want clear decisions that give permission and encouragement with a minimum of delay and administrative hassle then I hope that sooner or later you will give your professional staff the authority to make more of them. This will require some trust, and trust must be earned, and I know full well that some of you have had experiences during the past ten years of ministerial shakeup which will make it more difficult for you to develop that trust for a while.

Nonetheless the least cumbersome way of getting complicated things done, of liberating the spirit and of freeing up the energies that best characterize the church of this size is to let staff members do that work which can be done best by people who see each other every day and have the time and energy for the work.

You’re not there yet. You are still at the stage of calling forth gifts from the congregation and finding good ways to use them. But I hope the time will come when you will be willing to employ more staff and give them the guidance they will need to help you accomplish some of the amazing things I know are possible.

Fifth: Beware the chronically disaffected! There are people in every congregation, who are constantly dissatisfied, and they can not be satisfied. We keep trying to counsel with them or visit with them hoping that positive attention will somehow change their negative impression of things, but it probably won’t. And so a culture of critique develops in which it becomes more the norm for some groups of people to critique the efforts of others than to support them.

We professional religious leaders expect criticism for some things we do, and usually we do get it, indirect and veiled though it often is. It’s not fair, however, for lay leaders who, in the midst of exercising their gifts and trying new things, must also cope with the ghastly specter of the anonymous “They,” the dreaded “Other People” or the silent but deadly “Some People” who are whispered to be unhappy.

Imagine a sailing ship trying to leave the harbor on a windy day. The wind is right, the sails are set and billowed out, the crew is poised, the Captain is behind the wheel and yet the boat cannot get underway. Why? A dozen little unseen anchors keep it fixed to the bottom of the harbor. Many congregations are similarly anchored because they pay too much attention to the perpetually dissatisfied. It is the great unaddressed tragedy of our movement.

What to do? Never convey someone else’s anonymous feedback to anyone. Tell people they have to speak for themselves. When they say it won’t do any good to address their concerns to the appropriate leadership, tell them it probably won’t do any good to talk to you either on that subject. Do not even entertain the backbiting comments someone may make about a third party. And when you find that someone is consistently, uniformly negative you might point out that it is unpleasant to be in such an unrelieved sour atmosphere. If enough people in every congregation follow those simple rules I am confident for the future of that congregation.

Sixth and Finally: Nearly every UU minister who is looking for a job these days is asked “What would you do to help us diversify our congregation?” My answer usually is, “Why do you want diversity in your congregation? This tends to stop the conversation for a moment but then I manage to explain that if our concern for diversity is only that we want to decorate our services with people of different backgrounds and ethnicities, then we will never truly diversify because our efforts to do so are inherently self serving.

On the other hand if what we want is to incorporate other lives and perspectives into our own because we have decided this life is just too wonderful, too awesome and too overpowering to be understood only through the views of those we find easiest to know then welcoming diversity is welcoming a greater source of gifts.

If each of us means the words that are said at the opening of every service here then we can anticipate that the diversity we encourage will bring whole new worlds into our lives — new perspectives on the meaning of life itself — and then a diversified congregation will result.

But be aware. There will also be a diversity of new view points — different spiritualities, different cultural perspectives, perhaps even different political perspectives including some you never considered to be a part of your life. All that comes along with this new world you are welcoming. Embracing diversity means meeting a world that is infinitely richer in philosophies and art, musical tastes and worship preferences and spirituality than you had thought existed. In fact, that world is already here in this congregation right now. But are you ready for it?

This is not my last sermon to you by the way. I will be here until the end of June, and before that time I will express more fully my appreciation for what has been a wonderful year in my life. So please don’t say goodbye to me today. Right now, and in conclusion I want to think aloud on what I might see and hear if I were to come back ten years from now and find the congregation as successful as it wants to be.

Yesterday I read about a church where the membership coordinator asks this question of all new members: what’s missing from your life now?” If that were true here then upon my return, I can imagine a member of this congregation saying to me, “I never thought I would use this particular skill, but the people at church urged me to try it and I did and I’m loving it.” I can imagine that some people will have found new vocations from something they learned to do for this congregation.

Those who are working with children will be writing their own curricula even more than they do now – and some of it will find its way into publication. Your adult education committee will be proud of its ability to create new opportunities and courses which include calling in the enormous resources of the Providence area

This congregation will be looked to as a leader in social change for the State of Rhode Island, bringing together its members commitment to justice with their knowledge of how things work. And young adults who have grown up here will reflect that their social consciousness was born here in this church.

Visitors to this congregation will remark that their enthusiastic and thorough reception rather surprised them, coming as it did from a church they feared might be rather stuffy. They will begin to tell others that the church is not only beautiful, and offers a dignified and meaningful worship service but it is welcoming besides. When this word starts getting around a certain contagion develops, and the congregation will have to work to stay current with the flow of new faces, but the effort that makes you a more accessible congregation to new comers also makes you a more effective and powerful congregation.

In ten years the annual fund drive will be completed in one week, because everyone understands it is not OK to play Hide and Seek with their canvassers. Most people will have a sense that things run fairly efficiently here because the congregation has hired sufficient staff to do the organizing. Finally the congregation’s leaders will no longer fear being burnt to a crisp in a thankless effort. They will be pleased to be asked to join the leadership teams, because they see an opportunity to accomplish some meaningful work they have always wanted to do.

And all of this does not depend exclusively on whatever magic James Ford or any other professional minister can bring here. It depends on the commitment you make to each other. It is from that commitment that the spirit in each of you is sustained. It all depends on you.