Sunday, February 25, 2007

What is a faith community?

One of the most important theological questions that religious folk must answer is "what is a faith community?" Most orthodox religious folk would consider this a no-brainer: a faith community is a gathering of the adherents to the faith tradition and it exists to serve God and humankind.

Unitarian Universalists, of course, would tweak that definition, perhaps quite a lot. Some see a UU congregation as a lecture forum; some see it as a social gathering, as an educational gathering, as a tool for social justice.

Ministers and laypersons often see the faith community through different lenses. Ministers, by virtue of their education and experience, see the faith community as all of these things but also as an opportunity to create what MLK Jr. called "the Beloved Community", a gathering of souls intent on furthering the work of love and justice in the world, caring for one another, with rituals and experiences that deepen their sense of connection, a place where they are inspired to offer their best selves to the larger community.

Laypersons don't necessarily see it that way. They don't always see the faith community as a living organism but as a place or an agency. They don't see the value of familiarity and interconnection as sharply as the minister does. This can lead to disagreements about what the church/congregation should look like, what Sundays ought to offer, what the minister's priorities should be, or even if there should be a minister.

This tends to be more problematic in a congregation which has not had much experience with a minister. It takes awhile to reassure the congregation that the minister offers something that even the most dedicated group of volunteers can't always manage--a vision of the Beloved Community and a process for getting there.

So there are often sparks as the congregation grows and outgrows the old layled model. There are fears that the minister will take over, that too much minister means that there is too little autonomy for lay leaders, that seeing the same face in the pulpit more than once in awhile is a turnoff.

I sympathize with this fear but I also work to allay it because I have learned that most lay persons will discover that having more ministerial presence is a good thing, that it means that the minister's sermons can be more personal, better addressed to the congregation's specific needs, strengthening the relationship between congregants and between the minister and congregation, that visitors who are considering membership appreciate the opportunity to check out the minister even more than the chance to hear an outside speaker.

There is a covenant between minister and congregation that is important and needs care. The minister must be a loving presence, dedicated to serving the needs of the congregation but also dedicated to helping the congregation move towards its vision while living out its mission. The congregation must be clear about its mission and vision, dedicated to walking its talk, and considering seriously the message of the minister, offering different views respectfully, and treating the minister with justice and compassion.

This is a quickie version of my theology of the faith community. What's yours?


PeaceBang said...

This is a wonderful post!!

I have been almost five years with my church, and you become woven together in the most deep and powerful way. I love what you said about the minister having the vision and a process on behalf of the people. An honor and a responsibility, and one we get only if they let us. And when they do, wow. Ministry is beautiful and even fun even with all the suffering and heartache to which we are also privy.

uuMomma said...

Thank you! You have described succinctly exactly the kind of faith community I am thinking of when I think of what our congregation could be. I am one of a handful in my congregation who ache for vision and leadership from our minister, but who also recognize the limitations placed upon our part-time minister when the congregation, itself, wants to limit how much "leadership" we allow. Many seem to think that if we have a full-time minister with a vision that that minister will begin to tell us what to do and how and that we will lose this independce we currently have. I don't see it that way at all; I see it just as you describe.

Wow. Fabulous. Thank you, once again.

LinguistFriend said...

The contrast you describe between a lay-led congregation and the one with a minister is, barring details, a good statement of the
situation that I have observed in a lay-led congregation for several years. Our part-time consulting minister does a good job of exemplifing the possibilities
of the presence of a minister, which I hope will have an eventual positive outcome. There are other possibilities, of course. The core group in another congregation I have attended were such a strong force that in one case it was difficult for a gifted but very gentle minister to be effective in that group, while later that congregational strength was very much necessary to hold things together with a less competent interim minister.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks to all of you for your cogent comments, for the kind words and the personal experience with the kind of situation I'm describing.

It's made harder when the minister is part-time, and the congregation often doesn't understand that the limitations they place on the minister are holding the congregation back.

Actually, interestingly, sometimes a congregation doesn't really want to progress, despite protestations to the contrary; it wants to stay in a familiar place, which is frustrating to layleaders and parttime ministers alike, as you've indicated.

But hang in there! Your congregations need you and your wisdom!

And to echo PeaceBang, ministry is wonderful, even with its heartache and difficult moments. Sometimes I can hardly believe they pay me to do this work!