Sunday, January 22, 2012

The State of the Congregation: a sermon

Rev. Kit Ketcham, January 22, 2012

In two days, our President, Barack Obama, will give his State of the Union Address to Congress and to the American people. I’m going to get a jump on him by giving you all my State of the Congregation message today.

Mr. Obama’s address will doubtless take into consideration the strides made during his term of office so far and make a case for improvements he sees as necessary to bring our nation into closer alignment with the vision that created this country, the vision of a nation ruled by the people. He will also address the mission that underlies the American dream: a mission to provide for the wellbeing and freedom of American citizens.

My message has to do with mission and vision as well. Almost 20 years ago, this congregation was founded as an outpost of liberal religion on South Whidbey Island. It has flourished since that time, offering an oasis of welcome for those looking for a church home that was founded on reason, religious freedom, and as a united effort to serve the needs of others.

And as we prepare together for a major transition in ministerial leadership, it’s a good time to assess where we are, as regards our vision and our mission. We don’t have a catchy phrase that states who we are and what our purpose is; we do have a lengthy statement of our identity and purpose which appears in official documents, but if I were to paraphrase that statement in a few words, I would say that we are a religious community which fosters Love and Justice, here among us, out in the Whidbey Island community, and in the wider world.

Vision and mission sermons can be a little ho-hum and I have cogitated about how to make these remarks scintillating and gripping and memorable. But it’s a serious topic as well, offering ideas that I think you may appreciate as you plan for the years ahead here at UUCWI.

I have some observations about several areas of congregational life that I think will be informative and helpful: governance; religious education for both adults and children; building issues; how we care for one another; how we approach our justice work; worship, which is our public face in the world; and special ministries which have emerged over the three and a half years since we moved into this worship space.

Governance, by my definition, is how the board of trustees and other leaders, both as individuals and as groups, manage our resources and encourage support of the congregation. This includes internal communications, wise policies and procedures, stewardship, and being role models for others as they strive to uphold our Covenant of Right Relations and promote the Principles of UUism.

Our religious education efforts include adult programming, from introductory classes in UUism, discussion groups modeling critical thinking as well as offering social time, and considering current moral issues in human life. These programs have grown markedly over the past three years.

And our religious exploration classes for children and youth have expanded and give our young people opportunity to learn how to be good citizens as well as learning to care about those who are different from themselves, while forming their own Unitarian Universalist identity, a way of seeing the world that will serve them well as adults.

Our building issues revolve, to a great extent, around using our sanctuary and classrooms as community gathering places, not just for our own use, but for the use of the larger community, particularly for those groups aligned with our religious principles. This means, of course, keeping up with the maintenance of the building and, in addition, always being attuned to making it more beautiful and spiritually fulfilling.

Caring for one another is an essential part of our mission as a faith community, and we live this out in a number of ways---pastoral care by me and our chaplain Sally, others providing transportation and emergency service to those in need, all of us giving appreciation for the many daily tasks performed by volunteers such as ushering, bringing refreshments, helping with the children, greeting newcomers warmly, and helping to grow and strengthen the connections between us by attending congregational events. Our Covenant of Right Relations helps us figure out how to handle our differences of opinion in positive, safe ways.

But caring for one another is only part of why we’re here. We depend on this strong, safe community to give us support when we seek justice in the larger world. It is most effective to be part of a group when we urge the legislature to support marriage equality, fair immigration standards, education reform or to end torture.

When we all contribute to the morning collection for South Whidbey Commons or the Hub for Youth or Planned Parenthood, we are collectively supporting agencies and programs that benefit our larger community and improve the world for many people.

Worship on Sunday mornings and our Wednesday evening EvenSong group are our public face in this community, our effort to nurture the spiritual growth of those who attend. For this reason, worship services are carefully planned and carried out, so that those who attend and participate receive an experience that will inspire, comfort, provoke to action, and cause them to think and feel more deeply. We welcome all and invite all to feel part of the community while they are here.

In addition, we have developed some specialized ministries which you may not yet think of as part of the vision and mission of the congregation: first, our visual arts gallery and the efforts of the VAC to assure that the entire building is as aesthetically harmonious as possible; second, our music concert series, which is open to the entire community and features incredible musical offerings and artists; and third, our expanding library which offers a book lending service to anyone who is interested in exploring progressive religious issues.

These are the categories I’ve considered as I’ve thought about the abilities of this congregation, the needs of this faith community, and the needs of the larger community on Whidbey Island and beyond.

Here are a few things I’d like to see happen, partly as an outgrowth of what I’ve started here, others as new directions you might take.
These are already being talked about in committees and leadership meetings, so few will be surprised by them. Your ideas are important too and I hope you will share them with the leaders of the congregation.

Here’s one I know is already under consideration, because it’s an ongoing tension between those who are responsible for the aesthetic harmony of a church facility and those who are responsible for its practical usage. Every congregation has to figure out how to maintain the beauty of the space while taking into consideration such concerns as the acoustics, structural integrity, and financial limitations.

I know our VAC (Visual Arts Committee) and BAG (Building and Grounds) leaders are always working to both preserve the beauty and make it accessible to all. I hope that they and you will continue the conversation and find a balance between these two complementary yet sometimes divergent services. I also think, by the way, that something is going to have to be done about expanding the available parking!

Another possibility is one I know is also under consideration: to increase the social action involvement of the congregation, by aligning with Good Cheer or Whidbey Island Nurtures or Whidbey Island Share a Home, or some other agency on the island which dovetails with our outreach mission, giving every person in the congregation, hopefully even the kids, a chance to be part of a hands-on effort to help in the community. I’ve been part of other congregations which had an all-congregation social action project, and it was a huge success!

One ongoing need must be addressed, I think, if the congregation is to continue to flourish. There are lots of small jobs that need to be done week after week after week and even though we have almost 100 members now, these jobs tend to be done by the same small group of people, week after week after week. Very few people seem to step up to do those small chores.

These little jobs are opportunities to get to know people, to do your part to keep things flourishing, and yet they often go begging. The jobs I’m thinking about are ushering, making coffee and bringing a few goodies on Sunday morning, showing up for work parties, serving on a task force or committee, volunteering with the children.

I would urge each of you to find a place to serve: as an usher, coffee-maker, refreshment bringer, on work parties and landscaping days, on a committee, or helping with the kids. The time spent will be enjoyable and you will find yourself developing a real sense of belonging. It will be worth it to you and will help the congregation thrive.

I have a couple more ideas which have not been talked about widely: we have a wonderful music series which is open to the entire community and enjoyed by all who attend. Mostly we’ve used it as a fund-raising activity and it’s been quite successful that way, as we’ve raised money for UUCWI projects and for community agencies such as Good Cheer. But what if we could begin to think of it as spiritual outreach to the community as well and find ways to illustrate UU principles in some way?

Subtly, of course, as the series is not intended to be a worship service, but music is definitely a spiritual experience for many people. Can we openly acknowledge that experience and help people see that music is deeply evocative of the human spiritual experience? I wonder if we can somehow identify this as a ministry without scaring people into fearing they’ll be proselytized if they attend? It’s worth thinking about, I believe.

And my second thought is that we might think how we could do the same with our art gallery. I wonder if the artists who exhibit here could be asked to consider the spiritual nature of their work, offer some words in their descriptions of that nature, maybe even connect that nature to a UU principle. Again, this must all be carefully done. But we are a spiritual community and it makes sense to think about what we do for the larger community as ministry, as spiritual not secular.

I’ll be preaching about these two ideas more fully in later sermons this spring, one in two weeks with Eileen Soskin and one later on with, I hope, the help of the VAC. I believe that the Arts are truly Sources of our UU Living Tradition, that they are sources of great spiritual and religious inspiration and must be integrated into the life of our congregation and its outreach into the community.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering the strengths we bring as individuals and as a community to our mission. May we strive to continue the good work we have begun and look eagerly to the next steps in our ministry, as we move through this time of transition. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Mile High Pixie said...

Rev Kit--it may be self-serving of me to suggest hiring an architect to help your church with the aesthetic vs. functional concerns of your facility's physical needs, but I think it might be what your group needs most. A good architect with a specialty in churches and spiritual/religious architecture can help y'all make good decisions on what materials to use, what should be fixed first, etc. And with the economy still recovering, I'm sure there are plenty of architects willing to work with you on fees and services.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Pixie, I'll hang onto that suggestion and pass it along when appropriate!