Pivoting the Sweet Spot: The Future of The Unitarian Society

November 23, 2019

This address was given on the occasion of The Unitarian Society’s Rededication event, marking the 64th anniversary of the congregation and 55th anniversary of the building.

Theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

It’s like the Venn diagram that used to be taped to a wall in my office: one circle was the hurt of the world and the other circle was the gifts you bring. The overlap is “the sweet spot.”

Both circles change over time.  Though it sure seems constant, the hurt of the world does.  As each of us knows so well, our abilities shift and develop over time, with maturity, with aging, sometimes growing, sometimes waning.  Sweet spots shift and change, too. True for individuals. And true for congregations.

I have come to see this weekend’s Rededication festivities not as a sweet spot, but as a sweet spot pivot. Borrowing from that clever turn-of-phrase in an early congregational pamphlet – the sweet spot requires pivoting “where the past meets the future.” 

Granted, a bright future was easier to discern during the height of the fellowship movement, a time when Unitarian Universalism was experiencing its most robust expansion, this congregation being one example.

Our current societal landscape makes that phrase more daunting.  National – and our own – trends reflect declining participation by adults, children, and youth in congregational life – even though Unitarian Universalism is doing better than many mainline Protestant denominations.

And this congregation has its own history. We are much smaller than we used to be and are still figuring out how to adjust to this new reality. We are still healing from conflict a decade ago that sent too many of our beloveds away.  Some of whom are here today; that is a blessing and a gift.   Thank you for returning.

So, the question emerges: how to pivot to meet the future? Here is my offering:

Release. Come alive.

Release. In order to grasp the future, we must give the past its due. Then we must release it.  While I’m not sure that it was ever helpful, the refrain of “that’s not how we used to do it” is not useful in a territory and landscape that has changed so drastically in the past 64 years.

Acknowledging the loss of a religious education program that used to have scores of children and youth, and then letting it go, has allowed us to release the “used-to-be’s” and make space for new possibilities. Literally: make space, here in the sanctuary, with our V.I.P. – Very Inquisitive Person – space that recognizes while the Sunday School model is dying, the need for faith formation and religious exploration is very much alive and it is ours to give it voice and form.

Come Alive. Theologian Howard Thurman said it this way:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

The past half year, leadership at TUS has met to connect and claim its mission – to identify the sweet spot we now occupy.  We continue this work, so we’re not done yet.  However, in August the Board identified two purposes that make The Unitarian Society come alive and I’d like to share them with you.

One purpose is to Connect with Something Greater than Ourselves, both through doing good in the world and through connecting with a sense of higher power or Unity. We talked about how to bring alive the concept of the very space you find yourselves in: sanctuary.  Sanctuary for spiritual exploration and development, perhaps even moving beyond our Bond of Union’s threshold of spiritual satisfaction to spiritual growth.

The other purpose is to Build Partnerships in our Diverse Community. Examples of living into this purpose include

  • our commitment to ensuring that the Montessori School thrives;
  • continuing our decades-long relationship with Elijah’s Promise, which we recognized and amplified earlier this past year with a gift of two $1,000 scholarships to students at the Promise Culinary School;
  • our institutional support to the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project, a community partnership with individuals, non-profits, and now, the Township of East Brunswick, thanks to the leadership of Mayor Brad Cohen, an effort that we lead, to not forget or erase a truly horrific local event of an 1818 slave ring run by a corrupt judge who lived in East Brunswick. The Lost Souls Project envisions a public memorial to the 177 Lost Souls who were sold into permanent slavery. Until this congregation lent our institutional, ethical, and moral support to remembering this history, it was white-washed and forgotten.  This is truly work that is ours to do. And as anyone who hears me speak about it, this is a ministry that makes ME come alive; and
  • our newest ministry that we hope will become a signature annual event for the congregation, meeting a need here in the local community: a gathering that focuses on what is ours to do to bring racism to an end.  Called MLK@TUS, this January 20th will be our second time pulling this event together. We welcome your participation: helping to organize, attending, spreading the word, inviting others.

Looking inward – creating sanctuary and connecting with something greater than ourselves – and looking outward – building partnerships in our diverse community – not one without the other.  Where they intersect, combine, resonate, overlap, and create new synergies – this is the sweet spot this congregation can claim, here at the pivot, as we release the past, as we meet and make the future.

I am blessed to be on this journey with you.

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