Mission: POSSIBLE (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

January 26 2020

To not let go of the thread, we have to find the thread, know the feel of the thread, make it ours, and hold it in our fingers.  That thread – our communal thread – is our mission. Our reason for existing. Our purpose for being.

We just recited our formal mission, the one that you can read every Sunday you are here because it is on the cover of our order of service.  How many of you knew that it was there, available to you so immediately, not hidden away on some shelf or by clicking through too many web pages?

Right here, in our own hands, and still, perhaps, not so much written into our minds or hearts.  Plus, if it were written there, would it be relevant?  Our mission was last updated about a decade ago.  Best practice tells us that we should be looking at the relevance of our mission at least every five years.

And, in fact, the congregation’s leadership, at the direction of the Board, has begun this important work.  Last June, leaders met to begin to identify the sweet spot between what the community and world needs and where our gifts and longing overlap.  In August, the board met to refine this even further.  I’ll tell you about what they came up with in just a bit.

I said this is important work and I want to tell you why.  Because I think a common reaction to the idea of revisiting or revising a mission statement is to either go to sleep, numb out, or quietly exit the room. For some of us, it sounds deadly. So here is my chance to convince you otherwise.

Congregations that are mission-driven, and their mission looks both inward and outward, are the best inoculated against decline.  Knowing one’s purpose, embodying it in how we are with one another and how we are in the world, is the best thing we can do to feed the vibrancy of this place and people; is the best thing we can do to slow, perhaps even reverse, the shrinking we are experiencing. 

In her essay, Soul of the Whole[i], Rev. Victoria Safford writes

It seems to me we speak all the time and all at once of two kinds of spiritual integrity, two ways of being deeply, liberally, religious—one looking inward, one looking outward. And that presents a kind of paradox. Our work as 21st century Unitarian Universalists is to attend to both at once, never one without the other, because in fact they are not as separate as they seem; they’re entirely intertwined. And whenever we forget this, things start quickly to unravel.  

That thread we are supposed to hold onto unravels.

~~~

I mentioned that last August, the Board worked to revisit and reclaim the congregation’s mission.  As I shared at our Rededication event in November, they moved us closer into connection with our mission, by identifying two core purposes of The Unitarian Society:

One purpose is to Connect with Something Greater than Ourselves.  In reflection, the Board articulated this as two things: doing good in the world and connecting with a sense of higher power or Unity. We talked about how to bring this concept alive in 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. Current 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;

·      institutional, financial, ministerial, and participatory support to the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project; and

·      another new ministry that feeds both the congregation and the community:  the MLK@TUS gathering on the Monday holiday that honors Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and his vision of a racially just Beloved Community.

But I think I am getting the cart before the horse.  For these concrete manifestations of our values and possibly of our mission are what are called Ends.  And actually, we want to start not with Ends (seems obvious, right?) but with Values, which hold our mission, which direct our ends.

The Board is currently reading a book called The Nested Bowls: The Promise and Practice of Good Governance in preparation for our upcoming March 14th workshop.  This book, written by Laura Park, comes out of Unity Consulting, a Unitarian Universalist consulting practice that helps congregations bring clarity and focus to their ministry. It is based in Minneapolis. 

It is from this book that the activity I invited you to engage in at the end of the Time For All Ages – to write down up to five nouns of overarching qualities you would like to see the congregation embody – comes.  (There’s still time to write those down.  And if you find that you can’t do it today, feel free to email them to me over the next couple of weeks.)

These qualities are the first of the three nested bowls:  the values bowl.  It is the largest bowl, by which I mean the most foundational, for it contains all our efforts and reasons for existing.  It is our essence when distractions are brushed away.

For each of the three bowls, the author asks a question or two.  For the values bowl, the question is

What transcendent, timeless qualities of our religious community will we embody in all we do?

It sounds like a big ask, to name these.  And it would be if it was just your job, or yours. Or mine.  Lucky for us, it’s up to all of us.  That’s why I invited you to write down three, and up to five, words or short phrases that capture the unique mix of qualities the congregation seeks to make real in the world. This is just a gentle reminder, if you did yet write them down, I do hope you will do so and then leave them in the basket in the lobby as you leave the sanctuary.

Heads up, we are going to explore this and play with this a little more as part of our canvass breakfast this year.

Next comes the second bowl, nested within our values.  This is where mission sits.  If we do not hold the thread of our values, and hold onto that thread through good times and bad, there is no way for us to situate a mission that is relevant or worthy.  The key questions for the mission bowl are

·      If we live fully into our values, what is our transcendent purpose?

·      What overarching difference are we here to make and for whom?

·      Whose lives will we change and in what way?

We’re not answering those questions today – yes, breathe a sigh of relief!  But we aren’t fully off the hook.  We must set aside the time and the head and heart space to answer them. 

Finally, the third bowl, nested within the mission, which is nested within the values, is what they call “Ends.”  The term “ends” is borrowed from literature on governance, which is about decision making, authority and responsibility, and measures. The question for this third nested bowl is

What more specific, measurable differences will we make and for whom?

And while we are not answering this question in this moment, we do answer this question when we develop a budget and vote on it.

While I have asked you to help us with the Values portion of this approach, and will ask you again at the canvass breakfast, and while it is important for the Board to not lose sight of the Ends, our focus today is on mission. Mission, not as some dry exercise in revising a dead sheet of paper, but mission as something that animates and enlivens, such as the story of Throop.  Mission as something that looks both inward and outward.  Mission as something that we actually remember in times good and bad, that feels our souls and educates others about who we are.

Towards that end, though we might be – again – putting a cart before a horse – but I do so to fire up your imagination – there is a sub section of mission building that comes after a mission has been revisited, reviewed, and redefined.  And that is not just the mission statement, but the even pithier, mission tag line.

We don’t have a mission tag line.  I don’t even know what ours would be and that’s for the best. It’s not for me to decide.  It’s for us to figure out. 

I can tell you that I often experience a mild case of holy envy when I see ones from other congregations, especially when they are memorable or clever. Now, this is not necessarily a good thing – it’s that part of my personality that is drawn to shiny objects.

But I have experienced – in the congregation I served as an intern – that these taglines can help consolidate identity, convey to visitors and outsiders who the congregation is, and act as a discerning question when internal decisions are being made. And that is a good thing. At that congregation, First Parish Church of Groton, their tagline is

WE ARE A SCHOOL FOR COMPASSION, GRATITUDE & GENEROSITY.

Here are some other examples from other UU congregations:

GROW YOUR SOUL & SERVE THE WORLD (White Bear)

TRANSFORMING OURSELVES, EACH OTHER & THE WORLD (Palo Alto)

NURTURE SPIRITUALITY, FOSTER COMPASSION, ENGAGE IN SERVICE (White Plains)

“In the spirit of courageous love, we forge a community of radical welcome and deep connection that moves us together to heal the world.” (Columbia, Missouri)

~~~

There are so many ways to approach a mission or to use the mission to approach how we live out our shared congregational life. For instance, one significant, upcoming way is already in process – the development and adoption of the yearly budget.

While a budget is a financial statement – both practical and aspirational – a budget has other qualities as well. If you listen to public theologians – like Dr. King, like the modern-day Poor Peoples Campaign, like the Nuns on the Bus – they remind us that the federal budget and state budgets are moral documents, not just financial ones.

This is true about congregational budgets as well. They are moral documents. And they are missional documents. They are one of the ways in which we measure – one of those Ends – whether we are living into our values and mission.

A budget reflects back in numbers what is most important (and what is least important).  A budget shows us, and sometimes not so kindly, where the gap between our stated mission is and where we put our money.  Budgets must always be developed by practical people, but if they are solely built by people who practice only prudence and not mission, then an essential part of what it means to be a people of spirit and vision is often lost. 

So here is another invitation to you.  On February 23, after the service, the Finance Committee is hosting the annual Budget Town Hall, when you are asked to engage in a review of a draft of the budget for next fiscal year. I invite you to save that time in your calendar.  I invite you to look ahead of time at that carefully ordered set of numbers that dear people will have extended great efforts to create and present to you. I invite you to ask questions about the congregation it describes and the congregation it aspires to be.  I invite you to read what it says about our looking inward and our looking outward. What does it say about our intentions around what we have called for a thousand years, religious education, but is really faith formation?  What does it say about how much you value the role of Minister? What does it say about the relationship between the congregation and the school sides of The Unitarian Society? 

~~~

I am deeply grateful for the past few months as we have been able to enjoy a stroll with our past.  I am thankful to Paula, Marie, Coleen, and Joyce, who created walls with images of our past, seeing old friends again, seeing current friends in their younger incarnations.  Now that those frames will be soon coming down for the most part, I have been wondering, “What next?” 

What if there was a wall, or a section of a wall, to give the past its proper due, and then walls and walls that reflected a vibrant now – images of what makes this place, this place. Images of what makes this people, this people.  Images that informed visitors, renters, new comers, and even folks who have been coming for a while, how we live into our values and principles? 

What if there were a wall, or a section of a wall, with images of the future, of a vision that drew people in, inspired them, made them want to be a part?  What would that wall look like if it reflected our mission? And inspired people to live more fully into it?  I don’t know the answer to that question, and that’s a good thing.  Because it is exactly that kind of thing that we should figure out together.

Let us discover, more intentionally, more explicitly, that, indeed, there is no power equal to a community discovering what it cares about.

Let us, remember ourselves into the future, along the endless yes of the horizon, shaking the scales from our imagination.

Let us continually remember to ask, not what is wrong, but what is possible.

Let us continue to look both inward and outward, never one without the other. Let us dig deeper where they intersect, combine, resonate, overlap, and create new synergies.

Amen.  Blessed be.

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