I spent the first four days of last week with twenty of my ministerial colleagues at the Unitarian retreat centre in Great Hucklow, in Derbyshire.
Outside of The Nightingale Centre, the snow fell almost continuously. Everything was covered in a lovely white icing.
Inside, we listened, we discussed, we worked in small groups, we made plans and we envisioned the future, and we set personal goals…
Leading the workshop were two Unitarian luminaries from the US: Don Southworth, the Executive Director of the Unitarian Ministers’ Association and Peter Morales, the president of the American Unitarian Universalist Association. To be clear, Peter Morales is the highest ranking official in the largest Unitarian association there is.
Remarkably, both of these men gave their time freely to help us. I am still pinching myself to see if it was a dream that they went to all that trouble.
What could possibly be so important that it drew two such busy and capable leaders to spend time with the British ministers? The topic of the workshop was congregational growth.
Growth is an interesting topic in this congregation. Clearly, we seem to know how to do it. Most of you probably don’t think about growth at all – it’s just a fact of life here where we happily welcome new people into this community every week.
As you have probably gathered from things I’ve said previously, we are one of the few exceptions in a movement of mostly static or shrinking, tiny, elderly congregations.
So, we here can very easily look at congregational growth as a happy reality and not give it much thought, but it is an important subject. Why grow?
A desperate congregation will seek growth for the wrong reasons, and perhaps that’s a big part of why they don’t grow.
Here, we do not grow for our own sake. We do not welcome people because it will benefit us. While we can celebrate our growing numbers, the important thing for us is that those numbers represent individual human beings. Every single increase represents another person whose life is somehow enriched by the fact they have found a spiritual home here.
We are engaged in growth because we are prepared to share what we have found here. The reading we heard earlier from Robert Karnan speaks of the power of communities like ours to transform lives and to begin to change the world for the better. Your words speak volumes about this power.
During our workshop last week, Peter Morales was asked about congregations that do not want to grow. He answered very directly: Avoiding congregational growth, he said, is a moral failure. By that, he means that if we know what a community like this can do for us, it is our moral responsibility to share it with others. This community feeds and sustains us and we should no more keep it from those who are hungry for meaning and wholeness than we would keep bread from the starving.
I did not always feel this way.
Robert Karnan’s words are printed in a book called ‘Salted With Fire’, which focuses on a variety of aspects of growth in Unitarian congregations. Another writer in that book, John Morgan, wrote this:
A few weeks ago, I happened to use [the word] ‘evangelism’ in a sermon. As I was gathering together my notes and heading for the coffee, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that someone was marching toward me, face flushed, angry eyes looking for a landing spot on my psyche.
‘Don’t ever use that word here,’ she said.
‘what word?’ I asked innocently, already knowing from past experiences what she was going to say.
‘evangelism!’ She drew back as if the word itself had caught in her throat. I think it had. ‘Don’t use it again. We have newcomers here today!’
The description of that angry woman could easily have described me at one time. The word ‘evangelism’ would have thrown me into a fit when I was first a Unitarian. That’s what those people do! They force their religion on others! Right, that’s true. They do that and I hate it. But that does not mean that we should hide away an open and inclusive way of being spiritual in community from a world that needs and wants it. Evangelism means sharing the good news, and this is not language that I am ready to cede to conservative Christians.
The other day, I went back to find the very first sermon I ever wrote. This was nearly 200 sermons ago! I delivered it Sunday the 12th of October, 2003 at First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Lexington Massachusetts. It was before I began to train for the ministry. I was the chair of the membership committee and I had recently had an epiphany: we could help people by including them, by welcoming them, by accepting and affirming them for who they are. I realised at long last that growing is very much a way of offering ministry.
Here is part of what I said six years ago:
We as a denomination have a saving message to bring to the world. We have “good news”! Now, let me take a step back. Those of you who have known me for a long time may be shocked to hear some of these words coming from my mouth. Those of you who worked with me on starting Covenant Groups here know that I was allergic to the word “spirituality”! Back then, “good news” would have made me break out in a bad case of hives!
I did not come to First Parish with a view to save the world. I came for my son and – frankly - because my wife dragged me […]. I stayed because I found comfort and strength in community. I liked the fact that this place was not challenging – that it rarely pushed me to be different in the world. Something has changed… It took a long time, but I am finally ready to look outward at what we have to offer the world, rather than just ourselves.
That was six years ago. It had taken me a very long time to go from the antireligious person who first arrived somewhat unwillingly at a Unitarian congregation to someone who understood that welcoming people into our community is a way to serve them, a way to offer healing, and a way to make a better world.
In 2003, I quoted Rev. Scott Alexander – again from Salted With Fire – and I will do so again:
[this] big-hearted faith that sees the oneness and wonderfulness of all people everywhere, even in all their diversity and difficulty, is good and true. It is a sound and saving vision for the human family that can help us create a liveable world for all. That is why we must not hide the light of our faith under some bushel of meek and mild politeness while [others] preach their divisive, fearful, exclusionary message to millions. We must boldly and unashamedly share our "good news" that every man, woman. and child of this creation-be they young or old, black or white, rich or poor, yellow or brown, liberal or conservative, gay or straight-is a child of God, a valuable creature fashioned out of high and holy stuff, for whom a place at life’s table has been set. Wherever we are, however we find ourselves stationed in life, we must share that faith, tell that truth, live that ethic, dare that dream…
We have each had the good fortune to find a community of the spirit that enriches our lives in many ways.
With that blessing comes two natural responses.
First, let us celebrate what we have found and the ways in which this place feeds us. Life would not be the same without it.
And second, let us never forget the millions who could draw meaning and hope from a community such as this one. Instead, think always of how we can keep our doors and our hearts open to them.
In this way, we employ our love to change the world.
Dear ones, let us make it so. Amen.