In November your Transition Team and I began holding a series of “Reflective Conversations” designed to help me learn about this congregation, your history, and your hopes and dreams for the future. It was also an opportunity for all of you to listen to each other, and I was amazed by the quality of these conversations. The regard with which people listened to one another, the thoughtfulness you brought to your answers…these were delightful to witness.
A bit about the process: In each group there were between 8 and 12 people present, and after agreeing upon a covenant of listening, we followed a simple procedure. I asked a question, and each person answered it, one at a time, with no interruptions. There was no cross-talk allowed, and though the conversations were not confidential, people were asked to carry only their story out. They were also asked to refrain from telling other people’s stories in the conversation, to only share their own experience and not hearsay or secondary conversations.
The questions were open-ended, and it was fascinating to see the variety of answers. Though there were a few singular answers, some general similarities emerged.
The first question was “What is your religious journey? Where did you come from, where did it take you, and what were you seeking when you came to EUUC?”
As you can imagine, the answer to where did you come from was all over the map. Most people came from Protestant Church backgrounds, some from Catholic or Jewish traditions, and a smaller number were unchurched. A few were raised Unitarian.
Most of you come to EUUC to feel a sense of community, and because you believe that liberal religious values are needed in this world. You want to help spread those values while also creating a religious home for yourselves.
A great many of you first came for your children. You were seeking a way to teach your children values, to encourage them to grow. Religious education drew you here—even those of you whose children are grown and gone. It’s interesting to notice that most of the new folks among us are parents of young children who are seeking the same thing: a place where their children can grow up experiencing a free mind and learning values of justice and reason in a religious community.
The next question was “What keeps you here? What does this church do, or stand for, or provide you that keeps you coming back?”
Many people, especially long-time members, said the people. The kindness, warmth, and feeling of community that you find here means a lot to you. Many people also said the sermons and spirituality. One person used these words: “I want to be spiritually nurtured so that I can go back out into the world each week.”
Folks mentioned the social justice activities of the church—the work of the various committees who are serving in the larger community, doing advocacy, and educating us about larger issues. More than one person said, “I’m proud of what we do in the world, the message we stand for.“
Interestingly, when I asked this question some people said that they weren’t sure if they were staying. A very small number of these said that the recent conflict over Ed Brock’s departure had been painful to them. Others who said this were parents of young children who felt that the church did not understand what families need today. Others were people who felt that the community was exclusive and hard to break into as a newcomer, that after that warm welcome it is hard to find your place in the community.
My third question was “What are your concerns, and what would you like to see changed?”
There were many different answers—including a disparity of opinion on whether we use too many hymnals, and ideas for improving the parking lot. A few central concerns emerged:
A. Those of you who are newer express a wish for fuller inclusion. Those of you who have been here a long time want to be welcoming, but you also feel a sense of loss in all the changes. You have questions about how to include new people and make room for all who come while also retaining a sense of intimacy and closeness. Those of you who’ve been here for decades are very proud of your history, and your iconic figures—Maybelle and Stuart Chapman, your founders, and Robert Fulghum, your first minister. You remember them with such fondness, and love. They were giants…their stories permeate the very building. The gift of their legacy is enormous.
And…sometimes, newcomers feel like the congregation is looking backwards more than forwards…they didn’t know Maybelle and didn’t experience her charisma. Charisma is not something that lives in stories…it has to be felt in person. For newcomers, Maybelle is not a part of their story in the life of this church. Sometimes this creates a feeling of in-crowd and out-crowd—who knows the stories, who holds the memories. And some members—even some longtime members—wonder if the ghosts of Maybelle and Bob Fulghum keep you from being able to envision your future.
Newcomers also share stories of volunteering for something and then having their contributions criticized. Longer time members want to feel that their legacy is being honored. Changing the way something has always been done can feel like a loss of that legacy.
In summation, many of you are worried about a possible divide between long-time and newer members and wonder how to honor EUUC’s history while also allowing for new ideas and new leadership.
B. You want clarity and transparency in your governance, and structures that fit the size you are now, although some of you are grieving the changes from a more relaxed and casual way of organizing yourselves.
Most of you say that the size you are now means that you need to organize yourselves differently…you’ve grown too large to do it the old ways. And yet these changes are a loss for long-time members…and each change can tug at the heartstrings, a reminder of so many memories of those days and people now gone.
C. You want to embrace different ideas and respect one another, including theological differences. Many of you have been surprised to discover the wide variety of theological beliefs in your midst. There is a large majority of people who want to be fed spiritually here, who say that they want the services to deepen their spiritual awareness, who want more classes on spiritual practices and traditions.
While this is in no way a scientific sample, of the 176 people who participated in the recent survey by the middle-schoolers, the vast majority of you are some kind of religious humanists with a somewhat agnostic view on God. I’ve lumped together those folks who checked humanist or agnostic. And nearly a third of the respondents said they find god in nature. Whether that means that they are panentheists or that they simply feel close to the Ultimate when they are in nature, I don’t know.
Those who follow some kind of Christianity, whether “ethical” or more traditional, are in about equal number with those of you who are atheists—both of these are small but not insignificant minorities. There is a slightly smaller pagan group among you. These smaller groups often feel marginalized and silenced…the Christians in particular report feeling unwelcome over the years. The atheists say that they are somewhat worried that they will not be welcomed in the future, that there is a shift going on in Unitarian Universalism that will leave them out.
And all of you wanted to find ways to honor these differences and be respectful of one another.
There are some sacred cows in your midst—things that have always been done a certain way…and there is among you a fear about talking about some of these things. Many people expressed a hope that you are strong enough as a congregation to talk through some of the more controversial topics. I want you to know that one of my personal goals for my time with you is to help you find ways to talk about the sacred cows…the points of former conflict. One of the marks of real intimacy and trust in any relationship is to be able to talk openly about our differences…we began that in the healing ritual, and what I saw there gave me every confidence that you can do so about other things.
Finally, you have questions about the future…Many of you feel that the church does not yet have a unified mission and vision. You want the church to be clear what it stands for and where it is going.
Many of you feel the church is understaffed. You are worried about the aging of the key leadership core…those folks who have labored for so long to build this church, and you wonder who will do everything.
Parents of young children express a frustration that they are over-stretched everywhere in their lives...expected to volunteer long hours at school and at sports and other activities, and by the time they come here they are depleted and in need of nourishment. Most families today have two parents working out of the home, and the financial realities have changed for families…and these families feel both guilty that they cannot participate more and frustrated that they cannot come to church and simply be nurtured in this trying time of their lives.
Times have changed, and these parents long for the support of a religious community. They are hungry for the understanding and the support of those of you who have already raised your children.
Many people expressed a desire to create a stronger intergenerational church—the youth in particular were very clear about this. I met alone with the youth to have one of these conversations, and I heard from them a very strong desire to be more connected across age lines. They told me a story about when they were little kids and would see the youth group and think, “There’s the cool big kids.” “And now,” one of them said, “we are the cool big kids. We need to reach back to those littler kids.”
And then another said wistfully, “Where are our cool big kids?” They asked where the people in their 20s are, and who will be there for them to show them how to move into the next stage of young adulthood. It is a poignant question…to notice that there are very few young adults in your midst.
A significant number of you are hoping to improve the facilities while also wanting to honor the immense gifts of those who built these very walls. There is a desire to make the space larger, warmer, more welcoming. Newer people report that they don’t find the cinderblock charming…Many people wanted to expand the space to meet your growing needs. A few people even suggested moving off-site, to a more central and visible place.
And all of you want to be sure that there is enough to do all that you hope to do as a church: enough staff, enough volunteer time, enough money, enough space…and enough of everything to attract a minister skilled enough to help you accomplish this.
You are very hopeful and a bit anxious about the search for that new minister. You are eager to see a good match and want to be sure that the Search Committee can express who you are and where you are going very clearly to potential candidates.
My observations on all of these comments are that these are normal growing pains. I think that nearly everything that has happened in the last ten years is pronouncedly normal during a shift from one church size to another, as you go from a single-celled to a multi-celled community. Even the challenges of your last ministry were in large part a symptom of these growing pains. You were between sizes, and called a minister who wanted to minister to the size you were becoming.
I am not surprised that you had conflict—this shift in church size is one of the most difficult to navigate, and many, many ministries end on its rocky shoals. Many churches do not make the shift and end up stagnating and declining.
What is needed if you are to continue to thrive, are three things:
I want to thank everyone who participated in the Reflective Conversations and the Healing Ritual. In particular, I want to honor the courage it takes to face these challenges…to show up and speak your truth…to listen with regard and compassion to one another even when we disagree. I have no doubt that you can move forward into a bright and shining future. You begin again in love…
May it be so.
© Reverend Cecilia Kingman Miller