Advent is a season of reflection and expectation in the Christian calendar. Its messages have meaning for all of us.
The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister
My understanding is that this congregation plans to go into search for a new settled minister about a year from now. If that plan goes forward, the congregation will have a ministerial search committee in place this spring, and one of the tasks of that committee will be to assemble what’s called a Congregational Record. This is actually a questionnaire that the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has search committees fill out. It includes opportunities for the search committee to articulate the congregation’s strengths, as well as questions such as, “What congregational issues are likely to be most pressing within the next couple years?” and “In practice, are responsibilities for governance widely shared or confined among relatively few members?” These Congregational Records are posted on a password-protected website managed by the UUA, and any Unitarian Universalist minister in good standing can go to this website and read them. I have read dozens, possibly even hundreds of these over the years. They are a fascinating documentation of the lived experience of Unitarian Universalists all over the United States and Canada, and reflect the reality of congregations of various sizes in diverse locales and under a wide array of different circumstances. Nevertheless, in my experience, almost all of them say three things. 1) “We are looking for a minister who will inspire us with great sermons that challenge us intellectually but also speak to the heart,” 2) “We want our congregation to grow,” and 3) “We want our congregation to be more diverse.” The near-ubiquity of these three expressed desires seems to demand attention.
Unitarian Universalist congregations, in my experience, almost always say that they want to grow, and when they say this, they are referring to numerical growth — more members. I am all in favor of congregations growing numerically. Yet I am not aware that anyone ever joined a church because they figured out that the people already in the church were really anxious about the congregation’s size. “Thanks for welcoming me to your church! What’s that? You’re worried that your congregation is too small? Well, give me a pen so I can sign the membership book!” I’m still more doubtful that anyone who ever visited a church for the first time and noticed that the congregation wanted to grow so their budget would get bigger was prompted by that to take up a life of faith with that church. I actually believe that people do want to give money to churches and to other organizations. Congregations that have balanced budgets and financially robust organizing are not embarrassed to ask for money and lots of it, and many of them understand that people actually want to be generous. But I doubt that a lot of people have been inspired to join a church because they wanted to assuage the congregation’s anxiety about wanting to have more money.
I observe that congregations’ yearnings for numerical growth often take on a generational aspect: “We want to attract more young families.” I have never encountered a congregation that said, “We want to attract more elderly people” — though in my experience, very often the most vocal proponents of this wish for “more young families” are themselves persons who are in the later stages of life. It appears to me that such persons might often be saying, in effect, “Aging people like me can’t keep the church’s ministries going much longer, so we need a new generation to come in and take up the mantle.” Any organization or community or even any family has to accept that new generations pick up the torch of leadership as time passes. At the same time, I am not aware that anyone ever felt motivated to join a church because they wanted to mollify the anxiety of the people already in the church about finding younger blood to keep things going just as they have been.
“We wish our congregation were more diverse.” I think diversity is a wonderful thing to strive for. We ought to thoughtfully examine both our motives and our efforts. I could be wrong, but when I hear congregations express a yearning for greater diversity, it appears to me that what they are talking about is skin color. Choosing to form and sustain racially and ethnically diverse communities of mutual respect and sharing and love is a powerful and liberating act. In this country it is a subversive act and it always has been, because it subverts America’s original sin of racism; that subversiveness is all the more needed now, with the Racist-in-Chief in the Oval Office providing daily disgraces to the nation and continuing to embolden and encourage the most sinister impulses of our country’s “very fine people on both sides,” but the subversiveness of mutual love has always been needed in this country and in this world, and it always will be needed. At the same time, I have to wonder if any person ever wanted to join a congregation because they ascertained that the folks already in it were really anxious about the lack of diversity. I am a white, heterosexual male and I grew up in a white-flight suburb, so there is a lot more for me to learn, but I have long wondered what it must be like for people of color to hear this ceaseless drumbeat about diversity. On the one hand, it is a good and honorable thing for any community to sincerely wish to be welcoming and to respect and cherish any human being who walks in the door, and in this society, that is indeed subversive, because of course we all know that there are places where people are not sincerely welcomed because of their skin color or because of any of a range of other aspects of who they are. On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that any person of color felt motivated to join a church because they wanted to lessen the anxiety of white people. I may be way off base, and if anybody who is wiser than I am wants to give me a good talking-to about this, I will gladly listen to anyone whose intentions are respectful.
How easy is it for any of us, individually or collectively, to admit what we’re really feeling or what we really want? It can actually be quite difficult, especially when we are anxious — and in my experience, congregations in search for a new settled minister are always anxious. No doubt they should be, but the degree of communal self-awareness is what makes the difference between a strong and healthy congregation and one that is in trouble. My experience with congregations seeking a new minister is that the experience often brings to the surface some deeply felt yearnings. “We want the most charismatic, fascinating preacher alive to be our minister! We want to grow! We need more young families! We need more pledge units! We wish we were more diverse!” These are good things to want. If these yearnings are present — and frankly, they probably should be — they need to be held in balance with a thorough self-awareness. It is very easy for anxious congregations to express these kinds of desires as variations on a theme, the grounding theme being a longing to be rescued by someone else, a hankering to be saved. Where is the dynamic, caring, personable, scholarly, emotionally mature minister who is going to save us? Where are the new members who are going to come in here and save us? Where are the young families who are going to take over for those of us who are aging and save us? Where are the new pledge units that are going to generously fill our church’s coffers and save us? Where are the people of color that are going to tell us, by their very presence, that we’re not the “bad” white people, that we’re okay; where are the black and brown people who are going to come in and save us?
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. It is the season in the Christian liturgical calendar that precedes Christmas, the coming of the Savior. It is a time of joyful expectation, but it is also a penitential season, a time for personal and communal reflection and atonement. This, to me, is an extraordinarily rich and powerful tradition. What better way to prepare for the coming of a new and better way of being than through rituals and practices intended to deepen self-awareness and to empower individuals and communities to renew their commitments to those things which are of highest and most sacred worth? The Christians I admire are not passively waiting for an all-powerful being to redeem them: the coming of the Redeemer demands the work of preparation of oneself.
Our yearnings for a different way of being are good yearnings. We should want to be more welcoming toward and inclusive of people of all ages and all backgrounds; we should want the institutions we cherish to remain vital; a congregation in search for a new minister should desire excellence and commitment from that minister. It’s not particularly useful for a congregation in search to ponder, “What do we want from our next minister?” The vastly more important question is: “What will we as a congregation bring to our relationship with our next minister?” That is also a harder question, so it’s easy to avoid it by creating grocery lists of things we want someone else do to and be.
“People, Look East” is one of my favorite hymns. It is an Advent hymn, so it really only makes sense to sing it at this time of year. To me, this hymn seems to be saying: we need to get ourselves ready for a new and better reality; we need to work on ourselves if love is on the way. “Make your house fair as you are able” is the exhortation; no one is going to do that work for us.