Hoping for rain?

Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it don’t.

It was the middle of a blistering southwest July and we had been driving most of the morning and still hadn’t reached the end of his ranch. We stopped every now and then Jim (his real name) would bail out some hay and the cows would come running. Then he threw his pitchfork into the back of the truck and spent a minute staring up at the sky hoping to find even the slightest indication of rain. In this part of New Mexico rain is holy. Green things sprout and that means Jim doesn’t have to buy hay and that means the ranch might make a profit this year. But it hardly ever rains.

Ranching is an endless loop of backbreaking, dangerous work. You can do your best everyday but you and your family never feel safe because ultimately, survival is out of your hands. You can’t make it rain. This creates a deep, jagged vulnerability that follows you everywhere you go. Especially on Sunday mornings. 

The expectations we bring to church membership determine the quality of our experience.

I was Jim’s pastor for two years and I have never seen a clearer more profound example of this enduring truth about church life: The expectations we bring to church membership determine the quality of our experience. Jim hoped that somehow being involved with a church would mean more rain for his ranch. And in Jim’s eyes my job as the minister of the congregation was to help make it rain. Jim’s relationship with the church, I learned from some other members, had been difficult, painful and unpredictable as long as anyone could remember.

But that was many years ago. I am no longer a minister, I am no longer a Christian. I am a newly minted Unitarian and I’m trying to figure out what it means to be a member of a church. It can be exhilarating and deeply connecting but it can be a bumpy ride at times. I think the reason might be that sometimes when life gets me feeling particularly vulnerable my expectations of church membership change without warning and in those moments I find myself wanting my church and my ministers to make it rain. 

I am starting to figure out that church membership fits best with me when I think of it in very simple terms: church is a place where I can learn and grow and I can do it with others who want the same thing. Sometimes you feel closer to your church than at other times. But in many ways the bumpy times in church life offer the greatest growth and the deepest connection.

What expectations do you bring with you on Sunday mornings? Hoping for rain?

We have a lot in common.

I am a Unitarian Universalist (imauu) and so are you. There are nearly 200,000 of us spread across the United States in cities, small towns and rural areas. Our sexual orientation, age, background, education, work lives and home lives may differ, but the values of those of us who call ourselves Unitarian Universalist remain the same: justice, compassion, diversity and community. Our goal is to put these values to work in our local congregation and community. 

Focused as we are on our own churches we can sometimes forget that Unitarians all over the country are doing the same things we are doing. But we don’t collaborate. We work in isolation. We don’t leverage each other’s experience and expertise. This failure to socialize lessons learned and best practices among Unitarian laity (especial lay leaders) continues to be very costly resulting in redundancy, wasted time and inconsistent quality.

As Unitarians, we choose our own gods, not our own problems. A church is a church is a church.

Shared identity. Common challenges.
What problems are you facing in your congregation right this moment?  Whatever it might be–finance, programing, scandals, clergy issues, youth, membership care–there is nothing you are facing right now in your congregation that hasn’t already been faced by people in other Unitarian congregations. In fact, it is likely that many of our churches are currently facing the same challenges right now. Shared identity means common challenges. Too often we find ourselves reinventing the wheel, or starting from scratch on new initiatives or problems which have already been successfully addressed by others. 

Unitarian clergy have their own networks where they find support and share solutions and best practices. Unitarian lay people like you and me need the same kind of opportunity to connect with others who are walking the same path. We don’t have to do it alone. 

Isn’t it time to fix this? Let’s work together to empower all lay people, all churches. 

We’re in this together.

Similar problems touch every congregation.

If your Unitarian congregation is anything like mine, your membership is a gathering of enormously talented, educated and accomplished people. Many are leaders in the local community.

Even so, getting involved as a leader in a local Unitarian congregation means you will likely face some problems you have not faced before. And that can feel intimidating. 

For example, let’s say you’re on a search committee for a new minister. Do you have a good understanding of what kind of minister the congregation needs in this moment? Do you know how to interview ministerial candidates? Is there a clear set of roles and responsibilities that you can present to the candidate? Are you capable of asking tough questions?

Or maybe you’re on the board of trustees; how will evaluate the minister’s performance? What is a healthy balance of power between the board and the minister? How will you hold your minister accountable? How do you create church policies that support and help maintain that healthy balance?

You may find some people in your congregation who can help, but that’s not always the case.

Wouldn’t it be helpful to be able to leverage the experience of other Unitarian lay people who have done this before? To get some tips on what works and what to avoid? 

Whatever challenge you are facing in your church right now, you can be pretty sure that other Unitarians in other churches have faced or are facing similar problems. But you don’t know them, and they don’t know you. Our lack of communication and connection is costly in so many ways.

Shared identity means common problems. Let’s start solving our problems together. Join our community today! 

The miracle of 1960

When the Happy Days decade of the 1950’s finally gave way to the 1960’s, cultural forces in this country had reached an unstoppable tipping point. People started claiming their independence which unleashed a tidal wave of social experimentation challenging the norms, rules and institutions that had shaped and governed American life for generations.

In the midst of this chaotic cultural upheaval and cry for independence, Unitarians were coming together in the hopes of forming a shared identity by articulating a clear and cohesive core of shared beliefs.  When the dust settled the Seven Principles were born.

You can imagine the push-back. Some members were outraged. Why go and ruin a good thing? Our independence makes us who we are, right? How can there ever be agreement on what we believe?

The Seven Principles didn’t try to create any new Unitarian beliefs, rather were an articulation of theological lessons learned. What was new and revolutionary was that the principles redefined what it meant to be independent. Instead of Unitarians being independent from each other, the Seven Principles provides a way for us to be independent together. Diversity maintained yet united by a cohesive core of common beliefs, a shared identity. It was pure genius. 

The miracle of 2020?
Years later we now know that finding and articulating common ground does not have to compromise our independence. The same is true with problem-solving. Independence can be counter productive. The freedom to solve similar problems independently isn’t freedom at all. We’re better together. Like codifying our theological common ground, doing likewise with our organizational lessons learned will be a tide that lifts all boats. 

Can there be a miracle of 2020? 



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