Thriving congregations have leaders who seize the opportunities before them rather than cling to plans that are no longer viable.
In my own life, I found that when I tried to cling to my plans when they were no longer viable (or when I tried to recapture a past that was gone forever), I just made myself and others miserable. Conversely, when I have focused upon opportunities, upon new possibilities, a new and exciting future always appeared. My decision to pursue ministry was one of those new possibilities. What a blessing, what a life-changing path, that has been.
Opportunities, I now realize, are always there. We can only see them, however, when we are open to them. And opportunities only matter if we have the courage to seize them.
What is true for an individual is true for a congregation and for a religious movement. Things change. Especially today, American religion is changing at a rate that is unprecedented. We are witnessing nothing less than a spiritual mass migration of tens of millions of people away from religious institutions. This is occurring after decades of relative stability. We see denominations struggling to adapt as membership drops and financial resources dwindle.
We cannot control these cultural shifts. We can control our response. One response is to continue to do what we have always done, perhaps redoubling our efforts. We can stubbornly cling to old ways, eating into our financial reserves and delaying the inevitable. Sadly, I see some congregations doing exactly that.
Or, we can look around for new possibilities. We can open ourselves to new ways of being, to new ways of being faithful to our core values. Ultimately, this is a spiritual discipline. This is about letting go, about exploring, about paying attention to what is happening all around us, about listening deeply to one another and to our inner voices.
I have been blessed to visit some of our Association’s most thriving congregations. I have visited some of our fastest-growing congregations and had the honor to serve one of them. What do they all have in common?
Well, there is a lot they do not have in common. Some are old congregations, while some are relatively young. Some are urban, but some are suburban, and some are in small communities. They are scattered all over the country.
What our thriving congregations do have in common are qualities of spirit and culture. They know who they are. They know where they are. They have a shared vision of what is possible right there, right now. And our thriving congregations have leaders, both lay and ordained, who seize the opportunities before them. We need thousands of passionate leaders—leaders in communities large and small.
I am convinced, absolutely convinced, that we live in an era of enormous opportunity for liberal religion. This is a time of historic possibility for us. Just look at how the culture is shifting in attitudes about sexuality, cultural diversity, and environmental sustainability. We can become the spiritual home, the supporting community, for the religiously homeless.
The great issue before our faith is whether we will adapt quickly enough. Think of your congregation, your location. What is your great opportunity? And what will it take to grasp that opportunity? Imagine what you might do in partnership with others. Imagine what we might do together.
This article appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of UU World (page 5). Photograph (above): UUA President Peter Morales (© Nancy Pierce/UUA).
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The Rev. Peter Morales was the eighth president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).