What is the saving message of your congregation?
Still, some have sought to find the “center” of our faith. I understand the impulse—the desire for something to grasp, even in the midst of the beauty and mystery we experience in one another’s presence Sunday after Sunday. On the other hand, when we set aside the notion of a center around which faith revolves, and instead talk about what holds us together and strengthens this faith, the result can be deeply inspiring.
Recently, I had just such an experience when the UUA’s Growth Team gathered twelve ministers from some of our fastest growing congregations. It was an effort to understand growth in numbers, one of our primary goals. For two and a half days, these successful, growth-oriented ministers sat in an inner circle surrounded by the Growth Team. We listened as they responded to provocative questions from the facilitator. Her first question was brilliant: What is the saving message of your congregation? It was fascinating to listen as—in various theological languages, and in just two or three sentences—they all said the same thing.
What they said, one after another, was this: The saving message of my congregation is that we nurture the human spirit. We encourage and help people to get in contact with the holy in their lives. And we help heal the world. From then on, “nurture the spirit and help heal the world” became a kind of mantra that ran through our time together, shifting us away from any preoccupation with finding a center of belief, and into thinking about what our congregations are called to do. This experience affirmed that our mission as a faith community includes preparing the way for a different kind of growth as well: spiritual growth.
How can we help one another to deepen our spiritual lives, encouraging one another to spiritual depth? For this, too, helps heal the world. And out of the place of nurture, what are we called to do to help heal the world? Tradition, action, and care for the soul are of one cloth. What is the saving message of your congregation?
Many answers are possible. In the Twin Cities area, for example, four UU congregations took part in a series of gatherings that came to be known as “Faithful Conversations.” Coming together each week at a different meetinghouse, fifty participants reflected on the question, “What does spiritual maturity look like?” The Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, who co-facilitated the series, notes that there had long been a sense that each of these congregations, all within driving distance of one another, had their own “personalities.” The gatherings became a place for folks to really “embrace theology,” she says. Transcending differences, they turned hearts and minds instead to a religious task they held in common, reflecting on such spiritual challenges as tolerance for ambiguity, yearning for beauty, and the ability to confront suffering with compassion. The result? “Many participants are eager to see the next one!” says Gibbons. The challenge to deepen by doing “spiritual homework” was welcomed and appreciated. In addition, she adds, there is an increased sense of community among the congregations, and more clarity around the diversity within our tradition.
Just as Unitarian Universalism encompasses much diversity, so also there will be many ways in which we “nurture the spirit, and help heal the world.” I look forward to hearing what your congregation is doing.
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The Rev. Bill Sinkford is a former president of the UUA and now senior minister at First Unitarian in Portland, Oregon. He was appointed Interim Co-President for the roles of President as outlined in the UUA Bylaws on April 10, 2017.