The spirituality of service

Giving our time to our congregations can be spiritually transformative.


Common wisdom holds that people come to church for a sense of belonging, and that getting involved with a committee or task force is a great way to meet people and feel more connected. You do meet people while serving on a committee, and yes, working together in common purpose can create these bonds. But people come to church for an even deeper reason—to have their lives transformed. Just getting involved is not enough. It doesn’t speak to their deepest need—a transformed life.

Imagine if the practical and administrative work of the church—meetings, planning, teaching, etc.—were understood not as a necessary evil but as an integral part of the mission of the church to nurture us spiritually. What if lay leadership were not a means to an end but an end in itself? Could you experience the meeting room as a zendo and the deliberations of a task force as a form of group prayer? Imagine church not as a place led by a few overly taxed volunteers but one where leadership is a broadly shared ministry that members of the community undertake for the deep joy of it.

Serving your congregation can be a spiritual practice. As the Rev. Gary Kowalski once put it:

People who come to Unitarian Universalism seeking spiritual goods are likely to be disappointed so long as they have the outlook of consumers in search of material goods. If their connection to our liberal faith is to grow into something more rewarding, they have to give up the consumer mind set and begin to think of themselves instead as shareholders, investors, co-owners in what happens in church, just as the parties in a marriage see themselves as partners rather than competitors with a joint share in the success of the enterprise.

The metaphor of a marriage may seem at first an odd one for lay leadership. Who wants to be “married” to their church? Yet we often describe our congregations as “families,” and few of us were born into them. Like a marriage, we choose these relationships. And the metaphor points out the spiritual as well as practical dimensions of these relationships. Spiritually healthy couples who enter into a lifelong commitment do so with the understanding that they will share the work necessary to maintain their partnership. They will make decisions together, sometimes fight, speak truth to each other in love, make sacrifices for each other, and go through life with the awareness that they are each responsible for something larger than either alone. The upside of all this work is the forging of a relationship that is tested and sturdy, one that can support either partner when times are hard. At our best, we don’t require congregants to “earn” our care and compassion, but a congregant who has worked with her fellow community members in common cause is more likely to have developed strong relationships and a sense of belonging in the community. More than someone who simply attends worship every Sunday, a lay leader who knows that he has given so much of himself to the church can feel comfortable accepting support and help when he needs it.

Also, active participation in the life of your spiritual community gives you an acknowledged stake in it, empowering you to make that community your true spiritual home by infusing it with your values. Committee meetings and fundraisers may seem far removed from the message of the Sunday morning sermon, but it is here that your congregation literally practices what it preaches, or doesn’t. Lay work is a natural complement to worship, the opportunity to act upon and test your Unitarian Universalist values.

Every religious tradition teaches the value of giving service as an end in itself. Even twelve-step programs and secular psychologies have discovered the profound effect that doing good for others has on oneself. In Blessing the World, the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker quotes a member of a congregation she served who explained why he tithes. His insight applies equally well to giving time and energy to the church instead of money:

To tithe is to tell the truth about who I am. If I did not tithe, it would say that I was a person who had nothing to give, a person who had received nothing from life. A person who did not matter to the larger society or whose life’s meaning was in providing for his own needs alone. But in fact, who I am is the opposite of all of these things. I am a person who has something to give. I am a person who has received abundantly from life. I am a person whose presence matters in the world, and I am a person whose life has meaning because I am connected to and care about many things larger than myself. If I did not tithe, I would lose track of these truths about who I am.

Work devoted to something greater than yourself lifts you out of the narrow sphere of individual concerns, enlarges your perspective, and provides context for the joys and concerns of your own life. It’s a reality check, bringing us constantly back to the truth of our Seventh Principle, in which we affirm the interconnected web of all existence. No lay leader gets to act alone. It means working for and with a group of people who have intertwining needs, hopes, fears, and expectations, all to help fulfill a common mission that binds them together. What better opportunity to learn over and over again that we are mutually interdependent? Lay service means claiming your own strand of the interdependent web while honoring the needs of others. It means being a firsthand witness to the power of diversity united in a single mission.

There is yet another level that opens up most fully when you see service to your congregation as a spiritual practice, when you look at leadership through a spiritual lens. Leadership can provide countless opportunities to learn more about yourself—your strengths and challenges—and how you work with others. You will have the chance to practice patience and learn about listening, really listening, to people with whom you disagree, yet who may well have something you need to hear. These are valuable lessons. And they are only the beginning.

Lay leadership can’t truly be a spiritual practice if you consider its spiritual dimension only as a set of fringe benefits. The challenge is to radically reconceptualize the very purpose of lay leadership, not from the congregation’s perspective but from your own. Selfless giving is undoubtedly a spiritual virtue, but if that comes to dominate your involvement in church life, then that community will become for you a place of work and pressure, no longer your true spiritual home. Imagine how your work for the congregation might be transformed if you approached it primarily as your spiritual practice, and secondarily as helping the church fulfill its mission. You may find that this approach will actually make you a more effective leader. Think of your time and energy as congregational resources, and yourself as a responsible steward of those resources. A key aspect of that stewardship is to avoid burnout, so tailoring your lay leadership so that it truly grows your soul is essential.

We’ve all heard the saying, “What matters is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Many people today understand this as a cynical cliché used to calm pre-game jitters or soothe the wounded psyches of those who lost. Few people really believe it. We know—because we are reminded in countless ways both subtle and overt—that winning really does matter. Some people go so far as to say it’s the only thing that matters and, in fact, how you play is of no real consequence at all. (As long as you win, that is.)

Accomplishment and productivity matter greatly in our capitalist culture. Setting goals and accomplishing them is tremendously important. As congregations have adopted the language of business, and boards are striving to be better managers, we’ve been told again and again about the necessity of setting goals that are “smart”—specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

Yet many spiritual traditions emphasize that how we do what we do matters far more than what we do. The person who gives what little they have with a pure heart does more good than the one who gives much in order to show off. If you do the right thing for the wrong reason, you receive no merit. The journey itself matters more than arriving at the destination.

Two different ways of looking at the world—the way of the world and the way of the world’s religions. What if the world’s religions are right? What if it really doesn’t matter whether you win or lose? What if the most important thing is how you play the game? It is possible, then, that it doesn’t really matter whether you get through the agenda in record time if, to do so, you must ignore your congregation’s commitment to inclusiveness and shut people down so you can be more efficient. It is possible that it doesn’t really matter whether you decide that thorny issue tonight, that what really matters is the quality of your discussion. It is possible that it doesn’t even matter if you make your stewardship goal and fully fund your budget, that what really matters is the heart and faith and generosity that went into the effort.

For some, this is a new—and possibly even heretical—way of looking at things. If the church were a business, of course, efficiency, productivity, and the bottom line really would matter. Perhaps the most important thing to a small business, even a nonprofit, is to accomplish the goals of the organization as effectively and efficiently as possible. Completion of tasks matters. Balanced budgets matter. Success, however that’s defined, most definitely matters.

But churches are not small businesses, even though they often act that way. They are not even typical nonprofits because they are, first and foremost, communities. They strive to embody the ideals represented by the familiar term “beloved community.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that the church should be “an audiovisual aid for the sake of the world,” showing how the world should be. And so here, despite the many similarities with traditional businesses, different rules apply. There is, so to speak, a new bottom line and the measure of success is entirely different.

The monasteries and intentional spiritual communities of all religious traditions understand that each and every moment of each and every day provides opportunities to learn, deepen, and grow. Whether sitting in meditation and prayer in your room or chopping carrots and washing dishes in the kitchen, anything can be used as a tool for deepening our connection with life. The quiet of the prayer bench and the bustle of the business office are not seen as two distinct things: They are two aspects of the same process. The business of our congregations can be as spiritually transformative as our worship services, when we remember to see it as a spiritual practice.

Adapted from Serving with Grace: Lay Leadership as a Spiritual Practice, ©2010 by Erik Walker Wikstrom, with permission of Skinner House Books.

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