Central East Region: Gould Discourse : An Annual Lecture Sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association St. Lawrence Chapter
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2009 Gould Discourse - Kaaren Anderson

By Kaaren Solveig Anderson

Download the PDF of this discourse.

When I see them walking down my driveway, I hide. I crouch behind a chair in the living room, tell the kids to be quiet, and wait. The doorbell rings. "I'll get it!" yells one of my kids. "No –no- no!" I say. "Be quiet, act like we aren't home." "What is your problem mom?"- one of the kids will ask. "Nothing, nothing. . .just---Shhhh." The bell rings again. I ignore it. What am I hiding from you ask? The religious right. Blank pants, black dress shoes, white shirt, black tie, backpack, buddy system. The Mormons or Jehovah witnesses are at my door, and I'm crouched behind a chair hoping they will leave me alone.

Does this sound pathetic, evasive, juvenile? Any of you do it too? OK so those of you who don't hide, does the word, evangelical, proselytizing, creep you out, make your skin crawl, or give you the heebeeejezzeies? Yes, thought so.

You see for me, as I crouch behind my chair, two things usually go through my head. I am grateful for their offering, their outreach. I am --honestly. Cross my heart and hope to die. They are selling a product, a theological construct that indeed saves peoples lives. I don't doubt that. On the whole, I am incredibly grateful that there are religious traditions out there that fit personalities and ideologies different from my own, so there are less people wandering in the wilderness. Places that can definitely give people the answers to life, borders around their ambiguity, and offer a heaven for those struggling with how to keep going on. So on one level, I'm grateful for that knock on the door. They are serving a particular need. Not mine, but certainly the right one for some people.

What happens next as I sit behind that chair, is a daydream. I daydream about what life would be like If I hadn't found this religious tradition and how lost and isolated I'd feel. Without this tradition, what would I do? I know I'd feel somewhat, if not seriously disconnected from humanity. I know that I'd feel shunned on some level. Cause you say you are an non-theist or use the dreaded A word to folks, and all of a sudden you are thrown in the garbage dump of moral impropriety with murderers, rapist and well, other atheists. If you question this, name me one politician who is an out-ed Atheist and I'll retract my statement. (wait for an answer. . .) I rest my case. So that said, without our tradition, I could try a liberal Christian church which might be ok, but I'd have to do a lot of translating of language, rituals and theological constructs. Or I could go to the local Zen center, but my penchant for putting my values into action, my quest for social justice likely would not make it a good fit, and besides, I want my children going with me too.

So hmmm, where to go.

Then as I sit behind that chair, I think of others I know and a lot I don't know and wonder where they would go? All those couples who one grew up Catholic and is the Jewish, where one grew up Muslim and the other is Hindu, one grew up Lutheran and the other Un-churched, an Agnostic. What about them, where do they go without this faith? Without knowing about this tradition, without one of our churches, would they feel isolated, and disconnected too?

Then I think about the GLBT community that can go to some Christian communities that preach hate the sin and love the sinner, and wonder if they feel out of whack with their religious community and are longing to know about churches like ours? And those who aren't part of religious community like ours, and through subtle and not so subtle ways, feel like climbing back into the closet because they feel like second-class citizens. - Where do they go?

I think about all those parents wanting to raise their children with strong character and moral values, but question whether or not there is a church that will stand by them when they believe all the world's religious traditions have something to offer their child- not just the one they are being taught. Where do they go if they don't know about us?

And by the time I am done with sitting behind my chair, I stand because I feel buoyant and am incredibly grateful that our churches offer a different kind of good news. I am proud and honored to be part of such a religious community as the churches we belong to have to offer the world. And I smile and am filled with relief, gratitude, inspiration and belonging. And then I half slump and fall into the chair. Because I realize how many people there are out there not feeling relief, gratitude, inspiration and belonging-- for only one reason--- they don't know about us, this faith tradition. In fact, I think they might even be a little ticked off at us. Well what do I mean?

Well, I think my colleague Nathan Deterring gets at this best, he says. "(for years) we've assumed that the people who need us would eventually find us, without our help. We've sometimes let our reaction against religious conservatism keep us from doing or affirming anything that might lead people to think we're actually religious ourselves. and as a result. . .we've missed many, many opportunities to make a positive difference in the world and in people's lives."

Ahhhh, that line is such a zinger isn't it. --- We've missed many, many opportunities to make a positive difference in the world and in people's lives. Jeez. Is he on with that one!! Because I guarantee you that those other folks, who are hiding behind their chairs or sofas in their living rooms when the religious right comes to call don't have the same reaction I do. They aren't grateful Unitarian Universalism is around instead they are left isolated, lonely and disconnected, because they don't know about us. Which by the way is not their fault; it is our fault. And if they knew any of you- folks they may love and trust-- and you didn't tell them about a place that could get them connected, help them live without isolation and feel "home" perhaps for the first time in their life and you didn't tell them about it, --Then well, it's my guess, they'd have every right to call each and every one of you a selfish pigs. Yup, that's right a selfish pigs. Cause if you tell them about your favorite local pizza joint, but not about the place that gives your life spiritual grounding, meaning, connection and inspiration, then they'd be right to be well- a little ticked.. Cause all they want you to do is share to simply let them know we are out there.

And when you tell them we are out there, tell them there is a home for them. A church that is not a pretend religion or a cult. A place that takes seriously deeds over any creed, that is about acceptance not exclusion, an open spirituality over an enforced conformity. Tell them we're here. You see when your friends ask you to share your faith with them, they are asking you to share the good news. Our good news. And make no mistake, we do indeed have a distinctive way of sharing.

Our is more an if you are this option, rather than a you should option.
Our is an invitation rather than an argument or debate.
Our is an offering rather than an imposing, convincing or a damning if you don't.

What do I mean? Well, let's take the standard- you should option. This argument goes that you should like Italian food rather then Thai food, and let me tell you why Italian is better than Thai. Our offering of our faith is more like this. If you like Thai food, man we've got some of the best Thai food available. My husband Rev. Scott Tayler gets at this in his Starting Point Class very clearly. He says to our relative newcomers, if you are feeling this deep sense of sinfulness or a need to be forgiven, that's OK, but we may not be the best place for you. But if you are struggling with disconnection and want a deeper connection to yourself, others and life, then we have something to offer you. We're not even saying ours is better or worse than that other option, just different. In a theological sense here is the if you are part, rather than the you should . Our way of sharing the good news. This is the right place for you friends, if you're feeling disconnected from yourself, others and the world. If you are feeling life is shallow and thin then hey, we've got the church for you, if your after connection, then come on over, and you'll find others striving to connect with their deepest self, life's gifts and the world's needs in the same way. Again, this is about sharing and options, not about arguing for the best idea, Our evangelism is an if you are after this approach, not a you should approach.

Another way to get at this if you are after approach is through these well crafted questions by my colleague Don Rollins:

If you think the real difference between straight folk and gay folk is that straight folks can publicly express their affections and identity without risking their job, homes or safety- you might like Unitarian Universalism,
If you experience a connection to nature and other human beings,
If you think you're responsible for your own mind, body and spirit...
If you know that you don't know every answer to every question. . then you might like our churches.

If your not afraid of humanist, who aren't afraid of pagans, who aren't afraid of theists who aren't afraid of atheist, who aren't afraid of Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Christians or Buddhists.
You might dig Unitarian Universalism.

If you are fairly sure that face and body piercing do not by themselves signal the end of western civilization and

If you actually like having your cage rattle EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE. . . well, you'd like my church.

If you're just irreverent enough to get at least a smirk from singer, Tom Waits' observation that ". . .there ain't no devil, that's just God when he's drunk". . .

If you're ashamed at the amount of press coverage given to the debate about the place of god in the pledge of allegiance in a nation where one sixth of the children are hungry and health care is considered non-essential. . .—Then my friend I have the church for you!

So I know some of you are thinking, well yeh, that helps, I can do that. I can share with them the . . .If you are this approach, but you gotta admit, that is a lot to remember, a lot to hold onto, and Unitarian Universalism is hard to explain in 1 minute or less, and can get complicated. Plus I can't remember all of that, I need something else.

We'll here's something we do at First Unitarian, that this evangelical minister is going to make easy for you, not even for $19.95 but give it to you free so you can give it to others freely. Sharing made easy, presented to you by Life Now! Radio. (lifenowradio.org)

I'm giving you help. On each of your chairs is a Life Now! Radio CD. It contains two shows that are sure to open people's hearts to what we are about. This show is produced with one purpose- Life now! Radio is about living well in this life rather than preparing for the next. It's a magazine format radio show whose filter is this, does this show provide an example of someone living well in their life or struggling to live well, if it does, it gets produced. It was put together by the way, as a means to help people with exactly what your dilemma is, how the heck do we describe what Unitarian Universalism is. So, today, I want you to pass on to a friend you've never invited to your church before, and say, hey if you like that show, You'd really like The Unitarian Universalist Society here in Albany. Come with me sometime. Soon, Stefan Jonassen is sending this message out to all the churches throughout the country. We want to offer Life Now! Radio to all who can use it for your own purposes. You can use the show and the icon on your website, tell people to check out the show, and again say, hey you like this, then come to church, cause that's the essence of who we are, right on your web site.

You see, this is why Scott and I feel that Life Now! radio is so important, why our reporters get jonzed about doing these shows. We want to help make this sharing easy, and not because we think you are all selfish buggers. No, we've seen and known the help we all need first hand to share our faith. And we've seen the passion so many of you share about having found this faith, investing in this home, experienced that feeling of belonging. And we know you want others to know about and have that same feeling, to have the same things you have, and we're pretty sure we don't need to argue with you about that. Cause we are pretty sure it is what you want to offer too. Helping people find, home, community, belonging, by sharing your faith.

So let Life Now! Radio help. Talk to me later about how you can use Life Now! Radio. It's yours if you want it, an inviting tool for you, one of many, but one that if it can help you, then let's talk some more about how. At the end here if you've forgotten why we want you to share this faith, then

let me tell you a little story before we close today, that ran in the New York Times in 2002 (NYT- Aug. 20,2002)

(adapted for use) There is a county jail in Butte County in California, where a Coval Russell resided. Now surprisingly Coval spent his last happy days in a cell that is no bigger than a wheel chair size toilet stall , cold and dark on both sides. When Russell was released from jail , he felt forced back into a world that he could no longer abide, his cell was the one place he called home, even though for likely no other person would it feel that way. For the year and two months that he spent at the Butte county Jail for stabbing his 70 year old landlord, he was "Pops" He was given dibs on the television, allowed to be first in the food line and reserved a place in Monopoly game marathons. He never had visitors, but he did not need any. There, among the transient population of men awaiting sentencing or trail, he had found community. His body was found in the Feather River, where he had fallen from a bridge just a hop, skip and a jump from the Motel 6 where he was staying since his release. Those who knew him were not surprised by his choice. Russell had petitioned the court to keep him in jail indefinitely and had become depressed after a judge, granted him probation and sentenced him to freedom. He said he would kill himself if he was sent "back out there" with no apparent friends and family. Apparently he did. Witnesses say he took a taxi to the middle of the Table Mountain Bridge . . .and sat on a rail for half an hour. Then he disappeared.

Why did I tell you that story? Because having a community a place where you are known and know others is possibly the most essential factor in human existence. To be somewhere where you are accepted, and loved is a huge gift. And to lose it is devastating. The reverse of this is true also, to live life never finding community is devastating too, but to never find it, is devastating too.

Now, we shouldn't be doing anything out of fear, and the moral of the story is a little negative but it highlights how important home is. How sharing, how helping people find a religious home is a life and death issue, and not the same as helping them find their favorite pizza joint, but instead, when you help them find a faith that matches their beliefs, and values, you are offering people life. Finding a spiritual home is a matter of finding the difference between life and death. Which is ultimately what this sermon is about today. Sharing life, sharing hope, sharing belonging, sharing community. Get those CD's out there, and let people know about this particular option. Give them hope and life. Just share. Amen.

So there is the soap-box sermon. About sharing the good news, by using one inviting tool-LifeNow! Radio. This lecture is simply about this. How we at First Unitarian in Rochester, beg, borrowed, stole, and tweaked the good work evangelicals are doing for our setting. We've used the work of Andy Stanley, Bill Tenny-Britton, and Bill Easau to name a few. We've used some of their best practices, both with our Greater Good Project, and with how we are radically changing around our RE program next year. But tonight, I want to talk about how we have beg, borrowed, stolen and tweaked their ideas regarding getting people in the door, and offering those new people seats at the table when they arrive.

When we use their ideas, the question always comes up, do we have to translate language. Yes. But we use their ideas because they pump out more innovation frankly than most all of 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations, and they aren't afraid to get themselves out of boxes that don't work, and haven't worked for years. The basis of why have we used them is because they're ideas, some of which feel radical and some of which feel, well, "Duh!" Work. And we're living into the "hey that works" aspect at First Unitarian as best we can.

Now before I go on, I want to address, the size of First Unitarian. It is true that we are a congregation of 910 members or so, that we have a bigger staff than the other churches in the district. But this is what I want you to hold onto, the reason the evangelicals ideas work at First Unitarian, is not because of our size or staff or funding, indeed their work applies to any of our size congregations. They work because, they have decided that the gospel and good news they have to share with the world, is more important that offering social clubs to the world. That what they have to share with the world matters. So they make it a priority to invite, and make seats at the table for those coming into their doors. But here's where I want to go back to the sermon briefly, if we really believe what we have to offer the world matters, that it saves lives, that it connects people again to their deepest voice, life's gifts and the needs of the world, then why shouldn't we use they're ideas in our context, to attract and keep new people hungry for what it is that we have to offer the world.

So here are the areas that they insist, and we've listened to, that they say you need to have operating in all of our congregations. Both in regards to inviting, and having a net once folks get there that doesn't have holes in it.

Membership Services Director: Make sure every congregation of 250 or so members and over, gets themselves a Membership Services Director. A person who serves as a coherent and consistent guide to help the newcomer navigate their way into the congregation and get hooked. Someone who tracks newcomers, finds out what their passions are, connects their passions to the needs of the world, and make sure they get connected into the life of the congregation. Membership Services Directors, good ones, are worth their weight in gold. They make sure newcomers are welcomed, integrated, and understand the value of membership. They inspire, challenge and encourage the members of a congregation to be hospitable to the stranger, to the guest you've just had walk through your door. They help an entire congregation understand, the work of welcoming the stranger, is our work, as religious people together.

Now, I know you're thinking–We can't afford it. Well, the question is can you afford to have all these people lost? They may show up at your door, but if you don't get them tracked, integrated, hooked, and followed up with in a very intentional process, they're gone. And if you want to share our faith, (which in my mind is our obligation to the continuance of our tradition) which leads to growth, you can't really do it effectively without one. If you are smaller than 250 members, then make sure to recruit a volunteer, or team of volunteers, with as much intentionality to the role as you do when you recruit a new potential leader to sit on your board. It can be done.

You don't even need a full time one, our Dir. Of Membership Services, works 15 hours a week. But she has successfully helped usher in and keep about 360 new members in the four years we've had someone in the position. And here's where the evangelicals would tell you that it's not enough. Even for us. And what we are doing to make up for this. So much of what Membership Services directors should and can do is integrate people. At our church, newcomers for a day take the UU 101 class, then if they want to learn more about membership they take a UU 201 class, but there is an involved process for joining and getting hooked. As I mentioned, now we have the Starting Point Class, where about 100 people have gone through this year, and about 85 of them have joined a small group. A journey group-- that they will journey on with others new to the church in order to dig deeper into their spiritual life. If they are even more hooked, then they can join Wellspring a spiritual deepening program. But here's the thing. Who integrates those new people into the small groups, you may ask. Scott, my husband, the Senior- Co-Parish minister of the congregation. We've had to figure out where the time would come from for this vital work, and it came from him. Which gets me to what is the role of the minister. And this is a big push and edgy proposition.

I went to an evangelical conference in Ohio this last Nov. and was blown away by what these evangelicals were telling this room full of conservative Christians pastors where they should be spending their time. The ministers leading the conference, said to those of us attending, if you have a congregation of less than 500 in worship, tell your board, they get you for one meeting a month. One. Pick one. But that's it. Tell them you're going to the un-churched. Here's what to tell your board, "I'm doing my work. I'm bringing people the good news, and when I get them here, you're gonna' help me welcome them and integrate them." Sure enough, one of these guys built his church by spending every Friday night in a corner bar, speaking and talking to the un-churched, and bringing them over to Christ. He said very clearly to us, get involved in your community, whenever someone asks you to do something where you can meet the unchurched-say YES! Which means what. No meetings. You can lead facilitators for your small group classes, but that's it. Once you have 500 in worship, it's all about worship, then you change, then you spend 30-35 hours a week on worship. So for us, because we don't have the money for more than a ¼ membership coordinator, Scott spends some of his time doing the integrating, and he has less meetings and we rely more and more on our small groups to pastor to each other. As these evangelicals called out to those of us gathered, no pastoral care. Pastoral Care they said, is not Biblical. That isn't your role. Ministers can and should pastor to your leaders. But set up small groups, where people pastor to each other, where they form fellowships of caring and concern together. That is their work, and how they are called to minister to each other. So if you took away meetings and pastoral care, you'd have time to tell people about the good news. Now I know that is edgy, and not what we've completely embraced even at First Unitarian, but you can't help realize it is how they get people hooked, integrated and committed in their communities. There is something to learn about how everyone in a congregation, lay people and pastors prioritize their time.

This last July we lead a door-to-door evangelical campaign. Mainly because this long has been how the evangelicals invite others to church but also because we aren't big fans of marketing, as in just advertise and the people will come. My big beef with marketing, which I believe most of these evangelicals would agree with me about, is-- church is not strictly a product it is a product/service, and it is relational. So I wanted to explore how the evangelicals are now using door-to-door work. And what I found is they aren't using the door-to-door approach to push their ideas, or theology down anyone's throat. They are using it as an inviting tool to get folks in the door around service and special event evangelism. So here's how we did it.

We offered a summer concert series every Thursday in July outside on our grounds, called Enjoy July. We asked members of the church who were also neighbors to go with us to promote the concerts, and invite their neighbors. When we got to someone's door, we'd say something like this. "

Hi, I'm Jane Jones and I'm one of your neighbors and I go to First Unitarian down the street. We are having this outdoor summer concert series you're gonna love. Here is the flyer for it, and a magnet with the dates and bands playing each week you could put on your refrigerator to help you remember.

(Most people then said, that sounds great, yes, we'll come and about half asked questions about it.)

If you have three minutes, can you answer a few questions for us? You see we've been in this neighborhood for 40 years, and we want to make sure that we are serving the needs of the neighborhood. Here are a list of some of the things your neighbors have said they would like to see happen in conjunction with the church, would you be interested in any of these?

(Summer Camp, Public Transportation, Neighborhood Clean Sweep, Community Vegetable Garden- then they say yes or no, and again ask questions or suggest something of their own) We just wanted to mention that we have a Coffee House Series, a Chamber Music series and an Art Gallery with rotating work, would you like to be on an email reminder list for any of those. Great, thanks for your time. Hope to see you at the concerts. Thanks for you time.

In the end we covered 167 houses, spoke to about 75 people face to face. The other houses where people weren't home, we left a door hanger on their door with the information, and often a Life Now! CD and a survey to mail in if they wanted to fill it out. We did no advertising for the concert series, none, and we had on average 200 people at the summer concerts, with 2/3 of them being neighbors. We also clearly knew what the neighbors were interested in working on together as a community garden was their top priority. This April we gathered church members and neighbors together to kick off and start digging for our Neighborhood Community Garden.

Another way we've taken the evangelicals seriously is by remembering to have a coherent and consistent story so that newcomers and long time members don't forget what to do on the journey and lose their way. We're creating a theology for our own congregation. I do not believe, that an overarching Unitarian Universalist theology will work for each of us in our separate and very different congregations. But I do strongly believe that congregations need to find, tweak, and live from their own contextual theology for their own congregations. My husband Scott says he hates, the hymn in the new teal hymnal that says,

Where are we going, Who are we, Where are we going?

He thinks it promotes the shadow side of our movement. Now to say:

Where are we going, Who are we, Where are we going,

is certainly not as bad as a tradition that says we are going to kill you because we know the answers, but it is still a serious shadow side worth addressing. So we've taken this call by the evangelicals and done the following in order to take our theology seriously.

When Scott, Jen and I started at First Unitarian, we met with about half of the congregation at the time, about 350 members in small groups of 15 or so, and we asked them to tell us about their past history at the church. What are you proud of and love that you want to take with you into the future and what are your hopes for the future. Then the board took that information and worked very carefully to create an all church mission, and a mission for each ministry. A mission informed, driven and culled from the Hopes and History sessions. The evangelicals then instruct to drive down your mission and to figure out what you want people to do with it, what would be the "win" for each ministry. Figure out in other words, the piece of your mission that lives in people's hearts, soul and mouth. This is where our mission at First Unitarian drives itself down to: We are here to help you listen to your deepest voice, be open to life's gifts and to serve needs greater than your own. Listen, Open, Serve Evangelicals are clear about who they are and who they aren't. They instruct us to hold our vision out for everyone who is hungry for that vision. If people don't like it and they leave, that's OK. We can't nor ever should ever have thought we could be all things to all people.

Finally, we've learned from them, develop small groups for deepening your congregation's spiritual work. You are a church, not a university. Keep the classes to a minimum, offer people places to grow their soul, spirit, mind, and heart. Make sure your congregation has a small group ministry to connect them to others on the journey, to a covenant group they can explore and journey with. In our day and age, as Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow points out, we've had a cultural shift. In the 1990's people were coming to church with what he calls a seeker spirituality, but now, they've moved to looking for a practice oriented spiritually. My colleague, Rev. Jen Crow, get to this best when she writes: " We have certainly seen this (switch) in our congregation in Rochester as new members arrive hungry for engagement with deep theological question and the experiences of their lives. They want a church that will hold the bar high—a community of friends in faith who will remind them of their values and demand that they live in accordance with them. Folks come to our church because they want to change their lives and because they want to change the world. They demand that we give them something worthy of their time and attention on Sunday morning and throughout the week- they ask us to go deep with them, to listen and reflect and shine light on the dangers of our particular time." Now here's the drill, at First Unitarian we have about 600 people in our small group ministry, and you may be thinking if you serve a congregation of 100 or so, we'll I can't lead all of these groups. And you would be right. We don't either. We lead the facilitators who we train to lead these small groups. Let the people, the evangelicals would say, journey together, building off of your mission and theology. You don't have to lead it, just facilitate your leaders to lead it.

In the end it is the evangelicals that remind us at First Unitarian that the work we do matters. I care about this tradition, I love it, need it, and want it to help save people from disconnection, loneliness and a shallow life. And I know deep down that it can. I know that it can help heal a broken world.

We have something to offer, something to share, something to ground. It matters that we are around. And if it matters that we are around, then it matters that we welcome the stranger, offer theological depth, and a path toward a spiritual life worth addressing. Not long ago, I asked a newcomer to write back to me regarding this question that I posed to her. "Does it matter that you are part of this church community now or not?" And she wrote me this. " Yes it matters. I used to go to church because " I had to". Now I go to church because I NEED to. Attending church and getting involved with the church community "get me through" each week. It helps me to be a more mindful and a caring person, it causes me to think twice and act once. Now I go to church because I NEED to."

In the end, this is it for me. The world would be a better place if more people thought twice and acted once, if more people were mindful and caring. If more people could make it through a week, and still care about the rest of humanity, indeed need to care about the rest of humanity. The world needs us, the world is hungry for what we have to offer, so let's give em' something they can chew on, digest and be nourished with. I am convinced that the vision of who we are going to be as a denomination does not rest on what the next UUA's president's vision is, what they bring to our larger culture and congregations implemented from the top down to us. The vision for our future will come from us, from the ground up, by taking risks together, getting out of boxes we've lived and used for the last 100 years, by trying things that scare the pants off of us and remembering we have some good news to share. Amen.