General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Friday Morning Worship, General Assembly 2004

General Assembly 2004 Event 2002

Speakers: Rev. Michael McGee & Rev. Linda Olson Peebles, Team Ministers, Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Arlington, VA

It seems fitting for this, the first worship service for the entire assembly preceding the first of our plenaries, to celebrate small group ministries (or Covenant Groups) which have transformed congregations around the continent. More than 500 people, including a significant number of international guests from Japan, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Transylvania, attended this early morning service.

Solo piano music and hymn accompaniment were provided by Kenneth Herman, Director of Music at the First UU Church of San Diego and President of the Unitarian Universalist Musician's Network.

As he lit the chalice, the Reverend Michael McGee, Lead Team Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia, invited all to enter this sacred space, sacred time, and sacred community of worship. Given the international flavor of this morning's gathering, the opening hymn, "We're Gonna Sit at the Welcoming Table," led by the Rev. Linda Olson Peebles, Minister of Religious Education from the same church, was particularly appropriate.

In celebration of Small Group Ministries, the Revs. McGee and Peebles took turns reading aloud testimonials gathered from many UUs who have participated in Covenant Groups. Newcomers are particularly impressed with how belonging to a Covenant Group helps them become assimilated more quickly into the life of the congregation. They also value learning about UUism and making connections with a small group of 8 to 10 people in their church. Many are thankful for the opportunity to speak frankly in a supportive and caring environment about personal issues and to share meaningful parts of their lives that they would not have felt comfortable sharing with a large group of people.

Although some are concerned that belonging to a Covenant Group could lead to an increase in the amount of social interactions they might not be able to handle, their concerns have not been realized. Some are happy with the intentional but limited periods of spiritual times and others are appreciative of the versatility of the discussion topics. Even long-time UUs are finding these groups rewarding in building the deeper connections that had remained illusive to them within the religious communities they had known all their lives until they joined a Covenant Group.

The title of Rev. McGee's Homily, "If You Can't Walk On Water, Then Get In The Boat," comes from the refrain of a song by the "Stained Glass Bluegrass" band that he heard on the radio one day. McGee compared our UU gathering with the "boat of humanity." We are not perfect, but we invite you to come join us, strap on a life vest, and let's row together. We are a faith that opens our doors wide to those who don't quite fit into other religious communities. We do this by expanding our religious community to include others, drawing them into our fold.

Quoting M. Scott Peck's definition of a community, McGee emphasized the final point, "…to rejoice together, to mourn together, and to delight in each other." He believes that this ideal of a community develops within small group activities. Not only do participants develop intimacy, they minister to one another's needs through deep sharing and deep listening. His own congregation, the UU Church of Arlington, began forming Covenant Groups in the fall of 2001 after the tragedies of 9/11. These groups became safe places for congregants to express their anger, fear, and hope and eventually helped one another to heal.

This is the first year that GA attendees are able to participate in Covenant Groups, and a large number will be experiencing them for the first time. McGee hopes that participants will bring back to their congregations ideas and experiences to will help transform our denomination into one that embraces a genuine community of diverse and caring people.

Reported by Kok Heong McNaughton; edited by Joyce Holmen.

"If You Can't Walk on Water, Then Get in the Boat"

A Sermon by the Rev. Michael McGee

On my way to church on Sunday mornings, I usually listen to a public radio program called "Stained Glass Bluegrass." Their down-home gospel music gets me in the mood for leading worship — though some of our members would be shocked to know that.

One Sunday this past spring, I heard a gospel song I had never heard before. It was an upbeat tune with the catchy refrain, "If you can't walk on water, then get in the boat."

I loved it. Don't we all need to hear that message? I especially needed to hear it at that stressful time in my life. The annual canvass was coming to a close, and we had enough pledges to make to about Christmas. There was another furor over joys and sorrows. And the cicadas were coming to town.

So this became my mantra: "If you can't walk on water, then get in the boat." What it said to me is this: if you aren't a saint, if you aren't perfect, then welcome aboard the boat of humanity. Make yourself at home. Strap on a life vest and start rowing with the rest of us.

That's a comforting message for me. Sometimes I feel like one of those oversized water fowl trying to take off from a lake. The poor bird keeps running and running across the surface of the water trying so hard to launch itself into the air but it's never quite able to lift off. Do you feel that way sometimes?

That's what the ministry is like for many of us. The only way to look as if we're walking on water is to run as fast as we can, hoping we won't sink. But that kind of walking — or running — on water eventually ends up with us going down for the third time.

Sometimes I need permission to let go of all those expectations people have of me and I have of myself. I need permission to chuck it all and just be me. I need an invitation to stop trying to walk on water, and get in that boat. Being up here in front of all of you wasn't exactly what I had in mind.

Hopefully GA is an opportunity for you to stop walking on water and get in the boat — especially for those of you camping out on the Queen Mary. Perhaps you've come to GA to let go of the stress and unreasonable expectations in your life. I always think of GA as a UU revival, a time to rejuvenate not only our faith but our lives.

Getting in the boat is what we do in our Unitarian Universalist congregations. We open our doors wide to all those who don't quite fit in other religious communities or those who get antsy in their lounge chairs reading the New York Times on Sunday mornings, those people looking for a faith that doesn't expect its members to walk on water — in fact, we would be quite surprised if they did. Ours is a faith that claims the boat is the place to be. Here is the place where we can find a genuine sense of community, where people are accepted for who they are instead of who they are expected to be.

But it's not always easy. You may have seen the New Yorker cartoon that shows two young men walking together, and the one says to the other, "I want more than anonymous sex. I want anonymous intimacy."

We too easily forget that genuine community is not countless episodes of Sunday morning "Survivor." The truth is that we cannot experience real intimacy until we are able to share freely the things we most have in common: our weaknesses, imperfection, inadequacy, our lack of wholeness and self-sufficiency.

Real community is not exclusive, but is ever widening and ever expanding, like ripples in the water. In the words of the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:

"I live my life in ever widening circles, each superseding all the previous ones.
Perhaps I never shall succeed in reaching the final circle, but attempt I will."

Hopefully that's the way we live in community, constantly widening our circles, opening our hearts, not only to people but to relationship itself. Because life is relationship, isn't it?

We grow as individuals according to our ability to relate to others. Those who dare to care for others even when it is inconvenient or unreciprocated or messy are those who experience life in its finest and fullest.

Scott Peck has a splendid definition of community. He defines community as "a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to 'rejoice together, mourn together,' and to 'delight in each other.'"

Wouldn't we all like to be in a community or congregation like that? Or would we?

You may have noticed that there are some cranky people among us. Not in my church, of course, but I've heard stories about some of yours. Still, isn't that what community is about, relating to whomever is in our boat, whether they're cranky or not, whether they're theists or atheists, pagans or Christians?

One of the places I've seen genuine community develop is in small group ministry. Many of your congregations have covenant groups or connection groups, or some form of small group ministry. And you may be in one yourself. I'm thrilled that so many of you are in covenant groups right here at GA and hopefully will take your enthusiasm back to your congregation.

In these small groups, not only do participants develop friendships, but more importantly, they minister to each other, listening deeply to each others stories. What greater gift can we give than to truly listen to someone and to speak from the heart of our own struggles? What greater gift can we be given than to have a place where we are held and healed?

By providing a safe place for people to genuinely relate, we create a beloved community that invites everyone to the welcome table and that expands our relationships in ever-widening circles.

Being a community is essential, but our congregations are not just communities. We are religious communities, so those expanding circles not only encompass other people out there, but they widen our souls in here, deepening our relationship with the holy.

We were fortunate to have started our covenant group program at the UU Church in Arlington in the fall of 2001. When the terrorist attacks hit New York, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon — which is in Arlington — our congregants had a safe place to go to express their anger, grief, and hope.

And we had a place for people to ask the big questions about spiritual issues that were brought to the surface by this tragedy. Our members and friends were so grateful that they had an ongoing supportive group where they could struggle with eternal issues such as evil, death and dying, and God.

Now, I don't know about your congregation, but in our congregation if you sit a humanist UU down with a Christian UU and a pagan UU to have an academic discussion about something simple like say, God, you'd better have a fire extinguisher handy. But in covenant groups, I've seen people of all theological persuasions share their beliefs in a personal and considerate way — usually ending up agreeing that even if they don't believe in the same God, they do have a richer spirituality than anyone ever imagined.

Being a religious community is essential, but our congregations are not just religious communities; they are Unitarian Universalist religious communities. And so we seek to embody our principles in acts of love and compassion. Covenant groups do this by expanding our circle of caring to the wider congregation and community as part of their covenant.

In our church there was resistance to this covenant at first, but now most of the groups look forward to coming up with satisfying outreach projects. Groups have worked together to feed the hungry, to build a playground, to make quilts for children in shelters, to clean houses and yards of the elderly, and these are just a few of the projects that have taken place.

By reaching out beyond ourselves, we sense how entwined we are in the interdependent web of all existence. We awaken to the reality that we are not only in relationship, but we are, every one of us, related.

As you can tell, I am passionate about covenant groups. My hope is that small group ministry will transform our religious movement into one that embraces a genuine community of diverse and caring people, that enlivens a deeper spirituality, and moves us to widen our circle of compassion.

I was reminded of how powerful and healing covenant groups are when one of our facilitators shared the following story with me. A member of her group was scheduled to have serious surgery. When he voiced his concerns during a meeting, the group decided they could best support him by having each member hold a stone in his or her hand while telling a story of a time when each had overcome a major difficulty.

After the stone had been passed around the circle and every person told their story, they presented the stone to the man. He found this so meaningful and inspiring that he took the stone into surgery with him. Later he said that the stone, and all the stories and love that went with it, had helped him tremendously in his recovery. He had been held and healed.

When we stop trying to walk on water. When we stop trying to survive without genuine relationships or a rich spirituality. And when we begin to truly practice and embody our principles, then we become fully participates in our Unitarian Universalist religious community. And that boat is the right place to be.

Welcome aboard!

Order of Service

Rev. Michael McGee & Rev. Linda Olson Peebles, Team Ministers, 
UU Church of Arlington, Virginia

A celebration of small group ministry and its potential for transforming ourselves and our movement.

Chalice Lighting and Call to Worship: Rev. McGee

Welcome everyone!
Welcome to this sacred place of worship, though it may be not be familiar to you.
Welcome to this sacred time of worship, though it is an ungodly hour.
Welcome to this sacred community of worship, though you may not know many or any of those here.
All souls are welcome at this table.
May our minds welcome new ideas and insights.
May our hearts welcome the love and compassion of all those present.
And may our spirits welcome the possibility of transformation.
Let us light our chalice in the name of all that binds us together at the Welcome Table.

Opening Hymn 407: "We're Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table"

Check-In: Small Group Testimonials: Rev. Peebles & Rev. McGee

Participant: "The small group has been important in my life. As a new member it helped me to learn more about Unitarian Universalism in general, and the people of the congregation. Early on I felt more connected to the church quicker that I would have just going to church on Sundays. Also, while the groups aren't therapy sessions, by sharing our concerns and joys it eased the difficult time I going through with the divorce."

Participant: It's been wonderful to get to know the people in my small group. We support each other well, and enjoy good company. We've learned a lot about our strengths, weaknesses, opinions, beliefs, travels, histories, families, friends, heartaches, and joys. It is a wonderful program that is developing better people, and a stronger and larger community of UUs.

Participant: This has meant fellowship and insight to me. Every two weeks I anticipate a time to experience intimacy and nurture my spirituality.

Participant: I have been satisfied with and have enjoyed participating in small group. After years of being part of the church I finally actually know important things about some wonderful folks. And, they know some important things about me. The fellowship has filled a great void in my life; also, the topics are stimulating and thought provoking. We are very fortunate to have this opportunity in our lives.

Participant: I have found myself able to talk frankly regarding my own feelings, something I do rarely within my family. I am also impressed with the ability to LISTEN demonstrated by all the members and the confidence of each person that the group is truly listening to them.

Participant: These are positive experiences; sharing life stories and sharing views, with quite different philosophies on the topics in many cases.

Participant: A great chance to stop, breathe, and focus on questions and topics that allow for personal and spiritual growth. Discussions have been intimate and beneficial. It has been a time to talk about spiritual matters  a nice break during the week.

Participant: SGM has provided me with opportunities for really knowing eight other people in ways I didn't know them before. We are sharing our spiritual journeys in very personal and intimate ways every time we meet.

Participant: I thought SGM might lead to more social events with members of my group, i.e. more phone calls, emails, lunches, movies, dinners, etc., and I was very anxious about that possibility. However, to my great relief, this did not happen except once. I love the intentional, spiritual, time-limited period for small groups ministry, every two weeks, with no expectation or offshoots into more socializing. I like the universality of our discussion questions and the fact that the more I learn about all the individuals in my small group, the more I am aware of the similarities we all share as part of the condition of our being human.

Participant: I felt pretty lost and outside of the church. Having meet the people in my group in their homes and gotten to know their stories gives me a deeper connection to them and the church itself. I know them and I like that they know me as well.

Participant: It has challenged my thinking covering many spiritual topics. It has supported me emotionally. It has nurtured my soul It has made me feel part of a community of wonderful, caring people.

Participant: Small Group Ministry has given me a great sense of belonging to a community.

Participant: Interesting, pleasant social interchange. I would rather more time on intellectualizing, chewing a topic to death rather than extensive check-in time.

Participant: The important thing to me about being a part of the Small Group Ministry has been the sense of community that has developed. During the year we have shared many meaningful parts of our lives: the death of a parent, the difficulties of growing older, the joys of a child's achievement, a daughter's wedding, the building of a business, a loved one's depression. We have also come to know other's pets, learned about each other's families, walked through each other's gardens, sat around in each other's homes. The sharing of all our highs and lows, the profound and the mundane bits and pieces of our lives has brought to me a feeling of intimacy with other members of our church to the greatest degree that I have known since I joined the church in 1975.

Homily: "If You Can't Walk On Water, Then Get In the Boat," Rev. McGee

Meditation and Prayer

O God Between Us—
We pray to you by holding each others hands so that we may feel your power binding us one to the other,
so that we may feel our oneness and unity with all souls,
and so that we may enter into the embrace of the beloved community.

Most Holy Within Us—
We pray to you by closing our eyes so that we may better see the vast, rich world of the spirit.
And we pray by entering into sustaining silence so we may hear the still, small voice within...

Spirit of Life Beyond Us—
We pray to you in our every act of compassion and justice.
And we pray to you by singing with spirit a song of celebration and hope:
"Glory, glory, halleluah!"

Closing Hymn 201: "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah"

Check-out: How do you feel about covenant groups?

Benediction: Rev. Peebles