Unitarian Universalist Area Church at First Parish, Sherborn, Massachusetts: Breakthrough Congregation
Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. Ours is no caravan of despair. Come, yet again come.
Look around you. Look around you and see a full church on what has turned out to be a miserable morning …(laughter)…Impressive and touching. Thank you everyone.
First Parish Sherborn had a difficult century… Ha ha… Between…you know… the 1900s were a difficult time for the church in general. The time of transition and change, a lot of different ministers… They had a merger happen with our church down the street in a neighboring town…
We were at that point where it was, you know, is our church going to be kind of a historical building with red ropes in the back, and people kind of come to the back of the church and look in to this kind of dead community, or are we going to open it up?
When I first arrived in 2003 the church was in a state of hopeful…and maybe a little bit desperate expectation…
The interim minister who came in, Deborah Pope Lance, helped hold up a mirror to us and show us what we were like.
And she said to us “if you want the settled minister that you really want, you want to be a successful church, there are things you have to change.”
We use the Field Of Dreams quote, you know, “If we build it, they will come.” And, so, we worked on building it.
The beliefs of most of the people in the church, at this transition time, was that we were a poor church…And as-and most people didn’t understand where the money was or what it was about…
There was a pocket of money that was the Natick Endowment, and then the church itself, the building, had been put into a trust, and then there was the First Parish Alliance Trust, and then there was many different music memorial funds…
…But nobody ever really looked at it all together…and when you looked at it all together and sort of…looked at the total amount of money that the church had, we were maybe not a rich church, but we weren’t poor.
People began to ask themselves, well, what can our church be? The opportunity to dream. The opportunity to think that we have things to share. What ministers like to call, sort of a theology of abundance rather than a theology of scarcity. Which means what don’t- it’s the difference between asking “what don’t we have” to asking “what do we have that we can share?”
The other thing she held up the mirror about, that I think was harder for people to hear, is she told us that we weren’t kind to each other. And I think at that time in the congregation there were ways in which we weren’t. There were sort of, some old, turf battles.
And one of her things was, you have the shortest coffee hour on record. And coffee hour is that social time when people integrate with one and other.
Back 10 years ago we were a very small congregation where virtually every one knew each other. And when you do that you don’t know everybody. But you have to, kind of have a friendly heart. Go up to people you may not know and strike up conversations. So we actually did classes. We called them Welcoming 101. We just teach people how to welcome each other, and when new people come in, they feel like they are warmly welcomed, and that we want them here.
Behind every visitor card is a person. And the management of the process of membership is not the management of a process about membership, it is about the invitation of human beings into our religious community.
Before Membership Development Coordinator was put into place, there was not a really good path to membership, structures in place, classes, educational classes, so that people had a real sense of what the commitment was to membership, and what is to be a Unitarian Universalist, and I feel that people have a deeper sense of why they’re here and therefore make a more long term commitment to the congregation.
Now one of the first questions that’s asked when people start talking about membership process is, “do you have a membership coordinator? A paid person on your staff for membership?” So wildly successful.
We had sort of gotten rid of the “silo church”. Now what I mean by the “silo church” is you have the DRE doing his or her work, and their role, and you have the minister who takes care of the sermon, you have the music director take care of the music on Sundays, you have the board doing their work as leaders…
When I first got here there was, you know, we have to fight for this RE program because we’re the only ones who will say anything, we have to make sure we get our piece of what we need, and it became factioned, and a lot of people felt like they had their one or two things they did at church, and they wanted to make sure their things were really taken care of, and they needed to advocate loudly for them. And I think that over the last 10 years, we’ve, all of us, really worked together to really change that attitude of… it’s not about a religious education program, it’s not about a social action program, it’s not about a music program, it’s about a congregation as a whole.
Originally I think that idea came from music committee meetings, where we talked a lot about what the choir was going to do, and I really felt that my role here was to not be a music director for the choir or choir programs, but to be a music director for the community. And, so, out of that came the idea that we really needed to involve the congregation more in singing. So doing more hymns, doing rounds, even having them sing things like introits and benedictions…
To remind us in that music that what we are involved in here in this hour of worship a collective endeavor. That it’s…that it’s co-created.
So, as a result of that what we did was…we created a ministry council. And the ministry council is made up of committee chairs, the minister, and the president elect, who is both on the board but is also a liaison to these groups. And the things we discovered over the last couple years doing this is that this group now has the opportunity to really discover what they’re doing, and the dependencies with each other and their work. Whereas before, there was very little dialogue when they came together.
The children start every morning, well most mornings, in the service for the first 15 minutes of the service with the congregation, often we have children light the chalice for us, and I think that that’s a nice way for the kids to really feel like they really own that ritual as part of the service, and a lot of people have really stepped up and started talking differently about teaching. And instead of saying “teaching our children” and “committing to” its more that we work to minister to our children.
What I enjoy most is seeing the new families. And it’s that sort of vibrancy that children bring, but also that their parents bring, have rejuvenated the church. And I have to say, something that I’m absolutely delighted with is a sense that the children in this church belong to all of us, weather they’re my children or not, they’re our children. I know most of the older pillars of the church and they feel the same way. These are our children.
It becomes even more important in a place that’s inherited a long history, in my mind, to really view the time in which we’re living as a special time, a special opportunity for change, And so what that means is to constantly ask ourselves “who are we not yet, that we might need to be?”
We had a discovery day…actually numerous days for people who couldn’t make the first one, where we had the opportunity to interview one another. Each member of the church who participated interviewed…they split off and they interviewed one another, and from that, it was to get the personal stories: what is it that does make us so special. Because that’s now…that’s the foundation for the strategic plan. Now we know: these are the things that…that we do really well. When we make a difference in someone’s life, these are the things that we’re doing that make that difference. And so now we know that this is what we want to focus on. And so, as a church aspect, as the organization, the entity… alright, these are the building blocks. But individually, I think everybody who participated in that came away with a understanding themselves…really…how important the church is to us.
And I think that that perspective about always, not staying stagnant, always thinking, what is the special opportunity here, what are we called to do, who are we called to be, a sense of even urgency about our place in the world as a church…leads to really important places. Has led us…there’s…it creates a certain…dynamism in the church that is infectious…
One of the key pieces is the whole idea that what we were doing was dreaming about our future. And in that articulation of: what does that dream mean? What do we want to be like? What do we want our congregation to be like? What do we want our facilities to be like? And I think that was really the inspiration to dream big.