My grandparents had a découpage plaque by their front door with President Kennedy’s famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” A simple collection of words I could read for years before I started to really consider what they meant, and what it might mean to live by them. After years of walking past them on the way out of their house, I ceased to see those words at all. Familiarity can be like that.
It’s September - our traditional Beginning Of The Church Year. Many of us return to our sacred spaces, through doors we’ve opened Sunday after Sunday, month after month for years. We know which stair creaks, which door sticks when it’s humid, and our muscle memory will take us right to our preferred pew without our having to steer. How much of our own congregation have we become so familiar with that we hardly notice anymore?
As the new church year begins and we prepare to greet old friends and maybe welcome visitors (and future friends!), I invite you to do some noticing - but not just of the creaky floors and sticky doors. Our congregations are ultimately aboutcommunity, not buildings. About the ways we call each other to our better selves, hold ourselves accountable to our spiri
tual growth, and build toward a more beloved community, together. How will our visitors and friends know this is who we aspire to be together?
September is always when we dust off our hospitality ministry. Lately I’ve been curious how the practices of spiritual leadership might provide congregational leaders a fresh point of view for this annual exercise.
- Centering in Gifts: Each of us has gifts that our community needs to be made whole, and our communities of faith can be a rare space in the world to notice and celebrate each other's gifts, rather than extract them for profit. When talking with visitors, instead of asking, “what do you do?” and making a mental note that the insurance agent might one day be invited to serve on the property committee, try asking,“what brings you JOY?” This is such a counter-cultural question that folks might not have a ready answer, but they’ll remember the question. Our gifts are often those things that we cannot help but do; those things we deliver joyfully. Be curious about the answers you hear, and instead of asking if they would share their gift with the church, ask“how could we support you to deliver your gift to the world? How could we support you to do more of what you love?”
- Tending our Tradition: Choose a quiet time to walk through your building and look carefully at the paintings, furniture, plaques, and bulletin boards. What are the messages being communicated? Are there portraits of founders from the 1700’s whose names you may not even know, or beloved ancestors whose stories are alive and accessible? The words engraved on plaques or preserved on stained glass panes - do they reflect the theology of the congregation you are today? Is the furniture set up to promote comfortable, personal conversations?
- Doing our Inner Work: What is the relational temperature in our congregation these days? Is there simmering conflict that is approaching the boiling point? Is there an anxious conversation train stuck in a worry loop --where are the families? we need new people! what do we do now?? These questions may be important, but the anxiety and worry we attach to them are not our friends. Newcomers and returning members alike will feel the ambient anxiety. This is a great opportunity for congregational leaders to practice not having all the answers, being willing to stay in that discomfort - as long as we staytogether. Be present to what is good, whole, and holy in this moment: our relationships with one another, the promises we hold ourselves accountable to, the faithful companionship of facing this changing world with each other.
- Covenanting: More than words on a page, what are the covenantalpractices we engage? When we disagree with our leadership, do we ask for a direct conversation? At our annual meeting, are we listening tohear others’ points of view, or listening to prepare the rebuttal we will make to their words? How would a visitor know we are a covenantal community by watching us work side by side, or observing our committee structure or a board meeting? How do we remind ourselves of our covenantal ties to our nearby UU congregations?
- Faithful Risking: Just about every congregation grapples with the polarity between the tried-and-true ways we’ve always done our church work, and the pull toward something new and different. Faithful Risking asks us to engage with discernment the next elegant steps we are called to, whether those are familiar or not. It asks us to stretch ourselves, stretch our ideas of what we can do, who we can be, how much more Love we might share with our community. How deeply we are willing to be changed and renewed with each new visitor, guest, and future friend.
Even after the last offering of our water communion is splashily received this month, let’s not forget that ultimately it is by our faithful relationships we shall be known. Our relationships with each other. Our relational engagement with our communities. Our individual relationships with our own spiritual growth and evolution. Our relationships to our ancestors, and to the future generations of Unitarian Universalists our congregations will welcome in coming months and years.
Because they will come. Have faith.