Risking in the Time of Change

By Hilary Allen

Earlier this year, just as the reality of the pandemic was unfolding, the New England Region was planning to host a workshop on “Faithful Risking,” one of our Practices of Spiritual Leadership. Ultimately we ended up cancelling the workshop. While we could have adapted to an online format, proceeding as planned just didn’tfeel right.

The content of that workshop was developed, like the rest of the Practices of Spiritual Leadership, as a response to the realities of congregational life in New England. Our experience in the preceding years had revealed thatUU congregations, like many spiritual communities, can reflect a resistance to change.

So in an effort to support congregations in moving more deliberately away from the status quo, we spotlighted the Spiritual Leadership practice of Faithful Risking. The Faithful Risking workshop planned for April was going to feature techniques for choosing to move, tools to support taking risks, and processes for adapting as you go.

Yet, there we were, in the middle of an unfolding global pandemic which required sudden, radical changes to every aspect of our lives, not just congregational life. We are still in this unfolding, and clearly, the status quo is no longer a possibility.

If we had gone ahead with the workshop we could have looked obtuse or insensitive, but more importantly, what we were teaching would have been incorrect. Because all around us, in every direction, and consistently so in the months since, you have been risking faithfully. These are some of the faithful risks we see you and your sibling congregations taking:

  • services cancelled, moved online, and for some recently, hosted outdoors using social distancing guidelines
  • technologies embraced, abandoned, re-embraced, resourced, and triaged
  • stewardship practices adjusted and plans underway for making due with even less
  • increased plate sharing, social services, and charitable giving
  • grappling to practice and remember covenant across Zoom and distance
  • deepened connections to justice movements, including calls for reparations
  • activism towards a free and fair democratic election at the federal level
  • spending from your endowments (because what is today if not the proverbial “rainy day”?)
  • rigorous exploration into choices you need to make about survival—financial and existential

In countless ways, surely hundreds of which we are not even aware of, you and your siblings in faith are showing up in this moment in new ways than ever before. You are meeting the challenges of the conditions we find ourselves in. You are simultaneously doing the hard but unique work of spiritual communities to metabolize and make meaning of the stress, anxiety, and grief seeping in from society at large.

To be clear, our work is not yet done. There are still places for us to grow past what we think we are capable of, to stretch beyond what we have known, and to do more in the name of Love and Justice. The task is still before us to claim the trailblazing and sometimes heretical religious ancestry of which so many of us are so proud. Faithful risking has even been highlighted by the recent Widening the Circle of Concern report from the UUA’s Commission on Institutional Change wherein they note, “the ways we have been doing business need to change and we need innovation, experimentation, and support for those risk-takers who are building new ways.”

No doubt there is surely still some element of business as usual, especially the dream of returning to “normal,” at play in many of our congregations. But as we are learning in ways we might only have imagined before, a spiritual life, a spiritual home, and a spiritual tradition that are only about comfort, certainty, and satisfaction are not real. Faithful risking is essential to a vital Unitarian Universalism literally in the sense that it is alive. And with that means engaging religious practice that will involve uncertainty, discomfort and sometimes failure.

To be sure, we cannot be out at the edge all the time. If you or your congregational companions need to take a rest right now, please honor that and take it. Let’s just be sure we don’t miss this opportunity to tell a different, new, more complete story of UU congregations being places of vitality, adaptation, responsiveness, and risks in faith.

At least for right now, I don’t want us to miss the ways we are already practicing faithful risking. As our teacher adrienne maree brown notes in Emergent Strategy, “what we pay attention to grows” and if we are only paying attention to what is missing, we would be missing what is actually happening now.

What’s happening now is that we can do hard things—because we are already doing them.

We can innovate—because we are already innovating.

We can take faithful risks—because we are already faithfully risking.

Minister Robin Bartlett and a congregant of First Church in Sterling, MA wearing t-shirts that read “We can do hard things!” participating in Operation Food is Love in May

Minister Robin Bartlett and a congregant of First Church in Sterling, MA wearing t-shirts that read “We can do hard things!” participating in Operation Food is Love in May


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