Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sin Boldly

by John Beckett
Sunday, October 4, 2009

Whether we believe Luther’s challenge to sin boldly is relevant in the context of 21st century universalism or not, it is clear that Martin Luther acted boldly. How many other priests must have had the same thoughts as Luther, but lacked the courage to express them, and to put them into action?

In Luther’s era, change happened very slowly or not at all. In our era, change happens so rapidly we struggle to keep up with it. Both situations tend to invoke or provoke an instinctive human response – to cling to the familiar and the certain, or rather, what we think is certain, or what we wish was certain. Our principles and our values remain constant – love, compassion, community, hope, faith… these last, these are eternal. But the way they are expressed and the institutions through which they are expressed change as our world and our culture changes.

There are some in our country who claim a family is a man, his wife, their 2.5 kids, a dog, a station wagon, and a white picket fence. Their definition of family comes from a very short period of middle 20th century America. Before that “family” was much broader, encompassing multiple generations sharing one house – a house that for all but the wealthiest was much smaller than our houses today – and with obligations far beyond showing up for Thanksgiving dinner and buying Christmas gifts for the children. Today employment transience and the general weakness of marriages – which started long before gay people started demanding their right to get married too – have left us with new models of what a family is and what it looks like, something some in our society have trouble accepting.

The point here is that change is inevitable. Our houses have changed, our clothing has changed, our attitudes have changed, our technology has changed, and our churches have changed.

The Denton Unitarian Fellowship was founded in 1949. Like most of the Unitarian fellowships begun in the mid-20th century, we started as a lay-led congregation, and we were entirely lay led for over 30 years. It wasn’t that our founders couldn’t afford a minister – they saw no need for one.

That changed in 1980, when Rev. Bob Hill began as a quarter-time “extension minister”. Since then, we’ve been served by a series of less than full time ministers, including some periods in-between ministers where we were once again lay-led.

Our congregation continues to change. It is not the same as it was in 1949 or 1989. It’s not even the same as it was when I first came here in 2003. We’ve added more names to our memorial wall. We’ve moved our kitchen and expanded our RE space. We’ve seen a transitional minister come and go, we’ve seen one consulting minister come in and then retire, and his partner begin her third and final year with us. Many of you have come in since then, and it’s a rare Sunday when someone isn’t making his or her first or second visit to DUUF. Each of us changes the congregation in some way that is subtle but very real.

We may cling to the past, we may take small steps, or we may take bold steps, but one thing is certain – DUUF will continue to change. The question for us as a congregation is whether change will be something that happens to us, or whether change will be something we create?

So if change is inevitable, what will determine how we change? One of our Unitarian Universalist principles is the use of the democratic process – we should all have a voice, and we should all have a vote. Now, democracy is tied to an important scientific principle dealing with the nature of sound – if you do not speak, you will not be heard.

We’ve enshrined the democratic process in our principles and purposes, but the organization of our fellowship – and the organization of almost all congregational churches – is more of a modern republic than a pure democracy. We elect a Board of Trustees, the Board hires staff and appoints committees, and the staff and volunteers do the work of running our church. Our bylaws spell out only a very few situations that require the direct democratic action of a congregational vote. The day in and day out decisions of running our church are made by those doing the work – which is as it should be. It’s the responsibility of the Board, acting on behalf of the congregation, to set goals, policies, and to delimit the scope of authority for everyone who works for DUUF on a paid or volunteer basis. As we delegate the responsibility for achieving goals and performing tasks, we also delegate the authority necessary to get the job done.

So, if you want to be heard, if you want to help guide and shape our change, get involved! Come to Board meetings. Volunteer for a committee – our Worship, Membership, and Religious Education committees are always looking for new members, and we have several standing committees that are inactive because of a lack of volunteers. Remember – decisions are made by those who show up. I hope we’ll all show up in the coming months and years.

Now we get to the main course. If change is inevitable and we should actively plan and guide our change instead of letting it happen to us, what should we change to? What should the future of DUUF look like? We need a plan, but before we need a plan, we need a vision – a picture of where we want to go, and what things will look like when we get there. We need a vision not of what we’d like to be – we need a vision of what we can be.

And so this morning, I offer this vision. It is my vision, not the Board’s, not Rev. Diana’s, not the UUA’s. I offer it as a starting point and not as a finished product. It is not what we must be but it is what we can be.

First, we will be more outwardly focused. Our first two UU principles speak to the inherent worth and dignity of every person; and to justice, equity and compassion in human relations. We know our world is often unkind and even cruel. It’s our responsibility to build a better world, to right wrongs, to spread tolerance and acceptance – to build the Kingdom of God right here right now.

We have different ideas on how to accomplish this. Some of us would like to begin our own social action projects, and there are things we can do both to raise awareness and to make a tangible difference in the world. But it may also be that the most effective use of our resources isn’t to create a new project, but to throw our support behind existing projects and organizations. Next Sunday this pulpit will be filled by Liz Shropshire of the Shropshire Foundation, an organization that uses music and musical instruments to minister to children in war torn regions of the world, including Uganda, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland. We’ll be donating next week’s undesignated offering and any special gifts to this organization. We’re a congregation that loves music and believes in working for peace, so this is work that should resonate with many of us. We can’t go do this work from Denton, but we can give – and give generously – to support those who do.

We will be more outwardly focused. Social action will be a significant line item in our budget.

There’s another way in which we will be more outwardly focused, and that’s that we’re going to get better at welcoming and including new people in the life of our church. We UUs tend to be introverted, we like talking to the people we know and the people we’re comfortable with, and it can be a little scary to walk up to someone you don’t know and start up a conversation. But the people who walk though the doors of a church for the first time are usually looking for something – and pretty high on that list is looking to make a connection with like-minded folks. When they get here, we need to make sure they know they’ve found us.

You know, I think we’re getting better at this. But this isn’t something that comes naturally to me – it’s something I have to keep consciously and mindfully working on week after week after week. And so I’m going to keep reminding you and reminding me that we need to make sure our visitors feel truly welcome in our congregation.

And it’s not enough to welcome our visitors and new members, we need to remember to include them and integrate them into the life of our congregation. We’ve got a new members class coming up on the 24th and I hope if you haven’t been to one before you’ll make plans to attend. We’ll talk about some of the ways new members can plug in to the life of our church, but let’s remember that the best way is simply to ask.

We will be more outwardly focused.

We will be bigger. When Daniel Polk, President of the North Texas Association of UU Societies, preached here at the end of August, he called us out for being basically the same size we were in the 80s – and he was right to do so. I know that when I first got here, I heard quite a few people say they didn’t want to grow, they were comfortable with the size we were and didn’t want it to change. But you know, I don’t hear that any more.

A healthy organization is a growing organization. When we do good works, when we have good Sunday services, when we help people learn and grow in their spiritual lives, it’s going to attract others. And our attendance is up in the past year. Like any church we have our good weeks and our sparse weeks, but there have been several services in the past couple of months where if you got here late you had to hunt for a seat.

This will continue, as more and more people find their way to Denton UU. We will get bigger.

We will have more space. Having latecomers hunting for seats is a good problem to have, but make no mistake, it is a problem. The rule of thumb is that if your building is more than 80% full, visitors will interpret that as “there’s no room for me here.” We recognized that some time ago, and we’ve been working on an expansion project for the past two years. We’ve already built a new kitchen in a much better location, and we’ve added an RE classroom for our teens. We’re getting ready to start on a project to expand this sanctuary, to finally give us more seats for our Sunday services.

And that will take care of us… for a few years. When Tom and Isabel Miller designed this building, they drew plans for a series of expansions that would have accommodated in the range of 300 members. The plans called for a new sanctuary to be built where our front lawn is now, and for this room to be turned into classroom and office space. But two things happened after they drew those plans. One, we stopped growing, and two, the city passed a flood plain ordinance that now prohibits us from increasing our footprint. It is unlikely we will be able to expand this building again. Sooner or later, we’re going to need a new building.

Now, vision or not, a new building is beyond the means of our 85 member congregation. But it’s not beyond the means of the congregation we will be in a few years. In steps and in stages, we will have more space.

We will get younger. Me saying we’ll get younger is less like vision and more like yesterday’s news. We’ve gotten a lot younger in the past year. We have a wonderful religious education program, and I’m so encouraged to see these kids learning about many religions and not just one, learning our UU values, and searching for the right spiritual path for themselves. I’ve got to say – I’m a little jealous. I sometimes think about how less stressful and more fulfilling my early years would have been if I had grown up in a religious environment like this. Better to find it late than never.

Cathy and I chose not to have children of our own, and from a personal standpoint, I’ve never doubted we made the right decision. But at times I do feel a little concerned for the future, since followers of conservative religions tend to reproduce at a much higher than average rate. I don’t have children of my own to pass my values down to, so I’m happy to support teaching rational and compassionate values to the kids who are here.

We will have more college students and more young adults. Now the complaint I’ve always heard about ministering to college students is that they’re only here for a few years before they move on and they don’t have any money. Well who ever said we were in a money-making business? We are a church, a religious organization – our business is transforming lives and building a better world. College is a time of exploration – particularly for those coming from overprotective homes. Students need to know there’s a safe space for religious exploration. They’re going to hear that Jesus is the only way, they’re going to hear that Islam is the only way, and they’re going to hear that all religion is a bunch of useless superstition. They need to also hear that there is one Light but many paths, and that we need not think alike to love alike.

Young adults have the lowest church attendance rates of any age group in our country. So a ministry to them is like what the Apostle Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians: “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.” The seeds of Unitarian Universalism we plant may not sprout for many years. But just as most of us did, sooner or later these folks will start to feel that urge for something more, something deeper, and they’ll remember what they heard and saw and did while they were at the Denton UU Fellowship. May be we skillful planters.

We will get younger.

We will have more ministries. Now a ministry is simply how we carry out our mission, how we serve our community, the cause of Unitarian Universalism and the world at large. Today our ministries are our kids’ RE program, our adult discussion group, our Pagan and Buddhist groups, and most importantly, our Sunday worship services. I just talked about another ministry we will have, to young adults. What about a ministry to young parents or parents in non-traditional families? What about a ministry to those in assisted living or nursing homes? Even the tiny Baptist church I grew up in did that, and not everyone who lives to an old age follows a conservative religion. What about a ministry for simplicity and sustainable living? There are many other possibilities and we can’t do them all, but we will do some.

We will have more ministries.

If we have more ministries, it stands to reason that we will have more ministers. Not even megachurches can hire enough clergy and staff to do everything that falls within the church’s mission – nor should they. Part of the core mission of this and every church is to give its members the opportunity to put their faith into action. Many of the new ministers we will need will be us. As our RE program has shown, more paid staff doesn’t reduce the need for volunteers, it just enables the volunteers to focus their efforts on the religious and spiritual aspects of our ministries in a way that fits in with their working schedules.

But in addition to the lay volunteers working in our ministries, we will have our own full-time settled minister. Rev. Diana Heath works half-time (though she puts in far more than her contracted 22 hours per week), and she’s a consulting minister, meaning she serves us on a year-to-year contract basis. Don Fielding, who was our minister from 1990 till 2003, also worked half-time, but he was a settled minister, meaning he was here as long as he chose to stay. In a secular setting, it’s like a contractor vs. a permanent employee.

As most of you know, Diana will leave us next summer – she is an accredited interim minister, and it’s rare for interims to stay in one place more than two years. As much as we want a full-time settled minister now, we have neither the budget nor the cash reserves to call one. The Board is meeting with a consultant on October 17 to try to determine our best course of action, but our goal is to get to full-time ministry as soon as possible.

An ordained minister brings with him or her skills, training, and expertise in worship, church administration, spiritual direction and pastoral care. A minister has the legal authority to perform weddings, and the moral authority to speak on matters of ethics. Diana and I could make exactly the same public statement on marriage equality or the death penalty – the media and the public would be far more likely to listen to her simply because she’s a minister.

But more important than matters of authority are matters of expertise. There are several of us in this congregation that can do a good job of leading a worship service, but none of us have the theological training of a minister. If you’re hurting, we can listen as friends, but we don’t have the pastoral skills of a minister. Most of us can say a few words about what Unitarian Universalism is, but none of us have a minister’s in-depth knowledge of Unitarianism, Universalism, and the UU faith produced by their merger. Many of us are professionals in our fields, and while we respect dedicated amateurs, we also recognize their limitations. Ordained ministers are religious professionals, and there is no substitute.

Contrary to popular belief, there is a shortage of UU ministers right now, not a surplus. Younger ministers are buried under student debt and older ministers have families to support – most need full-time positions. And as in any field, the best ministers command the highest salaries. But these are challenges we must work through, not roadblocks we will allow to stop us. Regardless of the difficulties, we will have more ministers, and we will have our own full-time settled minister.

We will have more spiritual depth. Why are we here, in a church, on a Sunday morning? There are as many reasons as there are people in chairs, but I think the common thread is that we’re all looking for something more, something deeper. We talk about serving our highest values, about building a blessed community, about exploring the Big Questions of Life. How do we do that? I’ve had UUs – and not here, thankfully – tell me “we come together to work for peace and justice, but you’re on your own for the rest of that stuff.” I don’t think that’s a very good answer.

I’m an engineer, not a minister or a theologian – I don’t have the answer to this question. But it seems to me there are only two possible solutions. One is to find a way to practice established religious traditions within a UU context. That’s what I’m doing now – my Pagan beliefs and practices fit very nicely into Unitarian Universalism, and we have an active chapter of the Covenant of UU Pagans here at DUUF. We’ve had a Zen Group for close to 20 years, and there’s no reason why we couldn’t form groups to practice Christianity, Judaism, Humanism or any other religious tradition within a UU context.

The other option is to find a uniquely UU spiritual practice. I assumed nothing like that exists, but then a UU blogger pointed me toward a week-long class taught through Meadville-Lombard Theological School, one of two UU seminaries. I found the syllabus for the class on-line, and let me tell you, this was no feel-good, love and light, weekend spirituality! It was based on the practices of the 19th Century Unitarians, and started with four books for preparatory reading. It covered meditation and prayer, devotional readings, reflection and writing, and group practice and worship. It was a LOT of work. But spiritual development and growth IS hard work, regardless of what tradition you’re practicing.

I said there are two possibilities for promoting spiritual depth. In world of “and’s” and “or’s”, Unitarian Universalism is the ultimate “and” religion. So there’s no reason why we can’t do both! But regardless of how we do it, we are here to touch souls and transform lives, and we will have more spiritual depth.

If we pursue this vision, or one like it, two things are certain. One is that there will be mistakes along the way. I’ve been trying to find a guidebook for growing a UU church, someone to show us a proven path to full-time ministry. But it seems that no two success stories are the same – there is no foolproof plan to get from here to there. We will have to make our own way, and not every step will be the right one. We must not be afraid to fail.

The second certainty is that things will be different. We will be bigger, younger, and more outwardly focused. We will have more ministries, more ministers and more spiritual depth. The core of Unitarian Universalism will remain, but DUUF will be a different place. We must not be afraid to succeed.

Martin Luther told his followers to sin boldly. May we follow his example and act boldly, and build a Denton UU Fellowship that is worthy of our greatest vision.


The Greek philosopher Aristotle said “The soul never thinks without a mental picture.” In the coming weeks and months, may our souls be deeply in thought about the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: where we are going, what we will be, and what part each of us will play along this, our sacred journey.

Go in peace. Amen, and blessed be!