Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
August 30, 2015
Sometimes people reinvent themselves. Shirley Temple Black, for example, was a well-known child actress in the 1930s and 1940s but later served as a United States Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. Paul McCartney was part of the Beatles in the 1960s, then part of Wings in the 1970s; and in subsequent years he has continued to make music in new and unexpected ways. Barack Obama worked as a community organizer from 1985 to 1988 in Chicago before entering Harvard Law School and going into politics.
Some of you here in this room this morning are among the millions and millions of people who have reinvented themselves in one way or another. You move in one direction for a while, and then you change internally, or the world around you changes, and you move in another direction. You adapt. Your respond. You rearrange. You shift. To offer one more example, my dad was a political science professor. He wrote his doctoral thesis on state supreme courts. But his focus shifted several times throughout his career. He taught courses in American government and constitutional law, but he also had a strong interest in using mathematical models in political science research, and toward the end of his career he developed a strong interest in what one might call paleo-government, that is, the first emergence of governing arrangements thousands or even tens of thousands of years ago at the dawn of human history.
Professional religious leaders, too, sometimes reinvent themselves. I know of one minister who served the same church for more than twenty years. After his first seven years, he took a sabbatical, and that experience prompted him to conduct his ministry in a very different way. After seven more years, he took another sabbatical, and that experience once again prompted him to conduct his ministry in another very different way. He later reported that as a result of these changes, the congregation really experienced three very different ministries, even though they had the same minister throughout this entire time.
In recent months, I have begun to reinvent my ministry here with you. Although I feel a strong internal motivation to move forward with this process, I will be moving forward in collaboration with church leadership, not simply making changes on my own.
Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Ephesus in western Turkey was written between the year 60 and the year 80 of the Common Era. In this letter, one reads that the work of pastors and teachers is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” Although we Unitarian Universalists do not rely exclusively on Biblical writings for guidance, I nevertheless find wise guidance in this well-known passage. The ministry reinvention I have in mind would lead me to focus more of my attention on equipping you, the members and friends of First Unitarian Church, to do the work of ministry, that is, to follow your own sense of calling, to follow your own values and principles, to follow your own spiritual imperative, to follow your own Sacred Purpose.
In another well-known passage, theologian Frederick Buechner defined spiritual calling or vocation as the place “where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.” He was lifting up the social dimension of one’s spiritual journey. Your deep gladness is not something you keep to yourself. Your deep gladness is not something simply to be enjoyed in solitude. Rather, your deep gladness, the fruit of your spiritual journey, is something you bring to the world’s deep hunger. Thus, when I say that reinventing my ministry means focusing more of my attention on equipping you to the work of ministry, that means inviting you to follow a spiritual path where you can connect your deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger.
Unitarian Universalist ministry Roy Phillips once suggested that we might re-envision our churches as theological schools where all church members and friends can explore and articulate and strengthen their sense of Sacred Purpose. Just imagine that for a moment – a religious community deeply and intentionally committed to the spiritual formation of all its members and friends, not with any expectation of producing professional religious leaders, but rather with the eager expectation of producing more spiritually mature lay leaders. Or more fully equipped lay leaders, to use Paul’s phrase. Moving closer to this vision of church as theological school is what I mean when I say that I would like to reinvent my ministry.
Many years ago, when I was still new to ministry, I had a conversation with a colleague who was also new to ministry. He spoke of leading from the center, leading from a place owned by the congregation, leading in the clear light of congregational intention. In contrast, I spoke of leading from the edge, leading from a prophetic place of challenge and agitation, leading from beyond the congregational comfort zone. At the time, I was struck by the contrast in the leadership styles we were articulating, for leading from the edge requires a very different mindset than leading from the center. But now, with the benefit of many years of experience, I would say that leading from the center and leading from the edge are a polarity, that is, two contrasting but inseparable truths. Ministers really need to be able to lead both from the center and from the edge, depending on the situation at hand. Nevertheless, when I say that I would like to reinvent my ministry, this means that I would like to become more deeply acquainted with the center, having conversations with each and every one of you, learning about your hopes and dreams and aspirations, learning about your sense of Sacred Purpose and where that is leading you. My reinvented ministry will be more focused on building relationships with you by listening to what you have to say: listening to what you have to say, and then remaining open to what might emerge from this appreciative, unscripted, exploratory process.
In an article entitled “The End of iChurch,” Unitarian Universalist minister Fred Muir offers a critique of the excessive individualism that undermines our faith. Muir traces this back to Emerson, who famously said, “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.” Muir writes: “Think of the ‘i’ that’s placed in front of Apple products. . . . This is your personal piece of technology to be used for whatever purpose you want.” Muir then continues: “Many of us were drawn to Unitarian Universalism because it seemed to be the church of Emersonian individualism. We are the iChurch.” Then Muir states his critique: “For all its appeal and its influence in American culture, individualism is not sustaining: Individualism will not serve the greater good . . . There is little-to-nothing about the ideology and theology of individualism that encourages people to work and live together, to create and support institutions that serve common aspirations and beloved principles.” Muir encourages us as Unitarian Universalists to set aside the individualism of iChurch and turn instead to creating Beloved Community.
Yes, as I reinvent my ministry, I want to become more deeply acquainted with the center of this congregation, listening to each and every one of you, having conversations about your hopes and dreams and aspirations, learning more about your sense of Sacred Purpose. But somehow all those hopes and dreams and aspirations need to be woven together, and all those Sacred Purposes need to harmonize. For as Fred Muir says, we do need to move beyond iChurch, where individualism makes us incoherent and powerless. Instead, we need to be all about building Beloved Community. Yes, I want to listen to each and every one of you, with all your unique and individual aspirations and journeys. Yes, I want to emphasize leading from the center. But for a church even to have a center, individualism needs to give way to cooperation and collaboration. iChurch has no center. Beloved Community does.
Reinventing my ministry means focusing my attention on equipping you for the work of ministry. Reinventing my ministry means inviting you to follow a spiritual path where you can connect your deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger. Reinventing my ministry means leading more from the center, becoming more deeply acquainted with the center, engaging in conversations with each and every one of you, and being open to what emerges from listening.
Reinventing my ministry in this way might seem to suggest that I would become selfless, devoted only to developing your collective Sacred Purpose as a congregation while having no identity of my own. But I don’t see it that way. To borrow a term from community organizing, I have a self-interest, just as each of you has a self-interest. But having a self-interest is different from being self-centered or self-indulgent or selfish. The Latin roots of “interest” are “inter,” which means “among,” and “esse,” which means “to be.” Thus, “interest” literally means “to be among,” and self-interest thus means something like “to be one among others” or perhaps even “to be one in solidarity with others.” Leadership based on self-interest thus differs from self-negating leadership, on the one hand, and self-centered leadership, on the other hand. Leadership based on self-interest means being in solidarity with others, inviting everyone to bring to the table their visions and their needs. Leadership based on self-interest says, “I am somebody, and so are you.” Leadership based on self-interest says, “I am loved, and so are you.”
I have spoken so far this morning about reinventing my ministry, in collaboration with church leadership. However, our church may need to do some reinventing as well. In fact, most of our Unitarian Universalist churches here in Pittsburgh may need to reinvent themselves. Membership data suggests that Unitarian Universalism crested in the mid-2000s and has been slipping ever since. First Unitarian Church recorded its highest membership in recent decades in 2005. The Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills also had a membership peak in 2005, while the Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills and the East Suburban Unitarian Universalist Church had membership peaks the following year, in 2006. And the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church recorded its highest membership in 2009. Ten years ago, in 2005, the five Unitarian Universalist churches in Pittsburgh had a combined membership of 1,029. Now, in 2015, that number has dropped to 849. The average decline in membership among these five churches between 2005 and 2015 was 16.8%.
Membership losses like this have impacted Unitarian Universalist churches across the United States. Mainline Protestant denominations have been struggling with this demoralizing trend for many years, but Unitarian Universalism has only encountered this phenomenon more recently, and we are definitely struggling to understand it, to deal with the feelings it generates among us, and to develop adaptive strategies.
Just this morning, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, there is a front-page article about newly-planted churches in the Pittsburgh region that are using a great variety of innovative practices. Many of these newly-planted churches belong to mainline denominations where the more traditional congregations have been losing members. The larger social context for this story is that in the United States today, one fifth of all adults and one third of young adults no longer have any religious identity, according to the Pew Research Center.
Here at First Unitarian Church, we are reinventing many parts of our church. In the area of lifespan faith development, we will be working with Steven Mead, our Interim Director of Ministries with Children and Youth, for the next two years. In his interim role, his job is to encourage positive change. In the area of music and the arts, much of our music program is being reinvented. In particular, Emily Pinkerton will be launching a new high-energy, multi-generational music performance group called Joyful Noise. In the area of worship, we are combining two Sunday morning worship celebrations into one, which will start at a new time, namely 10:30 AM. We will also be setting aside time before our worship celebration and after our worship celebrations for a variety of groups and programs. Finally, in the area of social action, we will be introducing community organizing methods to bring out more of our potential as a congregation for promoting progressive social change.
That is quite a lot of reinvention! It may take some time for us to adjust. Someone has said that all organizing is disorganizing and then reorganizing. In general, as human beings, we don’t especially care for the disorganizing part. The disorganizing part may bring loss. The disorganizing part may bring disappointment. The slow process of rebirth and renewal can be difficult to discern.
I have spoken about reinventing my ministry, and I have spoken about this church reinventing itself. Perhaps you are ready for your own person reinvention in some way. Here at First Unitarian Church, we don’t have much expertise about reinventing your personal appearance, or reinventing your career, or reinventing your personality. But I hope you will find some encouragement and some companionship as you move forward with your spiritual journey, exploring and articulating and strengthening your own personal sense of Sacred Purpose.
© 2015 by David Herndon