Vision, Identity, Mission Committee
Joan Harvey, Bob Mitchell, Chas Murray, Cathy Rohrer, Jean Schmidt
With contributions from:
Christine Beregi, Amy De Chicchis, Barbara Litt, Lauren McVay, Erica Shadowsong, and Pat Ulbrich
March 10, 2019
As we discussed during the Time for All Ages, many of us come to Unitarian Universalism from different source traditions. We know that our various sources and our life histories make us diverse. And that diversity can deepen and enrich us. Yet diversity can also be a challenge. Most of us, happy to find others of like mind, tend to talk only to each other, and only to people we know. It is our human nature to want to stay in our comfort zone, and meeting other people is not as comfortable. But when that happens, we are failing to live into our principles, to be truly welcoming of everyone and every voice, even though that is what we say we are here to do. And when that happens, we are missing out on the enormous power of synergy that we can all offer each other. We become less than the sum of our parts. We want to be MORE than the sum of our parts!
We think it is particularly important at this inflection point in the life of our church to deeply engage in discovering who we are and who we want to be. This is why our church has been conducting a series of small group conversations twice each year. These conversations are organized by the Committee on Vision, Identity and Mission – the VIM Committee. Each set of meetings is structured around 3 or 4 probing, hopefully thought-provoking questions. Many participants have been pleased, if not surprised, to find that simply sharing with each other in appreciative conversation is a meaningful end in itself, part of what church is all about. So far about 20% of our congregants have participated. Even with the diversity of voices in these conversations, we still have more voices to include. We hope to hear from many more voices!
This past fall, the VIM Committee held another one of its biannual series of small group conversations on the topic of “How do we self-identify?” and “Are we welcoming?” What really stood out from the conversations was the diversity of personal and spiritual journeys leading us all to Unitarian Universalism and the subsequent varied expectations for what a welcoming church looks like.
Today we’d like to share with you a sense of the enriching experience of VIM conversations. Let’s hear now directly from some of the conversation participants in their own words.
The UU sources from which I draw most inspiration and strength are, first of all, Nature, which gave me an initial awareness of the Creator and my place as a created being within a context much larger and historically broader than myself. Experiences of wonder and awe confirmed a transcendent dimension that intercepts at many touch points our physical existence in this realm of time and space. My upbringing in the Judeo-Christian religion gave me spiritual practices, stories, language, and moral guidelines with which to access, understand, express, and build an ethical life in relation to the transcendence I experienced. Exposure to other world religions and the wisdom of prophetic people of various spiritualities gave me additional practices by which to access transcendence, and an appreciation that the One whom I call God manifests in many ways, is known by many names, and seeks to apprehend each of us in the ways we are most personally and culturally disposed to be found.
Elements of Sunday services and life at our church most meaningful and welcoming to me are the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship that meets each Sunday before the Service; VIM meetings and Board questionnaires that solicit our authentic feelings and thoughts about spiritual matters in this church; aspirational commitment to all of our UU Principles, but especially to: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
The UU sources from which I draw most inspiration and strength are: 1. Direct experience of transcendence and awe (including awe of the natural world), 2. words and deeds of prophetic people (some of whom are living in and outside of Pittsburgh today), and 3. wisdom from teachings of Buddhism.
Elements of Sunday services and church life that are most meaningful and welcoming to me are: 1. Chances to grow via services with sermons from people with a variety of perspectives, especially with respect to social justice that is spiritually grounded, and 2. Being in multigenerational community with those who share my values. 3. The arts.
Amy De Chicchis:
The UU sources from which I draw most inspiration and strength are the writings of our Unitarian forbearers as they spoke to rationality, conscience and reason and to our Universalists leaders for giving us the foundation of thankfulness, forgiveness and the potential for equality among us all.
Elements of Sunday services that are most meaningful and welcoming to me are congregational singing, but also appreciation for the thoughtful sermons, and musical/dance presentations presented by so many heartful and talented members and professionals in our congregation.
It is hard for me to pick one principle that is most important to me, but I would choose the first principle: that all people have inherent worth and dignity. This is important in the professional work I do in mental health, and this principle helps me keep hope alive for my clients, many of whom have been ignored or forgotten about by much of society due to their severe or persistent mental illness.
The RE classes for my sons are important to me because I see spirituality as an important aspect of the human experience, and I want them to have structure and meaning but also have open exploration of their own belief system as they grow older. Becoming a member of the membership team has also made me feel more a part of the church. Despite not having much time to contribute, I have found ways to meaningfully impact my group, and this participation makes me feel more responsible and productive in my church membership.
The UU principle that resonates most for me is "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." I was raised on a farm and my appreciation for the interdependent web of all things is grounded in that experience. I draw inspiration from contemporary writers who speak to our connection to the natural world AND indigenous people who honor the sacredness of mother earth.
I am enjoying the variety of music incorporated into our Sunday services. The different musical styles make the services interesting, touch my soul in new ways and expand my knowledge of the variety of music and musicians in Pittsburgh. I've found Ellen's use of unusual instruments adds a texture to the music that is delightfully surprising.
The UU commitment to social justice is the most meaningful aspect of our church for me. I've been involved in several projects that have been gratifying, in part, because I got to know other church members who shared my values of equity and compassion in human relations while engaging the Pittsburgh community or the larger UU community.
Thinking about the Unitarian Universalist tree from the Time for All Ages, each of these members who just spoke arrived at First Unitarian via their own root. Yet each chose to be here in this sanctuary, united in covenant by our common Principles. So we ask today, how do we bring these disparate roots together into one welcoming trunk -- one welcoming church community -- that is open to all?
We see an answer in intentional, appreciative conversation, conversation where we share with each other our hopes for the future and our ideas for how to achieve that vision of the future. Intentional, appreciative conversation provides a venue for us to hear each other, to really feel listened to, and to listen carefully. It fosters an appreciation both for our differences and for our commonality. It gives us the chance to learn from those with non-dominant identities and follow their lead. It allows us to flesh out faces we casually greet on Sundays into human beings we know.
The conversations are most meaningful when all congregants are involved, when participants feel a sense of trust, when everyone in the community feels comfortable speaking up, when each person’s story is heard.
In these conversations, we feel that we are, in the words of one of our hymns that we will sing shortly, truly putting our hearts in a holy place. We go into conversation trusting the wisdom in each of us. Also in the words of that hymn -- “We see our faces in each other’s eyes.” We tell our stories from deep inside, listen with love to the stories of others, and hear our voices in the words of others. We feel the power of each other’s faith and discover the community that underlies our diversity. In the words of Methodist theologian John Wesley, “We need not think alike to love alike.”
What I learned from the small group conversation in which I participated is that we have all pulled up to the Unitarian Universalist table of theological plurality, many jaded by past religious affiliations, with a spiritual hunger for a faith that is authentic and personally vivifying, and that — while realizing no two of us will necessarily develop a living faith in the same way — we nonetheless long for community in this endeavor to know Where we came from. Why we are here. Where we are going. Nowhere are we likely to find more freedom for this quest than in Unitarian Universalism; but, with freedom comes responsibility to surpass spiritual ambiguity and lassitude with personal accountability, clarity, courage and a respectful curiosity that enables us to hospitably hear what others are experiencing and learning on their own faith journeys.
One thing I took away from the small group conversation in which I participated was that we all have our own back-story, and many feelings we normally don't disclose to others. We are more than what we look like and act like. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we can embrace others and ourselves, allow for spiritual growth, and increase empathy for all beings, and connect!
Amy De Chicchis:
One thing I took away from the small group conversation in which I participated was, ONCE AGAIN, my respect and appreciation for the differing views of my fellow congregants, enveloped in love and acceptance of one another.
One thing I took away from the small group conversation in which I participated was: I learned that members come from many different backgrounds and perspectives. Though we may not be extremely diverse in color, we are nevertheless diverse in other ways that are important. As we look to bring even more diversity into our church we need to celebrate the diversity that we do have.
The small group conversation in which I participated reminded me that people belong to our church community for a variety of reasons. I'm hopeful the current transition period is an opportunity to learn how members of the congregation would like to revitalize our church community to promote diversity and inclusion while honoring the diverse needs of members. It means we will really need "to hear" each other and be compassionate in our relations as we explore a vision for our shared future.
We owe it to ourselves and to each other to encourage one another’s spiritual growth - in fact, we affirm and promote this very thing each week - by being open-minded as elements of our worship service unfold, elements that undoubtedly are rooted more strongly in one or the other of our Sources.
But, having affirmed each other’s individual spiritual growth, how can we be more than individuals on a journey? How can we work together toward shared goals using our great diversity as an asset? What is our shared vision? In 2017, congregants were asked to identify their vision for our church by completing the following statement:
“First Unitarian Church is where…... . Here is a taste of what we heard then:
This makes us wonder. This is just a selection of ideas that we heard for what our church could be. What would we have heard from YOU?
As Unitarian Universalists, neither the mission, the identity, nor the vision of our church comes from dogma or some hierarchy. They come from us as individuals on our spiritual journeys, from all of our sources of wisdom and from all of our diversity. We get closer to truth by hearing from all voices. We have to understand each other deeply or we can’t understand the truth fully. Our shared principles, our covenant with each other and with the larger community, are essential. Together we can harvest the power of our diversity.
Our worship celebrations include hymns, one or more readings, music, a sermon, an offering, and a prayer or meditation. Below are a few examples of sermons from our worship celebrations.