“We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves at fires we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are ever bound in community."

Rev. Peter Raible (paraphrased from Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

Monday, December 5, 2011

What's at the Center of a Vibrant Faith Community?

I recently read this piece by the Rev. Tony Lorenzen, called, "Out of this Stillness: Spiritual Direction, Discernment, and Mission in Liberal Congregation." (It's a bit long, but worth reading; read it and then come back here.)

Tony's paper helped me understand why I feel such a deep commitment and passion for Small Group Ministry. Small Groups, or similar environments based on deep listening and spiritual reflection, truly seem to be the fertile ground that can create a mission-driven, relevant, engaged faith community that understands what "saves them" and then wants to live that out in the world. We're still tinkering with our Small Group model, but we're clear that some environment like this really matters.

Just this morning, I read this piece by the Alban Institute, "Rational Functionalism," by N. Graham Standish, which dovetails nicely with Lorenzen's piece. Here's an excerpt that really spoke to me: 
What I have consistently noticed in almost all thriving congregations, however, is that what makes the difference is the extent to which the community is open to God at its core. Many churches simply aren't open to God. They let the will, ego, and purpose of the dominant voices in their congregation, whether the pastor's or that of a few strong members, drive the agenda. Instead of seeking God's call and purpose, they argue over who is right and wrong. Declining churches tend not to be open to God's presence. 
First Universalist Church feels like a "thriving congregation," (and by many metrics, we are) but after I read this piece, I had to stop and pause. If Standish is right, and if Tony Lorenzo is right (and I think, in general, they both are), then we have a lot of really important spiritual work to do at First Universalist. We have definitely started down the right road, and as a body, we're beginning to seriously reflect on the question, "What is Love/Life/God calling us to now?" This deep reflection and listening will be especially important as we move into our Strategic Planning Process in the coming months.

But it's not easy. As Unitarian Universalists, we can get hung up on the language of God or God's Presence. We can get focused on the functional task in front of us, and fail to step back and listen and reflect. And speaking from personal experience, it can be a challenging, scary (and life giving!) process to truly listen to Love's call (God's call) on your life, or the life of your community.

But it's critical we do this, and continue to do it, because the core of the work is about getting our egos out of the way, and truly discerning how we and First Universalist can be instruments of healing love in the life of our community.

And I think both these articles point to ways that can happen.

If you can't tell, all of this has stirred me up! So dear readers, First Universalist members and others, please chime in, I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Eric Brown said...

Justin, Lorenzen's article is very challenging. I felt the resistance when contemplating the vision it outlines, and then sort of caught a glimpse of what lies beyond my resistance, which was then really exciting and liberating. I think it makes a lot of sense that thriving congregations would be the way he describes them. It makes me excited about possibly implementing Wellspring at First Universalist at some point.

Justin Schroeder said...

I accidently deleted this comment from Jennifer SJ. (Tried to publish it via cellphone but hit "delete" by accident.) I recovered it from gmail. Here it is:

I also read the Lorenzen article - and was excited about the possibility of Wellspring at First U. I feel like I'm hungering for a longer term spiritual connection - than our short term small groups. Maybe the depth of the Wellspring commitment would be a way to try that out.

Scott Marshall said...

I’m new to this faith community. Heck, I’m new to faith community period. The idea of a mission-driven organization is one I’m familiar with, though. Now reconciling the two…

I read your post and the articles you linked to here and it got me thinking about all of my likely misconceptions of the relationship among religion, spirit, faith, theology, and church/synagogue/mosque/etc. organizations. And my future relationship with a faith community.

As a Jew who grew up without theology, synagogue, or religion at home, I decided to study Torah when I was in college. Did that for a few years on and off. And that’s about the extent of my experience with religious organization(s).

Without knowing anything about religious organizations generally, I made an assumption that individual churches, synagogues, and mosques were all driven by their theological relationships with their religions. I’m not even sure that’s the right way to say it. So if a particular synagogue follows Reform Judaism, isn’t their organizational mission an expression of that (Reform) theology? The theology informs the mission…right?

Now I come to First Universalist and “Give, Receive, Grow” and while I love – LOVE – the complexity of the simplicity of the mission, I feel like I’m missing the theology part. And I fully understand that maybe I should feel that way: that I should be missing the theology part. I really like the idea of defining the church’s priorities (through budgeting, planning, evaluating – the whole deal) but I think – I know - I need to grow (there’s that concept again) into the spirituality that underlies this particular church’s mission.

Standish’s writing advises that a church’s priority should be “Guiding people to discover the Creator's call in their lives, calling them and us to live deeper, richer, and greater lives of love and service…”

I’m looking forward to whatever the coming exploration brings. I know I’ll need to be intentional about the experiences I have and the faitheism that comes with them. It’s been a good start (only been at it since September) and I’m very much looking forward to receiving more insight and wisdom, and giving my energy and talents to a mission in which I believe.

Thanks for encouraging these thoughts.

Scott Marshall

Arif Mamdani said...

Thanks for sharing these articles. Its an inspiring vision and re-imagining of what "church" is and does in a community and I'm excited to see how it unfolds in our faith community.

Justin Schroeder said...

Eric, Jennifer, Scott, and Arif - Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

Some quick thoughts...

Scott, I particularly appreciate your reflections. I think in part, the underlying theology of the church is that the Spirit of Life/God is available to us in this lifetime, and that we best experience that Spirit of Life when we are actively "giving, receiving, and growing" together as a faith community. This world matters and how we align our values with our lives matters; as we pay deep attention to our lives and the Spirit of Life moving in our lives, that's the spiritual practice part, we move toward becoming "Love's people," incarnating and embodying the larger love that holds us all.

As it relates to the articles, this can happen through Small Groups, spiritual practice, and more.

I'm thrilled you're here and so glad you're on the journey with us. Say hello to me some Sunday, I'd love to connect a name with a face (unless we've already met...and I just can't remember it.)