Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown
Twelve days from now, we will cross an imaginary, unseen line in history and enter into a new period of time, as we humans understand it, a period called a year, specifically the year named two thousand five. I have fresh in my mind the period leading up to the year named two thousand. We were daily assaulted with doom and gloom predictions of what would happen when our computers forgot what year it was, when systems would shut down all over the world, due to the lack of proper programming of the core operating systems of millions of machines. My stepson, Bill Ranken, was denied any Christmas vacation that year because he is an engineer with the New Mexico Power Company. We were prepared with food, water and firewood, and other emergency supplies just in case the worst happened.
Well, nothing happened. We had a vision of pending disaster, we talked about it and prepared for it but it didn’t happen. This is the way with some types of visions. Perhaps you have heard me comment during the past 12 months about my predisposition to assume the “worst case scenario” when I am either nervous or uncertain about an outcome. For example, if I go looking for Will in our spread out home with walls so thick that sound doesn’t carry well, and I don’t find him right away, well, what else would you think! He’s obviously lying unconscious somewhere! Think about it! This explains why both my sister and my niece gifted me with the game “Worst Case Scenario.”
When we write a vision statement for a business, a volunteer organization or a church, we try to avoid this kind of thinking. Yet it does enter into our thoughts as we proceed into times when we are nervous and uncertain, such as the time our church is entering as I speak. What is our vision for First Unitarian Universalist Church of Wichita?
At the moment, there are certain individuals in our congregation who share not only our vision statement published on the front of the order of service, but a personal vision of our church in one or two years. They see a new building, a growing congregation planting roots and trees on a new piece of property. They see things they can’t yet get a clear enough picture to describe. Some of these individuals look beyond this vision to a vision of a second UU church in Wichita. A church we would plant on the west side of town. Now that is a vision. More than that, it is visionary thinking.
Who are the visionaries? What is different about them? How are they able to hold a thought against all odds and continue to work towards achieving the goal connected with that thought? Is it possible that each one of us is a baby visionary, just waiting for the training to learn the way to walk the walk of a visionary?
How far do we have to move from our current Vision Statement to becoming visionaries? I don’t think it’s very far at all. The thing we have to do is get in touch with what that vision statement is really saying to us. Let’s read it together. It is printed on the front of the order of service.
“It is our vision: To be a growing, inclusive, vital congregation that encourages shared values amidst differing beliefs and nurtures creative exploration of intellectual and spiritual paths. To be a visible community leader that promotes human equity and compassion, and celebrates life through the arts.”
I was not here when the work was done to write this statement so I have had to imagine by looking at the activities that take place here how this statement affects the life of the church. The first concept is that our vision is to be a growing congregation. Since I have been the minister here we have seen many new members, many people have moved away, some have quit attending regularly and a few have died. We have a net growth in numbers right now, and we’ve welcomed 12 new members since September. Our growth as a congregation is measured in several other ways as well. In his book More than Numbers: The Way Churches Grow, Loren Mead talks about several other measures of growth. One very important measure is called “maturational growth,” which is a deepening of individual growth through our work together in small groups, on committees, and in our various social gatherings. This is where we each continue our search for truth and meaning, and our acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth come in. “Organizational growth,” can be seen when the congregation organizes its structure to better meet challenges and needs, through such changes as moving to a more efficient governance model, such as the creation of Leadership Council, thanks to Betty Welsbacher. It is reflected in giving greater autonomy to committees and other intentional changes that enhance our ability to do the ministry of the church. It is the intentional work to assure that all those details involved in true stewardship of our building and our resources are thoughtfully completed. Organizational growth is important in order to support the other three types of growth, for without a smoothly operating organization where responsibilities are known, things don’t get done. From my point of view, there are areas of our church’s functioning that have greatly improved over the past four years.
The fourth type of growth is something I hope we can spend some time working on in that year coming up beginning 12 days from now. It is called “incarnational growth,” and describes how the congregation embodies UU principles and purposes in its work outside the congregation. It includes our mission, our day to day personal activities and the outreach of the church itself to various entities in the community.
These four types of growth are implicit in our vision statement but we often tend to see growth only in terms of numbers. The other three are of equal value to the health of every congregation.
In our vision statement we see ourselves as inclusive. Inclusive is one of those attributes of a congregation that depends upon the individual actions of each one of us. It requires a continual awareness of what we do and how we deal with the people who enter here. We want every visitor and new member to feel accepted with regard to class, color, sexual and/or gender identity, physical ability, age, and any other areas of being human that may come up. Our Welcoming Congregation Committee is going to present a new curriculum to enhance this part of our vision beginning next March. Currently we practice our first principle in all we do: we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person who enters here.
The vision statement describes us as a vital congregation. How do you DO vital! Some of you may remember the thinking about including this word in the vision statement when it was created. After some research, I believe it’s a word that would enhance every church’s vision statement. Out of the twenty vision statements I read from other UU congregations, none included the word “vital.” As you would expect, there is a large diversity of formats and language in these various vision statements.” The closest was one encouraging the idea of being a “vibrant” congregation. Several included the words “celebration” and “joy” or “joyous.” But most seemed rather moribund and lackluster.
The first thing that comes to mind when I hear the word “vital” is “vital signs.” Pulse, respiration rate, blood pressure, temperature. These are good words for looking at the life of this congregation. From my point of view, all vital signs are good and the church is indeed vital.
Taking the pulse of the congregation right now would be an excellent exercise. How do people feel? We are definitely breathing deeply as we wrote that big check for the land. Perhaps our blood pressure is elevated, but wouldn’t you expect that with the stress of all this change and proposed change. And our temperature is cool – I believe we are living our faith, we are committed to liberal religion in Wichita, and we are on the move. I feel an energy and excitement that is sometimes absolutely thrilling.
Few of us fall into the category of apathy these days, which is one of the opposites of vital. While we may not feel comfortable with all that is happening, it is difficult to be apathetic in the face of so much activity. In my view, a vital congregation is one that faces challenges, makes decisions, moves forward and gathers momentum. Change is difficult to deal with, even when it is a change that is welcome or necessary. Three years ago we happened to have two events going on after the worship service on a Sunday morning. Someone was very concerned that we couldn’t all be at both events. This is one of the small but very important parts of a growing, inclusive, vital congregation. Not only does it become impossible to attend everything, but it’s harder and harder to know everyone, and some of us feel our vital signs threatened by these changes. It’s a growing pain, and it’s important that we recognize it for its importance in our process.
The next part of our vision statement includes a commitment of how we treat each other: “encourages shared values amidst differing beliefs and nurtures creative exploration of intellectual and spiritual paths.” If we are such a congregation, if we do encourage shared values, how does that look to you. To me, it means that we practice and promote the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism, that we attempt to live them each day of our lives and we work to make everything that happens in our congregation reflect these values.
The next few words are “nurtures creative exploration of intellectual and spiritual paths.” We provide many activities that have the potential for this kind of nurturing. This is a challenging part of our vision statement for it requires us to create safe places for seeking new ideas and refining old ones, without judgment of each other’s diverse views.
Our vision to be a visible community leader that promotes human equity and compassion, and celebrates life through the arts is one that we continue to pursue. Our visibility in the community has been enhanced this year by our website and our advertising. Our chamber concerts and monthly art shows bring people to the church. We have presented several programs for the community and have welcomed other groups to use our facilities, which increases our visibility. When we get our sign up on our land, thousands of people will have an opportunity each day to see our name and if they slow down a little, to learn where we are currently located.
We are gathered today to celebrate our religious community by sharing a holiday dinner. Many hands have prepared food that we will eat. As we consider our current vision statement, are there ideas that we should add to reflect the path we have now begun.
December is a month of many religious responses to the turning of the year, to the crossing of that invisible line into the next discrete section of human time. It includes the story of the miracle of the oil lasting the necessary eight days for the celebration of the cleansing of the temple at Jerusalem. We mark and celebrate the symbolic date for the birth of Jesus, whose time on earth gave us the best model to follow as we live our lives. African-Americans around the nation mark the days of the Kwanzaa rituals, informing themselves once again of the importance of working together for the health of their families and their communities.
Perhaps most visible to all of us is the winter solstice, the returning of the light. Since time began, earth-centered religious people have celebrated this season, building bonfires to help the sun return to its former prominence in the sky. Pagan peoples celebrate this season and its hope for the future, its promise of new life and new harvests to come.
Today I believe our vision statement has made it possible for us to embrace an exciting vision for the future. A vision that includes much new life and many harvests. A vision that includes excitement as well as fear, for all change evokes both emotions. The challenge of the season for us is to keep thinking forward, with gratitude for the vision of the people who brought us to this point in time, support for those who are working to help us move forward, and commitment to the future of our liberal religious community.
In closing, I invite you to stand as you are willing and able and sing the hymn which is listed as following the offertory, #146, Soon the Day Will Arrive.