“UCE Vision Statement” a sermon
By Rev. Brian J. Kiely September 16, 2018
Unitarian Church of Edmonton
In the last two services I have spoken about the basics of our faith tradition, about the things that define us, without limiting or restricting us. There are the seven Principles to help us as we wrestle with challenging issues, six Sources that describe the traditions and philosophies that inspire us and support us.
Those are held in common in all of our congregations in Canada and the U.S. and are deeply respected by the other Unitarian groups around the world.
However, this congregation, Unitarian Church of Edmonton exists as a freestanding organization within that larger community. We are corporately independent. We are under no external authority. No denominational figure can give us orders. Within Unitarian Universalism there is no higher decision-making body than a congregation, yet as responsible people we try to work cooperatively with other congregations and denominational groups. We share best practices and events, we learn from one another.
I mention the independence only to point out that with that comes responsibility to manage our own affairs and especially to live out our own Vision. Periodically we need to define who we are and who we wish to be. In 2015, members of our community revisited our Vision Statement as part of a larger Strategic Planning process. They developed a statement designed to tell the world…and us, who we are strive to be. The full text, approved by the congregation reads:
The Unitarian Church of Edmonton is a congregation openly and honestly searching, learning, connecting and serving.
Searching for spiritual meaning in our lives;
Learning to understand ourselves and others;
Connecting to build fair, just, caring communities;
Serving each other and our communities near and far.
If you look at the top of your order of service, you will see the rubrics Searching, Learning, Connecting and Serving. They are reminders we encounter from week to week.
It is a good statement, concise and clear without limiting how we might put that vision into practice. It encourages us to look at what we do together now and ask how it fits. Food Bank connects to the wider community as does most of our social justice work. It is there that we live out our Principles beyond these walls. Our education programs assist in searching for meaning and learning about the world and the life of the spirit. Our choir works at the Search for meaning even as they build connections and strengthen the community. You see how striving to fulfil the vision can work.
And the Vision can only work if it’s a living thing, something that guides and affirms our actions and serves as a touchstone for newcomers and longtime members alike who may ask, “What are we doing here?”
Most importantly, it must be a set of concepts easy to take in, yet challenging to maintain. Most of us come here wondering, “Can I make more sense out of my life?”. Thinking about searching, learning, connecting and serving are a good places to begin answering that question.
It’s a critical question, a very personal question. It’s is one I have asked myself frequently in different ways over the last four decades.
Forty years ago I walked into the Unitarian Church of Montreal for the first time. In truth I was dragged by a girlfriend, but I was a frustrated lapsed Catholic and didn’t realize that I was looking for another kind of spiritual expression. It was there that I encountered a community very different from the one in which I had been raised. For the first time I was encouraged to search for meaning myself in the company of others. I wasn’t taught what that meaning should be. I could and maybe had to work it out for myself. It was liberating.
Now, some people arrive in our churches and know instantly that they have found their new home. That wasn’t me. I was cautious and wary of organized religion. I listened, read a bit and started that process of learning both about Unitarianism and figuring out my own journey, “learning to understand myself and others.”
Still, it would be three years before I joined a church in Toronto. I finally joined because I was lonely in a new city and needed community. The Strategic Plan research that led to our Vision statement listed four key findings. The first was, “Community is key!” I wanted a community that was more than a social club> I also wanted a religious connection that was somewhere I mattered and was respected. I found it in the Unitarian Church.
As my own journey deepened I felt called to ministry, much to my own surprise, and I have never regretted it. What I had found, I wanted to share with others. I wanted to encourage people to discover free religion for themselves. I wanted to help explain the power of those ideas our rubrics describe. And, if those ideas suited the make-up of the people I met, then I hoped to welcome them into community. Ministry has also kept pushing me to go deeper on my personal journey.
Once trained and ordained, I served for 10 years in the Lower Mainland of BC, helping found a new congregation and working on a number of national projects and committees. But there came a moment when it felt right to leave that church, when that now seven year old community needed to seek a different kind of leadership. I started to look around.
This congregation was in search. I applied. Your Search Committee invited me to be their candidate in 1997. The tradition is to present the candidate to the entire congregation for a week to be followed by a congregational vote. In Unitarianism, congregations decide whether to have a minister and then who their minister will be. The denomination helps with matching, but, remember, there is no higher decision-making authority than you, the members of the church. You decide who leads.
But before that memorable and intense week, we had to go through a confidential process of the committee getting to know me and deciding if they thought I would be a good fit. I had to go through the same process for myself.
I came to Edmonton for a weekend for what’s called a pre-candidating visit – a sort of secret set of meetings. We met as a group for several hours over the weekend. I also met with each member of the Search Committee individually for an hour or so. They were open and candid. A sense of excitement grew in me. It looked like we shared a very similar vision for this church.
I was fortunate to have two Canadian congregations offer me candidacy that year. Both were attractive. It was a difficult decision. After all, I would be uprooting my life and taking a huge risk, hoping I had picked wisely. I talked with colleagues and family, I did lists of pros and cons and shared them with a wise elder. After reading it all through he said, “You’re trying to even up the pros and cons for both sites, but in one case it’s forced and in the case of Edmonton it’s not. You are trying to be fair, but really your lists tell me you have already decided.”
And suddenly I knew he was right.
So why did I come here? What was on those lists? A building for one! That new congregation were meeting in a rented space in BC that we only had for a few hours on Sunday. The ‘church office’ was a desk in my spare room or the front seat of my car. A church with a real live office was kind of attractive!
But in the end the real deciding factor was institutional maturity. The leadership of this congregation – and this is rare if not unique – had a clear and appropriate understanding of what ministers can and should do. They equally had a clear and sharp understanding of what the work of the leaders and the members should be. This community has known since its 1954 founding that the members are responsible for governance, finance, maintenance and all of those structural things that give the congregation the base on which members and minister can build quality worship, good programs, good social justice outreach, good community building. They understood that they were the church, not me. The minister would support them in their work and then offer religious leadership in services and programs and sometimes be a spokesperson for our faith in the community
In this congregation the minister works with the leadership not for it. The minister does not dictate the direction of the church. That’s up to you. Ministers, ideally, help congregations achieve the goals you set.
From the first moment of contact with the Search Committee I was treated openly and fairly. The congregational materials offered an accurate picture of how things were. People were open about what they liked and what they hoped to change. I think that both with the committee and with the congregation I was also open and honest about my abilities and my challenges in ministry. There were frank discussions and reasonable expectations. The Search Committee decided I would be a good fit and recommended me. The congregation decided to take a chance on me.
You voted unanimously to call me. I haven’t regretted my decision for a minute. I confess, I had my doubts about moving to Alberta, but today I consider myself a proud Edmontonian and will be until I die.
ASfter today’s service I will meet with the Ministerial Relations Committee for the first time this yer. They are the body elected directly by the members of the congregation and not convened by the Board. They are charged with carrying on tose frank and honest discussions begun by the Search Committee. If you have concerns (or commendations) about my work, you can speak to them. Open communication is key.
When the leadership and the minister have a similar view of our separate and shared responsibilities we can build a symbiotic relationship. Mostly I think that exists and has been a key to a shared ministry now entering it’s 22nd year.
My retirement is coming, of course. I will turn 65 in 19 months, so sooner or later UCE will have to look to a new and no doubt different kind of leadership. In the year past I agreed with some leaders, without attaching dates, that it was time to think about the transition ahead. It’s getting to be time for a change. I hope it will be orderly and cooperative, reflecting that symbiotic sharing of leadership we have enjoyed for so long.
The period ahead offers time to reflect on what the congregation likes and what you would like to see done differently. How would you like to be searching for spiritual meaning? What would be involved in learning to understand yourselves and others? How will you go about connecting to build fair, just and caring communities? What will define serving one another and communities near and far?
There is a well established process and a set of tools and professional expertise available from the Canadian Unitarian Council to help with that series of conversations. Typically there will be an Interim Minister brought in for one or two years after I step down. You will have support as you do this work and I expect it will be rich and rewarding. But it will take all of you.
This Vision Statement will be a great tool as you make those choices. It is a wonderful compass for setting future direction. I have every confidence that when that transition comes, the Unitarian Church of Edmonton will have a pretty clear sense of itself and a willingness to keep looking at its vision for the future and keep evolving it to fit the times.