Towards a Thriving Future

“Towards a Thriving Future” Rev Brian J. Kiely

A sermon for the Western Regional Fall Gathering, Edmonton, AB  October 20, 2019

31 years ago when I was ordained, church was different.

8 or 10 retired folks came in once a month for newsletter bees, where they took the stacks of photocopied pages, stapled them, folded them, labelled envelopes, assembled the packages and stamped them and usually had lunch or at least tea.  It was a traditional, highly social work bee. It was part of the way community was built back then.

30 years ago congregations had a much higher proportion of people who had themselves been members for 20 or 30 years.  They were the sorts who stayed with the congregation through thick and thin, and who showed, with their financial pledges, that they understood that there was a cost of belonging. Membership meant taking responsibility not just for the church of their day, but for the church of the future as well.  And they passed that message along to us younger folks.

30 years ago, pretty much every committee was staffed, met monthly and took written minutes.  If there was work to be done, a committee was struck and records kept so others could repeat their work later.

30 years ago RE classes were larger. There were fewer outside activities on Sunday mornings as competition. Church was a family event, and there were fewer young folks spending every other weekend with the other parent.

30 years ago in my office, phone calls vastly outweighed emails.  Heck, even post office mail outweighed email. Social media wasn’t a thing yet.  It would be 15 years until Facebook was born.  People in search of community still had to find ways to be in the same room as other people.

Now, none of this is a lament for things past.  For a guy hanging up his stole, it’s more a starting place for observations on past, present and even future.  Church is changing at a very rapid pace.  It is not the institution where I began my work. How we manage change will dictate how much of a thriving future Unitarian Universalism will have.

A first challenge, which won’t surprise anyone, will be money.  The way we raise money is already shifting to match the changes in culture.  The tradition of generous pledging is in decline.  In most congregations I know, the pledge line is flat, not even keeping pace with inflation.  

And every time one of those elder members die, you can watch the pledge total drop.  I don’t think it’s a matter of having to do better canvasses.  I don’t think it’s a question of generosity.  Giving patterns have just changed.  Long term pledging to an institution is not as much a part of culture as it once was.

We live in a fee for service world now where we pay only for what we want.  The idea of pledging annually to the longterm upkeep of a community is increasingly passé.  Today, we expect to pay as we go.  

The new paradigm in schools, sports teams and arts organizations is that we will give some, often as fees, and then participate in fundraising activities like bake sales, bottle drives, silent auctions and casinos.  These are the expectations placed on us these days.  Partly this decline in pledging is also tied to the economic realities facing today’s workforce, but that’s another sermon.  Suffice it to say, our old funding model needs work. 

When this congregation bought this building 16 years ago, we did the traditional capital campaign, and it was successful.  But we also had long and difficult discussions about the morality of taking part in casinos.  We voted to go with them.  At the time, I think we were the only western Canadian congregation that did.  We aren’t alone in that anymore.  They have been a useful non-pledge stream of income. 

We also acquired a building that was much larger than we needed.  We set aside 40% of our space for rental.  

That rental income not only pays all running costs for the property, it contributes a significant amount to our program budget as well.  If it wasn’t for those two sources of outside income,  we would not be able to afford our level of ministry, staffing and programming

Perhaps charging fees for services like religious education for children and adults, for social events and concerts will be the next new income streams.  Who knows, maybe we will run the offering as a 50-50 draw! 

In a thriving future, we will have to identify a range of funding sources.  

Ministry, and all professional leadership in our communities, is another area of major change.  When I started there were about 18 full time Canadian ministry positions.  Today there are 15 and one is shared between two people.  Back then, there were perhaps 30 ministers, students and retirees in our UU Ministers of Canada.  

Today we have 66 members living in Canada.  Seven are students, 24 are retirees. Of the 35 remaining, 20 work part-time in congregations or work in the community. And at least 8 Canadians serve in the U.S., they can’t find work here.  People want to enter the ministry, but the reality is that they face an expensive education and small prospect of financially sustainable work.  And most salaries are below recommended guideline levels. This is not a complaint, but a statement of our current reality.

And there has been a significant drop in the number of credentialed full-time and part-time professional religious educators, administrators and musicians. 

In a thriving future we will still need professional leadership, though it may not look exactly the same.  Ministry is already adapting to the new reality, and it will continue to do so. Some of my colleagues are working as entrepreneurs, or as consultants.  

Distance education is a new norm.  But unless we reduce the cost of education or increase the rate of pay, we will see a further erosion of leadership.  I believe we need professional leaders in all aspects of congregational life.  

We need the benefit of trained leaders. We need their skills, their knowledge and simply their work.  Those of you in lay led communities know how hard it is to run the place only with volunteers.  These professional ministers will keep the ideas, ideals and principles of the Unitarian tradition alive and in front of us. They will work on inclusion and calling our communities to remember why we are here.  They will be our spokespeople outside the church.  They will celebrate our joys and mourn our sorrows with us.  They will keep quality high. They will remain focused on that thriving future we desire.

Volunteerism is down in most places.  Increasingly in a congregation like ours, the work of the church is a staff operation.  If volunteers don’t do the work, then we have to pay for it.  That’s another shift in church life.  Those newsletter work bee days are long gone.  UCE now has paid classroom teachers because we have no choice. That’s not a complaint, but an observation.  There are lots of demands on members, that’s how it is.  They will happily work for one-time events like this one, but ongoing meetings are a no go for so manyWe are adapting with electronic meetings, shared online documents and revised decision-making processes, but I am not sure we have it all figured out yet..

The structure of community work is changing. Keeping pace with cultural change is our challenge.

Now this is not all that dire.  It’s only a problem if you hold to an idea that the way we did things back then is how church ought to be.  Of all the great sermons preached in our history, my favourite is a 1841 Theodore Parker piece called The Transient and Permanent in Christianity – 

It was required reading when I was in school.  For Parker, the rules and outdated dogma of conservative Christianity where transient and due to pass away.  The core message of Christianity of love God and your neighbour, that’s what had and would endure, would remain permanent.

It seems to me that the church structure I described at the start of these remarks is passing away…or at least being forced to adapt.  Church organization…and I say this as a career institutionalist, will not remain permanent.  It was constructed for a different time and culture. 

So what to do?

I was speaking with one of the youth con planners the other day.  Their theme this weekend is borrowed from the film Finding Nemo  “JUUst keep swimming”.  They said that partly it’s about moving on and partly it’s a reminder of all the dangers present in our ocean, like climate change and racism and transphobia.  But the message is a good one.  

The first thing we have to do is just keep swimming, keep paying attention to the currents of change and adjusting our strategies and institutions to keep us moving.

In order to keep swimming, we have to remember how to swim for that’s our core strength.  It’s permanent, or you drown.  Whether swimming or pondering a thriving future we have to remember what is permanent about Unitarian Universalism and hang on to it.  What’s permanent? 

  • Our commitment to principled living and theology without dogma.
  • Our dedication to reason and science alongside spiritual living.
  • Our passion for making the world a little better.
  • Our efforts to be radically inclusive and loving.
  • Our community of love and concern.

That’s what we have to hang onto.  The way we describe it changes from time to time with Vision statements and such, but the core remains the same. Everything else can change.  The water keeps swirling, the current keeps shifting.  

Change is a fact.  Accepting that gracefully – I’m speaking to the elders – is perhaps the best contribution we have left to make.  We can remind the younger and newer people of the permanent bits while understanding that they will probably change the transient parts, even the parts that we love.

That is okay. We have done that before, many times. I am retiring in part because of something I noted 30 years ago.  As I was just getting started, Unitarian Universalism was moving away from the strongly humanist and somewhat austere religion it had been for some time.  My generation was rediscovering spirituality, paganism was making its first appearance.  Words like ‘sermon and prayer’ were coming back into vogue.  At our minister’s retreats I was aware of the old (mostly) boys sitting back and feeling increasingly irrelevant.  Church was moving and leaving them behind.  But they understood and stepped back gracefully.  I resolved then, that when I began to feel that way it would be time to hang it up.  Awhile ago, I began to notice.  My church was moving in a new direction that did not include me or my ways so much.  And that’s okay.

This is not a whiny statement.  It’s an understanding that to everything there is a season and my cohort’s is over.  We had our turn at leadership and did our best.  It’s now time to pass the torch graciously recognizing that others will lead differently, address different issues, use different tools.  That’s the way it is.  They are adapting the faith I love to the culture I increasingly don’t fully understand.  But that’s how we can get towards a thriving future.  

In that future we also has to find ways to reach out to a youth and young adult society that often feels as disenfranchised as we elders do.  They aren’t sure of their place in Canada or in a place like a Unitarian Church.  At least elders have good memories and know where to find the coffee and the washrooms.  The changing leadership rightly has to focus on helping the younger folks feel at home here.  That’s partly the work of the elders too.  We can’t stand around waiting.  We have to reach out to them as they arrive.

As I start to step back from active ministry, I do wish to point out, as gently as I can, a concern not for where we are going, but for how we might try to get there.  I am an old style liberal, meaning someone who wants to hear both sides of a story, who prefers rational discussion to fiery rhetoric, who looks for the middle ground of compromise.  The middle ground is not a popular place these days.  I think we are losing sight of some core truths, one in particular that has guided my life.  To borrow the words of Jeremy Bentham (as paraphrased by Mr. Spock), “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.”

Now Unitarians are are good hearted, passionate and compassionate people. We want to improve the world and struggle on the side of love and justice. That’s a good thing, part of our permanence.

But I am concerned that we, and much of the left has become so microscopically engaged in very particular social issues that we are losing sight of larger goals.   Many have become so focused on the injustices done to the few that we are in danger of losing sight of the big issues that affect the many, like climate change, racism and economic injustice.  I worry that this may dilute our efforts.  A divided left is the very top item of the right wing’s Christmas list.

How we will manage each social ill affecting the few while keeping our eyes on the larger goals affecting the many is not clear to me.  But we will have to work that out or face a long period of reactionary government and economic oppression.  Divided, we will fall. 

There is a thriving future out there.  I have great faith in that because the world needs our voice.  Our young people need safe places to explore and grow their social consciousness and work out their spiritual values.  

Liberal people of all ages need to find a home where they can rest, restore and reaffirm their core principles.  That part of our church is permanent.  How it will manifest in generations ahead, well that will be transient, because ours is a tradition that adapts to the needs of the time. 

As we swim towards that thriving future please remember this:

Unitarian Universalism speaks to a larger part of the population than will ever walk through our doors. We have good values deserve to be celebrated and revered.  The permanent part us is worthy.  Keep it alive.

Then, work to adapt and package our clear and consistent message in a way that can be heard by the people who most need it. 

If this means changing services, ministry, church structures, then do it.  Do it boldly.  Do it with courage.  This tradition, this faith, deserves your passion and your energy.  Make this religion your own and share it with everyone you can.  That’s the way towards a thriving future.