Spirit-Filled Risk! (a Sermon for the Annual Appeal)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Religion at its best is no friend of the status quo,” says Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Dan Hotchkiss. “Religion transforms people; no one touches holy ground and stays the same.” [1] And not only does religion transform people, but, at least in this congregation, we expect people to transform our religious experience and practice. We are very explicit about this when we welcome new members into the congregation as we are doing this morning. We say “shake us up with your ideas … stir us up with your conscience … inspire us with your actions, and … stimulate our hopes with your dreams of what life can be.”[2] Let the religion do something good and new in your life, and bring something good and new to the life of the religion. The result is change, transformation, metamorphosis, innovation, growth. The status quo doesn’t stand a chance!

Or does it?

Religion is a collective endeavor. We conduct our religious lives together. And when people do things together, they require some system of organization. They require institutions. “Organization,” says Rev. Hotchkiss, “conserves. Institutions capture, schematize, and codify persistent patterns of activity…. A well-ordered congregation lays down schedules, puts policies on paper, places people in positions, and generally brings order out of chaos.”[3] Perhaps the status quo isn’t in such great jeopardy after all.

It’s a paradox. On one hand, change and transformation. On the other, the inherent conservatism of institutions. Both sides work together. Hotchkiss says, “The stability of a religious institution is necessary for the instability that religious transformation brings.”[4]

This paradox is nowhere more apparent to me than when we ask you, the members and friends of the congregation, to make your annual financial pledge. Like virtually any congregation, and any small, member-based non-profit, we need the steady flow of your generous financial gifts to provide fair salaries and benefits to our staff, to pay for insurance and utilities, to pay our annual dues to the Unitarian Universalist Association, to run our programs, to purchase supplies. Organizational stuff. Institutional stuff.

Yet, what we strive to offer you in return goes far beyond organizational stuff. We strive to offer life-giving, life-enabling, life-empowering, and in some cases, life-saving, spiritual support, sustenance and challenge, so that each of us individually—and all of us collectively—can live as our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to live, and thereby continually transform ourselves, this congregation and the wider world in positive ways. It’s a tall order. We don’t always achieve what we set out to achieve. But that’s what we strive to offer. There’s the paradox: we raise money to maintain institutional stability. We offer ministries that we hope bring change and transformation which, at their best, invite some degree of instability.

Any attempt we make to create a new program or a new staff position, to adopt new energy-efficient technologies or environmentally-friendly practices, to make new social justice commitments, to add new textures in worship, to evolve our emergency plan, to add new adult courses or new models for children’s religious education—any time we move away from the relative comfort of what we know, to the relative discomfort of something new, there is always some degree of risk. It’s not just that we might fail to do what we’re trying to do—that risk is always present. Entering into something new is risky because we might succeed, and success means change.

Our work for marriage equality in the mid-2000s, and for transgender anti-discrimination laws in the late 2000s, changed us. Our commitment to becoming a certified Green Sanctuary changed us. Our building project eight years ago changed us. Our commitment to building a truly multigenerational spiritual community has changed us. Our partnership with Moral Monday Connecticut and our commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement has changed us. Sometimes the changes aren’t so obvious. Sometimes they’re incremental; they come slowly. Sometimes making a commitment is only the beginning of a journey. Sometimes the change begins to happen, but we don’t do the work of sustaining it, and we begin to slide back to the way things ‘used to be.’ But regardless of the pace, whatever changes us demands that we encounter ourselves, our congregation and our community differently. Such encounter expands our knowledge, our consciousness, our world-view, our relationships, our boundaries. For me, such encounter is deeply spiritual. For me, the risks we take as a congregation are spirit-filled risks.

Even when we appear to be wisely maintaining our institution, paying salaries, insurance premiums, utility bills, running our programs—institutional stuff—we are simultaneously taking spirit-filled risks.

Perhaps the most significant goal the Policy Board has set for this year’s annual appeal is creating and hiring a Membership Coordinator. Creating a new position is always risky. It changes the fabric of the congregation. But we’re going for it this year. Our Growth Team and the Policy Board have been exploring and implementing a variety of strategies to grow our congregation—spiritual growth, membership growth, financial growth, and growth of our visibility in the wider community. But so many indicators point to the need for a staff member to focus on the deeper, sometimes intangible aspects of membership that go beyond the capacity, training and hours of our already very committed and involved Membership Committee volunteers.

Membership Coordinators are responsible for connecting with visitors to the congregation, and helping them discern whether membership is right for them. They also help increase opportunities for member engagement in congregational activities such as small group ministries, circle groups, adult religious education, social justice work, etc. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country report that hiring a Membership Coordinator not only leads to growth in membership and financial giving, but also increases opportunities for spiritual growth, learning and connection among members. It’s risky. It might not work. It might not have the impact we want it to have.

But what if it does work? We’ve been growing very slowly over the years, but what if  people start joining UUS:E at a higher rate? What if more people start finding opportunities for spiritual growth, connection, and learning here? What if more people have opportunities to share their stories, to be vulnerable with each other, to offer care and support in times of crisis? What if more people discover and take to heart the Unitarian Universalist principles, the central idea of the free church, the notion of the prophethood and the priesthood of all believers, the old Universalist idea that all are worthy of love? What if more people discover and take to heart the social and environmental justice commitments of this congregation and our denomination? What if twenty-five more people join us through the course of a year? What if fifty more people join us? What if a hundred more people join us? What if we have to add a third service on Sunday afternoons? What if we had the excruciating problem of having to find room for more parking spaces? What if we could realistically explore planting a new Unitarian Universalist congregation in downtown Manchester? It would be disruptive. It would be transformative. We would not be the same congregation we are now. I say that’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

I hope and trust most of you know that a group of UUS:E members feel so strongly about taking this spirit-filled risk, that they have created a giving challenge. For every one of us who increases our annual pledge between 5% and 10%, they will match the increase. I am deeply appreciative of the generosity of Larry Lunden, Rob and Tammy Stolzman, Fred and Phil Sawyer, and another family who wishes to remain anonymous. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

In the current year, and in the coming year, we are investing money in the long-term growth of our youth program. Some of you know that for years we’ve struggled to maintain a vibrant youth program. Many congregations in many denominations report similar experiences. This struggle is confounding to me. It is heart-breaking. The teenage years are some of the most vulnerable, turbulent, confusing—and hopefully fun and enjoyable—years of anyone’s life. Youth benefit immensely from ministries geared toward them. I know I benefitted immensely from my UU youth group as a teenager, so much so that I can’t imagine being the person I am today without having had that experience. Youth need places to ask questions, to wrestle with difficult decisions, to process feelings, to be affirmed and held and loved as budding adults; but also to have clear boundaries set for them, to learn responsibility, community service, and leadership skills. If I ever leave this position of minister at UUS:E, and we have not turned our youth ministry into a vibrant, life-giving, life-saving ministry, I will count it as my greatest failure.

What if, in time, our youth, and their friends, and even youth they barely know but who heard them talking about our youth ministry—really wanted to be here, wanted to participate in our Sunday services and our social and environmental justice work, wanted to hang out here, felt safe and supported here, had some of their most important friendships here, knew thirty adults besides their parents by name—and those adults knew them by name and could help them find after-school jobs or internships and could write college recommendations for them? What if that one kid who was sad—maybe that gay kid, that trans kid, that queer kid—who didn’t feel affirmed at home or at school—and was contemplating self-harm—actually found this church and discovered that incredible gift—that they matter, that people care about them, that they have a wonderful future ahead of them? What if that one kid, lost, struggling, possibly abused—that one kid falling through the cracks in the system, capable of great violence—actually found this place, and discovered that incredible gift—that they matter, that people care about them, that they have a wonderful future ahead of them?

What if we had that kind of youth program? It would be disruptive. It would change us. It would transform us. I say that’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

The UUS:E Music Committee and the Policy Board are beginning to talk about an expansion of our music program. What if, in time, we had more opportunities for members and friends to explore music as a spiritual practice? More hymn sings, more kirtans, more singing circles, more small performance groups, chamber groups, jazz, rock, and gospel groups? What if we had a true concert series with a diverse array of cutting-edge, multicultural artists performing at UUS:E on a regular basis? And what if we expanded that out to include visual arts, dance, theater, comedy, story-telling—all geared toward exploring those very compelling and life-giving connections between the arts and spirituality, the arts and mystical experience, the arts and social justice, the arts and environmental stewardship?

What if we had that kind of music program? It would be disruptive. It would change and transform us. I say that’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking!

We’re about to begin a congregation-wide conversation on becoming a sanctuary congregation. This doesn’t have an immediate financial implication for us, but it certainly could in future. While becoming a sanctuary congregation could mean many things, perhaps the most salient question is whether we will offer physical sanctuary to a person or a family who is seeking to avoid deportation. What if we were to do that? What if we said to an undocumented parent and grandparent of United States citizens—a worker, a taxpayer, a provider who was nevertheless facing deportation—“Come, live with us until your legal status can be worked out?” Or, in the words of the Rev. Kathleen McTigue, which opened our service this morning, “You who are fearful, who live with shadows / hovering over your shoulders, / come in. / This place is sanctuary, and it is for you.”[5]

Like so many Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country who have already provided sanctuary, it would be a clear demonstration of our second principle, “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” in action. And it would be disruptive. It would change and transform us. Given the need in the nation right now, given the unconscionable lack of compassion on display in Washington, DC these days, given the injustices of our current immigration system, I say it is a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

We’re also exploring becoming a founding member of a new Greater Hartford interfaith organization. What if we are successful? What if we help found a new interfaith coalition that has forty or fifty congregational members, all of them committed to working together across lines of faith, race, class and geography to build a more just and loving greater Hartford and state of Connecticut? What if we build deep relationships with other people of faith across the region? What if we join together with them, discern our common values, our common ground, our common commitments, our common longings, and then set to work, organizing, advocating, lobbying, testifying, marching, singing, praying and, most importantly, building the power capable of making substantive, lasting social change—building that rare kind of faith-based social, economic and political power that we will simply never have on our own? This is not some idealistic, liberal fantasy. This can really happen.

I say it’s a spirit-filled risk worth taking.

New ideas are risky. Change is risky. Upsetting the status quo is risky. Inviting the instability of transformation is risky. But in the end, taking spirit-filled risks is what makes congregations come alive, makes them thrive, enables them to achieve their vision.

Our annual appeal has begun. When your steward contacts you, please follow up with them quickly. Yes, we are asking each of us to make as generous a financial pledge as possible for the coming year. We are asking so that we can maintain institutional and organization stability, pay salaries, bills, etc. But please know that every dollar you give to UUS:E also funds a life-giving, life-enabling, life-empowering, and in some cases, life-saving, spirit-filled risk. Thank you for your generosity.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Hotchkiss, Dan, “The Paradox of Organized Religion,” Bless the Imperfect: Meditations or Congregational Leaders (Boston: Skinner House, 2014) p. 34.

[2] This language comes from the UUS:E “New Member Welcome.”

[3] Hotchkiss, “Paradox,” p. 34.

[4] Hotchkiss, “Paradox,” p. 34.

[5] McTigue, Kathleen, “This Place is Sanctuary,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations(Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 54.

March Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Our annual appeal begins in March. For those of you who are new to Unitarian Universalist Society: East, the Annual Appeal is our opportunity to reflect on the value of UUS:E in our lives and to make a corresponding financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. Because the vast majority of our operating funds come from the financial gifts of members and friends, this is the most significant fundraiser in the life of our congregation. I urge all of you to begin thinking about the role UUS:E plays in your life. Then, if you haven’t done so already, please sign up for one of the Annual Appeal potluck dinners. (Sign-up sheets will be available following Sunday services in March.) And as always, if a steward contacts you to meet about your pledge, please respond to them as soon as possible. They are volunteers and we deeply appreciate their work on behalf of our congregation’s financial health.

As in every new year, there are many factors that drive increases in our proposed budget—changes in insurance, cost-of-living adjustments for our staff, and expansion of our programs, to name just a few. This year the UUS:E Growth Team, the Policy Board, and I are all in agreement that it’s time for UUS:E to hire a part-time Membership Coordinator (MC). MCs are staff members who are responsible for tracking visitors to UUS:E and helping them discern whether membership is right for them. MCs also help foster engagement of members and friends in congregational activities such as small group ministries, circle groups, adult religious education, social justice work, etc. Many UU congregations around the country who have hired MCs report not only increases in membership and financial giving, but increases in spiritual growth among members. Of course, there is a cost associated with such a hire. It’s always risky to try to increase the size of a church staff. But I feel strongly this is a risk worth taking—a spirit-filled risk!

I’m not the only one who feels this way. This year, a group of members who also feel very committed to reaching this goal have established a challenge fund. For any member or friend who increases their annual pledge from anywhere between 5% and 10%, the fund will match an amount equal to your increase. I deeply appreciate the generosity of these members, and I hope you’ll take them up on their offer!

Here’s my challenge: The tenth person who sends me a note at revpawelek@gmail.com, or leaves me a message at 860-652-8961 and tells me 1) three things they love about UUS:E, and 2) that they are increasing their pledge by at least 5%—that person will get a breakfast, lunch or dinner on me!

There are so many good things happening at UUS:E. We’re actively exploring what it means to become a Sanctuary Congregation. We’re actively exploring joining a new Greater Hartford interfaith coalition. We’re taking very intentional steps to improve our emergency management procedures and make our building safe. We’re formally establishing a UUS:E concert series. We’re crafting a new vision statement. Please take seriously the question: “What does UUS:E mean to you?” And please make as generous a pledge as possible for the coming year.

With love,

–Rev. Josh

Your Money and Your Life (the Sequel)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Look closely. There is always an opportunity to practice generosity. There is always a chance, no matter what burden we carry, to give of ourselves. The more I reflect on this truth, the more I realize that being fully human—being whole—demands that we practice generosity. Our hearts are meant to be open, spacious, and roomy. Our hands are meant to help. Our goodness, compassion and love are meant to pour out. An open and generous heart is the hallmark of a well-lived spiritual life. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the highest outward manifestations of any religion is generosity! When we take our Unitarian Universalist principles seriously, when we let them guide our living, generosity is the natural outcome.

Those are, with some adaptation, words from a sermon I preached in 2003, entitled, “Your Money and Your Life.” It was a sermon about giving money to the church. It was about tithing, about giving a certain percentage of your money to the church. It was ambitious for the newly installed minister who had only been on the job for four months to preach about tithing to Unitarian Universalists who historically and generally speaking have been wary of the concept and, frankly, have been somewhat reserved—especially in New England—when it comes to asking for money. Well friends, I am still ambitious, not only for myself and my values, not only  for our congregation and its mission, but for Unitarian Universalism and its capacity to change the world. And because I am ambitious I want to revisit that sermon from 2003, especially the part about tithing. We launch our 2016 Annual Appeal this weekend. The Policy Board, with my support, has set an ambitious goal—an increase of 6% over last year—and I’m feeling ambitious, which really means I’m feeling incredibly positive, hopeful, excited and joyful about our ability to raise the money we need to provide great worship, great religious education for children, youth and adults, great pastoral care, great opportunities for connecting and building community, great social and environmental justice activism, great leadership development, great concerts, art shows and guest speakers.

When I began my ministry I was clueless about congregational fundraising. There were courses about fundraising in seminary, but I didn’t pay attention. Some people love fundraising, but there’s something in me that cringes when it comes to asking for money. It didn’t help that the congregation I served as a student had a nearly $10 million endowment at the time (this was during the dot-com bubble). The interest from that endowment, along with a number of very lucrative rental agreements, provided annual revenues far above what the congregation’s members and friends were giving every year. Stephany and I were living on her part-time salary in those years. We felt we had no money to give to the church, and nobody asked us. I learned a lot during those years, and I am forever grateful for what I learned; but I didn’t learn how to do fundraising and, even more importantly, I didn’t learn the value of making a financial gift to the congregation I love.

It wasn’t until a few years after seminary that I attended a workshop by a Unitarian Universalist fundraising consultant named Mike Durall. I remember him making a distinction between low expectation and high expectation congregations. High expectation congregations ask their members and friends to make a commitment. Low expectation congregations don’t High expectation congregations have a strong vision for their future. Low expectation congregations don’t. High expectation congregations talk about money, and directly ask their members and friends to tithe. Low expectation congregations don’t. Durall said he found it difficult to work with Unitarian Universalist congregations because so often he experienced them as low expectation congregations. He liked working with High Expectation congregations like the Mormons. He said we could learn a lot from the Mormons.

I had two transformative insights that day. One had to do with how I conduct my ministry. I realized that I was setting low expectations. I was operating as if my job as a minister is to set an example of what it means to be a committed Unitarian Universalist, and then trust that people would just naturally follow my example, and naturally they would all want to do that. That assumption was misinformed for a number of reasons. First, just setting an example and leaving it up to lay people to decide whether or not to follow without actually inviting them to follow is about the lowest expectation one can set. If I want people to do something, I need to motivate them to do something. I need to invite, ask, arm-twist, cajole, organize, empower. Furthermore, as a staff member with a seminary education and the title Rev. in front of my name, there are ways of being a Unitarian Universalist that I can pursue precisely because my job gives me the authority and the time to do so. Lay people who have rich, busy, and often demanding lives outside the congregation, in so many instances, can’t follow my example even if they want to. Thus my role as a minister is not to set an example for everyone to follow, but rather to work with people to discern what being a committed Unitarian Universalist means to them, asking them directly to make that commitment, and then supporting them in keeping that commitment.

The second insight had to do with money—my money specifically. Mike Durall said, essentially, your congregation ought to be the place in your life that expresses your highest, dearest, deepest values. It ought to be the place you come back to week after week to hear those values proclaimed in a world that is in so many ways antagonistic to them. It ought to be the place that helps you keep those values at the center of your life. “Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve,” said Howard Thurman, “that in good times and in tempests, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.”[1] Church ought to do that for you. And then Durall asked, what’s a church like that worth? I knew the answer in my bones: it is worth everything. Our highest, dearest, deepest values matter immensely. Shouldn’t we have the highest expectations possible of the institution we ask to uphold, proclaim and act on those values? “Yes, yes, yes,” I shouted out. Others did too. And shouldn’t that institution have high expectations of us as well? Shouldn’t it elevate us, raise us up? Shouldn’t it call on us to bring those values into the world every day of our lives? “Yes, yes, yes.” And if we’re going to have high expectations of our beloved church, shouldn’t we be giving as generously as possible so that the church can do what we need it to do?” “Yes, yes, yes!”

But then, to myself: “Ohhh, wait a minute. Something is wrong here. I am an ordained, fellowshipped Unitarian Universalist minister. I have just completed a nearly $50,000 graduate degree in order to become a minister. I am dedicating my life to Unitarian Universalism and the congregations I serve. I expect Unitarian Universalist congregations to be there for my children and grandchildren, to provide them with the same, open-minded, spiritually-grounded, justice-seeking religious education I was blessed to receive as a child. I am relying on Unitarian Universalism to participate in and, when necessary, lead the national conversations on environmental justice, racial justice, economic justice, gender justice, marriage equality. I am counting on Unitarian Universalism to be there for all the milestones in my family’s life—births, dedications, affirmations, marriages, deaths. When I die I fully expect a Unitarian Universalist minister will officiate my memorial service. I look to Unitarian Universalism to elevate me, to raise me up. I proudly proclaim myself a Unitarian Universalist. My life depends on this, and yet I am giving less than half a percent of my annual income to the church.” This utter disconnect hit me so hard I had to leave the room to collect myself. My expectations of myself changed radically that day, from low to high. I am forever grateful to Mike Durall for challenging me to rethink my financial commitment to my beloved faith.

I’m reminded of an old image—I suppose it’s from old movies: the robber sneaks up from behind and says, “your money or your life!” It’s always presented as a choice: your money or your life. But we know that’s not what the robber means. The robber is not saying, “either give me all your money, or let me kill you, and in that case you can keep your money.” The robber doesn’t actually separate our money out from our lives. And similarly, we cannot talk authentically about generous living without talking about money. It’s not a real choice. So let’s transform the image. If generosity—including financial generosity—is the hallmark of a well-lived spiritual life, then I reason that our capacity to be generous gives us greater life! Our capacity to give of our money is part of what makes us whole. It is not a choice—our money or our life. It is a shift in perspective: through generosity we live our lives to their fullest; we become fully human; we fulfill the promise of our principles. Our money and our life.

Most of you know what tithing is. I believe it originated in the Ancient Near East. It appears in the Hebrew book of Genesis as a tribute paid to a secular leader, an offering given to the priests and the temple, or as a gift given directly to God. The Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob both, at different times, pledge one tenth of everything they have. Abraham pledged one tenth to King Melchizidek of Salem after winning a battle. Jacob, in the story we heard earlier, pledged one tenth to God after God visits him in a dream. But tithes are not always one tenth. Often the amount isn’t specified. In the Christian New Testament, as far as I can tell, there is no mandate to share one tenth, though there are many admonishments to give freely, promises that the giver shall be rewarded, and reminders that God loves a cheerful giver.

I don’t think Unitarian Universalists will ever become like the Mormons. It certainly isn’t likely that our congregation will establish a formal expectation of tithing. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have high expectations. We do. We ask that you consider what it would mean to give a certain percentage of your income or wealth to UUS:E every year. What would it mean to give 10%? What would it mean to give 7%, 5%, 3%? Can you commit to a certain percentage every year? And can you commit to increasing that percentage over time? This is important to me, because a congregation whose members tithe can be very powerful—can provide any ministry, serve any constituency, offer any program, achieve any vision. Anything. And by my best guess—and I think this is conservative—if every single one of us tithed at 10%, our annual congregational income would be over $1.5 million. That’s exciting to contemplate! Dream with me for a moment. Our mortgage would be gone! Our endowment could grow by a few hundred thousand dollars every year with no extra appeals. We would have money abundantly available to members who fall on financial hard times. We could fill all our staffing needs and pay excellent salaries and benefits. And imagine how our values could be put to work in the wider world, by making generous grants to organizations and people in the community whose work is consistent with UU principles, by founding new service organizations to meet unmet needs, and by supporting social and environmental justice campaigns that change the world. And we would never have to do another extra fundraiser!

I am dreaming. So let’s make it a little more realistic. Let’s cut back from 10% to 5%, a half tithe. What if we raised around $750,000 dollars every year? Every piece of the dream I just named would still be entirely possible—on a smaller scale, yes, but entirely possible. I think it’s worth dreaming. And I think it’s worth asking “What is it worth?” That’s our theme for this year’s appeal. What is it worth? That church that affirms your values, proclaims your values, acts on your values, and calls you to do that same—what is it worth? That church that offers a safe and familiar place to rest, to breathe, to heal, to rejuvenate, to connect, to commune—what is it worth? That church that offers a challenging place to question, to reason, to think and rethink, to feel, to intuit, to grow—what is it worth? That church that strives to provide your children and grandchildren with religious learning opportunities not through the rote memorization of catechisms and insinuations of guilt, but through experiences of wonder and awe, comfort, love, trust, gratitude and joy—what is it worth? That church that responds when you or your family are in crisis and need a helping hand, a supportive presence, a ride, a meal, a prayer, a conversation, a memorial service—what is it worth? That church that puts itself out there and fights in a principled, respectful way for economic justice, gender justice, racial justice, environmental justice—what is it worth? That church that keeps fresh before you the moments of your High Resolve, so that in good times and in tempests, you will not forget that to which your life is committed”[2]—what is it worth?

I know 5% is unrealistic for many. Even in good economic times, 5% is hard to imagine. And that is why we don’t formally ask anyone to tithe. It’s ultimately a personal and private decision on your part. Stephany and I have pledged $6,000 to UUS:E this year, which is just short of 5% of our adjusted gross income from last year. Many of you strive to tithe—3%, 5%. Some higher. Thank you. And for those of you who don’t, I ask simply you consider what it would mean. What is it worth? We need you. We have high expectations. You have high expectations of UUS:E. And UUS:E has high expectations of you. Let’s have a great Annual Appeal. May our financial gifts be a measure of the high expectations we hold. May we give generously. May our money and our lives go hand in hand.

Amen and Blessed be.

[1] Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #498.

[2] Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #498.

Beloved (Multigenerational) Community

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In her December 2013 blog post, “The Power of Our Child Dedication Some Years Later,” Kim Paquette[1] says: “The beloved members of our [congregation] had been there for my children since before that child dedication ceremony, and had lived up to the promises they had made that day. This congregation took the time to get to know them. They have shared with them, learned from and with them, and have shown them love and respect. The congregation had done this in such a way that it was obvious to my children. My kids feel a part of their spiritual community, and in their time of need, thought to turn there first for support.”[2]

In traditional religious language, Kim is testifying. She’s offering testimony about her congregation’s power, presence and love in her family’s life. It’s not testimony about a perfect congregation, or a perfect family attending a perfect congregation. It’s not testimony about a great religious education program, or a wonderful, thought-provoking sermon, or a profoundly moving worship service, or building a remarkably green building.  It’s not testimony about a congregation that has figured out how to provide high quality ministry to a diverse community of families, children, youth, adults and elders. It’s not testimony about ministering in an era of rapid social change, unprecedented technological growth, deep economic stress, and ongoing, potentially catastrophic environmental challenges. It’s testimony about being held, nurtured, seen. It’s testimony about an experience of mattering. It’s testimony about what we may rightfully call beloved community.

As we officially kick off our 2014 annual appeal; as we ask every member and friend of this congregation to make a financial pledge for the coming fiscal year; as we live for a while with the questions “Why give?” “How much do I give?” and “What does this congregation mean to me?” it is my sincere hope that each of you can recall an experience in your life—perhaps many years ago, perhaps more recently—when you felt you mattered here; when you felt this congregation holding you, nurturing you, seeing you, loving you. It is my sincere hope that each of you can say with confidence that you know something of what it means to be in beloved community, because you’ve found it here. It is my sincere hope that each of you could, if called upon, testify about the power, presence and love of this congregation at some moment in your life. Even those who are new: I sincerely hope you can sense the possibility of finding beloved community here. Because it is here.

In recent weeks there have been no better examples of this than the many ways in which members and friends of our congregation have been present, supportive and loving to people facing life-altering and possibly life-ending medical crises. I’ve been so deeply moved by and so deeply grateful for those of you who wrapped yourselves around Jean Dunn and her family in the final days of her life; those of you who’ve wrapped yourselves around Rhona Cohen and her family after her heart attack nearly four weeks ago; those of you who’ve wrapped yourselves around Jake and Fran VanSchaick since Jake’s recent cancer diagnosis. And that’s just the beginning of the list. This “wrapping around” happens here. Most often it happens organically. Sometimes we arrange it through our Pastoral Care Committee. It’s something I value and admire about this congregation. With your actions even more than your words, you communicate to fellow members and friends facing difficult times: “You’re not alone. We’re here for you. We’ll go through this crisis with you. We’re committed.”

Of course our beloved community is not limited to the people who gather within these walls. It reaches out into the wider world. An example is the story some of you have heard me tell about Mark Reid, a Jamaican immigrant, a forty-year permanent legal resident of the United States, an honorably-discharged veteran of the United States Army—though not a US citizen. Mark got into trouble with the law in New Haven. He committed a series of crimes, mostly drug related, mostly driven by substance-use disorder. He went to jail. The problem is, when you’re not a citizen, even the smallest crimes can result in deportation. And that’s exactly what started to happen. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, put a detainer on Mark. Once he served his time for his drug offenses, instead of being released back into the community ICE detained him and moved him to a federal detention center in Greenfield, MA. He came to my attention when a veterans’ rights worker referred him to me because she knew I and a number of members of this congregation had been involved in a successful effort to free a West Hartford man from ICE detention a year earlier. I talked about Mark’s situation with our UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee and they were supportive of me working with him and his legal team. I won’t give any more details of Mark’s case here, except to say that he recently posted bond after 18 months of detainment. His case isn’t over—he might still be deported—but he’s free for now.

A week ago Mark and I were doing an interview for a Yale Law School documentary on the case. The interviewer asked Mark to describe me. Mark said, essentially, “I was desperate for anyone to help. I thought I was all alone. When I contacted Rev. Pawelek I didn’t have high hopes. He had no reason to help me. But he said he was with me, that he was committed to me, that he wasn’t going to let me go through this alone. At first I didn’t believe him. How could he really mean it? But he meant it. He never gave up on me, and I couldn’t have gotten here without him.” When I heard him say this I was touched and, frankly, proud of myself for having had such an impact on someone’s life, especially someone whom I felt had experienced an injustice. But what I know—and what I hope you know—is that Mark isn’t just experiencing my ministry. He’s experiencing our beloved community. He’s experiencing our congregational values, our practices, our caring and compassion. There’s a beautiful and compelling spirit here that I witness in the way you treat each other, the way you care for each other in times of crisis, the way you make real the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That spirit inspires and enables me not only to nurture and sustain it here at 153 West Vernon St., but to act on it in the wider world. Our beloved community has an impact well beyond these walls.

Having said that, I’m not suggesting that an experience of beloved community here means the congregation is perfect, that it makes no mistakes, that it has never let you down. One of the risks of being a congregation, of being in covenant with each other, of being vulnerable in each other’s presence—of being human together—is that we inevitably discover we are not perfect, we make mistakes, we let each other down. But we take the risk anyways: we enter into community. And when we let each other down, we agree to begin again in love.[3]

And I’m not suggesting that an experience of beloved community here means you’ve never disagreed with something I’ve said, or something another lay-person has said, or that there has never been conflict, or that there’ve never been stressful times. One of the risks of being a congregation is that we will inevitably disagree, sometimes strongly. But we take the risk anyways: we enter into community, knowing we may disagree, but also trusting we can begin again in love.

And I’m not suggesting that an experience of beloved community here means you’ve never felt like you were giving more than you were getting, that you’ve never felt burned out and in need of a break, or that you’ve never felt like you needed something but didn’t receive it. One of the risks of being a congregation is that we will feel these ways from time to time. Even in the most healthy, welcoming, inclusive, loving spiritual communities, all these things are not only possible, they are predictable. But what enables me to say with confidence that the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East is a beloved community, is that I have seen us time and time again take the risk anyways and begin again in love.

When it comes time for you to determine your financial pledge for the coming year, I hope and trust you can recall those times when you felt held, nurtured, seen by this congregation—when you felt this congregation wrapping itself around you in a moment of challenge, or perhaps when you felt yourself wrapping around someone else in their moment of challenge. I hope you can recall those times when you felt the power, the presence and the love of this congregation in your life, the life of your family, or the lives of others beyond these walls. Regardless of anything else we might try to accomplish as a congregation; regardless of any goals we might set, any strategic plan we might develop, any new program we might launch, this is the basic role of the congregation: to hold each other, to nurture each other, to see each other. I urge you: let your experience of this holding, nurturing, seeing be part of your answer to the question: “Why give generously to UUS:E?”

And yet, we do need to manage our institution beyond this basic role of the church. We do need to set goals, engage in strategic planning, launch new programs. We need to think about growth. We need to pay bills. This is also why we give. With that in mind I want to say a few words about our primary goal in this year’s annual appeal—which will likely be our primary goal over the next few years: making a successful transition to a new professional religious educator and a new religious education program for children and youth. Because our long-time Director of Religious Education (DRE), Vicki Merriam, is retiring at the end of June after approximately 35 years of service, we are entering a period of huge change, transition, restructuring; a period of learning and innovating, out-of-the-box thinking, creativity and risk-taking. If we take this time of transition seriously, if we rise to the challenge of surrendering how we’ve always done things in order of make room for new possibilities, if we can live for a while with ambiguity, with not knowing exactly what the future holds, we will transition successfully. Of course, there is no perfect transition. We are also entering a period with many opportunities for mistakes, failures, conflict, letting each other down, disappointing each other and, as always, beginning again in love. We are on the verge of something big.

In a very concrete way, your generous financial gift to UUS:E this year helps us insure we can hire the best candidate possible as our Interim DRE for the next 12 to 24 months. Let me remind you we have a search committee in place and they are beginning to receive applications. The Personnel Committee is responsible for determining final salary and benefits. The Policy Board is responsible for hiring the candidate the search committee recommends. I am responsible for orienting and supervising this new staff member. The Religious Education Committee is responsible for working with the Interim DRE to run our religious education program during the transition and to help lay the groundwork for hiring a permanent DRE and launching an exciting new program over the next three years. So, a variety of people have specific jobs related to this transition. But what about everyone else? What about us collectively? Don’t we have some responsibility as a congregation to do whatever we can to assure the success of this transition?

We do. And certainly part of our collective role in this success is to continue and expand our generous financial giving. But this is not just about investing financially to achieve our vision. It’s about investing our whole selves in achieving our vision of a religious education program that not only “provides a solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists,” but also “fosters the connection and commitment of all UUS:E members and friends to our beloved multigenerational community.”[4] We need every member and friend involved. As with our recent building campaign, it’s an all hands on deck moment.

I suppose on one level it starts with discerning how adults can support the religious education program. Can you teach a class? Can you mentor a youth? Can you organize supplies, provide nursery child-care, chaperone a trip, help with a fundraiser? These are some of the traditional ways adults have invested their time. But given the way children’s lives are changing and family life in general is changing in US culture, we’re recognizing that the traditional ways will not be enough. What if it became part of our culture to support our children in their various events outside of UUS:E? When a child in the congregation is playing in a sporting event, will you sign up to be a fan at that event? Will you go to the field and cheer? Or when a child is in a play at school, will you attend the play? When a child is in a concert, will you attend the concert? This already happens to some extent, but what if it became a congregational practice? It’s just one idea. There are many more.

Can you commit to holding yourself open to all the ways in which our congregation may change in order to achieve this vision? I ask because we can anticipate changes in how we worship, how we manage our schedules, when we hold meetings, how we use technology. Can you unleash your creative energies during this time of transition? Can you be a learner? Can you be a risk-taker? Can you be a thought leader? Can you imagine multigenerational activities we’ve never imagined before? Can you help to organize those activities? Can you learn the names and faces of twenty children and youth in this congregation? How about thirty? Forty? Why stop there? There are more than 90 kids registered. Can you wrap yourself around our religious education program in whatever ways make the most sense to you. Can all our children be seen and known in the way Kim Paquette describes? I think we can do this. And if we do, here’s what I know: When we see and know our children, they see and know us. When we wrap ourselves around them, they will wrap themselves around us, around this congregation, around Unitarian Universalism. And that gets us back to that basic role of the church: holding, nurturing, seeing. That’s where it starts. That’s where a vibrant, loving multigenerational community starts. That’s where beloved community starts. Friends, let us start.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Kim Paquette is Director of Multigenerational Ministries for the Northern New England District of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

[2] Read Kim Paquette’s 12/19/13 blog post, “The Power of Our Child Dedication Ceremony Some Years Later,” at http://multigenministry.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/the-power-of-our-child-dedication-some-years-later/.

[3] Eller-Isaacs, Robert, “A Litany of Atonement,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #637.

[4] From the UUS:E “Future of Religious Education” vision statement, October, 2013.

For All That Is Our Life: A Stewardship Sermon

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

This coming week marks the anniversary of a milestone in my life and in the life of this congregation. Ten years ago this week, Wednesday, March 19th, 2003 is perhaps most memorable as the day the United States launched its invasion of Iraq—the second Gulf War. That same week, here in New England, spring was in the air after what had then been a record-setting winter—a record that more recent winters have obliterated. During that sunny, soggy week I changed the sermon I had planned to deliver here on Sunday, March 23rd. I preached instead on my concern about the invasion and what it suggested to me about a growing malignancy in the American character. I also shared my instinct that war is, in the end, an aberration—inconsistent with a greater peace that lies at the heart of Creation. That same day—March 23rd—the members of this congregation—many of you were there—voted unanimously to call me as your settled minister, the fourth settled minister in UUS:E’s then thirty-four year history. It was my first formal calling, a huge milestone in my life. So, for me—and I trust for you—this is a very significant anniversary week. Next Sunday, spring’s first Sunday in 2013, we begin our second decade of ministry tog

In September of that first year I preached a sermon called “Taking Time.” I want to share an excerpt with you because in it I invited us to peer ten years into the future—to now, to today. I asked those present to take a moment and imagine: what will this congregation be like [in 2013]? How might we have grown? Will the building be larger? Will there be more members? More children? Will we be a truly green sanctuary? Will we be fully accessible?

On Sunday mornings many of us will be here…. Our bodies will be ten years older, our hair perhaps grayer (if we still have any at all), our faces perhaps sporting a few more wrinkles. And some of us will not be here. This is perhaps the saddest part of imagining the future: for any number of reasons, some of us will no longer be here. Some will have died. I urge us not to shy away from this sad truth. [Instead, let’s take time] for saying goodbye to our loved-ones, for honoring their lives, for experiencing and expressing the fullness of our grief.

And then imagine the world in 2013. Will there still be a war on terror? Will there be gay marriage? Will there be a Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition? Will our towns and cities east of the river be thriving or declining?

There was much more, but that gives you a flavor. It was a sermon about beginning what we hoped would be a deep and lasting shared ministry, about not rushing the building of that ministry but taking our time. I said we need to take time so that time does not take us. But taking time—being thoughtful and patient—is not always our natural instinct, here or anywhere. So often, time seems to take us. We feel there is never enough time. We do tend to rush, to keep busy. For better or for worse—and it’s often worse—our larger culture affirms us in our rushing, our multi-tasking, our high productivity, even when the product is sub- standard. I can point to moments over the last decade when the work of this congregation has felt frenetic, frenzied, even overwhelming; when we felt as if we didn’t have enough time to do things well. And in such moments we were more likely to make mistakes, to not listen deeply to each other, to not bring our best selves to the process. Still, I think mostly we have heeded the advice in that sermon. We have taken our time. We’ve been patient and thoughtful. We’ve listened to each other, made good decisions. We’ve allowed things to come in their own season. And I believe we are better for it. Looking back over ten years, though I have some regrets, they are few and they are vastly overshadowed by the immense pride I take in what we’ve accomplished together. I am unapologetically proud. I am also humbled by the fondness and affection you continue to express for me. And I am filled with joy and excitement at the prospect of continuing this shared ministry into a second decade. From the deepest place in my heart I thank you.

Our ministry theme for March is inheritance. Two Sundays ago I spoke about our liberal spiritual inheritance, in particular the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the sacredness of all living things. I talked about a conflict we experience over the purpose of that principle in our spiritual lives. Do we come to church to hear that message and thereby experience our own liberation? Or do we come to church so that we may be sent back out into the world to engage in acts of liberation in the world. Ny answer was both. We come to receive the good news of our spiritual inheritance. And we come to be sent back out into the world.

That is one way to explore the theme of inheritance. I also reminded us that in March we begin our annual appeal, which also has something to do with inheritance. Last night was the kick-off celebration and this is my stewardship sermon. So, here’s my appeal. Please make the most generous financial gift possible to this congregation, not only to support its day-to-day functioning, but so that it can fulfill its mission and continue to thrive. In asking this, I’m mindful that we here today inherit this congregation from those who came before, from those who’ve given so generously over the years of their time, energy, talent and money to establish and grow this beacon of liberal religion here on beautiful Elm Hill in Manchester’s northeast corner east of the Connecticut River. I’m mindful that when we give our financial gifts to UUS:E we are ensuring that future generations will inherit this congregation from us, embrace its mission, continue its traditions, and keep the beacon burning brightly.

UUS:E

Having now been here now ten years, I can look back at our shared ministry and begin to envision what coming generations will inherit from us. And I love what I see. I asked in that 2003 sermon, will we have a larger building? I don’t think many of us took the idea seriously. Certainly none of us could imagine what we would go through to create this peaceful, elegant, efficient, holy space. But we took that risk, that leap of faith. We went through it. And now we have something tangible, beautiful and sacred to pass on to future generations.

In that sermon I asked, will we be a truly green sanctuary? Will the building be fully accessible? Well, over the past decade, green and accessible have become central features of our congregational identity. It’s not been easy. The work is ongoing. We still struggle to live fully into these identities. But they are part of who we are. They are wonderful expressions of our spiritual inheritance, of our good news that all people matter, that the earth matters. This, too, is something sacred we will pass on to future generations.

And of course our ministry has not only been about what happens here at 153 West Vernon St. We know the congregation, ultimately, is not the building; it’s the people and what they do with their spiritual inheritance. I asked in that sermon ten years ago, Will there be gay marriage?” Today we have marriage equality in Connecticut. Our congregation wasn’t responsible for the Supreme Court decision that gave us marriage equality, but keep in mind: no one person was responsible. We have marriage equality in Connecticut because there was a movement to achieve it. Tens of thousands of people participated in that movement. And members of this congregation were there all along the way. And when I said I would stop signing marriage licenses to protest discrimination, you supported me. When I agreed to take on the leadership of Connecticut Clergy for Marriage Equality, you supported me. When I was invited to speak at rallies and marches you came with me. We were part of a movement to change the hearts and minds of the people of Connecticut. We were part of a movement to change the culture of Connecticut from one that was, on the issue of same-sex relationships, closed-minded, conservative and at times mean-spirited, to one that was open, accepting and loving. We were part of that! We entered that movement grounded in our spiritual inheritance and now we have something precious, wonderful and sacred to pass on to future generations. I’m just scratching the surface of our shared ministry, but looking back I am filled with pride.

Our 2013 annual appeal has begun. It’s time to pledge our financial gifts for next year. Many of you have signed up for group stewarding. Others will meet one-on-one with a steward. When the steward contacts you, please respond to them quickly. They don’t mean to be pushy. They do what they do out of a deep love for this congregation, for Unitarian Universalism, and for our liberal spiritual inheritance. They want to hear from you not only about your financial contribution but about what this congregation and this faith mean to you. They’ll remind you about the goals for this year’s appeal. In many ways the goals are mundane; they relate to the healthy functioning of the church: we want to expand religious education opportunities, reduce our dependency on fundraisers, pay all staff according to Unitarian Universalist Association guidelines. There’s more. They are clear, concrete goals, but I’m also aware that annual appeal goals don’t—and really can’t—express the ways in which our ministry touches and transforms lives and leaves something lasting and holy for future generations to inherit.

What I hope we have done these past ten years, and what I fully expect we shall continue doing in the coming decade is to constantly proclaim in word and deed, within these walls and beyond them, a drum-beat of good news, that message that each person matters; that each of us has something of value to contribute; that each of our lives tells a story worth hearing; that there’s a river flowin’ in our souls and it’s tellin’ us we’re somebody; that each of us possesses inherent worth and dignity—meaning it’s in you, no one can take it away. Inherent, meaning not contingent on the color of your skin, or the money in your wallet, or who you love or how old you are; not contingent on whether you walk on your legs or roll in a wheelchair, or how you express your gender to the world, or what you do for work or whether you live in a home or on the street; and not contingent on what you believe, whether you pass some spiritual test or confess the right creed. Your worth is inherent. It’s universal. Here we celebrate it. It’s good and essential news in a world that tries in so many ways to crush the human spirit.

And of course the good news extends beyond people. Those solar panels on our south-facing roof? They’ll save us a lot of money on our electricity bill. But we know they make a much more profound statement that we recognize our connection not only to each other, but to local ecosystems, to the environment, to the earth. We recognize the immense damage that has resulted from the burning of fossil fuels, the surpassing of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We recognize it’s time to change our global habits of energy consumption and that we need to start with ourselves. You see the organic garden? Those geothermal pumps? Those compost bins? Those marmoleum floors? It’s all part of the same proclamation, the same good news: the earth matters. The natural world matters. Living in harmony with the earth matters. And the survival of everything—everything!—depends on humanity hearing this message, taking it to heart, and making it real.

Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, people won’t look back and ask, “Did they achieve their annual appeal goals?” But I hope and trust they’ll know—without asking—that this congregation stayed true to its spiritual inheritance, that it valued each and every person, that it made room for everyone who wanted to quench their soul-thirst and deepen their spirits, that it inspired and empowered people, that it taught people, listened to people, connected people; that it fought for justice, that it resisted violence, that it subverted racism, that it was part of the movement to end mass incarceration, that is was part of the movement to end the achievement gap in public education, that it tutored children, that it struggled for affordable, accessible health care for all people, that it proudly flew a rainbow flag; and that it cared for the earth and future generations enough to change its own ways, enough to speak boldly in the wider community about our interdependence with the whole of life. And it did none of this for prestige, none of it for accolades, special recognition or awards. It did these things simply and humbly for the sake of saving lives—and not only saving them but fortifying them for the work of building the beloved community here and everywhere. These are just some of the intangible yet utterly essential roles this congregation will play in the coming decade of our shared ministry. They aren’t explicitly stated in our annual appeal goals, but make no mistake: when you make a generous financial gift to this congregation, you are making a gift that helps save lives, that helps liberate people, that builds the beloved community. I cannot speak more plainly about what I firmly believe we are doing here at 153 West Vernon St on Elm Hill in Manchester.

Well, I can speak a bit more plainly. Our liberal spiritual inheritance doesn’t stand on its own. It needs a foundation of love. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”[1] I read earlier from the Rev. Kate Braestrup’s Here If You Need Me. She’s writing to her brother who really doesn’t understand or approve of her having become a minister; and she’s writing about the experience of receiving devastating news. Her own devastating news was the car accident death of her husband. And her job as a chaplain to the Maine State Game Wardens requires her from time to time to deliver hard news to people. She says, “Your life, too, will swing suddenly and cruelly in a new direction with breathtaking speed. If you are really wise—and it’s surprising and wondrous…how many people have this wisdom in them—you will know enough to look around for love. It will be there, standing right on the hinge, holding out its arms to you. If you are wise, whoever you are, you will let go, fall against that love, and be held.”[2]

Friends, she’s right about the way life can change in an instant. And she’s right that love will find us in those moments if we let it. What I hope has been true about my ministry and about our shared ministry these past ten years is that I’ve been that kind of minister and we’ve been that kind of congregation in whom people in the midst of pain and loss can find love: loving words, loving arms, a loving presence, a loving community. I would hope that despite those moments of rushing, thoughtlessness, rubbing each other the wrong way and missing our mark, you will still find at the heart of everything we do, a profound love for humanity and the earth. That love is real, and it makes all the difference.

As we enter our second decade of shared ministry, my prayer for each of us is that we may find that love here when we need it; offer it to others when it is needed; and thereby continue to grow a congregation for all that is our life; a congregation worthy of passing on to those who come after us.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] First Corinthians 13:1.

[2] Braestrup, Kate, Here If You Need Me (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2007) pp. 205-206.