Refuse to Let them Fail -- By Greg Dubow
At this year’s Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly in Portland, Oregon I kept hearing about the changing landscape of religious experience. If there really is some Promised Land that exists beyond congregations, do we possess the willingness to financially, emotionally, and spiritually support ministries that are ready to fulfill that dream?
New ministries, especially ministries that exist along the road less often taken need specific care if they are to survive. For all the talk of reaching the “nones” and the “dones”, who are growing at a prolific rate , we have to reconcile that this demographic is made up of young people who by and large are not the body which makes up an economically self sustaining religious community. We must look inward and ask if ministry of this sort is something we are truly called to or just a symptom of panic in the face of a world in which organized religion generally is declining.
In 2014 the UUA welcomed one new congregation, Original Blessing, and at the 2015 annual meeting we saw it close. Hearing its eulogy was heartbreaking.
When I asked Rev. White Maher what he thought could have changed Original Blessing’s fate, I expected him to cite external or logistical factors – funding panels, better advertising, a flawed business plan – any of the things one would expect as challenges in building a church plant from the ground up. His response disarmed me but was not altogether surprising: “I wish that I had been able to sit with other ministers monthly,” he said, ”and have them lay hands on me to pray for my ministry.”
A simple response that speaks volumes about the power of connection in our work - connection in words, in face-to-face showings of support or mentorship, and in how we choose to discuss (positively or negatively) new endeavors with our personal networks. Whatever flaws may have been at play, Original Blessing deserved more, Rev. Ian White Maher deserved more, and Unitarian Universalism deserves more. Having formally welcomed only one new community into our fold we had an obligation to see that it would succeed at all costs.
Our connections to and with each other matter. Indeed, for new ministries they are bread and butter, life or death. And without it, regardless of your place in Unitarian Universalism, our siloed actions and voices can only go so far in changing the landscape we are called to change, be it attractionally or missionally.
Perhaps in response to Original Blessing’s closure or due to the inevitable pressure of culture the Association has launched a pilot program for UUA Recognized Communities which “seeks to find new ways to be in relationship with expressions of our faith that look different from traditional congregations.”
One of these Recognized Communities is Sacred Fire Unitarian Universalist), which is essentially a small group ministry plant that acts as a mutual aide society. They describe themselves as, “an experiment with different forms and manifestations of Unitarian Universalism” that “grapples with methods that are accessible to those who do not see a home for themselves in our current models, and takes cues from the powerful traditions of the Black church and from religious justice movements in Latin America.”
This young ministry is poised to meet the unique needs of those who make up its body. It’s members, who are overwhelmingly new to Unitarian Universalism and many of whom do not identify as Unitarian Universalists, join together to do the work of creating the condition necessary for our vision of the Beloved Community. They organize ride shares, child-care, and food cooperatives for one another. To paraphrase theologian Dwight Hopkins on Being Human; one cannot love the body of the Church but despise human bodies.
Sacred Fire is a religious experiment in helping humanity thrive. To me, this act – that of sustaining human endeavors at self-actualization and supporting the micro-movements it takes to create macro-level change - is the bread and butter of liberal religion. Although the ministry is just two years old, it has grown wildly every time large donors or the Association have provided monetary support, mentorship, or social promotion.
Unitarian Universalists have a strong desire to grow our faith and its people, but our polity and history have made the practice of church planting problematic. Lacking a system to intentionally develop and support new ventures, we have to leverage personal relationships, an entrepreneurial spirit, and utilize political savvy. I remain on the fence as to whether these are important gates to pass through or needlessly difficult barriers.
My intention in this short entry is not to position Sacred Fire or Original Blessing (or any other new approach to ministry that hasn’t come to fruition yet) as inarguably superior or the path for our future engagement as a movement; however, we as a collective body cannot afford to continue to fail these grassroots attempts at addressing critical challenges to the progression of our cause.
For new ministries to succeed there must be a critical mass that refuses to let them fail. I ask you to pray for Sacred Fire and for all of our emerging ministries – but more than prayers, we need to use our hands and our voices to reach out and help where we can, to literally lay on hands.
The simplest way to do this is to connect with leaders of new ministries and speak the words they most want to hear: “How can I help?” If you or your congregation is able, donate money or resources to a new ministry in your area. Use your networks of colleagues and friends in or outside of the UUA to spread the word about what these organizations stand for and why they’re exciting. Each person doing their part - most importantly those who do not have an obvious stake in the fight - is what all of us need to do to be architects of a new landscape for our faith.