I’m in the final week of gathering material for my application to the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) program in Congregational Mission & Leadership at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. As part of that process, I have to submit three essays that constitute my assessment of vocation and ministry. I’ve already drafted two of them, and I’m working on the third. But they’re going to take up most of my mental energy this week (I say most because I’m also putting together a webinar on congregational mission…still some open seats, by the way!). So in the interest of being transparent (and in perhaps getting some helpful comments), I’m going to post the drafts here. If you’re interested in the subject, please take a look. And if you have any comments or suggestions, please leave them in the comment section. Thanks! Okay. Here’s the first question and my response:
What are the primary challenges and opportunities within your present ministry context, both in the congregation and the community it serves? What is God doing?
“What is God doing?” You don’t hear that question too often in Unitarian Universalist circles. Not that we’re incurious about the future or the role we might play in getting there. It’s the idea of a transcendent God acting through a particular person or group of persons that gives us pause. And while there are plenty of individual Unitarian Universalists who are perfectly willing to engage in God talk with one another, we know we must choose our words carefully when sharing the gist of those conversations with the rank-and-file members of our congregations. Many Unitarian Universalists feel that their religious communities are sanctuaries from the dogmas and doctrines they rejected when they left the faith traditions in which they were raised, making any talk of God having a specific mission for us to carry out in the world a non-starter in many, if not most, Unitarian Universalist congregations. So, how does one encourage Unitarian Universalist congregations to begin to think and act from a missional perspective?
That, I would say, is the biggest challenge within my present ministry context. As director of faith development and congregational growth for the Prairie Star District, a middle judicatory body of the Unitarian Universalist Association, helping congregations develop processes that lead to growth—both for individuals and for congregations—is the primary focus of my work. From what I’ve learned so far, the starting point for developing these processes requires a shared understanding among congregants about what it means to live a good life. This understanding needs to be reinforced by a compelling vision of how that life might be lived in this time and in this place. And finally, congregations need to provide congregants the necessary resources to guide them in developing such a way of life. In order to achieve this, congregations need to drill deep into their faith tradition to find the core of their theological beliefs, mine the rich ore of their religious heritage for teachings about those beliefs, then refine those teachings into a mission that embodies those core beliefs so powerfully that they become the ground from which all the actions of the congregation grow.
Because Unitarian Universalist congregations are generally made up of individuals whose faith journeys and spiritual paths are informed by one or more of a variety of sources (Humanist, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan, etc.), the discernment of core theological beliefs on the congregational level can be extremely difficult. But not impossible…I hope. My goal is to gain enough depth and breadth of knowledge about the missional church so that I can offer the congregations I work with an opportunity to discern the liberal religious commonalities that underlie their theological diversity, find the core beliefs they truly share, and fashion those beliefs into a mission that will inspire both individual members and entire congregations to act in the world for the betterment of the of the common good, to build the Beloved Community, to bring about the Reign of God. I believe there is enormous potential for Unitarian Universalist congregations to reach the growing numbers of people who identify as “spiritual, but not religious” with a non-creedal message that can change lives and change the world. That is what I see God doing. And that is what I see as the great opportunity in my ministry context. In order for this to happen, Unitarian Universalist congregations need to learn how to recover and act on the core message of their heritage: that each and every one of us is a unique and precious being, and that we are all, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”