Thursday, February 02, 2012

Of Meetings and Meaning, part 1

On Sunday, January 29th, 2012, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church -- Unitarian Universalist engaged in an experiment.  It was the day of our Congregational Meeting, and the Executive Committee had, several months previously, discussed the logistics of it. 
  • Should we have it after the second service?  (If so, how many of the folks who normally come to the first service would return later for the meeting?  And, for that matter, how many of the folks who come to the second service would want to stick around afterward for a business meeting likely to run an hour or two?) 
  • Should we try to have the meeting between the first and second services?  (There'd be the time constraint of having to be done in time to begin the second service, and there'd still be the question of people staying from the first service or coming early for the second.)
  • Should we have it instead of the second service?  (To the questions already raised came the objection that a business meeting is not a simple swap, one-to-one replacement for a worship experience.)
Suddenly, a light bulb went off in my head.  In the service of full disclosure, my most recent book -- Serving With Grace:  lay leadership as a spiritual practice -- puts forth the assertion that everything a church does should be part of its efforts to deepen and expand the spiritual life of its membership.  I argue that the dichotomy between the "spiritual side" of one's church experience and the "work of the church" is a false one.  Like a total immersion language school, church life can be understood (and experienced!) as a total immersion school of the soul where everything -- even the meetings and committee work -- is one with the worship services and the religious education.

And so, having literally written the book on this subject, I put forth the notion that we not replace our Sunday service with our business meeting but rather, and far more interestingly, that we truly transform our business meeting into a worship service!

To say that folks were skeptical would be to make a gross understatement.  And, to be honest, I was a little anxious about whether it would work, too.  (After all, I've often jokingly said that I went back into parish ministry so that I could see for myself if any of the ideas in my book --which I wrote while working at UUHQ -- would work in the real world!) 

Well . . . yesterday at 10:15 am the experiment began.  At approximately 12:15 it ended.  And while there are some who are still skeptical -- and no doubt some who are displeased -- most of the feedback I've received so far is extremely positive.  Some are even declaring it "a success" and saying that we should plan on doing our May meeting in this same way.

To be sure, the meeting/worship began with extremely high energy and positive feelings.  (How could it not have when the opening words were Marge Piercy's fantastic poem, "Report of the fourteenth subcommittee on convening a discussion group" from her book Mars and Her Children?)  And things stayed remarkably upbeat -- not to mention on schedule to have the meeting end at our anticipated 90 minute mark! -- until we got to a vote on a group of bylaw revisions.  Here things got a little contentious.

Yet at the very beginning I had said, "we [need to] recognize as sacred all aspects of our meeting -- the celebrations, the appreciations, the affirmations, the questions, the debates, the disagreements, the nit picking . . . all of it.  This isn't intended to be an experiment in sanitized homogeneity.  Rather, it's an attempt to recognize that what we do together -- all of it, the messy reality of it -- is sacred."  My biggest fear, in fact, going forward with the experiment was that people would feel so concerned about maintaing some sense of "positive feelings" (this is a worship service after all!) that some would then also feel coerced into going along.  Simply put, I was afraid that some people would feel that their critiques and criticism were not welcomed or wouldn't be considered "appropriate" and, so, would feel that they'd had their voices stifled.

Happily, I can say that that was not the case!  People did disagree!  A motion was defeated.  And, aside from some confusion and consternation arising from the perceived intricacies of parliamentary procedure, everything ran smoothly.  Even the debates.  People were by and large respectful of one another.  People were definitely given an opportunity to express themselves, and express themselves they did.

In my next post I'll share the Order of Service that was developed.

In Gassho,

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John Saxon said...

Hi Erik,
I think I've persuaded the Board to try this idea for UUFR's annual business meeting on June 3. In the past, they have replaced the regular Sunday morning worship with a much abbreviated worship service (15 or 20 minutes) and a business meeting that felt very much like a business meeting and nothing like (to use the Quaker term) "worship with attention to business." Wish us luck.
John L. Saxon
Assistant Minister
UU Fellowship of Raleigh, NC

Anonymous said...

Sure is an interesting read. Will be anxious to see how things turned out.
-Jon @ sales meetings