Thursday, September 26, 2013

Being Something to Someone

I don't know if he was the first person to say it, but he is certainly one of the most famous.  In his first letter the the people in the congregation he'd help to start in the town of Corinth, Paul of Tarsus said, "I have become all things to all people."  Here it is, over two thousand year later, and people are still trying to replicate his feat.

And not just individuals.  Institutions -- like, o let's say like churches -- often try to be "all things to all people."  Sometimes it's in an attempt to attract folks who aren't yet a part of the community; the church tries to figure out who these people are, what they want and need, and then tries to give it to them.    And sometimes it's because the people who are already among "the faithful" have so many wants and needs themselves; the church tries to hold on to these folks by "giving them what they want."  Either way, though, the result is most often the same -- the faith community that tries to be "all things to all people" usually ends up not really being particularly good at anything for anybody.

I know of a congregation which used a lot of nautical imagery to describe themselves.  Their church wasn't their home -- it was their sailing ship.  They did a lot to make sure that they were sea worthy.  The spoke of their ordained minister as their captain, and their lay leaders were the crew.  You get the idea.

Now this was in the days before Blue Boat Home hit the scenes.  I wonder how often they sing that hymn today?  Maybe not too often.  I actually wouldn't be surprised if they were using a whole other set of metaphors to describe themselves these days.  Because one day their captain said to them that he thought it might be an awfully good idea if this great sailing ship might consider leaving port once in a while.  What good is being on a ship, he asked, if that ship's always moored in protected waters?

I don't like the minister-as-captain metaphor myself.  I've always said that I think we ordained clergy are really more like the navigators.  The laity, the congregation, is really the captain and crew.  (And this ain't no pleasure cruise.  Everyone has a job to do --whether on board or at one of our ports of call!)  My job, as I understand it, is to hear where it is you want to take the ship and then, after consulting the charts and going up on deck to test the winds and check the weather, I can help you figure out the best way to get where you're wanting to go.  I'm not the one to decide the destination, but I do know something about laying in a course.  I can help in figuring out how to get from here to there.

This Saturday morning -- from 8:30 'till around noon -- the congregation I serve will be kicking off its year-long process of "strategic planning."  I know that some people's eyes glaze over when they hear those words, but I can honestly say that I'm tremendously excited.  I think you should be, too.  The Board has made this process its number one priority for the coming year, and it's at the top of my list as well.

This is the beginning of my third year of mutual ministry with the people of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church -- Unitarian Universalist.  We've gotten to know each other a bit.  We've run a few drills -- including a few fire drills, to be sure.  We've started to learn each other's rhythms.  We don't know yet everything that there is to learn about each other -- thank God, because we'll need something to talk about on those long nights at sea -- but we know each other well enough that we should probably be getting down to raising anchor and going . . .

Well, that's the thing now, isn't it?  Just where is it that TJMC wants to go?  With its current contingent of officers and crew, where of-all-the-possible-journeys-there-are do we want to set out for now?  That's what this strategic planning process is all about.  Nothing short of clarifying our sense of direction.

Now we could try to be all things to all people.  We could, in other words, try to go in every direction at once which would no doubt have the effect of creating the illusion of movement while we're really safely tied up back in the harbor.  Oh, the wind might be in our sails and the ship might be rocking with the waves, but we really won't be going anywhere.  And I think we want to be going somewhere.  I think that we'd really prefer to be something to someone than nothing to anyone

So come to church on Saturday -- this Saturday, Saturday September 28th.  Plan to spend some time with your crew-mates discovering just how it is we're planning on deciding where we want to be going on this leg of our voyage.  We will -- as we've done with the past several Fall Leadership Retreats -- have both a "talk track" (for people who like to process with words) and a "do track" (for people who like to process in other ways).  Children, youth, young adults, older adults, seniors, long-time members, newcomers . . . everyone is really encouraged to attend because while we might not want to be all things to all people, we sure do want to be a place where all people are welcome.

One last thought.  To prepare, folks might want to consider a question.  If you think I'm going to say "What it is that you most want and need?" or "What it is that you think others most want and need?", you'd be wrong.  This isn't the first time this faith community has engaged in such a discernment process, and out of one of the past efforts there came this statement:
The TJMC-UU Mission Statement
  • Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church is a church of the liberal tradition rooted in the heritage of Unitarian Universalism and dedicated to the belief that in every individual there are extraordinary possibilities.
  • We are committed to the individual and collective pursuit of spiritual growth, social justice, and life-long religious education and understanding.
  • We foster an open and free community in which we share our gifts, care for one another, and honor our differences.
  • We seek to have a lasting influence on local, national, and global programs that promote equity and end oppression.
 So . . . if this is our mission (and I have to say that that last line in particular really inspires me and could be a mission statement all on its own!) . . . if this is our mission, where does this mission want to take us?  That is what I hope will guide our discussions on Saturday, and in the coming months.

Pax tecum,

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Dave Dawson said...

You are in my prayers.

Lynn said...

Your ship analogy brings to mind a few things from my days on board: there's a difference between a cruise and a voyage. Be on a voyage!
The captain has a lot of authority, a lot of responsibility, but does not go it alone. We never sailed into a port without a harbor pilot, and we sailed through known pirate areas with constant monitoring by British intelligence thousands of miles away. (And there was a crew to passenger ratio of around 1:4.5!)
Finally, a popular quote aboard: A ship is safest in port, but that's not what a ship is for!

arthurrashap said...

Independently, I understood that the "ice-breaker" at tomorrow's planning meeting was to pick a word that reflected one's "take" on what TJMCUU means to them. I thought and the word and concept "vessel" came. Synergy.
I'll fill in some of the blanks tomorrow.
Also, I'd like to start our vision/mission quest with the concept of zero based budgeting. More on that tomorrow also.
Arthur Rashap