My denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has this helpful page about starting and growing a spiritual community.
That’s really great.
So then they provide this:
Processes of Growth
New and emerging congregations will grow through engaging in a variety of activities. Feeling excitement along with a little anxiety about this enterprise is both normal and necessary. Generating contagious excitement about the congregation among your core planning group and among new people is vital. A new congregation is, in some ways, like a new business and requires a lot of energy and time in order to come to life. Talk with your congregation’s coach, or someone who has started a new congregation, about the early stages of growth….
Here are some starting points for new and emerging congregations that have reached the stage of wishing to develop ministries . Also, provided along with resources, is contact information of UU program specialists to encourage discussions on implementing these programs. Make use of the specialists’ coaching, in areas the congregation wants to cultivate, in preparation for offering these ministries to members and the public.
- Organizational Development
- Faith Development/Religious Education
- Social Justice
- Environmental Concerns
- Young Adult Ministries
The words that jump out at me are “activities. new excitement. growth. new business. coach.” The categories for programmatic and organization focus: you can see them for yourself. Organizational development. Faith formation and religious education. Membership (the link provided goes to a page devoted exclusively to welcome and hospitality). Social justice, environmental activism, ministry to youth and young adults.
Oh, and worship is down near the bottom of the list. Organizational development first, worship almost last. And I somehow don’t think this is a coy gospel reference about the last being first.
What’s missing entirely?
Ministry to the sick, the frightened, the abused, the suffering, the elderly, the struggling, the human.
SMH. Smack. mah. head.
I think to myself, wow. Who is it that is gathering these congregations, and for what reasons, really? Much of what’s there is great: God knows I got nothing against well-meaning people gathering to study religion, to examine their beliefs in the context of the larger community, to do good works, to figure out how to be better stewards of the Earth. Oh yea, and to worship. But gathering a church without putting “walking the path of love and care for and with each other” first and foremost on the to-do list is not gathering a church so much as establishing a franchise.
We can’t march out to save the world if we have not first confronted and encountered and accepted our own vulnerability and local, immediate interdependence (which is vastly different from the global interdependence that we love to talk about). And when I say confronted our vulnerability, I don’t mean “gotten in touch with the ways we’re victims,” which is a favorite interpretation — and a divisive and dangerous and disempowering one — of coming to spiritual grips with our own human frailty.
What I am talking about is engaging in practices that cultivate inner wholeness, humility, reverence and wisdom – practices that we do with and for each other, through worship and fellowship and pastoral ministry. Pastoral ministry is what grows souls, as it is pastoral ministry that brings us out of the place of theoretical ideas about people and into face-to-face relationship with them. It is in these relationships that we learn about acceptance, forgiveness, our own shadow aspects, unresolved issues with families of origin, how we use personal power, and what qualities we shall be remembered for when we die.
By passing over this aspect of church life, church growth gurus make the erroneous assumption that either pastoral ministry is some sort of organic phenomenon that effortlessly flows out of people with fairly similar desires being together, or that pastoral ministry is some kind of old-school congregational practice that isn’t worth mentioning anymore.
Neither option makes any sense. I am trying to be patient and to imagine how it is that pastoral ministry gets no mention, or is at best bundled in with other categories of church growth (I can imagine someone saying, “Well of COURSE we know that pastoral ministry is important – we just assume that!” Well, don’t assume. Many congregations don’t do it well or don’t do it at all — and small group ministries are just one way to start to address pastoral need). I think the idea UUs have is that we will appeal to disparate folks with our “brand name,” bring them together for inspiring worship to point them toward lives of justice-making and service, and then provide lots of programmatic opportunities for them to do it together. And I think the presumption is that this approach is, in itself, healing, inspiring and identity-forming for those who gather in our congregations. Like, social justice IS pastoral care.
No. Pastoral ministry has to have its own programmatic emphasis and its own bullet point in the mission statement of every congregation. It is the loving heart out of which all other programs proceed. It is first and primary. “You shall love one another as I have loved you.”
Many people cannot find meaning in spiritual community that presumes their greatest need is for activism(or even leadership) because their own personal struggles are too pressing. It is not that they don’t care, it is that they do not have a genuine vocation to devote themselves to that cause and they are not integrated well enough into the community to be able to afford to say that, or even to acknowledge it to themselves. And so they leave.
Where is room in our congregations — where is the welcome, the program, the spiritual food – for the person who comes to a church to just sit and feel old or new pain, to grieve, to be fed a meal AND to stay for worship (not to be fed in the basement kitchen and never see the inside of the sanctuary), to pray, to wonder, to learn to trust the mystical experiences they are having?
What about the addict just trying to stay sober? What about the spouse reeling from the discovery of her partner’s dalliances with prostitutes? What about the corporate guy who has lost his sense of the meaning of life? What about the person just diagnosed with cancer who doesn’t want to talk about it in a small group ministry? What about the socially awkward, the person with cognitive disability, the extreme introvert who doesn’t want to join a covenant group? What about the bored-out-of-her-mind teacher who is starting to fray at the seams and doesn’t know why? What about the depressed father of three who won’t be coming to church for the next three years because he can’t get out of bed on the weekends?
All the current signs point to the fact that people are not looking for a congregation to help form them in a denominational identity.
They are not all even looking for “programming.”
Many of them are just looking for the Church. You know? The Church? The institution that recognizes the reality of the soul, that honors its deep needs, that was gathered in its original, loosey-goosey manner by its founder to be a moving community of healing, reconciliation, prayer, justice, and the driving out of demons?
The contemporary church keeps making the mistake of acting as though it believes the demons are all “out there.” Of course they aren’t. And I believe that the Church has very little to bring to the “out there” until we have learned to quiet ourselves and to abide in the human condition as we are without all the heroic pretense and hyper save-the-world anxiety. It starts in the local congregation, with acts of love and attention, listening, service, help and support. Pastoral ministry is the heart of the church.