People are talking a lot these days about being a missional church. It’s a scary word for many who associate the word “mission” with missionaries: people who show up somewhere and coerce, terrify or bombard a people with evangelical zeal in order to make them convert.
We’re not into that, we UUs. Many of us have been hurt by that. We have been angered and made suspicious by the ways that religious groups and our culture treats our minds, souls and bodies as a mission field for indoctrination so it can sell us things and control us. We’re on edge about it. We’re pushing back: sometimes too hard, sometimes obnoxiously, sometimes in comically hypocritical ways, becoming the very thing we abhorred.
So the word “mission” is fraught. Still, it’s a great word. It’s a word that I hope we can embrace as the marching orders for our future — or if “marching” feels too militaristic to you, then “moving orders.” Mission! It moves. It’s about looking around and seeing where you are in relation to what’s out there around you: seeing where you can connect, help, serve, be in relationship with, learn, and be part of “life more abundant” that gives existence meaning and depth and beautiful intensity. It’s about paying deep attention to your local context not to convert, but to engage with. The Rev. Theresa Cooley said the coolest thing today at a workshop called “Beyond Congregations” — cool because she’s on the UUA staff and her remark swims against the stream of conventional wisdom (but it’s very wise and spot-on for our times). She said, essentially, “I’m not doing this so that more people will call themselves Unitarian Univeralists. That would be nice, but I’m doing this because I want our values to be in the world, having an influence in the world.”
So let me tell you what happened this morning.
While my General Assembly roommate and I were sitting in our hotel room in Kentucky talking about Unitarian Universalist issues, she got an e-mail from one of her local clergy colleagues back in Massachusetts — a Catholic priest with whom she has formed a close bond — asking for help. His situation was that his parish has been forbidden to host an event with Father Helmut Schuller, an Austrian “rebel” priest who is advocating for the admission of women and married people to the priesthood. The event is in July and was to be the only New England visit by Father Schuller.
The cardinal had forbidden all the Massachusetts diocese from hosting Schuller, and so this local priest was reaching out to his Unitarian Universalist colleague and friend to ask if her church, one of our historic First Parish congregations, would host the event. Without a moment of hesitation, my friend dictated this response to Siri: “We would be honored to help with this. We will be undergoing some minor construction in the Parish Hall but the church will be open.” A few minutes later she thought to add, “The building is not air-conditioned.”
Within an hour, my friend had a slew of e-mails from church leaders with thumbs up messages. This is a congregation that values putting their values into practice over engaging in lengthy processing. That’s missional.
All of these years I have been watching my friend do what she does and make it look easy, which is to build local relationships, be interested in her town, think creatively about where the food pantry might go when it lost its home in the basement of the Methodist church, join the local artist’s guild, connect with the farmer’s market, make the lunch for and host the monthly gatherings of the UU Christian Ministers and work really hard with her congregation to shift their consciousness and practices from preservation, caution and lots of fairly anxious processing to permission, creativity and freedom. Also forgiveness, because you have to get good at apologizing, forgiving and moving on when you want to become a vibrant, missional church.
The little inter-generational theatre group that was originally part of the RE program and then became an independent non-profit, used to use the parish hall and then close down their production and that was that. With encouragement, they eventually made a gift to the church: something they would purchase that they thought the church needed. With more encouragement, they began to make a financial contribution to the church. First $1,000. Then $1,200. Then $1,500 to the operating budget and to thus the mission of the church. Perhaps not surprisingly, the theatre group also began to connect to the ministry of the church, donating tickets to the food pantry to share the nourishment of the arts to go with canned goods and non-perishables that people were picking up. That’s missional church . It breaks down silos and separations and finds ways to offer mutual support. It doesn’t fret about how much money “that” will cost, it asks how much more meaning “that” will generate. Most money fears around shifting to a more missional way of being church aren’t warranted, anyway: by the time a missional congregation gets to the point of deciding to spend money, they have already made serious internal and emotional investments and are thrilled to be funding their calling with actual dollars. The spiritual investment happens first.
Six years ago, when this minister started, this was a troubled congregation with twelve people attending Sunday services. Today they have double the official membership and seventy-five at a typical Sunday service. But more importantly, people in the community see the congregation as a place that matters. That’s mission. If the building disappeared, there would not only be a hole in the landscape, but a loss to the community.
I very much look forward to sweating it out with the Rev. Rali Weaver and the missional congregation of First Parish in Dedham, her priest colleague and his supportive parish, and the community of UUs, Catholics and other neighbors in faith to hear Father Helmut Schuller on July 17.