A few years ago, spurred by Linda Kooiker‘s retirement from her good work as Membership Coordinator, we began a period of assessing and adjusting our membership processes. The change in staffing was a wonderful opportunity to regroup and see how things were going. Linda’s great work with connecting new folks and her strong gift of hospitality were invaluable, and provided a strong foundation to the membership program which we have been able to build upon in the intervening years.
There are many aspects to the congregational work that is classified as “membership,” and I have found it helpful to articulate three stages of engagement:
From the moment the person walks in the door to signing the membership book.
Becoming a member to year three of membership.
Year three to the end of their membership – hopefully only ending with a move away from Asheville or death.
We know that this work belongs to all of us – staff, dedicated membership volunteers, and every congregant – but it is helpful to know that there is a structure underlying the work that you do on Sunday morning greeting and welcoming newcomers to the congregation.
The Sunday Morning Welcome Team is the first line of engagement. From Greeters who open doors and say good morning to Ushers who help people find their way, to the Welcome Table volunteers who help newcomers get connected to enews and answer their first questions, there are 48 volunteers each month who step up to offer a wide open welcome on behalf of our community. Additionally, last year we added a new role to this group, the Connectors, whom you may have seen wearing “Ask Me” buttons. The Connectors are charged with two simple tasks each Sunday morning: To answer questions or help people find someone who knows the answer, and to engage with newcomers and introduce them to other members.
Some Connectors also work with me in the New Member Class series (Beginning Point & Connecting Point), leading spiritual journey groups, meeting the new members, and helping them to find their niche in the congregation. We know that the time between signing the membership book and year three of membership is a crucial time in the life of a UUCA member. Those years are the ones in which deep connections are made (or not), and the way we help people make those connections is essential to our ability to retain members and sustain a vibrant and engaged congregation.
Over the past two and a half years we have worked very hard to adjust and sustain our infrastructure for Phase 1, and I believe we have been successful in this. The program is running well, and feedback from new member classes is that people feel welcomed and supported on their path to membership. We have gotten into a good routine with the new member classes as well. If we stay the course and continue as we have begun, this part of our ministry will continue to thrive. Therefore, I am pleased to be able to shift our focus to building a stronger infrastructure for Phase 2.
Last summer, we added 5 staff hours for membership back into the mix, and Christine Magnarella Ray has been a fantastic addition to the team. I’m pleased that she will be increasing her membership hours to 15 on July 1. This will only improve our ability to meet the needs of this essential ministry of the congregation.
Our first focus in Phase 2 will be to increase volunteer engagement in helping new members to connect. I am recruiting a team of Connectors to work with us, increasing one-on-one contacts for new members and helping them to find their way to deeper engagement in congregational life.
Small Group Ministry is another essential piece of Phase 2. We know from our own experience and from outside evidence that in a large congregation, smaller group experiences are key to helping people feel connected and invested. We would like every new member to have the opportunity to participate in a small group immediately upon joining the congregation. We also would like every long-term member to have this opportunity as well.
The work we have done as a congregation over the past few years is really stupendous, and I look forward to continuing to build a wide open welcome for all who cross our threshold, whether it is for the first time or the five hundredth.
If you’d like to be a part of this foundational ministry of our congregation, please let either me or Christine know. We particularly need Connectors and Small Group Facilitators, but there are many other opportunities to help out – from light clerical (making name tags and returning emails) to Sunday morning roles, and more. Training will be provided
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
It was the summer after my first year in seminary, and I was sitting at the bedside of a man roughly my age who had just undergone heart bypass surgery. I had never met this man before. His room was merely on the floor that I had been assigned to as a hospital chaplaincy student. Seminary training generally requires that each student take a unit in what is called “clinical pastoral education” to help them prepare for the visits they’ll be making as ministers later on. This was mine. <i>Click on the title to continue reading and/or to listen…
It was the summer after my first year in seminary, and I was sitting at the bedside of a man roughly my age who had just undergone heart bypass surgery. I had never met this man before. His room was merely on the floor that I had been assigned to as a hospital chaplaincy student. Seminary training generally requires that each student take a unit in what is called “clinical pastoral education” to help them prepare for the visits they’ll be making as ministers later on. This was mine.
To say that I was assigned, though, is not to say that I felt in any way prepared. To be honest, what I felt, depending on the day, was somewhere between a novice and a fraud. I had essentially no experience in anything like making a pastoral visit and really no training for it in school.
So, there I was introducing myself to this man only hours after he had emerged from what was likely one of the most traumatic events of his life. No family was present in the room, and I had no indication that any would be coming. What should I say? What does “a minister” say?
I began with pleasantries, acknowledging what a scary experience it must have been. I don’t remember all that I said, but at one point his eyes started to well with tears. I slowed my banter. I held his hand. We sat together in silence. I may have attempted a prayer. Before long I moved along on my appointed rounds. What with the busy schedule of his rehab and my own heavy load of visits and group work with other chaplains I didn’t get to see him again before he was discharged. But somehow we had made a brief connection, and I got a glimpse into this work.
It’s an experience that I’m sure resonates with many of you. None of us enters the work of our lives fully formed. And it doesn’t matter how much classroom or book learning we get. The doing of it requires that at some point we just jump in, no matter how unprepared we may feel. It may seem forced or unreal at first, but we give ourselves to it until we find ourselves in it. You might say we fake it until we make it.
It occurs to me that our religious lives are like that, too. Last week we heard members of our Coming of Age class tell us a little bit about what a year’s worth of studying, reflecting and talking with each other, their teachers and their mentors taught them about what they set their hearts to.
It is the kind of exercise that we think of as distinctive to the path of this Unitarian Universalism. In this month when we are exploring the role of tradition in our religious, it is something that I would call central to our tradition. Because, for us, the religious journey begins, not with learning a doctrine about a text or great teacher, but with our own personal experience. Texts and teachers are worthy contributors to our wonderings, but what’s most important is that we get clear on where our hearts rest.
If there is a doctrine central to our tradition, it is that we are persons of inherent worth and dignity who are capable of building our own faiths, that bedrock that gives us an orientation to lives, from that which calls to our hearts. We trust in that capacity, believing that in time it will open us to lives of compassion, integrity, service and joy.
What makes it challenging is that there is no neat prescription for getting there. We empathize with our 9th graders who told us that being confronted with writing their credos they felt a bit at sea. Who doesn’t? But for them, as for us, the process begins by making a beginning, by planting our flag somewhere and testing what we come up with.
It was Mohandes Gandi who framed the work of his own spiritual development as, in his words, “experiments with truth.” In his autobiography, published some 20 years before his death in 1948, he describes how each formative event in his life – large and small, success and blunder – shaped an evolving and expanding faith that informed a life of principle and practices of nonviolent resistance that have changed the world.
To Gandhi’s eyes, though, his was no hero’s journey. In fact, he writes, “the more I reflect and look back on the past, the more vividly do I feel my limitations.” Instead, he said he saw his own journey simply as a paradigm of the journey we all travel toward whatever we may hope might be true self-realization: harmony, awareness, peace, or, in Gandhi’s words, seeing God face to face, or attaining Moksha, the Hindu state of bliss, release from the cycle of rebirth.
Yet, Gandhi warns against our dwelling on that cosmic sort of end. It can needlessly feed our ego, he says, and distract us from the more pedestrian work of discovering what he calls the “relative truths” that guide our lives. They, he says, “must be my beacon, my shield and buckler.”
The seeker after truth, he adds, “should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth.”
What Gandhi is raising up here is not an end but a process. Seek the truth in every encounter, he says. Let your life teach you. Take what you learn seriously, but don’t take it as final. Let each experience, each experiment shape your understanding. Key to humility is being wary of presumption. Perhaps it’s better to understand what we bring to an encounter as hypothesis, something we are testing, treating as true – faking it, in a sense – until experience confirms or disconfirms what we have come to believe.
Robert Fulghum’s story that you heard Bob read earlier has a heartbreaking episode at the center of it – the man with terminal cancer who died without telling anyone he was sick. Fulghum links it in a clever way with the children’s game of hide-and-go-seek happening outside his window and the boy who, he says, “hid too well.”
Have you ever known anyone who hid too well? The story couldn’t help bring to mind the man I told you about earlier who I met on the heart surgical floor during my chaplaincy training. I don’t know if he was hiding, but it sure looked to me as if he hadn’t been found. There is, as Fulghum puts it, a grown-up version of hide-and-go-seek that we don’t talk about much. It has to do with wanting to hide, needing to be sought, and being confused about being found.
Like the doctor in Fulghum’s story, we frame it as being considerate, but there’s also a darker side to that: a fear that we will be thought lesser of or we’ll think lesser of ourselves if we reveal ourselves. There is an image – well, let’s be honest, a fiction – that we cultivate to project the appearance that we’re in control, that we have it all together. So, even if we’re not OK, we strive mightily to maintain that image of control. I’m just fine. No problem.
How does this happen? It seems like the game begins in early adulthood when we scatter to the four winds, and work hard to develop that bullet-proof public persona that is so polished that no one will know what’s inside. We don’t actually frame it quite so grimly, but that’s its net effect.
Of course, the truth is that’s not what we want, not by a long shot. What we want is to be known, what we want is love and connection of all kinds. But we fear that who we are, who we really are might not be acceptable to those people who we want to connect with. So, we hide in plain sight and hope that maybe they’ll seek us, or at least they’ll let us hang out with them. If we’re lucky we do get found – really found – by people who not only accept but cherish us. But others of us are burrowed deep in the leaf pile, secure that our true self is safe: safe from disapproval, safe from abuse, safe from shame.
I get it. I understand why we go there. But, oh my, at such a cost. Maybe there’s another way. Maybe there’s a way that opens the door a crack and admits the possibility of opening further.
And it brings us back to our topic today: a way of getting found. It begins, once again, with giving ourselves to something until we find ourselves in it. In order to make a change we need to put ourselves into a place where change can happen.
It’s something like Robert Fulghum’s game of sardines. Instead of scattering, waiting to be found, we align with the ones we seek. Even when it’s uncomfortable at first, we err on the side of building relationship. We may not be sure at first if this connection is going to work, but we stick with it. We fake it in the hope that in time we will make it, that we will create lasting connections that offer a way for us to enter fully into the picture.
There’s no guarantee that any particular connection will work, or will fulfill our initial hopes for it. But at a minimum it gives us practice and at best we create a new node in the web of relationships that supports us.
This applies not only to new people we meet, but even to those who are closest to us. We all experience frustrations with parents, children, partners, siblings and friends, and sometimes we find ourselves in destructive patterns that tear at those vital links in our life.
The same strategy applies. We stay connected, stay in the game. Even if in the moment it feels inauthentic, we affirm how we care. Yeah, OK, we fake it a bit until we have reconnected with the authentic feeling within us.
This is part of what we here can give each other: permission to shift the game from hide-and-go-seek to sardines, to acknowledge that in one way or another we are all at sea struggling to come to terms with that on which we set our hearts.
So, friends, olly-olly-oxen free! Let go of the fears that have kept you hidden away. Come in from wherever you are. It’s a new game and you’re part of it. Get found. Lay claim to your truth. Plant your flag. And share your vision, your wisdom with us that we may each be enriched.
It’s hard to believe, but the last day of Lifespan Religious Education (until Fall) is approaching. Last Sunday marked the perennially popular and deeply moving Coming of Age service, when 9th graders shared their credos (“what I set my heart to”) after a year of discernment in a supportive class with both teachers and mentors to guide them. This Sunday, May 24, our classes celebrate the end of the year with feasts and ceremonies to close out a year of thinking, learning, singing, dancing, contemplating, questioning, and growing together.
The RE annual report is done, but I thought I’d use this time to hit the highlights of the year in RE. Let me say first and foremost that I am so grateful for this year and this congregation. I have enjoyed myself immensely, despite some formidable challenges, and can honestly say I am lucky to be working in my dream job. Thank you for the opportunity to do what I love, surrounded by competent, affirming, inspiring, passionate people.
I came into the position in July 2014 with a brand new RE approach all planned out by the previous DLRE and LRE committee (though not fully recruited for). It was a progressive shift, needed for its pivot toward hands-on, multi-age teaching and learning, a divine and elegant idea. The devil was in the details: We recruited for a total of 200 roles in this year’s RE lineup, a daunting task that led to much concern and collaboration between the DLRE and LRE committee. By year’s end we agreed that the experiment had yielded clear results: it was working great for the kids, but not so well for the adults in charge.We determined that we could return to team-based leaders in the new program without sacrificing the radical shift so loved by those involved. Teams, we believe, are key in helping adults covenant together and deepen their own growth while teaching and leading children and youth.
We learned that we have a blossoming group of 4th and 5th graders who were ready for their own class and needed time and space, as big kids, to leave Spirit Play and the younger children behind. They got their own classroom and a solid team of teachers and began the more structured, guided, dialectical approach to our arc of faith development that we know tweens and teens are ready for, while maintaining a learning environment that encouraged movement, process, and creativity.
We began a Junior Youth Group for 6th-8th graders, with a goal of strengthening bonds in this key age when interest and connection to church can sometimes level off. We learned that we do have a core group that will benefit from such socializing and community building, though we are still in conversation about how to manage the time such a group requires without volunteer leaders.
We had a successful year in Coming of Age, and a truly memorable Credo Service. The CoA class now turns its attention to the Boston Heritage Trip, happening June 13-17. Group leaders Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, Brett Johnson, and DiAnna Ritola will serve as guides for the fun and fellowship and learning that the trip traditionally provides.
10th-12th grade programming is in a state of transition. We recognized a few months into the year that no one was having fun, and made substantial changes, but knew a sea change was needed. Next year’s program will focus on youth leadership and empowerment, with an emphasis on the active process of bridging youth into congregational life and roles. To that end, incoming 10th graders, who have just finished CoA, will collaborate with older youth, the DLRE, and the new RE Coordinator (who is receiving training in youth program development) to develop our new approach.
Adult RE is being transformed into a program that is consistent with the arc of faith development used by the DLRE to provide continuity and clarity for children and youth programs, and that reflects our mission and the spiritual needs of the congregation. A pillars approach will be used in the coming year, so that we have balance and integrity in our adult offerings. In particular, “foundational” classes are being developed – UU 101, if you will–that can serve to bring adults, who often have no experience in UU RE, up to a baseline of knowledge about our unique theology, heritage, and current day work in the world.
The LRE committee is being retired, as most members’ terms were ending this June. In its place, we are developing several small “vision teams” to think deeply and clearly on specific tasks and facets of the program–OWL, CoA, Spirit Play, YRUU, Adult RE, for example. These teams will allow three-four people to collaborate with the DLRE and RE coordinator to ensure excellence in our program. Virtual (teleconferencing) meetings and work by email will reduce the onus of “committee work” that keeps people from engaging deeply in the areas they are most competent and passionate about. We believe this experiment may build access to RE and increase a sense of ownership and engagement with the larger community.
We end the year with over 200 registered children and youth. We have an RE staff that works well together and manages the balancing act in RE of the profoundly mundane and the daily sacred with a healthy dose of laughter and spiritual maturity. We have managed to do substantial renovations, both aesthetic and structural, in RE spaces, and to creatively use our space when new classrooms are needed.
We work together. We nurture each other’s search for meaning. We are a Unitarian Universalist community. The Board and I heard through the year how vital making and deepening connection is to your experience of UUCA. We like eating, learning, singing and working together.
The Board has written a description, based on listening to you, of a vision of what UUCA can look like.We’ve seen you together in action this year:singing in the choir, adding up to 168 Combined Campaign volunteers, teaching RE, celebrating Day One, baking pies and eating them, reading The New Jim Crow and talking about what that means for us, celebrating the growth of our congregation and installing our new Associate Minister Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, checking out the Welcome Project plans.We call this description our Ends, and the Ends come to you worded for action, ready for feedback from you, and intended as our framework for moving forward together.
Within Each Congregant: We Seek Embrace principles, values and practices which explore the sacred in the world and the mystery of existence. Gather together in worship which guides and sustains our individual and communal response to the sacred through multifaceted creative artistic and musical experiences.
Among the Congregants: We Care Feel welcome and connected with each other. Share generously of our personal resources of time, talent, and money. Honor and support each other in times of celebration and need.
Beyond our Congregation: We Work Act meaningfully and visibly in community service, social justice advocacy and education. Serve asa beacon of liberal religious thought and action. Offer our space for events which serve a varied audience and inspire community dialogue. Partner with other congregations and organizations in support of shared objectives.
It has been a very busy year, which I suspect is what we say at the end of every year, and we are all looking forward to the different rhythm of summer.When Cam and I lived in Kentucky we had a lake house that I say saved my life.It was the space removed from the demands of my work, a place that gave me permission to just be there and swing in the hammock.I slept and rested.You might call it a sanity break, or understand it as sabbath; we called those times lake days.
I’m watching the May calendar numbers move up to 31, the date that marks our congregational celebration of the year past and anticipation of the year to come. The end of this month is also the end of my year as Board president and my four years on the Board. I am very grateful for your trust and support.The reward of this year as President has been the opportunity to better know many of you.I want to savor this last reflection, one more Board vote. I’ve wanted time to slow down just a little; I want us to share a “lake day” at our Annual Meeting May 31.
In his sermon after returning from the Selma 50th Anniversary, Mark described the slowing of the pace of the march until they were moving inch by inch, and then a pause with the feeling of peace at the peak of the bridge. Mark said in his challenge to us “The fantasy I hold to is that that glimpse of peace that I experienced on the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge is not just a fleeting moment but a foretaste of the future, a future that we here might be agents in bringing about, where all people learn to be easy with one another, where caring, respect, and love flow freely among us.”
Let’s pause to recognize what has been accomplished this year, and in the pause listen to each other and learn what work it is we want do together toward that future of freedom, justice and love. In Tom T. Hall’s words, let us walk slow, listen, and pay attention as we move forward together.
Walk slow as your travel down life’s way
Walk slow as you live it day by day
Pay attention as you go … walk slow
Walk slow and maybe you’ll lead the way.
Walk slow don’t let any go astray.
Be confident upon the path you chose.
So that others may keep up … walk slow.
So, how are we doing? It’s a question that every organization needs to ask on a regular basis to make sure that what it is doing aligns with its mission and values and connects with those who it serves. One of the chief ways that we have developed to get feedback from you about how things are going at UUCA is a yearly congregational survey. The survey, now in its third year, is organized around what we call Ends Statements. These statements, developed by the Board of Trustees, describe what we hope to accomplish as a congregation. You can find them here on our website.
You’ll notice that they are organized in terms of how we hope participation in this congregation shapes our individual faith journeys (Within), how it influences the ways we relate to one another (Among) and how it influences the way we work in the larger world (Beyond). We began with a survey on all three areas. Last year we concentrated on the Among Ends. This year we’ll focus on the Within Ends.
All of these – and especially Within Ends – are notoriously hard to measure, since we are seeking input on impressionist things like the state of our spiritual lives. And yet it is important that we try so that we might offer some guidance to staff and lay leaders as to whether what they do is having any impact. Also, given how diverse our congregation is, it’s important that we receive feedback from as many members of our community as possible. So, please keep an eye out for a Survey Monkey instrument from us in the coming week and complete it as soon as you can. In addition to questions rating how we’re doing, you’ll have ample opportunity for written feedback. Thank you in advance for completing this and helping us shape the future of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville.