This is my sermon from last Sunday. I expand on a blog post from several years ago as I am helping two congregations learn about and adapt to the changes church in the 21st requires.
Congregations with a well defined mission understand themselves to be on a journey of faith together that by its nature implies risk and uncertainty. Instead of fearing this risk and uncertainty, missional congregations see it as the natural terrain for serving the needs of the world. Because missional communities adopt change as a spiritual practice, another benefit of the well defined mission is the creation of a community with give, flexibility, and the ability to bounce back.
A spiritual practice is something restorative that is done with depth, regularity, intentionality, and a sense of consecration – connection to something beyond ourselves – be it God or the universe – or a cause – our religion – friends – family. When we understand that constant change, at least gradual constant change, is the spiritual playing field, we approach the challenges of change – such as dealing with loss and the accompanying sense of insecurity – as well as new opportunities for growth and learning – as a deep, intentional, regular practice of what life in a faith community is all about. Developing change as a spiritual practice helps us bounce back when conflict or difficulties arise. Change as spiritual practice makes us resilient. Change as spiritual practice helps us understand the journey as the destination.
Change is difficult, even traumatic. How can something difficult or traumatic be restorative? I think it hinges on perspective and a desire to transform beyond what we already are. And that transformation is something we don’t always choose to do voluntarily. Sometimes we have to be jolted into it and then we can choose to make it an intentional practice.
Business consultant Bill Ekstrom uses a framework for getting out of the comfort zone he calls Growth Rings. Ekstrom says we are always in one of four states or rings:
Stagnation – is just what it sounds like. Ekstrom characterizes it by low performance and no growth. The organizational reasons for this are too many rules, and needed permissions, as well as minutia preventing creativity and innovation.
Order – Ekstrom says this is where we like to be. Everything is in order. Predictable and Comfortable. It’s the comfort zone. The comfort zone’s biggest selling point is also is biggest danger: it’s very safe and very comfortable.
Complexity – Ekstrom says this is where we should ideally operate. Complexity happens when there is a disruption of order. When things change, there is disorder and then outcomes become unpredictable and unpredictable makes us uncomfortable, BUT unpredictable also allows for innovation, growth, and experimentation.
Chaos – Ekstrom says this when we have no control over inputs or outputs. There’s a lot of turmoil and no growth. It feels incomprehensible, even insane. Some disorder is complexity but complete disorder is chaos.
In order to grow there has to be some disruption, trying something different and experimenting, but not complete disruption. Making change an intentional practice helps us live in a state of complexity. We are a bit unsettled, but it keeps us fresh and on our toes. There’s a tendency, however, to feel any disruption as chaos. Long stagnant systems experience ANY disruption or disorder as chaos when it’s really complexity. If sustained, this reactive response eventually pushes the system into chaos.
This congregation has experience its share of interim ministry. Interim ministry is planned disruption. It’s supposed to cause complexity. Resistance to that complexity creates chaos. Ekstrom points out there are a few ways to be disrupted and most of them involve being forced into it. Like interim ministry – or job loss – or divorce – or major illness. Few people or organizations choose complexity and that’s a shame because that’s where the energy is.
As Unitarian Universalists we have no trouble with the concept of evolution. Frequently we are defenders of science in a community when something such as creationism rears its unreasonable head. And yet our own communities fear change and resist evolution. We operate out of an assumption that there is one best way or best practice to do just about anything and once we figure it out we can use it and conquer a specific program or issue. This is not the reality of the postmodern world. There is no onward and upward forever or any privileged vantage point. Not only can we not always find the solution to everything, there may be things that have no solution.
Spiritual writer Mark Nepo tells a story about a glass blower that emphasizes the importance of resiliency. “The glassblower knows,” he says, “that while in the heat of beginning, any shape is possible. Once hardened, the only way to change is to break.”
So it is with individuals and with congregations. While we stay malleable and shapeable, we can adapt and maneuver the ups and downs of life, but once we get set in our ways, the only way to move forward is to break, to shatter what is already in existence. The hardened glass may be beautiful or functional or both, but it’s not resilient. Once it cools and hardens, smashing it is the only way to change its shape. Resilience born of the intentional practice of complexity allows for change without breaking the glass. Complexity keeps the glass in a hot malleable state. This is the attitude and the approach we need in order to remain mission-focussed.
A congregation that engages change as ongoing spiritual practice learns that becoming too set in its ways is the way to decline and stagnation. Remaining flexible and continuing to evolve bring life and growth. Life and growth are the journey and the journey is the destination.
I think our congregation has demonstrated this over the last few years. Although there has been much desire to “grow,” until very recently there has been very little real willingness to do anything substantially different in order to achieve this growth. And because once we are too set in our ways the only way to change is to break we are experiencing what feels like the congregation falling apart. To break with the past, to shatter “that’s the way we’ve always done it” requires turning up the heat but any heat whatsoever that sought to make us malleable again was considered too hot. And thus, in a very real sense, we broke. Now we are tasked with re-forming.
We have no choice but to engage change as a practice. No choice but to embrace complexity. There are skills and tools we can use to help us thrive in a complex state. One is transparency and honesty. Not just organizationally but individually being honest about how we think and feel and not hiding the truth when we are upset, confused, angry, sad, or grieving. It’s countercultural here to be open about unpleasant emotions, but avoiding difficult emotions and conversations is part of stagnation not complexity. Another tool is conversation – listening and being seen and heard. Another is curiosity. Making an effort to let go of our assumptions and stay curious. The first couple of years I was here this congregation practiced avoiding negative emotions, evading difficult conversations, and mistrusting any new person or new idea. NOW, finally this has begun to change.
It’s a good time to engage evolution and complexity as Unitarian Universalist. We are being asked to do this very specifically by our association. The Unitarian Universalist Association is trying to engage change as a spiritual practice in our approach to racism and dismantling white supremacy culture in our association and in the association.
On the association’s website there is a special section devoted to this. It outlines why we must actively engage in dismantling white supremacy, inviting us – calling us – challenging us to do this work, and it provides links and downloads for educational and organizing resources.
Boldly stated on the web page on white supremacy is this fact:
White supremacy affects everyone, and each of us has agency to undo it. There is work to do in congregations and there is personal work to do…White supremacy is the idea that white people are better and more deserving of wealth, power, and privilege than people of color. White supremacy pervades our culture, institutions, and relationships. It is a self-perpetuating system that continues to fuel colonialism, exploitation, oppressions, inequities, and brutalities that people of color experience. As Unitarian Universalists, we must fight white supremacy individually and together if we hold hope for Beloved Community.
Among the things specifically stated as action items we are called to engage as Unitarian Universalists is to:
“Communicate with others about the harm caused to people and communities of color by different expressions of white supremacy (systemic, overt, microaggressive).” and also to “Create spaces for conversation about race.”
The realization that our congregation once put on blackface minstrel shows is a perfect opportunity to practice our calling. Let’s communicate an apology for the blatantly racist and evil past behavior of our congregation. It gives us an opportunity to begin a conversation about race. A conversation that’s uncomfortable and risky. But it’s doable .
Last week I went with our president to meet with the new director of the Library, Robyn York and hopedale Police Chief Mark Giovanella. Robyn York agreed the library could help organize opportunities for discussions about difficult topics such as race. In the conversation with Chief Giovanella, I challenged him that his attitude about “not seeing color” is in itself racist – a lesson we all need to learn. That not recognizing how someone’s identity and appearance can impact their life in ways much different from ours is to not see them for who they are. To claim we don’t see color is to claim another’s experience of being treated differently, usually mistreated, can’t be due to their color or appearance or any other trait intrinsic to their identity. The chief and I agreed to disagree. We had a difficult conversation like respectful adults.
Activist and writer Adrienne Marie Brown has some great advice that I think is an outline for not only how to engage the process of change as spiritual practice but also how to engage one’s own identity – color, gender, sexuality, religion, national origin – as a spiritual practice.
“Where we are born into privilege, we are charged with dismantling any myth of supremacy. Where we are born into struggle, we are charged with claiming our dignity, joy, and liberation.”
These two tasks make a great practice to help us manage the practice of change: dismantle superiority and supremacy myth and claim our joy and liberation. These two practices are tied together. They create a balance that allows us to enter into complexity. Celebrating our joy, dignity and liberation remind us that we are good. Letting go of privilege reminds us we are not perfect and there’s always work to do to be better. We are never finished. But the goal isn’t to be finished, perfect, or comfortable – the goal is the journey of ongoing of transformation.
The journey brings with it no guarantee. Jospeh Campbell says of the hero’s journey, “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”
Church is not a destination – it is a launching pad. No one goes to the airport just to be at the airport. The airport isn’t a destination, it’s a launching pad so you can take a journey. So it should be with church. So what journey shall we take?
Among the resources for the theme of journey from our Soul Matters program for this month is a brief reflection on the etymology of the word journey. Journey has its roots in the Old French journée, a day’s length; a day’s work, a day’s travel. For instance, a day laborer was called a journeyman; we write our daily adventures in a journal. Looking at life as a journey, the idea of day becomes important. What part of my past do I carry forward into this day and what part do I leave behind? How do I set my compass for the travels of this day, moving into my own becoming?
Change as spiritual practice offers us this choice daily – we can look backward into the past or journey boldly into today … … … and tomorrow.