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5. Mission: The Gym and The Infirmary

A church is both a gym and an infirmary. It's a place for "working out," for improving our (spiritual) health, for doing the exercises and following the discipline that lead to greater (spiritual) strength, flexibility, and stamina, for developing the "muscles" of wisdom, compassion, insight, and equanimity. When our spirits are sick or exhausted, it's also an infirmary for healing, rest, replenishment, and convalescence.

A mission statement is necessary to point a congregation toward the types of exercises and medicine that our spirits needs. Note: it doesn't specify the exercises and medicines -- it only points us toward the types of exercises and medicines toward which the congregation agrees to direct itself.

Let me ask: Who owns the congregation? The most natural answer is: the members own the congregation. In reality, the "owner" is not a "who." It's a "what." The mission owns the congregation. The members, in choosing to join, choose to belong to the mission. A church's members need to say what they belong to -- and they need to say it in a way that provides meaningful guidance. Otherwise, it's a church without a compelling reason to be -- or to be part of.

A serviceable mission:
  • is neither trite, on the one hand, nor incomprehensible, on the other;
  • is short and memorable, because a mission that people can't remember is not a mission that provides guidance;
  • captures the core of what the congregation is all about yet provides meaningful guidance as it goes forward.
The project of articulating such a mission requires that we think about "mission" in some ways to which we may be unaccustomed.

1. Not the consumer’s mindset. The relationship of a member to a congregation is not primarily the relation of a consumer to a product. The question isn't "what do I want the congregation to provide to me?" Though there are definite benefits of congregational life, that's not the main question in thinking about mission.

2. Not a strictly service orientation. Nor is the relationship of a member to a congregation primarily the relation of a servant to a cause. The question isn't "what can I give to the congregation?" Though the gifts of your time, talents, and treasures are necessary for the life of the congregation, that's also not the main question in thinking about mission.

To paraphrase JFK: Ask neither what your congregation can do for you, nor what you can do for your congregation.

Instead, think about the ways you'd like to grow, learn, deepen, and develop that congregational life might, conceivably, help with. This will involve some service to you from the congregation, and it will involve some contribution from you to the congregation, but not in a way that the receiving and the giving can be easily or neatly separated. It will also involve you doing your own work: much of it on your own, while guided by your congregational connection.

When we ask how you'd like to grow, learn, deepen, and develop, we aren't implying that you aren't good enough already. You're plenty good enough. You are, in fact, perfect -- exactly the way you are. So now what? What are you going to do next with your wonderful, perfect self? What's next for you in your ongoing growth?

Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. Victoria Weinstein has written:
If I go to the gym and people are sprawled out napping on the floor of the aerobics studio, I will think the gym management is not just remiss, but nuts. It’s no different in church. We’re all there for heart strengthening of a different kind. Leaders should be empowered to be able to say: “Get off the aerobics floor, please. You can nap at home.” This isn’t about not loving people. It’s about being clear what church is for. “Napping on the floor of the aerobics studio is not part of our mission, so we won’t be addressing your complaints about the pillows.” (See the full blog post here.)
Let us really listen to our own hearts and see if we can articulate what sort of direction our perfect beings are urging us to move in now – which muscles we’re out to strengthen at the faith gym called church. Who would you like to be more like, that your congregation might help with?

To say that a church is a spiritual gym is not to forget that often the church is also a spiritual infirmary. There are times in life when we come to church sick at heart, soul weary, broken-spirited. Before we can think about the exercises and disciplines which cultivate and strengthen our wisdom, compassion, and equanimity, we just need to be cared for. We need replenishing rest. Yes, the church has that pastoral function in addition to its prophetic task. Yes, the church is there to comfort the afflicted as well as afflict (encourage in the spiritual disciplines) the complacently comfortable.

So: Who would you like to be more like, that your congregation might help with?

One UU told me that his aim was to “remain just as I am now.” I resonate with this poignant yearning. There is a part of my heart that would like to stop time, make everything permanent. The heart knows that desire. But, alas. There are a lot of things a faith community can help you with, but stopping time is not one of them. We could choose a mission that was focused on maintenance of physical and mental health -- we could orient our programming toward exercise and diet classes, and programs to help us keep our minds sharp. Such programs would help us remain healthier for longer -- but no matter how hard we work at it, individually and collectively, we won't remain exactly as we are.

A good mission statement will, in about three phrases, capture the yearnings that are most alive in us. Here’s one pretty good mission that one Unitarian Universalist congregation came up with:
“Healing spiritual disconnection by helping each other Listen to our deepest selves, open to life’s gifts, and serve needs greater than our own.”
That’s short enough to remember. It has an even shorter way to remember it:
Listen, Open, Serve.
If you can remember "listen, open, serve," then with just a little practice, you can remember the rest: Listen (to our deepest selves), Open (to life’s gifts), and Serve (needs greater than our own). Then you only need to remember the lead-in: "Healing spiritual disconnection by helping each other . . . "

This mission statement meets the criteria:
  • It is brief and memorable.
  • It identifies the work each member is there to do.
  • It says how the members of that congregation want to be changed.
The congregation that adopted this mission statement (the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rochester, NY) used their mission to organize every program and every policy toward being a place where people are transformed, where people learn to listen (to the deepest self), open (to life’s gifts), and serve (needs greater than our own).

A congregation’s effort to articulate its mission is likely to yield a result which, even if supported by a consensus, is one to which a few of the members just don’t feel called. And that's OK. Even if there are members who aren't interested in the congregation's mission -- even if there are folks who don't want to be intentional about the changes that are coming anyway, those folks will always be welcome. They’ll be able to continue enjoying what they have always enjoyed about congregational life.

It’s just that those who yearn to move forward should not be held back by those who are comfortable not moving at all. The world needs – cries out for -- those who do choose to accept a mission of embodying a spiritually deepening liberal religion.

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