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 brief and memorable.
  • identifies the work each member is there to do.
  • says how the members of that congregation want to be changed.
The mission that CUUC adopted in 2014 Jan meets these standards. Our mission is to:
Nurture each other in our spiritual journeys,
Foster compassion and understanding within and beyond our community, and
Engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.
In three words: spirituality, compassion, service.

The project of living into any serviceable congregational mission requires that we think 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 for members of a congregation with a 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.

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. This is how we live by our mission.

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.)
To say that a congregation 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, CUUC has that pastoral function in addition to its prophetic task. Congregations exist to comfort the afflicted as well as afflict (encourage in the spiritual disciplines) the complacently comfortable.

The CUUC mission statement captures in three phrases the yearnings that are most alive in our membership -- as of 2014. It identified the work that we come to CUUC to do, and it said how we wanted to be changed.

It remains for us to use this mission to organize every program and every policy toward being a place where people are transformed, where their spirituality is deepened, their compassion is expanded, and their service is exercised. The world needs – cries out for -- mission-driven institutions embodying a spiritually deepening liberal religion.

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