10 Nov

Is there no balm in Gilead? Why then have my people not been made whole?”

Delivered at First Unitarian Church on November 7, 2010

Do you remember that feeling of excitement and worry that the first day of school brought for so many of us? Or maybe, for you, it was just excitement. Or maybe just worry. Or something else entirely!

I have been with you for just over a year. That is long enough to begin to get a picture of this congregation as a system. Long enough to get to know a few of the feelings this community is holding on to. During this past year, we made our way through a budget crisis with amazing resolve. We focused and made fantastic things happen.

But now the immediate crisis is over, the adrenaline has worn off. I am well settled as your minister, for what hopes to be a long, positive relationship. And so now, some of you are beginning to reflect. Have you ever been in a situation where your adrenaline kicks into high gear and you are able to accomplish amazing feats you never would have dreamed possible? Physical, or mental, or emotional? And then afterwards, you collapse in a heap? I was in a car crash once where, in the immediate aftermath, I was running around making sure everyone was okay. I was the the model of “holding it together.” But after I had ascertained everyone was fine, after I was home and safe, my body just started shaking and I started crying uncontrollably.

In so many ways, that is where I feel you are as a congregation right now. For at least 10 years, this congregation has been having a hard time. After the fire in 1985, everyone pulled together and things went pretty smoothly when the focus was on rebuilding. This lasted for a number of years, but by the late 90’s, things were starting to slip. The minister who had been here and gotten you through the fire and rebuilding was having health problems, occasionally even passing out in the pulpit. A conflict arose in the church around the issue of polyamory and the minister left soon after – leaving the conflict unresolved.

During the interim minister’s one year tenure, he had to continue to deal with the continuing conflict, September 11th happened, and a beloved church employee completed suicide in the building.

After all of that, it was not surprising that the church was desperate to get a settled minister in here, but the new minister who was called did not have the skills you hoped he had, and so after a few very painful years, you parted ways with him. The polyamory controversy raged through most of this time, reaching a cease-fire in 2005. But a cease-fire is not the same thing as a peace, and so it has simmered just under the surface, continuing to create anxiety.

Then there were the three years of interim ministry with two different ministers with vastly different styles, a temporary ban on email because tempers flared so high and folks forgot how much they care about and respect each other, and a structural re-organization that seems like a wonderful fit for this congregation but that many people still are not clear about. Then, finally, bringing in a new settled minister (me!) only to find that the finances are not what you thought they were and that enormous cuts needed to happen immediately.

Phew! It is exhausting to think about. “But every congregation has it’s issues,” you might tell me. And that is certainly true. But when I talk to people around this district, they know this congregation. They have watched your struggles. And to a person, they all say “That church has been through a LOT.” Don’t sell yourself short – it has been unusually hard.

Now, if you are visiting or maybe new here, or maybe even you have been here a while and hadn’t heard most of this – please, don’t let my naming these elephants in the room disturb you. Because there is something else going on here that is of the ultimate importance.

This congregation wants to be healthy. It wants to thrive. It takes it’s systemic health very seriously and through the years has taken step after step to try to move towards health. We struggle to figure out how to be in right relationship with each other. We struggle to be transparent. We wrestle with what it means to be in a covenantal community though good times and through bad. This is a congregation at a pivotal point in it’s history, and I am confidant that better times aren’t just around the corner, they are happening right here, right now. It is an exciting, wonderful place to be.

I think that the biggest challenge facing this congregation now is dealing with the systemic anxiety that has continued to build over the past decade, and the resulting secondary symptoms that have arisen as the anxiety continued without much abatement.

So let’s take a look at what it means to be anxious. Congregational consultant, Peter Steinke, wrote the book on Congregational Anxiety. Literally. It’s entitled “ Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.” This alone might make you feel better – systemic anxiety is not unique to this congregation. Not at all. It is a common, though not universal, affliction that many churches struggle with.

Steinke defines anxiety as “an automatic reaction ‘to a threat, real or imagined.’ As a startle reaction, anxiety protects you from potential risk or harm. Anxiety is a natural reaction designed for self-preservation.”

Anxiety from the startle reaction is supposed to be short lived. Once the threat is gone, it should dissipate. Anxiety that does not go away – like we talked about in the story for all ages – brings with it all sorts of secondary responses. We begin to lose our patience much more quickly. We start digging trenches to protect what we value. We are afraid to speak the truth because it might make people angry and that is scary and we don’t need any more scary. We don’t trust, because trust involves risk and risk creates more anxiety.

Interestingly enough, change actually happens more quickly in anxious systems because we don’t like to sit with the discomfort that change generally brings with it – we want to bring an end to the discomfort and so we hurry up and make a change. But when change is rushed, it often causes more anxiety because people didn’t necessarily know it was coming, or get to have input into the process, or they feel disenfranchised. And so there is spiral of increasing anxiety.

When I talk to people in this church about the level of anxiety, I am usually first greeted with a look of surprise, or even confusion. “I am not anxious” is often the response. But as we continue to talk about how they feel about church, I begin to hear more sentences that begin “I am worried about…” and worry is an intellectual response to anxiety.

Here are some of the things I am hearing that people are worried about right now:

  • About the budget.
  • About what we are doing for Vespers, our Christmas Eve service.
  • About what it means to cancel Yuletide Fare.
  • Worried because you don’t know who to talk to if you have an idea or a concern about something happening here.
  • Or because a few people seem to be doing most of the work.

There is a lot of anxiety. Most of these issues, I can tell you, the board and leadership are working on. And working on communicating decisions in an effective way.

But I think it is also important to notice that these are the surface reasons for our anxiety. These are the worries. They are not the core reasons for anxiety, but responses to it.

I think that the core reason for being anxious is actually quite simple. We are not who we want to be. As a church, we are not who we so desperately want to be, who we believe we can be. Who we were in the past.

Who we were in the past. This congregation has an amazing history. 180 years!!! First Unitarian was one of the first 6 churches in Louisville. It was filled with movers and shakers, with the Speed family and other dignitaries as members. It changed the face of education in Louisville, indeed even in KY and beyond. You were a powerful force for good during the Civil Rights era.

This history is a pretty big burden to carry. Your narrative story for the past decade has been one of failure, of conflict, of not living up to your history. And so it makes sense that anxiety became your standard mode of operating.

But there is hope – those of you who participated in the Appreciative Inquiry process with Barbara Child a few years ago learned a new narrative. A way to tell your story that focuses on all the gifts and strengths of this congregation – and let me tell you, there are many. MANY. You are resilient, you are loving, you are welcoming, you don’t give up. You are kind, you are open, and you are not entrenched. You are hopeful.

Bishop Jim Kelsey wrote: “”This is something I have found to be true without exception: that when we, any of us, focus on things in our lives that are passing away, we get scared, we get anxious, we get depressed, we lose hope; and when we focus on things that are being birthed and are coming newly into creation, we get excited, we get imaginative, we get optimistic, we feel drawn closer to one another, we feel as if we have meaning and purpose in this life, and we have joy. . . . We are given change as an ingredient in life. We can be frightened and anxious and resistant to it or we can embrace it as a tool to transform us.”1

Here at First Unitarian, we can move toward healing and away from anxiety. We can take a deep breathe and not feed into the startle reaction over and over again. But, I will warn you – it won’t be easy, and it won’t always look like what you think it might look like.

First, we must widen our vision. Kenneth McFayden points out that “Vision is a key factor in how congregations embrace change, move beyond the intense pain of loss, and rediscover their capacity to hope. Congregations that remain in the grip of loss and grief and anxiety are unable to see the present clearly—or to envision the future.”2 We need to look beyond our perceived failures, and see some of our remarkable successes.

For example, we balanced the budget. In one year!!! This is amazing. And pledges came in averaging 27% higher than last year.

You have a fabulous staff ready to take you into the next era.

You continue to reach out, to me, and to each other. I am so excited about the photo directory that Member Ministry is undertaking right now. Please, make sure that you reserve your picture time or ask someone to help you do so – even if you don’t need a family picture, we need to see you in this visual representation of our congregation. Likewise, I am excited to be starting a small group ministry program in February called “Covenant Groups” to help us connect with each other.

Wonderful things are happening! And these successes will propel us into future successes as well.

In order to continue to heal from the anxiety, we also need to risk trusting each other. This is a tough one, because trust involves risking getting hurt. And getting hurt, well, it’s painful. A lack of trust stems from all the pent up anxiety. But if you want to heal from the anxiety, it means trusting each other more. It takes practice, and I have already seen many positive steps in that direction. Trust that you all want the best for the congregation, that you all want this church to be a shining beacon for liberal religion in Louisville for at least another 180 years. Get to know each others’ stories. Trust that if you are vulnerable here, that you will be embraced rather than burned. And, when others risk to trust, we have to hold it as a precious gift and not betray it.

There is a Native American story about a grandfather who was talking to his grandson about how he felt. The grandfather said, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart.

One wolf is the vengeful, angry, violent one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one.”

The grandson asked him, “Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?”

The grandfather answered: “The one I feed.”

We need to feed the loving, compassionate aspect of our hearts. One way we do this is through trust. Another is through taking an attitude that you -we- are all going to be around for a while. Y’all are going to have to face each other for the next ten years or more. So treat each other like it. A marriage that is based on defensiveness and trench building won’t last. Neither will a church. You know this – you have already come so far.

And there is another way to begin to heal the anxiety. And that is letting go of how we are supposed to be. You are not the church you were fifty years ago. You are not the church you were 20 years ago. You are not the church you were 10, 5, or even 1 year ago. Let go of who you think you are supposed to be, and embrace who you are. Honor the past, but embrace who you want to be in the future.

This means embracing your perceived failures, as well as your successes. It means more of those wonderful “growth experiences.”

But mostly, it means loving each other and loving this church. I know, I know, it is corny and sappy and you hear it from me all the time, but in a world that is full of hatred and vitriol, violence and oppression, having a safe place to be accepted, and loved, for you who are, makes all the difference in the world. Having a place where you can bring your broken heart, and have it gently mended, is life saving.

I didn’t know, until earlier this week, what the service was going to be about today. The situation around this Celebration of Life changed, and changed again, and again. It was, ironically, quite anxiety producing! But in the end, it worked all worked out – as things often seem to do. I love that I got to give this sermon at the time of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. This is the time that the Hindu people celebrate the triumph of good over evil. Not just in the past, but in the here and now. It is a time of hope. Of possibility.

Alban consultant John Wimberly points out “congregations are among the most fascinating systems….Like all systems, they are filled with anxiety. Unlike most systems, they also are filled with a peace the world cannot give.”3 I believe that peace, love and trust can prevail over anxiety because, when it comes right down to it, we are each others’ best hope in this beloved community.


Let us take a few moments of silence to look across the room at each other. Look at who else is on this journey with you – see your hopes and your fears echoed in their eyes. Imagine growing older with all these beloved people around you. Feel your heart swell with love, and with hope. See each other. Really and truly see each other. And know in your heart that this, love, is the balm -truly the only balm – that will make us whole.


2McFayden, Kenneth. “The Vision to Embrace Change,”

3Wimberly, John W. Jr. “Congregational Management: A Holy Calling,”

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