the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.

7 Nov

My good-bye sermon, delivered at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY on October 23, 2016.

As we all know, today is a very special day. Today, we celebrate the Cubs making it into the World Series.

Just kidding. Unless you are a Cubs Fan.

No, today is special because it is the last time I will stand before you as your minister. At the end of today, I will turn in my keys, say my final goodbyes, and take a week off before I start my work for the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

rebuilding-wayside-pulpit

The wayside pulpit at First Unitarian Church on the night of a devastating fire in December 1985.

Last sermon for you. Oh my goodness. There are so, so many things I want to say. When I write a sermon, I usually throw out a rough draft or maybe two, but this sermon has had at least 5 different versions. At one point, I thought I’d do a narrative: tell my story, tell your story, tell the story of our time together, and then talk about your future and what hopes I have for you. Another version had me listing all your ministers – I was going to ask you to raise your hand or stand up for each minister you remembered. I wanted to demonstrate that though my ministry with you is transient, the ministry continues. This is why ministers generally cut off contact with congregants when they leave – to make room for the next minister to fill the role.

I even made a spreadsheet with all your ministers – settled and interim (I am number 28!) – and I included not just their start and end dates, but how old they were when they started. It was pretty neat to discover that in terms of length of ministry and age when I started, I’m actually a pretty average minister for you! But as fascinating as spreadsheets and data mining are to me, it is not a suitable topic for a last sermon. And, truly, this last sermon – it’s not about me. It’s about you.

I want you to walk away from today uplifted, hopeful, and grateful for our time together. I want you to walk away emboldened and energized to live your mission. No, I won’t be with you, but again, it’s not about me. It’s about how First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY embodies our saving faith in this neighborhood and beyond. I want to remind you that you are a beacon!

So many of you have told me, these last few weeks, how this church has saved you – not in some other life, but in this life, here and now. In a world that tries to convince people otherwise, you shared with me how healing it is to be told, each week, that you are lovable and that you are loved.

So many people are looking for a place where they are accepted, no matter their educational background, their theology or lack thereof. People are looking for a place where their gender identity and sexual orientation are not only accepted but celebrated. People are looking for a place where their quirks are tolerated, where it’s okay if they’ve served time, where their family structure is supported, where they will be told that black lives matter, and where they can get into and out of and around the building independently whether on wheels or on legs.

There is so, so much pain in this world. So much “othering” of anyone who does not fit society’s arbitrary standards. So many people are looking for ways through the confusion, looking for the transformational power of love that First Unitarian Church offers. And then, once you experience it and begin to heal, it is natural to want to give back. To serve this congregation that helped to save you.

This is what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist – that you know it is your responsibility to love and help others once you have experienced that love and acceptance yourself. Mark Morrison Reed wisely wrote that it is in being loved that we learn to love. We cannot, must not, hide our light under a bushel – it is not only irresponsible, but it is wrong. Wrong to keep this saving faith to ourselves.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to put ourselves out there. To help bind up the broken, the love the hell out the world and to love each other out of hell.

How will First Unitarian continue to do this? How will you continue to embody and incarnate your mission, even in these few months before the interim minister arrives?

When I look back, I see that we have done great things together in the last 7.5 years. We’ve worked on what it means to welcome people – the welcoming statement that’s on every order of service and the website is a living document that is constantly being added to, expanded. We joined CLOUT in an effort to use our privilege to amplify the voices of those too often silenced. We made our bathrooms accessible to all genders. We gave Religious Exploration its own hour and welcomed children into worship. We have used this building as outreach to the community: offering affordable space to Central Louisville Community Ministries, FORward radio, and two other worshiping congregations! We have strived for excellence in worship and in all we do. We have argued, debated, and even changed positions when we thought we were entrenched.

We have done amazing ministry together.

Now you are at an intersection – my ministry with you has reached its end. We each will go our separate ways.

Which way will go you?

Will you turn inward? Let any anger or frustration, or even fear, or sorrow about my departure cause you to pull back into yourself? Will you hide your light so that only those already here will see it?

Or, will you use this time to flourish? Will you continue to be a beacon of liberal religion here in Kentuckiana? Continue to share our saving faith with those who need it? This, this is my hope for you.

But how do you do that between now and when your next minister arrives? I’ve told the Board and leadership that the #1 thing that I think you need to, in order to continue to be the beacon you ought to be, and indeed, even to help you figure out who to call as your next minister, the #1 thing you need is a plan. A strategic plan.

You need goals. Priorities and objectives that you can measure against – priorities that can drive your budgeting choices – whether that budgeting is financial, or even when you are budgeting how much volunteer or staff energy you have. Because you can’d do and be everything.

One thing I do not recommend you put in that plan is to grow your membership. For too many years, Unitarian Universalist congregations were told that they were only successful if they were growing. What we know now is that the vast majority of congregations, Unitarian Universalist and otherwise, are dying. Growth in membership, for the sake of growth in membership, is an unrealistic target. And then it feels like a failure when it doesn’t happen.

But there are other important ways you can grow: you can grow in how you incarnate, embody, your mission and vision. You can grow in spiritual depth. You can grow in your organizational capacity.

The reality is that your options are not limitless. They are bounded by your financial capacity and the amount of energy needed to accomplish something. But you are are so rich both in terms of finances and in terms of volunteer and staff energy, you certainly have many, many options!!

Yes, you are financially very well off. I’m taking a Finance Management for Nonprofits graduate class right now – we are learning about debt ratio and assets. Let me tell you: no one should ever claim that there is “not enough” here – because there is abundance! You have no debt, you are generous pledgers, you have an amazing endowment and you are wrapping up a wildly successful capital campaign.

And yes, you are very well off in terms of volunteer and staff energy. You are a congregation that knows how to support your minister, that strives to be fair in how you pay your staff. You are a congregation that says “yes” to ideas that members come up with. You are a congregation that has learned how to rise above conflict to do the right thing, even when it is HARD. You have abundance, in finances and in the amount of talent, skills and energy people have to get the job done.

What you don’t have, yet, is a plan against which to measure your decisions. You are reaching out in every direction – a mile wide and an inch deep. This applies to how you do your finances, how you do your social justice work, and it applies to pretty much everything. This is the shadow side of being a “yes!” congregation without a plan: everything gets stretched too thin and it feels like there is not enough. But if you focus, if you know where you want to go and can set goals and objectives, then you will know how to prioritize your resources and how to better utilize and manage them. There is abundance here. It just needs to be be harnessed properly, and pointed in the right direction.

Of course, this means change. It means potentially sunsetting programs that don’t energize people, programs that don’t measure well against your plan or your mission. It means change, and change means loss. But it also means growth and possibility. A new day.

I want you to shine. I want you to pick a direction and point your light that way, and start moving, confidently and with conviction.

I will be watching. And rooting for you. And talking you up to my colleagues. You are an essential part of my ministry – your sap runs through my veins. You taught me, gave me confidence in myself as a minister, helped me grow my gifts and talents. You allowed me to take risks, and to fail, and to know that that is okay. James Keller pointed out that “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” I burn brightly because you lit my flame. And so I take you with me wherever I go.

But I am not the bright light of this church. You all are. You own the ministry. You light the beacon and keep it burning. If you think I hung the moon, it is only because you built a ladder for me to reach it. This is my final task for you: seek to embody your mission, relentlessly, and First Unitarian Church will continue to shine, as it has for nearly 200 years. I love you. Thank you for allowing me to serve you.

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