This is one of the messages I was looking for earlier this Spring when it became evident of what was going on locally in the Pittsfield UU Church.
It is critical for congregational leaders to really, deeply acknowledge and understand that the congregation is the people – not the church. The congregation is the people. Meet them where they are, nourish them, and allow them to grow.
Our recent relocation to Maine has resulted in great blessings and great losses.
Our larger church communities are things of the past.
Not just for my son and I personally in our new home location, but for Maine as a whole.
For us it is a new loss.
For UU Mainers, it seems to have a long legacy leading to the present day “micro-small-church” ministries.
For instance, there is a beautiful church literally down the road from us. Less than a mile away. We researched online at the UUA website before we came it is stated to have more than 30 active members. But this is not true. Not even close. It is a ghost-church. It is beautiful with its stained glass windows. And its old sanctuary is indescribable in its beauty – rounded interior and ceiling murals. But the beauty ends there. Not because it is only skin deep, but because it is not being taken care of from the inside out, nor the outside in.
Partly because of church politics and inflexible heart-sets.
And, largely because of “lack” and “other” mentality.
All are definitely Not welcome here, and those who come better be willing to do alot of work “their way” or else be quickly cast to the lot of those undesirable.
This unwelcoming atmosphere and unwillingness to change in transformational ways is evident by the lack of attendance – on Sunday mornings typically less than a dozen people. Often no more than six people. As well as lack of programming or outreach. The free listing in the paper each week has not changed in a decade – it touts that their is Religious Education and childcare available on Sundays. This is not true – neither are offered. Children are not a focus at all in this congregation. Nor is enhancing the programming for adults seeking spiritual growth. Nor do they wish to consider re-envisioning Who They Are in their community, or in our Faith Tradition.
They have assets though. Assets handled mindfully could transform the congregation and be a boon to our UU faith in this area of small town Maine.
They have a modest endowment. A few hundred thousand dollars – which is modest, even small, compared to larger congregations, yet coveted by those without such – especially startup organization who would use the funds in such creative ways that service and outreach and growth would be cornerstones. Yet, this endowment goes towards keeping the building operational at the expense of the community. They have a huge old building that in better circumstances could be used to offset expenses with rental fees. Yet due to not being maintained properly over the years it has reached the point of needing astronomical amounts of funds to fully repair, let alone sustain. There is no financial stewardship to speak of by members or attendees.
The sustenance of the building has been kept afloat by the endowment.
The sustenance of the people has been largely sacrificed due to prevailing personalities more focused on their stained glass windows than on the hearts and minds of those who would otherwise seek this church out as their spiritual home.
If the powers that be had a vision of how best to serve the community they are in, as opposed to how best to maintain the old building, they have the means to make a huge positive difference. Now, they need to gain the mindset and heartset to do so.
I will write more about this later.
Another sad discovery was that to the community in this small town it is the crazy-people’s church. Not the kind of Crazy we UUs traditionally like to be identified as – but rather, deeply disturbed and malignant kind of crazy. It is known as Satan’s church – seriously! I couldn’t believe it. Coming from relatively healthy congregations viewed as staples to their communities, this is alarming to me. A PR nightmare. As the new Worship Chair of this congregation, I hope to help change that public persona, we’ll see how that goes and I will report back on progress.
At this point though it has been easier to fill my house with attendees for retreats, workshops, meditations and concerts than it has been to have people show up for church on Sundays.
Something that is really necessary for all the small and struggling congregations is to consider how they can be collaborating together. Collaboration is key. Yet it means learning to “let go” of some things to gain better things that are best for all concerned.
For example, I think this idea of multi-site congregations is a Key that Maine congregations should be considering.
If the small congregations began to work collaboratively, they could reduce administration costs, share pulpit supply to ensure each Sunday service has the continuity of a professional speaker/minister, and they could host board and congregational retreats together to share ideas on how to build community and meet the pastoral care needs of their congregations.
They could unite in shared visions on how best to live in to our UU Values and Principles.
They could turn their focus towards the spiritual nourishment of their communities which is something that is greatly missing from many congregations as they are focused almost entirely on political advocacy – important, but should never be at the sacrifice of the spiritual needs.