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As a congregational minister who has been creating worship online and/or outdoors for two years, and will soon, I hope, be resuming indoor services, I read with interest a recent New York Times opinion piece by Tish Harrison Warren, a priest of the conservative Anglican Church in North America. She ends with the reminder, “A chief thing that the church has to offer the world now is to remind us all how to be human creatures, with all the embodiment and physical limits that implies.” However, the rest of the article did not offer much to those human creatures whose physical limits keep them from getting to the church building.

Warren argues that being in one another’s physical presence is irreplaceable, and with that I wholeheartedly agree. However, she takes that as a reason not to offer any other way to gather. The heart of her complaint is that “offering church online implicitly makes embodiment elective,” which suggests that the only form of human embodiment worth the name is the kind that can attend church in person. Need it be said that that is not the case? Whether we are capable of getting out of bed, traveling with manageable pain, and being in a public space for an hour is not a matter of “consumer preference, like whether or not you buy hardwood floors.” It’s something that some of the congregants with whom I serve simply can’t do, no matter how much they may wish to.

In fact, for us at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, one of the boons of these hard, isolating two years has been that we reached people in this situation whom we had previously excluded despite our best intentions. It has opened my eyes to the ways in which our outreach to members with disabilities was simply inadequate. For many years, we have offered rides to anyone who needs one, but some people didn’t take us up on it, saying that they couldn’t predict until Sunday morning whether they would be up for leaving their apartments. I would assure them that that was fine, that the person offering them a ride understood and could change plans on short notice, yet few people accepted this arrangement, and I thought we had done all we could. Once we began offering online services, I realized that this was the “more” that we could do, because some–not a lot, but a few–people attended that way who had not left home for church services in some years. (We also have attendees from far away, which is a lovely new development, but that raises different issues and I’ll set them aside for now.)

Warren offers, as a solution, visits to homebound members, bringing them the worship experience where they are:

A small team of “lay eucharistic ministers” at our former church volunteered to go to the home of anyone who could not make it to church and wanted a visit. They would meet one-on-one with people, caring for them, reciting a short liturgy together, serving communion and catching up.

That’s a great thing to do. We visit folks, of course; we also have a pastoral singing group that goes to people’s homes. We could, and should, do much more of that. But I can’t see myself departing from the church on Sunday afternoon, personally renewed by our experience of corporate worship, and then visiting someone to whom I have effectively said, “Never mind corporate worship. A personal visit is enough.” Many of the members of my congregation may feel–as hundreds have since March 2020–that while attending via the internet is second best, it is far, far better than missing out entirely.

Homebound folks may feel less inclined to attend online church when most other people are there in person. On the other hand, they may feel more eager to turn on their computers: “Everything’s happening at church! I want to be a part of it.”

Perhaps my and Warren’s different liturgical traditions create different circumstances. If the most important element of one’s worship is the eucharist, perhaps a visit centered on communion is enough to make the congregant feel that they have partaken of worship. However, our Unitarian Universalist worship revolves around making music together, the spoken word, silence, and the living knowledge that one is moving along the path in the company of dozens or hundreds of people. Naturally, one can bring some elements of even this worship to a one-on-one visit. When I spent a couple of days in the hospital years ago, it meant a great deal to me when someone visited me, lit an electric version of our ceremonial chalice (hospitals, like other places where pure oxygen flows, forbid open flames), and shared a reading from our hymnal. I absolutely felt ministered to, and as if I had been to worship. However, as a substitute for corporate worship every week of my life, it would be thin gruel.

Furthermore, those few who are endangered by close contact and thus unable to attend corporate worship in person are often reluctant to admit visitors for the same reason. What about, for example, a member who has a very weak immune system and must curtail visits to their home? I’ve had wonderful conversations with such members of my community via phone or Zoom. Due to their health risks, they may never come to in-person services. So if we cease our online services, they will cease to have a service to go to, period.

It may be that once COVID fades, internet worship no longer attracts more than a handful of people. But we have yet to find out. I hope we’ll find out by offering it (alongside indoor and, probably, outdoor services), and seeing who still attends, not by yanking the plug.

So we will most certainly offer both. It’s not about embodiment being elective. It’s about some people simply not having bodies that can get to the building easily, or at all.

If, as Warren fears and as probably is the case, some people who are capable of attending in person opt to attend online rather than engage with the complexities of physical presence, we’ll deal with that when it arises, compassionately and without judgment. And I’ll be glad that while they are hesitating about whether to attend in person or just stay away from everything to do with church, we will be offering them a third option.

Edited to add: Five minutes after I posted this, I happened to get a phone call from an elderly woman in my congregation who attended almost every Sunday before COVID, and has done so online since. She said that as much as she misses gathering in-person, she may keep attending via the internet. (We already have in-person, outdoor services, thanks to our climate.) The 20-minute drive is just too much for her sometimes. I rest my case.


Anyone who’s kicked around in the field of congregational growth for more than about ten minutes has encountered the concept that there are several kinds of growth. As outlined by Loren Mead in More Than Numbers: The Way Churches Grow, they are numerical growth, organizational or organic growth (appropriate changes in structure–e.g., a 75-member church needs different structures than a 250-member church), missional or incarnational growth (how well people live out the mission of the congregation day to day), and  maturational or spiritual growth (he also calls this “growth in wisdom”). To our detriment, we tend to focus overmuch on numerical growth, for a variety of reasons, a major one of which is that it’s the easiest to measure.

Since other kinds of growth are important as well, though, it’s important to measure them too.  I have been thinking about ways one might measure the maturational or spiritual depth of a congregation and its members: the extent to which the congregation “challenge[s], support[s] and encourage[s] each one of its members to grow in the maturity of their faith, to deepen their spiritual roots, and to broaden religious imaginations”; members’ growth in wisdom. What if we randomly sampled a group of members each year and asked them some questions that would reveal the maturity of their spiritual lives? Or followed several over the course of several years, in a longitudinal survey? What questions might we ask?

What do you think of these?:

I have a regular spiritual practice. (y/n)

I have people at church with whom I can talk about spiritual or religious matters. (y/n) How many? _____

I have people outside church with whom I can talk about spiritual or religious matters. (y/n) How many? _____

In the past month, I have had conversations after church, and/or outside church, about an issue that was talked about in the service. (y/n/I haven’t gone to any services)

Participating in my small group gives me insight and inspiration. (y/n/I’m not in a small group)

I have called upon members of the congregation to help me in some way in the past month.

I have responded to a request for help from other members of the congregation in the past month (examples: brought a meal for our Baby Cafe or Get Better Bistro, gave someone a ride, followed up with someone who shared a sorrow at Caring and Sharing).

I ponder deep questions ___________ (frequently / occasionally / rarely / never).

Things I learn in church help me in my relationships outside church (frequently / occasionally / rarely / never).

In the past month, I have had an experience one might call transcendent, spiritual, or powerfully meaningful at church. (y/n)

In the past month, I have had an experience one might call transcendent, spiritual, or powerfully meaningful outside church. (y/n)

What else would you ask to discern wisdom or spiritual depth? Does your congregation have a process for measuring maturational growth?

As a side note: although Mead is an Episcopal priest and the organization he founded to strengthen congregations, the Alban Institute, is non-denominational, putting his terms into a search engine turns up mostly Unitarian Universalist sites. I’m curious what that’s about.

A colleague comes out about her other life, in grand style.

You definitely want to see this.

I love that Dawn pursues a passion outside ministry, which can be so consuming. I love that she shared it so exuberantly with her congregation, I love that they got the connection with their own beauty and power, and I love that she got the media to come and cover this service! “Liv Fearless” is right!

When asked what objections she had to the institution of marriage, Gloria Steinem is said to have replied, “None. I just don’t want to live in an institution.”

In church parlance, I’m an institutionalist, meaning I believe it’s important to sustain the structures that make it possible to do the real work of the church. But that doesn’t mean the church has to be An Institution. A church becomes An Institution when it focuses so intently on its buildings, its long-established programs, etc., that it thinks those are the real work of the church. It forgets for long stretches at a time the purpose for which all those institutional structures were created.

One of the buzzwords I hear in my travels around the UU Growth Lab and blogosphere is “missional.” Some of the most interesting, passionate, grounded Unitarian Universalists I know want us to be a more “missional church.” I’m constitutionally suspicious of buzzwords, and one of the things I do when I’m trying to get under a buzzword to any truth that may lie beneath is to ask, “What questions guide a person who is [buzzword]?” In other words, if you’re doing church in a missional way, what question or questions guide your decisions?

It seems to me that the central question one asks in a missional church is: what does our religion call us to do in the world?

And then you answer by going and doing it. From there it follows that the task of the church is to inspire and equip people to carry out the mission. Institution-building is a key part of the process, but only as a means to realizing the mission. I must be a missional church person, because this is the question I want to be asking and answering daily.

Here’s one (non-UU) minister’s statement of what his church will look like when it’s made the missional shift.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure I want to say that the shift he describes here didn’t work. Why it didn’t is of more interest to church-planters; for people like me who serve a church that’s been around for 60-plus years, the challenge is not to “start it the way you dream it” but to make a change that will stick. That is a complex question (more on it soon), but the answer starts with the question I posed above: ask what our religion calls us to do in the world. Keep asking. Do it. Do it some more. Ask “Was that really it?” Repeat. Deepen.

To see one way UUs can put the missional question at the center of a ministry, read about Ron Robinson’s ministry in (to! with!) Turley, Oklahoma.

From taking my car in for its oil change on Friday, I learned something about how to welcome people to a place that’s unfamiliar to them. I’ve never gone there before and it is rather a big sprawling place.  When I went to pick up my car, the service manager, without so much as a question from me, did not tell me the way to the billing desk but escorted me there, told me my car would be driven up to the front door in just a moment, told the person at the billing desk who I was, and gave me a friendly pat on the arm as she said, “See you in three months.” I felt like she was really happy to have my business (paltry though it was, especially for a car dealership whose bread and butter is definitely not oil changes) and I’ll be happy to go back there. So simple. No, I am not suggesting congregations provide valet parking (unless your parking lot is not in sight of your building, in which case you should seriously consider it). I’m saying, since I hope that we are happy to see newcomers and want them to be comfortable and come back, we should take a page from a Toyota dealership and treat them that way.

From donating blood, also on Friday, I was reminded that being able to give is deeply satisfying.  The keys to feeling that way are the knowledge that the gift is within my capabilities and concrete, vivid evidence that it is making a difference. I am never going to go into a burning building to save a life; knowing that I can save a life by giving a pint of my blood gives me the sense of being critically important that I imagine firefighters experience daily. Oh, and a third key was that it was a challenge, not something I could do so easily that it meant nothing. Translation, for us congregational leaders asking for time or money from members:  (1) Don’t ask for so little that the donation requires no real generosity from the giver. Being generous is a wonderful feeling, and they only get it when they’ve stretched.  (2) Don’t ask for so much that they can’t manage it, or they’ll feel terribly discouraged and as if they don’t belong. (3) Have a vision for our congregation, a vision of something of great worth that is realizable only by their donations, and show them the connection.  (If we  don’t have such a vision, we shouldn’t be asking for their money or time.)

From going to the Maker Faire Saturday, I learned that if we lose sight of our deep purpose, people will drift away. I enjoyed it, but it seemed much less focused on what it used to be all about, empowering people to make things, and more on showing them (or selling them) the things others had made. Boo. I can get that at any shopping mall.  I’ve proudly told people that my daughter has gone to every Maker Faire since her birth, starting at age two months and excepting only the year we were in Mexico. If it surrenders much more of its vision, I’m not so sure I’ll care anymore about preserving it as a family tradition.

On Saturday, we went to the annual Our Family Coalition multifaith holiday party, held at St. Gregory of Nyssa in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco.  Aside from the pleasures of getting together with lots of other LGBT parents and their kids, I was looking forward to seeing the inside of this church again.

In the center of the rotunda is the table where they serve communion, and carved on it are words about Jesus welcoming sinners to his table.  (On their website, they say, “We welcome all people–especially strangers—to communion.”)

Then, up above, all around the inside of the rotunda, is a gorgeous mural of several dozen dancing figures, led by Jesus, Lord of the Dance. These “Dancing Saints” include actual saints of the Episcopal Church and many other saints chosen by the congregation in partnership with the artist, Mark Dukes.  Malcolm X holds hands with Queen Elizabeth I; Charles Darwin’s hand is on Saint Symeon’s shoulder. Cesar Chavez dances along in front of Anne Frank. Many of the dancers are barefoot (if not totally naked, as is King David); many wear sandals; Eleanor Roosevelt wears loafers. All have haloes. It’s almost enough to make me want to convert to Episcopalianism and join this church.

Okay, to be honest, it doesn’t come close.  I am just never going to be a Christian.  But I can’t stop smiling when I look up at those dancers. What I love about St. Gregory’s is not only that this beautiful mural reminds me of the people I also wish to emulate, but that they have done three things any religious community needs to do to thrive:  they have proudly laid claim to their tradition; they have given that tradition a form particular to their time and place; and they have declared in a beautiful, striking, and literally indelible way what they stand for. Walk into St. Gregory and you know that their religion is about joyously welcoming everyone into a circle where all may eat and, more, celebrate.

And they do dance in their services . . .

Dancing along with the saints (c) 2006 David Sanger

. . . and from the reports of those who’ve gone to services there, they keep the promise made on their altar and their website–all are welcome.  They host a weekly food pantry and it is held around the altar, under the dancing saints in the rotunda.  And of course they welcome our families every year.

Fun assignment for membership committees (worship committees, altar guilds, buildings and grounds committees, etc.): pretend you are a visitor to your congregation. What do the architecture and art, the chosen or accidental icons of your space, communicate about the congregation’s purpose? Do they get it right?

Icon of Sojourner Truth by Mark Dukes; Photo (c) 2006 David Sanger

I sang for my supper by preaching at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Miguel de Allende (UUFSMA) last Sunday. It turns out that in addition to the week’s stay at a home provided by the congregation, Joy, Munchkin and I were treated to lunch afterwards and got to take the day’s flowers home. Generous compensation for an easy morning; I prepared, of course, because I always do, but it was much easier preparation than usual because I’d given the sermon in essentially the same form two years earler at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. Text version is here, audio here. They were a nice bunch, intelligent and friendly.

Ten percent of San Miguel de Allende’s population come from elsewhere, and 70% of those are from the US or Canada. There are a fair number of expatriates and retirees, and lots more who come every year for a few weeks or months, plus a goodly share of one-time tourists. That’s whom the congregation serves: English-speakers who are here permanently or transiently, that is, mostly norteamericano retirees, snowbirds, and visitors. It is therefore elderly–our hosts joked that we brought the average age of the room down significantly–and has no children’s religious education or child care. As a result, we won’t be going much, since we can’t go together; if one of us goes to church, the other has sole charge of the munchkin all morning, which is okay now and then but far from a desirable every-Sunday arrangement.

They have a weekly discussion group that sounds really interesting, and a Wednesday lunch that we found welcoming, and “Circle Cenas” (like many UU congregations’ Circle Suppers). Everything seems very well-organized for people to drop in, with all information in the weekly order of service, few of the activities requiring an ongoing commitment, and membership offered in various categories to reflect the fact that many members also have commitments to another UU congregation. It’s also organized to gather up the comparative wealth of the congregation and give it to the local community; the church gives away 75% of its post-expenses budget to various San Miguel organizations, and with an all-volunteer staff, its expenses are low.

I’ve run into a couple of people who only started going to UU church when they came to San Miguel, so I know the church is doing outreach (perhaps only passively, though it advertises its services and its location better than a lot of US UU churches). Its outreach, however, is only to English speakers. It announces its weekly services in the English-language newspaper. Services, classes, group meetings are in English.

It makes me wonder about the possibility of having a church here that serves the local population–not just in the sense of the support the UUFSMA gives to San Miguel, but in the full sense that any UU church serves its members: a center for shared worship, religious education, justice work, pastoral care, etc. The vibrancy of the little group of norteamericano UUs points up the lost (or shall we say, not yet taken) opportunity to make Unitarian Universalism known to the tens of thousands of Mexicans who live in and around San Miguel.

How does one sustain a bilingual, bicultural congregation? As someone at UUFSMA noted, to make the Sunday service bilingual would make it very long. But there are other models for bringing people together into one congregation without a common language; San Jose, CA, seems to be making one work, as do many congregations in other faiths. E.g., where I live (near San Francisco) many churches have large populations that speak only or mostly Tagalog, Tongan, Chinese or Spanish, alongside those that speak only or mostly English.

Or might UUs in San Miguel start a truly Mexican congregation, maybe linking the two congregations in some kind of partnership but recognizing that they will be quite separate? There are a couple of emerging congregations in Mexico City. San Miguel might be a candidate for another.

How would someone go about starting a Mexican UU church in San Miguel, given the UUA’s unofficial franchise system (not to mention its almost complete lack of engagement with the world outside the US and Canada)? What resources does the UUA or International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) offer to help a new congregation start in a town that already has one, in a way that diminishes any sense of rivalry and increases the partnership between them?

We also frown on UU ministers starting up congregations that they will then serve. There are good reasons for this, but it means that the only way for a new UU congregation to get started is for a very devoted group of laypeople to work at it, probably for many years, before they have the resources to bring in even a half-time minister. It also wastes the tremendous resources that ministers have to offer. In the case of San Miguel, many ministers have come through and led a service or a class; occasionally they retire to the town themselves. Maybe one who was not yet ready to retire would want to plant a church here, if they could count on support. Surely there are ways to safeguard against the problems that can come along with a minister helping to found a congregation: say, a requirement that the minister serve for only a certain number of years (five?), then has to be voted in or out by the congregation, as in the late (and lamented, by me) Extension Ministry program.

I’m not interested in the job (at least, not for another thirty years or so), but the questions make me want to do a little research into the other faiths represented here in San Miguel. I bet some of them, other than the Catholics of course, came from somewhere else and offered their message and their service to Mexicans. Maybe some of them even did it with the respect for the local culture that I’d expect from UU outreach. I’d like to see how they did it and how it’s going.

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