READING: Looking in the Mirror by Lyle E. Schaller
Approximately one-hundred thousand Protestant congregations in the United States and Canada average fewer than thirty-five people in attendance at the principal weekly worship service. Together these very small congregations account for more than one-fourth of all Protestant congregations on the North American continent and for approximately 5 percent of all Protestant churchgoers on the typical Sabbath.
It may help us to understand the distinctive characteristics of these congregations if we liken them to a cat. Have you ever owned a cat? If you answer yes, you do not understand cats. No one owns a cat! You may keep a cat. You may work for a cat. You may have taken care of a wandering cat who came to live with you. You may have a cat in your house as a pet. You may have a cat as a landlord, but you do not own a cat. Cats take care of themselves. Cats do not like to be dependent on others. Cats have very powerful instincts that direct their behavior patterns. The female cat instinctively knows how to be a good mother to that litter of hungry kittens. No one has to develop a training program to teach that four-legged mother how to take care of her kittens.
More than one-third of all Protestant churches on the North American continent average between thirty-five and a hundred people at their principle weekly worship service. In this classification system these congregations can be likened to collies. Collies come in all different sizes. Some are big dogs. Some are relatively small. Occasionally one will encounter a mean dog that has been abused by a previous owner, but almost all collies are affectionate creatures. They enjoy being loved and they return the affection. Collies are responsive to sensitive human beings and can be trained to respond to external expectations that run counter to the dog’s natural instincts. … Collies tend to have a strong affection for members of the family, but they often bark at strangers.
Another 15 percent of the Protestant churches on this continent average between 100 and 175 at worship. These middle-sized churches resemble a garden. Some gardens are much larger than others. Some gardens have the benefit of rich and fertile soil. Others are located in barren ground. The gardeners work is never done. If the gardener is away from home for several days, the neglect is very obvious when that gardener returns. Usually there is considerable work awaiting the gardener’s return. In some seasons of the year this is a more severe problem than in others. While there are natural forces that limit how large a cat or a collie can become, a garden can be greatly increased in size without any radical changes in character. Growth on a large scale means more work for the gardener, and it may be necessary to employ some part time help, but gardens respond to the concept of quantitative growth more comfortably than do cats and dogs. …
The collie wants to love and be loved. The garden needs someone who loves gardens, but is willing and able to accept a leadership role in planning and decision-making, and who has the ability to think in a longer time frame than either the cat or collie believe necessary. Cats and dogs live in today’s world, but the garden is dependent on someone who can plan at least one season in advance. The enabler or trainer may be remarkably effective when working with the collie, but the garden needs someone who is willing to take charge.
Finally, several young ministers have complained that the theological school they attended trained them to serve as gardeners, but offered little preparation in the care of cats and dogs.
SERMON: “The Truth about Cats and Dogs”
We are a congregation in transition. When I first began here five years ago we had 58 members with an average Sunday attendance of about 25-30 people. Today we have a membership of 90, and over the past several months our attendance on Sunday has hovered around 45- 50 people. Our largest attendance was 80 and our smallest attendance was 43.
When I first arrived here, there was still some talk of expanding the size of this building by extending the Religious Education classrooms and adding a Sanctuary over where the current Peace Circle is located. I believe this is still the dream for those people who were here five years ago. That dream however was contingent on growing the congregation in size. But growing the congregation in membership size cannot be the goal of the congregation. Membership growth is a side effect to what is happening in the congregation and in the community in which the congregation lives and breathes. So our growth in membership over these past five years is not because of any specific goal for membership growth but rather is the result of the wonderful attention we have made towards fulfilling our mission.
Our goal, our priority is increasing our ability to articulate and expand our cause into the world. We are getting relatively good at this. The number of first time visitors to our congregation over this past year has been an amazing number. Where did they hear about us? The first place that is mentioned is the internet and the second place is word of mouth. Every single person who walks through our doors is in marketing terms, pre-qualified to become members of our congregation. Every. Single. One. They have read our materials, asked questions, and thought to themselves in some form or another; this place sounds like a place I would fit in and maybe join in promoting its mission.
Former Unitarian Universalist Association president Bill Sinkford shared this encounter that occurred, “ In 1999, when we held our General Assembly in Salt Lake City, Stefan Jonasson, (now our Coordinator of Large Church Services), (Ed.: and past president of HUUmanists) through a series of intentional and unintentional actions, wound up meeting with the head of missionary work for the Mormons. Since we were coming to town, the Mormons had done their homework, and knew a lot about us. And this man said to Stefan, “you know, Unitarian Universalists have a remarkable ability to attract visitors—proportionately many more than the Mormons do. But,” he told Stefan, “you’re lousy at holding onto them.” After some discussion, he concluded with the observation that “if your churches were half as successful at integrating and retaining members as we Mormons are, then Unitarian Universalism would be the most dangerous religion in America.[i]”
Could the reason our congregations are not integrating and retaining members be as Lyle Schaller suggests in our reading today that cat congregations are aloof and distant and collie congregations bark at strangers? Cats adopt their owners. So a cat congregation adopts its members. You might think that the new member chooses the congregation to join, but not so in a cat congregation it is the congregation that chooses the member. If the cat does not adopt you then you do not have a cat. One of our members reports that a cat has shown up at their house and has decided this is home. This is how cats operate, they are independent and decisive in who they invite in to their circle. This makes it hard to grow the membership of a cat congregation because cat congregations are just too finicky as to who to ask to join.
The other size congregation that is also predominant in our religious movement is the collie or dog congregation. Collies are very affectionate. The collie congregation is warm and friendly and wants to play with others up and until the other decides no and then the dog will bark at them. These two size congregations make up the majority of our congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.
So the universal question across our religious movement is how do we grow our congregations to enable a lasting and positive change in the world? The Pew Research Institute indicated that Unitarian Universalism is growing and particularly in the South but when looking at our 50 year history we are still the same size we were in 1961 making up only 3 tenths of the adult population of the nation.
We are a religion made up of cats and dogs. If it is any solace, so are the majority of Protestant congregations regardless of affiliation.
Just go down any major street in Tuscaloosa and you might see two or three small congregations. Some of the buildings are smaller than ours so you know their membership has to be of equal or smaller size. And they probably, like us, display similar behaviors, both positive and negative characteristics of cat and dog congregations.
So let’s bring this down from the general to the personal. I stated this is an exciting time for our congregation. People are intrigued by the values we profess on our webpage, in our newsletter, on the minister’s blog, and they come here expecting, hungering to know if it is true what we say. Do we live what we preach? Or are we like every other cat and dog faith tradition out there that talks a good game but in reality are just like everyone else? Leaving the visitor to remark either openly or privately, I’ve seen this show before—just when I think I like what I see, the storyline falls into clichés and predictable plot lines and the actors over dramatize each scene.
So here is the truth of the matter. We are somewhere in between. I would say most of us are reaching to fulfill our ideals as a faith community here and in the world. But sometimes we fall short. We are looking for others of diverse backgrounds and experiences to join us to move forward in our cause to create a world where liberty and justice for all is not just a sound bite or a dream in a cloud but a living breathing reality. We are looking to begin that here in this place and then take it into the world.
In order to do this we need to start thinking of ourselves not as a clowder of cats or a kennel of dogs which only appeals to certain groups of people, but rather as vanguard of a movement that is seeking to promote a cause that invites everyone to join. Our cause is large enough for everyone to find their puzzle piece to contribute in advancing it.
This is our cause: To ensure that every one is treated with inherent worth and dignity. To be in human relationships filled with justice, equity, and compassion. Foster acceptance of each other and encourage spiritual growth. Enable everyone to have a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. To work towards a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. And finally, we live in this world, on this planet and everything that is on and in this planet is intricately and powerfully linked to everything else in an interdependent web. So our cause is also tied into how we can live in harmony with the web that supports our very being.
If these words sounded vaguely familiar that is because they are a paraphrase of our principles found in the front of our hymnal.
Now I mentioned this congregation is in transition. We are. There is every indication based on current trends that we are in a wonderful growth pattern. I believe that we are on the trajectory to becoming a garden sized congregation very quickly and by quickly I mean over the next three to four years. What is great about garden sized congregations is that they are able to have friendly dogs and the aloof cats in the congregation as well as flower beds, vegetable and herb gardens, and topiary landscaped lawns and even a farmers’ market, a nursery, and lawn service in the community. These are all metaphors for the variety of people who would be able to find this as their church home and the difference we would be making in the community if we were to become a garden sized church.
We get there by inviting people to join our cause and our mission to create a better world. We get there by listening and forming relational connections with those who come here. As I mentioned last week, we are the right faith group to do this because our values are inclusive, our ideals are solidly grounded in creating relationships and partnerships with others.
We have had some experience of this recently with our partnering with the National Day Labor Organizing Network, NDLON, when we hosted their stay in Alabama for immigration rights.
We invited people into our homes and hearts for five days. All we really knew is that they were traveling across the country to make a stand on immigration rights and that our denomination asked us to welcome them. In faith, we invited them in, shared our church space and our homes with them. We heard their stories or their families stories of hardships in their homelands, listened to their experiences of crossing the desert and living in this country as people seeking a better life. This is not an example of a congregation that is a cat or dog congregation. This is an example of a congregation that is a garden.
This is where we are headed.
It is in the nurturing the seeds that are planted by sharing our values with one another. Seeing and learning how those values intersect with the life experiences of people who have lived very different lives than we have. We invite others to join us in our cause to covenant with us to create a better, more just, world. And in the inviting, we, too, are changed and transformed by others; our lives are enhanced, deepened and enriched by the experience of diversity. As Eboo Patel states as a spiritual principle in his book Acts of Faith, “Humanity was meant to be diverse and in relationship.[ii]”
We do not arrive to having a more diverse, more inclusive spiritual home if we run the congregation like a business. We are not a business. When a company diversifies its product base too greatly, it collapses in on itself, when a church diversifies its membership, it is able to transform the spiritual lives of its members in depth and breadth.
Businesses have very different goals than congregations. Businesses are created to sell a product, a service, and to make money. They have a very specific bottom line of increasing profits for their shareholders. They operate by a doctrine of economic rationality. One tool of this doctrine is the cost-benefit analysis to aid in making decisions. Businesses also make decisions based on objective and factual data. They run well on this type of information because it supports their bottom line. Businesses in the United States often assume an adversarial relationship between management and the worker. It is the reason why unions are important to protect the rights of the workers. Without such protection, the businesses whose focus is on the bottom line and not on supporting the wellbeing of those who make their products, the workers would be exploited beyond their capabilities. Businesses look to do what they were created to do and do more of it.
Religious communities on the other hand are created to advance a cause, to change the world to be more compassionate, more loving, and more community centered. The churches bottom line is not so well defined and few within it can agree what the bottom line is for a congregation. We are not seeking to increase the profits of our shareholders so this cannot be the bottom line. Do we look at membership numbers as the bottom line? Do we look at whether people are finding spiritual fulfillment as the bottom line? Is making a difference in the community a bottom line? Is covering our expenses the bottom line? Is our religious education curriculum instilling our Unitarian Universalist values? And the questions continue all in an attempt to define the bottom line.
The church makes decisions not on cost-benefit analyses but on traditions, rituals, community building, customs, and other practices that do not make economic sense. If we were to do a cost-benefit analysis on the use of our building we might decide the number of hours we are here do not outweigh the number of hours this building lies dormant. Yet, from the point of view, does having this building advance our cause? –it makes perfect sense.
Churches run well on the subjective data that supports the advancement of a cause. Values, dreams, ideas, and personalities are the data streams that move a cause forward into the world.
If Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech I Have a Dream was based on an objective cost-benefit analysis for integration vs. segregation, the south would still be segregated in every facet imaginable. And where schools have resorted to cost-benefit analysis of keeping schools integrated, those schools have re-segregated. We only have to look at Tuscaloosa public schools to see segregation once again being prevalent under the guise of neighborhood schools. Cost-benefit analysis says busing children is too expensive but in terms of advancing the cause of racial equality, it is one possible decision.
When a congregation attempts to focus on objective data and objective data alone the result is tension, discordance, and conflict. Objective data might conflict with our values and dreams. We tend to see this tension around budget creation time because budgets are more objective based than subjective. Schaller states, “While churches can and should formulate goals, that process should be modified to accommodate the unique characteristics of the organization to advance a cause and to serve humankind. No one has been able to program the Holy Spirit or to budget the grace of God.[iii]”
Churches, more specifically, this congregation has set up a shared ministry model where staff, minister, and the congregation are partners in advancing the cause of the church. But where there are churches drifting towards adopting a business model grounded in economic values for running the congregation, adversarial relations tend to develop and these are harmful to the advancement of the cause.
Churches are not created to do but are created to be. We are called to be a presence of loving witness in the world. We are called to be in relationship with one another. Just like Eboo Patel, I will repeat his quote as it is that important; “Humanity was meant to be diverse and in relationship.[iv]” It is in the being that we find what we are to do in the world.
I invite you to join us in our cause to create our community garden filled with diversity and in relationship with one another. Blessed Be.
Sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on September 22 2013 (c)
[ii] Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith. Beacon Press 2007.
[iii] Lyle E. Schaller, Looking in the Mirror:Self-Apppraisal in the Local Church, Abingdon: Nashville 1984
[iv] Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith. Beacon Press 2007.