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The Gathering is at an historic crossroad – obviously! What we as a congregation decide next week – whether to approve or deny a merger – will define our future. I have no illusions that no matter what happens next Sunday, our spiritual home has been and will be changed.
I took a look this past week at theories on why almost every person resists change. While I cannot peer into all of your hearts and minds, I’ve tried to discern, as a result of my reading, some of the questions we might have about the potential change we face. I’ve condensed them into three areas of concern.
First, I believe many of us are uncertain about our future. We have no clear idea what the experience will be like in a new and merged church. Further, we have no experience working with Northern Hills members and thus we have no bonds of trust with them – and that is not to say we distrust them. Ultimately, I summarize this first concern many of us have in one sentence: Our concerns about an uncertain future might outweigh our concerns about remaining the same.
Second, many of us are concerned about the loss of our culture, our way of doing things, and our history. We sense the end of an era that many of us have worked so hard and given so much to achieve. We are loyal to all that the Gathering embodies and it is difficult for any of us to forsake that. Ultimately, we have concerns about a loss of the Gathering ethos, spirit and identity.
Third, we have a natural and healthy skepticism about any change. We are an intelligent group of people who do not jump on any passing opportunity for the mere fun or emotional pull of it.
To address the first concern, I deeply understand it. None of us are able to predict the future even though we often spend so much time worrying about it. Keith and I occasionally experience bouts of insomnia and the primary cause is that at night, alone in bed, our minds too often focus on worries about the future and possible negative outcomes to issues we face.
This fear speaks to a primary spiritual goal for any person – how do we find peace of mind and of soul such that we are able to lead happy and fulfilled lives? Fear of the unknown and of change comes from our ultimate fear of death. And, for us, a merge may seem much like a death. If we vote next Sunday for a merge, some of us believe we will be voting for the death of the Gathering.
A mitigating factor for this worry about the unknown is to have trust in those who will implement change. Hopefully, you have some trust in me and you know my style of ministry. That might reassure you that at least there will be a level of continuity in how a new church will be Pastored.
Added to that mix, however, is the unknown factor of Northern Hills members and how they will interact with us in managing the new church. Will they be fair, will they be cooperative, will they be open to more informality, will they be caring and friendly?
Fear of the unknown is natural to the human species. As we know, the only thing certain about life is that it is uncertain. So, in order to find peace, we must come to terms with changes we face everyday. To echo the famous serenity prayer, we ask for the peace of mind to accept the things we cannot control, the courage to change the things we can, and most importantly, the WISDOM to know the difference.
Change for the Gathering, like all things in life, is inevitable. Even if we hope to stay the same, that is not possible. Staying the same is simply choosing to change in a way that is less sudden.
By choosing to stay the same, we will change. We see forces around us in Over-the-Rhine that will force us to change – high rents and a changing neighborhood. We can see a change in the core group of our membership. The average age of our congregation is getting older and that brings with it issues and changes in personal lives that affect us as a whole.
In order to apply the serenity prayer, we must find the peace to accept the forces we cannot control – like committed members who pass away, move to another city or, in some cases, choose stop attending here. But, as the prayer goes, we must have the courage to change the things we can control – like growing the size of our congregation. A merge with another like minded church is simply one way for us to change for the better. It is not the only way to address this problem nor is it an act of desperation. Instead, it is a wise and prudent option – an opportunity for us to change that was not sought by us but which has enough merit that we would have been foolish not to consider it.
Fear of the unknown is also fed, as I said earlier, by our healthy lack of trust in how Northern Hills members will work with us. They have been nothing but friendly and welcoming but, we have only nine months of experience with them. They have only nine months of experience with us and so their level of trust toward us is also limited. Nevertheless, I hope most of us have had some level of experience in dealing with at least one Northern Hills member. I believe most of those experiences have been positive.
Folks at Northern Hills are much like us – a small group of people who are loyal to their church, what it stands for and how it encourages them to act according to their spiritual beliefs – as people who are kind, considerate, passionate, and compassionate.
In this regard, I ask you to trust me in my belief that we can trust them. I ask for your trust based on my five and a half years as your Pastor and who I am as a person. I also ask you to trust my many experiences with them. Because of the nature of my work, I am the one Gathering person who has interacted with almost every Northern Hills member. I’ve worked closely with their leaders and volunteers. I know most of their names. I’ve counseled a few, worked with many, and socialized with many. Surprisingly or not, I find their congregation is similar to our own. They have a committed core of members who do a lot, they have their peacemakers, their few cranky people, their slightly eccentric personalities. Overall, they are kind-hearted people who are not perfect but, like us, want to love fellow members and love outsiders.
If I did not believe this, if I thought Northern Hills members, as a whole. had attitudes of control, arrogance, anger and unfriendliness, I would NOT endorse a merger. I’ve seen congregations like that. I do not want to work for people who do not sincerely try to apply spiritual values and ethics in their behavior. They have been gracious and kind to me as I’ve seen them be to each of you. And we have acted toward them in the same manner. They want to work as equals with us in forming and governing a new church.
I want to also address a second concern many of us have about the loss of ourselves, our culture, our history and identity. What we have at the Gathering is something of a paradise. We are a mostly gentle and caring community. There are no factions and very little gossip or behind the scenes backbiting. Engaging in congregation intrigue is not who we are as a beloved community. We have few committees. Members are free to dig in and do the work that is needed to keep us running. Overall, you are a group that has treated its two Pastors with respect and kindness. I will also add, as humbly as I can, the Gathering has been fortunate to have had two good ministers who were liked by most. As Northern Hills can attest, that is not always the case.
So, I understand Ginny Patterson’s lament about sadness in her heart at the loss of our culture. The culture at Northern Hills is different. While their people, as I said, are very similar to us in demeanor and spirituality, they run their church based on their own history and traditions. It is natural to fear that their culture will swallow ours up.
This last week, Jennelle Murray and Jack Brennan both worked to make sure Northern Hills had access to an in depth history of the Gathering’s founding – one that Jack wrote for our ten year anniversary. Many at Northern Hills were eager to understand that history so they can better understand us.
My point is this: it took Jennelle and Jack to proactively work to make sure a piece of our culture was understood by them. That leads me back to the serenity prayer. We must have the courage to change the things we can control. We will have the ability to affect and change the culture in a new congregation – if each person is willing to gently speak up, volunteer, and help manage it. The success of a merger with NHF will depend on two questions: do we simply allow our Gathering identity to be swallowed up, or will we have the courage and the willingness to make sure we are, instead, equally blended?
To insure the continuity of our culture, it will take the work of every sincere and good hearted Gathering member – to serve in outreach, to serve as leaders, to serve on Sundays, to be actively involved. If we do these things, I am confident a Gathering spirit, ethos, kindness and informality will be infused within a new culture. If the Gathering has meant anything to you, if your work and your contributions have meant anything, then I hope you will boldly embrace this opportunity to change us in a way that insures continuity of all that the Gathering has been and still is.
An overriding principle is at work here. The Gathering and Northern Hills have a chance to be the kind of change we say we want to see in the world. Peoples all over the world express hate, anger, jealousy and violence – verbal and physical – toward one another – mostly based on perceived differences. But we, two congregations with different cultures and practices, can now live out what it is that we say we believe. We can be proud of our traditions and hold on to them, while honoring and welcoming those of others. We can be cooperative, understanding, listening, loving, humble, gentle and compromising – all the ways of living that we hold dear.
That is what our Gathering defining artwork portrays – many prophets all dancing together in celebration of universal truths – that people are good, that we all seek inner peace and happiness, that the one abiding way to live – one that all religions agree on – is the Golden Rule to love all others at least as much as we love ourselves.
Unitarians and the people of Northern Hills believe the same. People of all religions and spiritual backgrounds are welcome to come and explore their PERSONAL journey of faith, or no faith. Sunday services, instead of celebrating and speaking about one narrow religion, celebrate a universal spirituality of reason and love that ALL people, whether they be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist or Hindu, can accept and practice. While we as individuals may believe in one particular faith or no faith, we as a community have always lived out, whether we knew it or not, Unitarian Universalist ideals. Who among us disagrees with the following from UU 7 Principles:
“We believe in a direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to renewal of the spirit and openness to the forces that create and uphold life. We believe in the words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love. Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.”
Third, and finally, I come to the point about having a healthy skepticism for anything new. We are all intelligent and educated people. We do not operate on emotion. We deeply think about many things. And a merger requires no less of us.
A merger with Northern Hills has been wisely examined by most of us. Most of us have attended there many times. We’ve had social events with them. Some of us have actively worked with them on events, Sunday services or outreach. We have the opportunity to work as partners with a congregation that appreciates us, wants to unite with us and is willing to join us as equals.
As Gatherers, we are not timid creatures who choose the status quo. From its first moments as a congregation, when Steve and others bravely defied centuries of religious tradition, the Gathering embraced change. Implicitly, the Gathering rejected old forms of faith and moved toward a spirituality of compassion and love for all people – no matter who they are. The Gathering essentially proclaimed, “If there is a God, she is one of love. If there is one universal Truth, it is one that demands constant questioning and not blind obedience to a single belief system.”
Our spirituality is one that sings and dances to the gentleness and love of Jesus, the passion of Muhammad, the tradition of Abraham, the unity of Krishna, the selflessness of Buddha, the mysterious force of goodness that permeates our universe. We will not die if we merge. We will, instead, insure that our Gathering spirituality and identity goes forward.
To conclude, let us pray:
To the God or no God, each of our own understanding, Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. We pray that our collective wisdom, and our mutual love for one another, be expressed next Sunday, May 17th, 2015.