Breathe

When things go wrong, and wrong again,
And disappointment sets up camp
Upon your spirit:
Breathe. Breathe in the moment’s damp
And heavy-laden wisdom, sent

From higher places to your cell,
A missive seeping to the bone.
Take it in, hear it,
Let prayer, that holds all things unknown,
Open hands and confidence expel.

When hope is lost, and rests at ease;
When meaning falls upon its sword
And you are humbled,
Breathe. Breathe out a quiet word
that speaks no lies, and grows oak trees.

The stars worked years to bring our way
A little of the very stuff
That thrives and crumbles,
So let us live with it enough
To praise, and praising, make the day.

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The 21st Century Congregant: A Profile

In my first few weeks as Congregational Connections Lead for the Unitarian General Assembly, I’ve had many fascinating conversations with congregational leaders about how congregations are adapting to an uncertain future. Congregations large and small (OK, medium and small – we’re not a giant movement) are thinking in innovative ways about what being a community of meaning is all about.

Even before this pandemic, the landscape of congregational life had changed massively over the last fifty years. The drop in attendance was perhaps the most obvious change – but there have been countless societal changes as well. As congregational leaders, merely adapting to where we are now makes our heads spin – and we know the future is going to be different still.

I thought one fascinating way to consider the possibilities facing our congregations, might be to give a description of the typical congregant who might be a part of our congregations in the present or near future. What follows is a generalisation of the type of person that I think is either already participating in Unitarian and Free Christian congregations, or will be interested in Unitarian and free Christian congregations in, say, the period between 2021 – 2030. (“21st century congregant” is a snappy title – I like how it sounds a bit like “the six-million-dollar man” – but I’m really mostly focussing on the next decade).

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The Morning Gets Her Skates On

Last night, Dawn sensed
you were having a rough one.
So she laced up her boots,
and stepped gingerly out onto the sky.
Tottering at first, on golden legs,
she breathed into the strength of her own centre,
then, after sharpening her edges on the nearest mountain ,
she rushed to you.

She crossed the sky beneath your feet as if she were
an Italian grandmother crossing herself,
a swift and unpremeditated motion, arising
from countless years’ hard-won wisdom.

There were rumblings in the antipodal clouds last night,
because of you,
as the day pounded on its determined course,
somersaulted over the upturned gaze of a terrapin,
relentless. Entire continents
gave up the early hours
to the dolorous sigh of noon,
knowing full well
you were lodged firm in her racing heart.

She arrived, at your door,
her angled blades kicking up a frost,
breathless and keen.
There she was, again,
as we both claim to be so used to by now.

Human beings fail
to show up for each other, time
and time again.
It is the same
with morning: one day her fingers
will falter, her attention will drift off
at the last eyelet,
and her boots will have made their last journey
to your side of the rink.

Do not judge the dawn too harshly:
she whose limbs are sore from their love of you,
she who could not rescue you,
no matter how hard she tried,
but sped across the night
to greet you with what warmth
she had collected along the way.

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Who is your congregation?

In my conversations with Unitarian and free Christian congregations, one specific bit of good news is repeated again and again: congregations are reporting new attendees to their online worship. It may just be one or two – though occasionally more – and they may, or may not, come every week. But congregations have been delighted to welcome new attendees.

Sometimes these newcomers could not ordinarily access the physical chapel, for whatever reason. Maybe they live far away from the physical chapel, but feel a connection to its ethos and culture. For some, physical mobility is limited, and being able to attend a service from home is an incredible blessing. Maybe they have some prior affinity with the congregation – friends or family of a member, or a past member themselves. Or maybe they were just curious on a Sunday morning, logged on, and discovered a community of hope and thoughtfulness.

Every congregational leader I’ve spoken to has expressed joy and gratitude that new people are finding meaning in our communities. And, looking to the future, it brings up an interesting challenge.

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Your Monday blessing: The Final Word

Crave not the final word.

The Grim Reaper, it’s pretty clear,
has nothing terribly important to say, after all.

Meanwhile, only a drop or two~
from your mouth today,
might fall
like seeds
onto the waiting harvest,
and be utterly obliterated into joy.

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The Divine Symposium

The gods and I were discussing which was better –
a Twitter account, or access to birdsong.
Apollo said something funny that I can’t repeat.

Then we got out our harps, and played until lunch:
nectar, wine, ambrosia, and what I wouldn’t give
for a little more of that tune.

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So You Want to Grow the Congregation… Two Questions of Discernment

So You Want to Grow the Congregation…
Two Questions of Discernment

Throughout my ministerial career – for fifteen years as a minister serving various congregations in the US and UK, and more recently serving at UK Unitarian headquarters as Congregational Connections Lead – congregational growth has proved an extremely popular topic. I have heard from dozens of committed, devoted congregational leaders who would like to see their congregations grow.

I am far from an expert on congregational growth. But I have studied the subject a bit, with the help of congregational growth workshops, retreat, seminary classes, Alban Institute books, you name it. Side by side with these wonderful committed, devoted leaders, I have tried earnestly to help congregations grow. We have achieved only limited success, honestly: some of the congregations I have served have achieved modest numerical growth, over several years. Others haven’t grown in numbers – though perhaps they have grown in other ways. Numbers don’t always tell the whole story of a congregation. But the story the numbers tell is pretty clear: congregational growth is hard. Several of our congregations are in decline; any gains in membership are hard-won and tenuous. Often leaders will ask why congregational growth is so difficult. Is it because we live in a secular culture? Yes, partly. But there are other reasons as well, which I’d like to draw attention to with this essay.

I am not an expert, but having though about and studied congregational growth for twenty years, I want to sound a caution about how difficult congregational growth can be – and also offer some hope, after stressing how challenging congregational growth work really is. Any information offered herein is not original to me – you can probably find similar wisdom in other places; I recommend particular the Alban Institute’s resources. This essay is primarily geared towards Unitarian and free Christian congregations in the UK, but I suspect much of it applies equally well to other religious congregations (and even, to some extent, non-religious organisations). So here goes.

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“Daybreak”

This morning, the day broke
into this house of mine again.
The past was gone.

Later, I’m sure I will change the locks –
who can bear such unrelenting thievery? –
but for now, sitting amongst the gold-strewn sky,
I give to wonder its due.

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“No poem”

I have no poem to offer you, my friends:
only a pale flower,
arms outstretched in joy
toward the stormy heavens.

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The Unaccommodating

Your Monday Blessing: The Unaccommodating

The 21st century will be the century of the unaccommodating.

The earth will not fall in line with your procurement request.
The ocean has not even read the listing on your beachfront property.
The oil may happily gush for you. But the silence that follows will be louder.
Women, you may have noticed, are no longer tidying up the
unfamiliar corners of the world
to make you feel at home.
The people who lived here before it mattered to you
aren’t marking time from when it mattered to you.
Your sidekick races are off script, after all you’ve done
to keep them in. Those who call themselves
gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual,
queer, intersex, polyamorous, pansexual, gender outlaw,
are demanding the vocabulary they need,
and furthermore they expect the whole world
to be fair, even to the last
appeal of the special case. Not a single minority
will get with the program, threatening the entire
operating
system.

And, because this is an equal opportunity revolt, the old white men
are not going to take seesaw turns according to your reckoning,
nor are the forgotten plain, the lumpen masses
sitting in remission, awaiting
the surgical precision of your analyses.
The fire and brimstone of church and mosque
are not seeing sense, now that you’ve proved to them
that there’s nothing else to see.

The 21st century will be the century of the unaccommodating,
the loose coalition of the unwilling.

In all the arguments against annihilation,
we can be sure of nothing
except the heft of our bodies,
irreducible and gorgeous.

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