In my congregation’s annual ‘dreaming for the future’ conversations, the theme of ‘being more ‘prominent; having higher visibility or being ‘known’ in our community,’ has been a consistent refrain for many years. These comments tend to go hand in hand with …’if people only knew about Unitarian Universalism our churches and fellowships would be over run.’
For several years, the Mission Statement of my congregation has included the membership’s statement or promise that we will promote… “…service to those in need in order to affect positive change in our society and in ourselves.” Our Board of Trustees’ Vision of Ministry has highlighted a yearly goal to… “… Increase awareness of our church and Unitarian Universalist values in our community. Live our Unitarian Universalist values through opportunities for social justice and outreach to others.” Yet though these have been part of our long stated congregational goals — nothing much has changed. How about your congregations; do you have the same goals with similar results?
After all this time, why hasn’t it happened? As a congregation and faith, we need to look at this dichotomy. We have all the good intentions in the world — what is the problem? The problem is– us.
We need to ask ourselves some hard-hitting questions:
What are we as a congregation doing for our greater community?
How have we tried to integrate ourselves into our neighborhood and community?
What actions have we done to make ourselves ‘visible’?
Our communities wonder, where are we? The answer from my congregation is — we are huddled inside our church. We haven’t put our money (or time) where our mouth is. We ‘talk the talk’, but over all we don’t ‘walk the walk’.
We have many fine groups or small group ministries at our church – a women’s group, atheist and pagan groups, religious study groups, book and bridge clubs, chalice guild – and the list goes on. None of these groups, in fact I can’t think of one group from our church that is service or community oriented. Nor do they have short-term or long-term service projects in the community. What a shame.
To say that we are a selfish bunch would be incorrect. Large numbers of congregants to include myself, volunteer in the community for the Red Cross, Animal Shelters, Heart Association, their children’s schools, their neighborhood associations and for many other fine charities or non-profits. These congregants collectively spend hours a year volunteering in the greater community. But they volunteer as individuals, not as members of our Unitarian Congregation.
Maybe it is our leaderships fault for not stressing or offering concrete ways for church groups to fulfill our stated church’s mission and goal of “…service to those in need in order to affect positive change in our society and in ourselves” or to ‘… increase awareness of our church and Unitarian Universalist values in our community. Live our Unitarian Universalist values through opportunities for social justice and outreach to others.”
What would happen, if each group, large or small, were asked by leadership to choose one or more service projects to work on during the church year? What if each group donated time and/or resources as a ‘church group’ out in the community? What if when doing so, we wear a t-shirt or name tag that indicates that we are acting as part of our church? What would happen to our church’s visibility in the community? I think our visibility would grow substantially.
What could different groups do? It wouldn’t be hard. Opportunities abound.
Instead of just collecting food for the food bank, why not take it a step further to committing to once a month or quarter to actually work in the food bank?
What about ‘adopting’ an elementary school in a low-income neighborhood? Opportunities abound in schools. From volunteering to read to children in various classrooms; mentoring children; collecting and donating mittens, coats, gloves and school supplies – letting the schools know if they need something call the church and we will mobilize and make it happen.
Nursing and VA homes; hospitals, rehab and Hospice facilities can use volunteers to read newspapers; play games; sing, play the piano or musical instruments; help write cards and or notes for the visually impaired or just be a companion for an hour or two a month.
Animal lovers can collect blankets, towels and food for the local animal shelter and take it a step further too actually volunteering as a group in the actual shelter. Shelters need people to walk, pet and socialize with animals along with the feeding & cleaning along with administration help.
Quilting or sewing groups could make lap quilts for wounded soldiers, elderly or veterans in nursing homes. They could make baby quilts for premature babies or the police to carry and give to children who are victims of abuse. They can deliver them in person to the police station, hospitals, hospice, VA or nursing homes.
Shut-ins or people with mobility problems can be helped to shop for grocery or clothing needs or be taken to the library to check out books.
The possibilities are endless.
I will say in all fairness, that we do have a small group of congregants that consistently help serve meals to the working poor and homeless in our church neighborhood. There are also small groups of congregants that together consistently march in Gay Pride parades, walk or run for different charity events. Overall though, it is a very small fraction of the congregation.
We as a congregation need to explore what our neighborhood and community needs are. We need to venture as a congregation out of the church building into the community. We need to shake off our reluctance, fear or shyness. We need to put ourselves out there as an asset to be called upon by the community when there is an urgent or specific need. We need to stop waiting for individuals and the greater community to come and find us — we need to find them.
By being present in the community, people will find us. When they find us, our church will overflow.
Just a thought from the pew.