“From Independence to InTERdependence”

by Rev. Nannene Gowdy

The Unitarian Universalist’s annual gathering, General Assembly, was held in Fort Lauderdale this past June. It was emotionally charged for me in many ways: my daughter, who had just been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, was with me most of the week; my good friend Forest Church, who is dying of esophogeal cancer, was there making his swan song; and a very dear friend died in New York.

Yet, despite the many reasons to be sad, I found myself often elated because it was the most encouraging General Assembly I’d ever attended – and this was my 27th!

Ever since I became a Unitarian Universalist, thirty four years ago, I have been working on justice issues, mainly through my work on antiracism. I spent eight years on the UUA Board of Trustees trying to make the administration and the Board learn to be antiracists and to use that knowledge to address other oppresion issues. This year I felt as if the UUA finally got it, and the institution was taking the issues of oppression seriously.

For far too long, Unitarians and Universalists have been fiercely proud of their independence. Trying to lead UUs on a common effort has often led to what former President John Buehrens referred to as herding cats. In protecting our independence, we have too often ignored or stomped on the needs of others. This shouldn’t be surprising since it is hard to accommodate as many opinions and feelings as a room of UUs represents. Ned Wight, in today’s reading, captures this difficulty well.

But over the years we UUs have been gradually moving from independence to interdependence. One of the favorite readings in UU churches is Marge Piercy’s We Need One Another. This poem has struck a chord because it is so true. We do need one another. Being fiercely independent is a very lonely place to be.

I believe that this movement from independence to interdependence is a sign that the UUA is growing up as an association of congregations. Rather like the teen-ager who doesn’t believe he or she needs anyone until they are grown up enough to be able to acknowledge the love and support that has been underpinning them all along.

This year at GA, the Moderator, Gini Courter, gave the best Moderator’s address I have ever heard. She and I served on the UUA Board together for four of my eight years. We often held one another and cried over the pain of dealing with oppressions. Having done some of the work of antiracism together, I was very interested in what she had to say.

Gini started out with three questions

  1. Why does the world need UU congregations?
  2. What is distinctive about UU leadership?
  3. How can congregations work together more effectively?

She answered the first question, why does the world need UU congregations, by saying why she needed a UU congregation. Part of her answer is at the top of your order of service. She believes that there are others who share her needs. I believe she’s right. There are many people out there who need us, as we need them.

Since her address in June, we had another example in July of why the world needs UU congregations. Following the shooting and killing of two people and the wounding of six in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, the UUA put this ad in the New York Times. It said we would not respond to this tragedy with hatred or fear. It prayed for the victims and for the shooter. The ad closed with these words: We will not give in to fear. We will meet hatred with love. We will continue to work for justice. Our hearts and the doors of our more than 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations nationwide remain open. Unitarian Universalists stand on the side of love. We invite you to stand with us.

The world needs UU congregations because in messages like this we can show the way to peace.

Gini’s answer to question 2, What is distinctive about UU leadership, has needed to be said for some time. As minister, I sometimes failed to get the church’s Board Chair, who usually came from the business world, to understand that I was not a CEO, that the role of minister was very different. Gini captured it beautifully when she stated “One distinctive aspect of UU Leadership is religiosity – the need for leaders and followers to determine who we are, and what we serve, to help the congregations we lead hear their individual calls to service, help them discern why they are called together, remind them of their call frequently so they never forget that they are not working at a corporation or a school, or a human services agency. They are leading a religious organization.

Question 3, How can congregations work together more effectively was captured in the poem by Marc Smith, our second reading today. We need to pull up those following us, just as we were pulled up in our time. Gini talked about congregational polity, which we usually have interpreted to mean only that each congregation is free to do as it pleases. But originally, congregational polity in our Association meant that congregations would be in each others lives, asking for help as well as helping. It is part of our roots, our history and our theology that we be accountable to one another. This applies between individuals as well as between congregations.

Moderator Gini Courter closed her address by talking about leadership. It is so powerful, I will close my sermon with her remarks:

Leadership is no small thing. Take a moment, and feel the trust, the belief, the support of those who trust you to serve, whether you serve as a board chair or minister or president or delegate (to GA). Leadership isn’t management, or oversight, and it isn’t supervision. Mangaement and supervision are tactical activities. Leadership is about strategy. Leadership knows that there’s only one reason to gather in religious community: to grow souls so they can transform the world. You can do this communally, or by outfitting the community members so they can do this work individually, but this is the reason church exists. One leadership task is publicly asking the question “why are we in religious community?” and answering the question, if need be, until there are others who can. Pull the next one upl

Leadership is asserting that we have a faith that is worth sharing with others, and asserting it over and over again in two dozen different ways until everybody in the congregation gets it. Another way to think about this: leadership is doing the work to ensure that your congregation is not shocked, ambivalent, or hostile when visitors show up. Visitor friendly would be even better yet. The tactics that spring from the strategy of “let’s be welcoming to people who want to share our worthy faith” are legion: greeter training, post card follow up, age-approprate greeters for visitors, introducing visitors in our service, inviting visitors to stay after the service, training for your congregation on how to talk about Unitarian Univeralism. At University Unitarian Church in Seattle, every service starts with the welcome: “Welcome to the best church in greater Seattle.” All of these actions are tactics, and they’re good tactics. But without a solid, well understood strategy, tactics go awry, go wandering in the weeds. Strategy gives tactics purpose and meaning. And when you’re a leader, you’re in the strategy business…

Leadership is about creating a space where we can speak the truth to each other in a loving, caring way. We don’t hold Sunday services to provide long time members with a captive audience. We gather on Sunday mornings because we are religious people, and Sunday morning is when we experience awe and wonder, when we get challenged or comforted or charged up to live our values in the world for another week, to improve the world, if only slightly. Leaders need to talk honestly with people about their behaviors, both positive and negative; to do less is to dishonor their inherent worth. We need to say “great job” and “thank you” and sometime ask “what were you thinking?” And by the way, you also need to be willling to listen to honest feedback about your leadership. It’s how we all improve.