Thursday, April 30, 2015

Individuality or Greater Community?

I'm sitting in my favorite spot in a tiny French restaurant. In front of me are two patrons speaking Parisian French. I understand a few words, very few, having a French Canadian grandmother. Beside me are two 50-something women who are obvious colleagues. I overhear religious language, so naturally my interest peaks. They were leaders of the local Catholic diocese responsible for a group of Catholic churches in the area.

Between my cafe au lait and salade de la Constance, I was privy to venomous conversation. Worse than my eavesdropping was my discovery that parishes were being pitted against one another, receiving the news that they are not good enough because their Holy Thursday was not up to snuff, not as good as that of the church across town, personal attacks on leaders, all brought together with the ugly bow of insular thinking. Clearly it was a strategy based on competitiveness used to help the individual parish churches become bigger, better, and -- let's face it -- more lucrative. These churches are encouraged to operate alone and to try to create separate lands versus agreeing to meet to walk together as in Amos 3:3.  Honestly, before we explore what that might mean for us and how we shape our collective congregational life, let us put down the stones.

The flu has visited me three times in the last year. I've been thinking about how many times I introduce myself each day and how many handshakes that involves and how this likely leads to three bouts of the flu. I’ve done intense and intellectual work related to the underbelly of the friendly handshake and luckily, the sake of our ministry, have considered how all of this handshaking brings many innovative and progressive voices and ideas into my life and the lives of those I serve in the sometimes complicated Deep South. Outstretched hand to outstretched hand, walking together in collaboration, fellowship, and the faith that will save us and mostly hands outside of my UU catchment area.

Last week I sat in the sanctuary of our Orlando congregation and witnessed our district's decision to support the move toward regionalization. I arrived in Florida from ministry in the north engaging ministry within the Southern Region and all that piloting the regionalization model entailed. I was fascinated and relieved. It made sense to me. Now do I not only have an eternal tan but an appreciation for how regional living is less knotty, individualistic, and more informed about the realities of who and how we need to be to be effectual in our UU evangelization. It’s the South y’all. Embrace the word.

Our reality is that we can no longer change the world by acting in small decentralized bands. This is why interfaith work is so important to us today. None of us can do it alone. Not individual, not congregation, not district, not region, not denomination. We are required to structure ourselves and work together in new ways with new people. Our influence is strengthened by regionalization and all it has to offer. Simply consider the oddly colored yellow tee shirt phenomenon.

Consider our Universalist history to understand decentralization. I often hear new and potential members being told the story of the Unitarians and Universalists merging because they had theology in common. That's not the whole truth. Yes, both shared some theological and social commonalities, but Unitarianism was better organized and privileged and Universalism was dying because of their decentralized structure of many independent conferences. Universalism was unsuccessful in making an increased impact and couldn't financially, and otherwise, afford to be insular in their work. Each conference committed to the same mission, but was ineffective in the strength of witness, growth, efficiencies and the responsible use of resources and their people. History repeats itself.

How shall we live together? Should we expect to forsake the faith the world needs for the sake of holding on to a faith that is easily reduced to fervent individuality trumping covenant? No, we are greater than that. We can no longer afford the illusion that we do not operate in vacuums, though we easily convince ourselves otherwise. All roads of holding individuality, conscious or not, over greater community lead us to insignificant places. Regionalization requires us to reroute, just as the Universalists wisely did. Let us remind ourselves of the wisdom of the great innovators and community builders crafting a timeless covenant that could serve us today as it did centuries ago. Let us continue building and stretching, gaining a deeper understanding of the realities of growing our faith that require us to think, live, and support one another differently. Let us hold one another in care as we navigate change, difference, and unknown yet faithful paths.

In faith, the Reverend CJ McGregor

Individuality or Greater Community?, by the Rev. CJ McGregor, a column appearing in Ministry Matters at the the Northeast Breeze (the UU FL Northeast Cluster blog), May 2015.

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