Careful What You Ask For

A few weeks ago I offered what is called a question box sermon at our worship service.  Now, this is something I really enjoy.  The adrenaline rushes!  There are a number of different ways to do this service.  One is to ask for questions in advance, pick the ones that you want to answer and write a sermon based upon those. I’ve done that and it’s fun. Another is to give people a chance to ask their questions then and there — at the service.  Have them written down, gather them up and answer at least a few of them as time allows. These services are a joy.  Usually I am a bit nervous beforehand — suppose they ask something I can’t answer????? Of course, then I remember that I don’t have the final answers anyway — and no one expects me to.  In fact, it would violate the spirit of Unitarian Universalism if I got up on the chancel and said: and now I am going to give you the true, ultimate, final, authoritative answers to “life’s persistent questions.” That would imply that I have their answers, that there are final answers.  Then I remember that I think about these things all the time and there is very little that people can ask that I haven’t spent considerable time reflecting on.  Even if I haven’t got the final answers or their answers — I can offer a way to reflect on the questions that might be helpful. And, finally, I remember that there is no better fun than having a chance to just chat about meaningful matters with this community of people.  They have insight and experience in plenty.  And the questions usually point to that.

Usually the questions are good– meaningful, sincere.  And this time they were great — out of the ballpark great. So I promised to answer them all — and I use the word “answer” loosely.  So — here is the place.  Possibly the easiest question was — what are those books you have up there?  It was asked by a few people.  The picture you see with this post is the stack of books.  They are both concretely useful and representatively useful.

Unitarian Universalists pride ourselves on being a “learned ministry”.  That sounds so snobby — but what it really means is not that we are proud of all of our reading (of course some of us are) but that we are not literalists when reading scripture nor are we swayed by the interpretations of others — but we study, question, and explore in order to find truths.  The learned ministry is skeptical, curious, and energetic in pursuit of the truth. The pile of books represented that — in part — and — in part represented a momentary flash of anxiety that someone would ask me something I could look up in a book. HAHA.  So I dragged the books that are of greatest importance to me in the ministry — except for one which, somehow, I do not see in the pile.

The book on the bottom is Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald Heifetz is critical for people who want to lead in ways that take into account the ever – changing nature of the cultural scene, the need for creativity, and to remember that there is no – no – no canned solution to the matters we face today.  We need to be ready to adapt, respond.  To be creative and flexible.  We need to avoid the weeds and spending time mistaking management (the daily details) for leadership or micromanagement for leadership. Heifetz distinguishes technical challenges from adaptive challenges.  it’s great and valuable reading.

The next book is Generation to Generation by Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Friedman was a systems thinker who recognized that congregations are places filled with patterns.  The patterns can start early in the history of a congregation and persist so that new generations will take on the same patterns — unless they become aware and choose new paths.  I could write a whole book about this — but Friedman already did — so read it.

The next six books were a generous present from my brother in law when I was ordained into the ministry. They are holy texts of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, and Buddhism. When I put them in the pile it was to remind us that Unitarian Universalists value the holy texts of all faiths — and seek all that is ethical and life-affirming and harmony affirming in them.

The next book is Governance and Ministry by the Rev. Dan Hotchkiss — a Unitarian Universalist minister. He has taken some the best wisdom of Heifetz, Friedman, policy governance, leadership development, and adapted them together in a model of congregational leadership that is quite helpful.

Above that is a tiny encyclopedia — The Unitarians and Universalists by David Robinson. It is a short and sweet bit of UU history and a glossary of people who have been influential in our history.

Above that is Raising the Roof by Alice Mann — a useful book for any person in congregational life who thinks for a moment that the challenges their congregation faces are totally unique.  It talks about the challenges and realities at each size of congregation — pastoral, program, corporate.  It also addresses the challenges of trying to move from one size to another and that you an changes sizes and cling to the habits of a smaller size — but that leads to frustration and will lead, eventually, back to shrinkage.

And on the top of the pile is Erik Wikstrom’s book Serving with Grace.  It is a pointed reminder that the work of congregation life needs to be engaged in as a spiritual practice and that if we do our work apart from our spiritual practices and our ethical values we will suck the very life out of our faith.

There are soo many books I could have included.  But these are life-saving books that ground any ministry — lay or called. Read em and learn!

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