Ten years ago, in 2014, I was ordained into the Unitarian Universalist ministry. In our religious tradition, it is the congregation that calls an individual out of the laity and into the company of the people we call Reverend. First Unitarian Church of Dallas did that for me. The speakers at the service included, among others, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association at that time, the Rev. Bill Sinkford, and the Senior Minister of All Souls Church in Kansas City, the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons.
I had asked Rev. Sinkford to preach my ordination sermon, which I felt was quite appropriate since I was the Golden Boy in his campaign to grow Unitarian Universalism. I had been hired straight out of seminary (in 2003) to be the Lead Minister in what was called the UUA’s Rapid-Start Large Church Project which was hugely controversial. Essentially, the idea was to understand and copy the success of Christian megachurches which had started at zero but had gone straight to thousands of people in under three years. Unitarian Universalism wanted to get in on the action too. And why not? What we have is amazing. But, it was becoming increasingly clear that our ways of starting congregations hadn’t been very effective. They very rarely grew beyond 75 people, and if they did grow beyond that, it took decades. Rev. Sinkford, together with his group of visionaries, raised a million dollars to fund the Rapid-Start Large Church Project, and they hired me to lead it. This wet-behind-the-ears, just-graduated-from-seminary, not-even-ordained-yet minister.
So Rev. Sinkford preached my ordination sermon, and I remember not one word of it.
What I DO remember are the words that the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons shared in her Charge to the Minister, which came later in the service. This is what she said in front of God and everybody:
My dear Anthony, I bring you the greetings, congratulations, and bemused sympathy of some 1,500 of your colleagues. Make no mistake—if it feels as though you have jumped into the deep end of our Association’s political swimming pool, it’s because that is exactly what you have done. The splash reverberates around the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association. Any number of more experienced swimmers than you, my friend, have come to grief in the riptides and undertows of this particular stretch of water. If you don’t yet think that you are in over your head, it’s because you haven’t fully grasped the reality of your situation. And yet, I promise you that for the most part, we wish you well. It is high time that our liberal religious community learned to do this kind of work, and to get it right.
How I wish I could have seen Sinkford’s face when she said all this! Maybe he smiled knowingly. Of course. He was the UUA President. He knew all about the deep ends of swimming pools.
Soon enough, I would too.
While I was mulling over the job offer for the UUA’s Rapid-Start Large Church Project, I came across this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:
I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back…
When I heard these words, it felt like it was Love speaking to my heart. I DID want to free what waits within me. I DID want it to flow from me like a river.
And what was it? What was there?
It started to come clear one day, when I was stuck in traffic. Later I wrote down my insight, and here is the journal entry:
I cut my finger—painful! Nothing else to do but clean it, keep it clean and protected. I kept on going back to it, looking at it—it was like a red smile on the tip of my index finger, so sore.
A watched pot never boils, though, so I tried to forget about it, and did eventually, and then, a couple days later, while driving, traffic at a standstill, I suddenly remembered it. What I discovered was that the red smile was faded, almost gone. My body was healing itself; it knew exactly what it was doing…
In that moment of standstill traffic, my mind shot forward, thought, If my body has this internal power for healing, why not my spirit? As a spiritual being having a human experience, is not my purpose to learn as much as I can, or better yet unlearn bad habits, so I don’t block this inner healing power and let it do its natural work?
In particular, as one called out into the professional ministry, is not my purpose to use all the ways and means and resources of my profession to do just this? To magnify the Spirit of Life that’s always already active in our lives and in our gathered communities of faith?
That’s what I wanted to flow from me like a river. This vision of what it means to be a spiritual being having a human experience. This vision of a natural power within and among us that spontaneously takes us in a Good Orderly Direction towards healing and wholeness. This vision of how a bunch of random individuals can become a true community that magnifies the vision, and feels it, and is changed by it, and is called to change the world because of it.
I wanted that to flow from me like a river….
I wanted it, even as I knew that the reality of congregations can often be completely otherwise, can be just like a game of Marco-Polo. We’re all in the swimming pool together, we’ve all closed our eyes, the professional minister (or someone) is IT, he or she calls out MARCO, he or she is trying to find the others, and the others call back POLO, and I know you know that the game is a version of tag, and the intended goal is for everyone to stay the heck away from the one who’s IT. That’s how it can be in our congregations, and that’s why they stay small in all the ways that count, if not in numbers then in spirit and creativity and generosity and joy. That’s why they stay small. Someone is calling out the vision of changing lives and the others just don’t allow themselves to get engaged, they think someone else will do it, they don’t see there’s no one else but them, they just swim the other way, no one wants to be IT. Congregations can be just like a game of Marco-Polo.
I knew it. But I still believed.
Ten years ago, my ministry began with the Rapid-Start Large Church Project. It felt insane. I had seven other potential job offers to choose from. I talked to everyone. Should I do this? It was so risky…. But lots of people said heck yes—you are exactly the right entrepreneurial leader for the job. One in particular also counseled me to be careful: the UUA is a repeat offender in the category of overpromising. The seminary professor I loved and respected above all sort of waffled in his counsel to me—and then, after I took the job, we lost contact, and I heard later that he felt that, by accepting the job, I had compromised myself. This broke my heart.
He had been the one who had taught me that the universe is such that it can take even our most flawed actions and turn them into some good. He had taught me that. How the wrong train can take us to the right station. He was the one.
We just do the best we can as we make our difficult decisions, and we face the consequences.
Life handed me the Rapid-Start Large Church Project, and with my beautiful staff and beautiful congregants I transformed that Project into a living Church, and I named it because it was my baby I gave birth to, and the name was Pathways.
When I spoke about my vision for Pathways, I always used BIG METAPHORS. The vision flowing from me like a river—the vision Love was whispering in my ear—could allow for nothing less.
So I am unsurprised as I look through my old sermons from the time and discover one in which I talk about “growing spiritual redwoods.” Some years back, I say, I had been traveling in California and found myself at Redwood National Park. I had heard things about redwood trees before, how they live an average of 600 years and some up to 2000 years. How, from something as small as a tomato seed, they can grow to heights of up to 370 feet and widths of 22 feet at the base. I had heard all this, but hearing and seeing are different things. The face-to-face reality blew me away. It was amazing. Humbling. Overwhelming. The hugeness of the redwood trees was sparking something huge within me, a song in the heart, coming from deep inside, answering back with a YES and a WOW and an AMEN.
That’s when my message turned to the spiritual redwood within. The part in me that the YES and the WOW and the AMEN came from. The spiritual redwood within all people, or at least the seed of it, the seed that itches to burst open and grow, that ultimately wants nothing less than peace like a river, joy like a fountain, love like an ocean, pain like an arrow, tears like the raindrops, strength like a mountain. People are talking about the spiritual redwood within when they say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” They are saying, “Enough with abstract dogma. Enough with complacency and country-club church. Enough with merely belonging. I am on a quest for a personal destiny and a higher calling. I hunger, I thirst, I yearn. I am restless and I need something that money can’t buy. There’s got to be something more than this. Life’s got to mean something more than this.”
We are all spiritual redwoods waiting to happen.
But it’s not a done deal, I go on to say. Without intentionality and resolve, it won’t happen. It won’t happen without a struggle. Because we have to keep our spiritual yearning on the right track. To make sure it’s not twisted or co-opted to serve destructive ends. For it surely can be. We’ve seen too many times recently how people’s hunger for more meaning and more life can, ironically, be transmuted into dealing out more death and more horror. People killing for God. For God, destroying whole lands and peoples and cultures, oppressing women, despising gays and lesbians and others. For God—freezing out the mind, putting away all questions and doubts, enforcing spirituality by formula….
From the very beginning, I knew that religion has always been a two-edged sword, like all the most important things in life. It’s why I always said to the people at Pathways that we need to do it right. Why bring into the world yet another Marco-Polo congregation, when there are already so many? Let’s dare greatly. Let’s dream boldly. Let’s create something truly beautiful and unique and needed for this time and this place. Let’s do THAT.
Now why am I bringing up ancient history? My ordination was ten years ago. Pathways was years ago. I have been your Senior Minister for seven years now, since 2007. My beautiful congregants for quite some time now have been and are you.
Well, for just this reason: I want you to know me. The experiences that have shaped me. Where my ministry is coming from.
When you look at me, I want you to see someone who has been nothing less than the Golden Boy of a denomination and then the bottom fell out. The goal of the Rapid-Start Large Church was for there to be an average of 465 attendees at worship after only six months of opening our doors. After 18 months of worship, there was to be an average of 808 folks every Sunday. Now, I was hired with the explicit message that we had never done something like this before, so my job was to discover the right approach through trial-and-error. (In fact, that’s why they felt ok about hiring me straight out of seminary—I hadn’t learned any bad habits yet.) But then, as in a classic bait and switch, when my discoveries weren’t yielding enough Sunday worship attendees fast enough, the denomination pulled its funding, no apologies. We were failures. Nothing mattered but numbers. If congregations can suffer bleeding chest wounds, Pathways did; and I was the MASH unit to put it back together and keep it going. When I went to the annual meeting of the UUA that year, I hung my head in shame while I slunk around the conference rooms and the hallways, painfully aware of all the people staring. I was *that* minister. The Golden Boy who was now just something smelly at the bottom of a shoe.
We all have our stories of adversity, stories of growing up. This is one of mine.
But when you look at me, I also want you to see how I still believe. A broken heart healed is even stronger than before. Tactics are one thing, but vision is something else entirely. We need to pay careful attention to tactics. We need to attend to systems and processes and nuts & bolts and spreadsheets and timelines. I know this in spades. But I also know that we need to do it only so that the vision can live. “If you want to build a ship,” says writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Let us long for the endless immensity. I believe.
Spiritual redwoods ARE just waiting to happen. A Spirit of Life natural power stirs within us RIGHT NOW and wants to spontaneously take us in a Good Orderly Direction towards healing and wholeness. A bunch of random individuals REALLY CAN become a true community that magnifies the vision, and feels it, and is changed by it, and is called to change the world because of it. A Marco-Polo way of doing things is NOT an inevitability.
Denominational politics suck. But as for Unitarian Universalism, our religious way? It is still the sweetest honey, it is still a path to beauty, it is still a gift to the world, and we need to keep inviting as many people as possible into this, so they can receive the gift too.
I still believe.
Someone once said that “any old fool can tear any sermon apart in seconds if they want to, so it must take an exceptionally committed fool to decide to write one.”
This here is one exceptionally committed fool.
Because what Love says is that we are the people, and now is the time.