Mission: Possible

Let me say right up front that this is not a sermon about New Year’s resolutions. I’m not going to stand up here and harangue you about going to the gym three times a week, losing a few pounds this year, or calling your sister at least once a month. We can all breathe a little easier now, right? I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, because they so often seem to set us up for failure. Although, if you want some encouragement on that front, I’ll tell you that I made a resolution last January and for the first time in my life I actually stuck with it through the entire year. I think the reason it worked was because it was a pretty modest goal. I resolved to use only one paper towel to dry my hands every time I used the rest room. Pretty ambitious, huh? But, since I used to use two and sometimes three, I cut my consumption by at least half, so that’s something. I guess there’s something to be said about setting goals that are achievable.

But, that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about a broader landscape, a wider view. If you think about it as a page with several concentric circles, or maybe the rings of a tree, the middle, smallest circle is our to-do list. These are the things that are right in front of us, demanding our immediate attention. Pick up milk and diapers at the store. Make a dentist appointment. File the year-end travel expense report.

If we step out to the next ring, we may have some goals we want to achieve, in the near-term or the long-term. It could be completing a big project we’re working on. Or maybe we’ve got a trial on the calendar coming up in a couple months, or a gig we’re playing where we want to introduce a new song. Maybe we have a trip planned for later in the year and we want to learn to speak some Spanish. Goals are good. They help to organize and motivate us. It’s why I sign up to run in half-marathons. Once I have a race on my calendar, I think about running differently. Believe me, I don’t set out to win the race. But I set a goal to finish within a certain time. It’s what motivates me to get up and out on the mornings when it’s cold or I’ve had a lousy night’s sleep, when I’d rather stay in bed. So, it’s good to set some goals for ourselves.

But I want to take an even wider view. I want to go out two more rings. On the next ring out, I put “vision.” And on the outermost ring, “mission.” Or, if you’d prefer, our sense of purpose. Now, there are some who say that you need to have a vision before you have a mission, but I disagree. I think we need to be clear on our mission before we can create a vision for ourselves. So for me this next ring out is vision. Vision is who and how we see ourselves. It’s an image of who and how we would be if we were to fulfill or live into our mission. A vision is a picture of what we want to accomplish, while a mission is about our purpose. Our reason for being. And it’s on this outer ring – our mission – that I want to focus mostly today. Because mission is everything. It drives everything we do, both individually and as a congregation. Or, at least it should. And it’s good to check in periodically with how we’re doing against our mission.

I wonder how many of you here today know that our congregation has a mission statement? We print it in our Order of Service every Sunday, which is both good and bad. It’s good, because it’s right there to remind us every week. And it’s bad because we get used to it being there and can easily overlook it. Our mission as a congregation is to “Ignite personal growth; Engage in loving community; and Serve with integrity.” Ignite/Engage/Serve. Pretty great words, aren’t they? Easy to remember, and they look great on a t-shirt. We had some made before the General Assembly that was held in Providence, Rhode Island a few years back. While we’re in the order of service, let’s take a look, too, at our vision statement: “We act boldly every day to nurture spirits, enrich lives and strive for justice.” Again, great aspirational words. I don’t think I’ve seen better mission or vision statements in any other congregation.

One of the challenges of mission statements is that there’s usually a tremendous investment of time made to create them, and then they’re kind of put on a shelf and forgotten about. So, what I thought we’d do today is to kind of “check in” to see how we’re doing against our mission. How and how well are we igniting personal growth? Engaging in loving community? Serving with integrity? Let’s take them one by one, but in reverse order.

I want to start with “Serve with integrity” because, in my opinion, service is our strong suit. We are a congregation of “do-ers.” We serve each other and we serve our larger community. We just wrapped up hosting families through Family Promise, one of the few congregations in the community to do so over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday. With Joe Miller’s leadership and the efforts of nearly 50 church members, we provided safe housing and delicious meals to three families for nearly two weeks. Our Adopt-a-Family program provided food and gifts for twelve families for the holidays, and involved not just Marge Caton’s leadership but more than thirty families in the church. That’s a program that was started decades ago by Priscilla Hopkirk and her late husband Jack. We are solid community partners with many local organizations and agencies, serving them both with volunteer time and with financial support. Our share the plate program has contributed nearly $5,000 to local groups so far this year. And every year since we started the program we’ve invested close to $15,000 in our community partners

In addition to the many ways we serve those outside our community, we do an equally good job of serving each other. Look at the 50 or so volunteers in the Religious Education program. And those serving in formal leadership positions, sometimes for years at a time. Our choir serves us joyously and regularly on Sunday mornings, and puts together two beautiful special music services every year. We have a couple dozen volunteers serving on the newly-formed “HospitaliTeams” this year, making sure that members and visitors alike feel welcomed and comfortable. Service is at the heart of what this congregation does, and that heart is beating strong.

Now, let’s turn to “Engage in loving community.” I want to be honest here, and say that I think this area is more of a mixed bag. If I were to give out a grade, I’d say that on “service” we’re a solid “A” and in “engaging in loving community” we’re more of a “B.” Now, that’s not bad, but there’s room for improvement. The thing we are pretty good at is responding when the call goes out. A good example of this was this past fall, when a member of the congregation had serious surgery and his family needed help with meals and after-school care. The staff set up a Sign-up Genius and most of the slots were filled within 48 hours. We did a great job of supporting that family, and we’re all thankful that the surgery went well and the family is back on their feet. Another way that we’re generous in extending our love is by contributing to the Minister’s Discretionary Fund. This fund allows me to extend our loving reach deep into our community and occasionally beyond it. This past Christmas, you donated a record $3,300 to the Fund. There are also some groups in the church, both formal and informal, where members take care of one another. Soul Matters groups often form strong bonds of affection, and there are those within the Young Families Group who know and love and support each other.

So, why not an “A?” My sense is that we could do more to build a sense of cohesive community here at church. When we get together, it’s often task-oriented and rarely just to have fun. We do a lot more fundraising than we do “fun-raising.” There are a lot of casual conversations that happen over coffee in Fellowship Hall on Sunday mornings, but with limited exceptions I don’t see those spilling over into building deep relationships of care, concern and love. How many of us ever go beyond the “how was your week” and “isn’t it crazy to try to keep up with the kids’ schedules” conversations? How well can we say that we know each other? Can we say with honest and confidence that this is a “loving” community? This is why I say that we’re good, but we have the potential to become great.

That brings us to “Ignite personal growth.” I’d give us another B for this subject, too. We’re doing all right, but we’ve got room to improve. About one-third of our adult members participate in our Soul Matters program. That’s a good, solid number, but we have room to expand the program if the demand were there. About half of our adult members and about one-third of the children registered in Religious Education show up on any given Sunday. Again, good, but not great. Besides Sunday services, perhaps the strongest vehicle for personal and spiritual growth here at UUCDC comes through our opportunities to serve one another, and as I said a moment ago, we’re all about service. But I wonder how many of us realize that we currently have no Adult Faith Development committee. And I wonder what it says about our appetite for personal and spiritual growth that most of us don’t miss it and when a program is offered, it’s often canceled before it starts due to lack of enrollment? I don’t know what the statistics show, but I’m not sure our lending library gets a lot of use, either, so my sense is that folks aren’t getting their spiritual “juice” through their own independent study. So, we’re something of a mixed bag on the “Ignite personal growth” element of our Mission Statement.

Now, I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m scolding anyone, and I don't want you to leave this morning feeling depressed. I’m certainly not down about this. If we didn’t have room for improvement and we could just rest on our laurels, where would the fun be in that? Room for improvement means that we have opportunities to experiment (like with doing worship in the round!), to try new things, to innovate, like we have with Growth Through Service. To look around and adopt and adapt best practices from other congregations, like we have with the HospitaliTeams. And, don’t forget, a big piece of where we can improve is around having more fun together and getting to know each other better. How great is that? And, I’ll remind you that, even with the observations I’ve offered this morning, I can say, unequivocally, that we’re one of the healthiest, happiest, most committed churches I’ve ever seen, and I still brag about you to all my very jealous colleagues.

As we embark on a building campaign to expand and enhance our facilities, it will be important to keep our mission front and center. The building should be a tool for helping us achieve our mission. And so, each step of the way we should be asking questions like: “How does this help us ignite personal growth? Will this improvement help to make us a more loving community? Will it facilitate our ability to serve others with integrity?  As we embark on a New Year and on an ambitious project, let’s keep our mission front and center, and consider how each of us can contribute to creating the community we dream of being.

This day and every day, throughout this new year, I wish you peace. Amen.