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“Charge to the Congregation”

Greetings from Rev. Andrew Weber and Isabella! Andrew was a seminarian and a member of Allegheny, and he and Isabella were married at this church. Andrew generously invited me to offer a “Charge to the Congregation” at his installation at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark, Delaware (UUFN). It was a great, celebratory, inspiring day!

Spending the first month reflecting on the relationship between minister and congregation offered a fitting way to begin my first-ever sabbatical. UUFN has a complicated history with ordained ministry. Through severe and severely complicated experiences (including parting with a valued minister with serious mental health challenges; and a beloved minister who, they both concluded after the fact, had “stayed too long”), UUFN turned a corner. Now they feel ready to share ministry creatively, respectfully, soulfully.

Called ministry not only provides the vitally important “inside-outsider’s” perspective; not only does it offer somebody who has dedicated their life’s work to a deeper understanding of the faith and of the spiritual life of the church: it installs a relationship that itself is deeply important and, if the congregation allows it, transformational. This relationship reflects the best the congregation has to offer. If the relationship is compassionate and caring, outsiders will feel it. If it’s abusive and disrespectful, they will feel that, too, and may well conclude, “If this is how they treat their minister, the person they brought here intentionally, how much worse it will be for me who just walked in on my own!”

This life-saving gift that is The UU Way is too precious to turn people off. Our emphasis on being true to what you really, truly believe, fosters the authentic life. An authentic life is a life saved from emotional poverty, intellectual sickness, and spiritual death. We are all, truly, worshiping and meeting and arguing and giving and sitting and working and exploring and teaching and shoveling snow and balancing budgets and growing and singing for our lives. “Hold on to this relationship (to this faith, this fellowship, and this called minister) as if your life depended on it,” I preached to UUFN, “because some day it just might. As it already has for some of you. As it will for others. Some of whom have yet to walk through that door.”

Of course, I tried to avoid the “seminarian’s mistake” of trying to pack too much into one message. (A lot builds up after a month of not preaching.) So it was this: Grow Your Soul.

I was told by an elder colleague that there was a period of time when officials in the UUA sought to purge our churches of Christians. Yes, even Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist Christians. It’s a sad chapter in our history. At times since, Humanists, Earth-Based Spirituality practitioners, Republicans, Climate Change Deniers, and others have variously felt they were being purged from UU’ism, too. My challenge to the church: to purge only that within the institution or within you that refuses to grow. “Grow your soul.” That’s the Charge to the Congregation. That’s how the relationship and church and faith and life will flourish. “Grow your soul. Grow the soul of beloved community. Grow Andrew’s soul. That is how we will become the life-saving, life-giving, life-transforming force we are called to be and become.”

Whatever good comes from the church, whatever words of wisdom, whatever inspiring music, whatever acts of kindness and generosity, whatever justice making, whatever platform for transforming lives and transforming society, it will come from people grounded in the soul-growing work of connecting: connect to the best and highest within, connect to others along the journey, connect to the blissful and broken world we live in, connect to the planet transformed by our care or by our negligence, connect to the greater whole of which we are a part that some are audacious enough to call “God.”

The neighborhood and the world need this faith. This faith and this church need you. Grow your soul. Live a life worth dying for. May it be so. Make it so. Amen.