Spiritual Practice and the Distraction of Growth
When we talk about long-range or strategic planning the topic of “growth” always seems to hover around the room like ® promising to take us all to “Neverland”. We lament its nonoccurrence and commit to its service with a gambler’s anticipation. We eschew “growth for growth’s sake” (i.e. malignancy), yet I cannot help but compare our views of growth with modernity’s notion of “progress”; in growth we will manifest our destiny.
Initiatives around numerical growth strike me as a distraction from the work that congregations need to undertake within the existing group. Alice Mann, a consultant with the , in , a book dedicated to organizational preparedness for growth tells us that a sense of “calling” in a congregation is a prerequisite to growth. She goes on to say:
“I believe that each congregation has a responsibility for the spiritual growth of its current members, and an equal responsibility to offer a trustworthy spiritual path to those who are searching for – or estranged from - the sacred center of their lives.” (p. 68)
Before we can talk about numerical growth, we need to understand our function in relation to spiritual growth. I use the term “spirituality”1 in an expansive sense that embraces such formulations as authenticity, wholeness and equanimity. Our function as an institution is the cultivation of an ever-deeper spirituality. Yet, whose “religion” are we to institutionalize? Shall it be the religion of the theist, the pagan or the agnostic?
As , in and in his essay, point out, the congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association have been struggling with an identity crisis for decades. In my forty-year experience with this faith, I find our denominational sense of self to be increasingly confused. The “” project is a clear symptom of a misplaced vitality. Leaving the issue of identity between floors for a moment I would like to turn to the ministry of the local congregation.
“The free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” () should be seen as promoting a spiritual path. “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,” (Principle 3) explicitly refers to spiritual growth. While “ministry” should refer to whatever is undertaken in the service of members or the community, the principles above place spiritual growth at the center or our articulated concern. A ministry supporting spiritual growth is necessary because as Davidson Loehr reminds us in, Why “Unitarian Universalism” is Dying, that the actual disciplines of the many faiths of the world require hard work,
“All the enduring religions of the world have been clear that the treasures of honest religion must be earned, and make the highest demands on us. That’s how those traditions raise our sights to see and hear what Lincoln called, ‘the better angels of our nature.’”
reports in , that Unitarian Universalists are not deterred by the hard work ahead, but are in fact,
“…searching for ways to be held accountable – personally, vocationally, and prophetically.”
Durall reports that this willingness to take on the hard work of a spiritual life may be generational. He says:
“….people born after 1965 are theologically more conservative than liberal, and are seeking meaningful spiritual journeys. They are seeking a faith that expects a commitment of them. They do not expect this journey to be easy. Churches that are vague about the meaning of membership, or that have low-expectation policies established many years ago that are ingrained in the culture will most likely see these potential new members pass them by.” (p. 69)
When Owen-Towle, Durall and Loehr talk about the hard work and the accountability of spirituality they are referring to “spiritual practice”. Loehr goes on to say that our religious culture is in an imbalance because of a much greater emphasis on individual rights over individual responsibilities toward the community. I believe this imbalance appears in our communal relationship with the individual level as we have an assumption that an individual may believe almost anything, yet we have been hesitant to similarly assume that individuals should be accountable, even to themselves, for their actions, behaviors and choices. There seems to be a lot of concern about behavior that is anti-social or destructive, but I am discussing something else.
I believe that Unitarian Universalist congregations should commit their ministries to encourage, empower and support not only our spiritual searching, but most importantly our spiritual practices. Durall reports that Anthony Robinson’s answer to the question, “Can churches deliver the goods and create more compelling communities of faith?” was:
“…if..we view church as not a place for accumulating information but as a process of forming a people; if the church engages not the intellect alone, but the whole person; and instead of reflecting the consumer society, churches provide members and alternative way of life.” (p. 18)
He also says,
“The prevailing culture in too many UU congregations is that churches offer programs that people attend. Parishioners are educated, informed, enlightened, fed, and entertained – but not challenged to lead lives of meaning and purpose. (p. 57)
He Quotes William Murray, former president of
“… Too often we have understood our task as relegated to the private sphere, the personal lives of our members. We have encouraged and facilitated their turn from a religion of love and justice to a religion of personal spirituality. Too often content simply to help people feel better about themselves, without challenging their self-centeredness. (p. 10)
I am suggesting a sea change in congregational expectations toward the spiritual practices of congregants. It is not enough that parishioners are offered a smorgasbord of spiritual beliefs. Spiritual growth eventually requires that beliefs inform behavior. Increased expectations around spiritual practices may take a variety of forms, but might include:
Vows – Public commitments around a person’s spiritual discipline.
Missions – Intensive projects undertaken in fulfillment of a spiritual discipline.
Sabbaticals – Retreats taken with a purpose of deepening a spiritual commitment.
Discipleship – Public recognition that a person has placed her life in service of a spiritual path.
Confession, Forgiveness and Contrition – Public admissions that we have broken our vows, acceptance of our fallibility and the commitment to heal the wounds we create.
I am intentionally using “loaded words” in an attempt to drive home the point that I am proposing serious expectations and public accountability. And while all commitments would be voluntarily undertaken, I am suggesting that our congregational culture begin to include the expectation that members will undertake a specific spiritual practice. I look forward to the day when the world is sprinkled with Unitarian Universalist nuns and monks: not just community ministers, but laity on extended or indefinite missions. Our bridging ceremony for high school graduates could bring our youth into a mission project at home or abroad.
There are many traditional vehicles or modes of spiritual practice. They include, but are not limited to meditation, mindfulness, yoga, devotion, ethical living, compassion, social or economic justice making, renunciation, intellectual refinement, charitable works or giving and prayer. All of these vehicles are found within Unitarian Universalist congregations. Yet, any spiritual practice requires commitment and discipline. Developing and supporting the spiritual practices of parishioners should be the primary function of the ministry of our congregations. Loehr reminds us that any spiritual discipline is hard work.
Loehr describes an historical wrong turn in our institutional approach,
“These were good ministers, but they did a bad thing. In the midst of a religious vacuum, they exalted the social and political profile of the seekers rather than the depth or ontological power of the religious center that was being sought – which means that center was no longer being sought, and the seeker were now learning to be pleased with themselves.”
A congregant’s claim that they are a “seeker” postpones or defers, often indefinitely, any claim to wisdom or spiritual authority. We should all be committed to a perpetual deepening of our spiritual lives and in this sense we are still traveling on a spiritual path, but surely there is some wisdom each of us has found. Congregations should be transforming “seekers” into “finders” and “finders” into “practitioners”.
A “seeker” is someone with a curiosity about the human condition and an open mind. A “finder” is someone who can articulate important truths in her life as in the development of a credo. A “practitioner” is someone with a spiritual discipline or practice. While our congregations should minister to the entire range of spiritual engagement, we should be encouraging and supporting members to progress along this continuum. Of course a practitioner incorporates the proceeding stages continuing to seek and to find.
I believe that it is only at the point where a person becomes a practitioner that the transformative power of a faith comes into play. And yet I believe our programs are primarily designed to serve seekers through the exploration of different beliefs. There are some programs such as and Credo writing specifically designed to move seekers into finders, but even fewer programs designed to support spiritual disciplines. Programs designed for practitioners are often on-going groups which include , , and perhaps even the occasional designed to raise the Seven Principles to a living practice. These practitioner groups often do not have clergy involvement and when they do, the involvement in my experience is more likely to be as a co-participant rather than as a coach, director or leader.
At each of these points on the progression of spiritual development the individual member maintains full authority. Accountability is ultimately self-accountability. Expectations are self-expectations. Goals, objectives and strategies are all self-selected. I am suggesting that the ministry of the congregation assert its spiritual authority and begin to initiate spiritual expectations, accountability, strategies, goals and objectives as a way to support the spiritual needs of the congregation. I am saying that congregants should submit to the spiritual authority of the congregation’s ministry. Just as membership is voluntary, any acknowledgement of the spiritual authority of the ministry of a congregation would be freely given.
The analysis of the membership of Unitarian Universalist congregations is that we are fiercely individualistic. While I believe this to be true, I still believe that more that half of our membership would be counted somewhere between willing and eager to enter into the kind of relationship I have described. Of course we will find that not everyone will stay with a practice. I expect attrition in any program that expects people to, in Davidson Loehr’s words, “earn” their spirituality through hard work. However, I believe that the membership within the UUA understands the importance of a spiritual practice, whether or not they have always been successful.
My suggested emphasis on spiritual work, pushing towards the development of a practice, will not be uniformly embraced in the pews. Change never is. Yet, I actually expect more resistance from clergy. The two primary objections I anticipate are that the minister does not have the experience or training to set individual practice goals, provide accountability or offer spiritual direction to members. Congregations can help meet this objection by offering additional training. Furthermore, while a settled minister may be responsible for a program of supporting a spiritual practice, she may bring in others with more expertise or experience as needed.
The other main objection will be that adding what amounts to spiritual direction to the duties of the minister will demand more time and energy than the position allows. While it is true that there is only so much time and energy available in any position, the more important issue concerns the priority of existing time and energy. Congregations should insist on the priority of spiritual development and be willing to fund alternative provisions for other needed services in congregational life. Spiritual development is the importance we offer. In the terms of the Alice Mann model, ministers should be offering individual assistance in spiritual practices in pastoral sized congregations. In program sized congregations this support will be increasingly delegated to professional consultants, affinity groups and trained laity groups supervised by the minister. Labels for laity such as “Deacon” may be appropriate for those members with experience, training and discerning wisdom necessary to provide this kind of support.
One of the reasons we are so reluctant to establish normative expectations is that our conversation is stuck around the experience of seekers and finders. The world of the seeker and finder is the world of ideas and beliefs. UUA bylaws prevent a creedal test. Beyond that, I do not feel it is productive to have a discussion about which ideas or beliefs one should possess. While we might all agree that certain beliefs arise out of a selfish or xenophobic perspective, value judgments about the relative merits of the various belief systems referred to in the Sources of our Living Tradition are not helpful. However, when it comes to assessing movement within a Spiritual Practice, value judgments relative to a commonly understood goal are possible.
The movement from seeker to finder and from finder to practitioner represents spiritual growth or a spiritual deepening. This deepening is the most important calling we have as a religious institution. If our mission in this is to acquaint seekers with new and different ideas and beliefs, we will never be able to compete with . Assisting finders in the articulation of their beliefs begins to distinguish us from ®, but when we launch and support practitioners in a Spiritual Practice, we offer a unique and precious gift to congregants. I believe this is a gift members are generally requesting. The truth of the matter is that a significant portion, maybe more than half, of Unitarian Universalists are now attempting to work within a Spiritual Practice. Some are tentative and some are headlong into commitment. In the most recent issue of , the Rev. Dr. Galen Guengerich argues that Unitarian Universalists should adopt the spiritual practice of Gratitude. While Gratitude may not be everyone’s expression of spirituality, I applaud the direction.
My experience with Unitarian Universalism programming is a bit like the movie Groundhog Day. I am forever being introduced to Unitarian Universalism. But the chapters where the hard work of practice take place never seem to appear. There is more promise than performance. We are all foundation and no edifice. Each Sunday finds us parading out of the worship service filled with challenging ideas and as powerful as ideas can be they are alone not sufficient to enable us to practice what has been preached.
Moving our focus along the continuum from finders to practitioners changes our promise from one about information to one of transformation. Personal transformation is the goal of all wisdom traditions. Durall suggests that we should be raising expectations around the elements of membership such as attendance and financial generosity. I submit that these indices of membership will rise as the commitment to a spiritual practice deepens. I see issues with attendance and generosity as a symptom that our congregations are failing to engage us in the creative depths of our becoming.
Viewing our lives as the embodiment of our spirituality is an important step in deep engagement. Davidson Loehr claims that we have sacrificed our religious heritage in favor of a political secularity. Yet, I see political action as a legitimate expression of a spiritual practice. and . are both exemplars of the way politics can be an expression of spirituality. The problem, if any, around political action is our frequent neglect in framing political action within the context of a spiritual practice. Justice seeking will not be everyone’s spiritual expression, but those so called are a blessing to us all.
I do not have a specific model for the structure of a congregation, which engages more fully the spiritual practice of congregants. No single model is necessary or desirable. However, I believe, some shifting focus in this direction is critical in our search for relevancy and meaning. Deepening the spirituality of parishioners should be our top priority. What would happen to membership, if we adopted the approach I have suggested? I believe this shift would satisfy an unmet need and increase membership, but I consider this effect to be irrelevant.
Consider, as a thought experiment, that an increased expectation around spiritual practice was adopted. Perhaps, as many as ½ of the membership may resign because they were not interested in the “hard work” of a discipline. Assume those remaining are four times as committed to their spirituality as the average congregant before the new policy was adopted. In fact, because of the increased commitment, there would be increased generosity and effort offered for community continuity such that the organization might continue without loss of staff or facilities. How do you balance numerical membership and spiritual commitment? This is probably an unanswerable question, but I envision a kind of analysis, analogous to the Hedonic Calculus of Jeremy Bentham whereby the product of membership and commitment determines the value of the policy. In such an analysis, the much smaller more committed congregation should be more valued.
While there no reason to believe that a congregation devoted to supporting spiritual practices would be antithetical to membership growth, because I value the former over the later I am in favor of staying focused on the goal of a deepening spirituality and allowing membership levels to rise or fall as this policy shapes the congregation. I am not opposed to growth and believe that an understanding of the systemic barriers to growth discussed by Alice Mann should be part of our institutional toolbox. I appreciate that the care of members and a ministry of hospitality as described in the video Ideas for Growth – Video Workshop: Welcoming the Newcomer, produced by the may be a spiritual practice for some within the congregation, yet there is an odd objectification in the desire to recruit additional members upon which a spiritual discipline may be practiced. It makes more sense to simply strive to minister as effectively as possible to those who are in fact present.
Growth in membership solves neither financial nor organizational problems. Growing for the purpose to supporting “varied programs” makes little sense, because the problem would be the right kinds of programs not the variety. Growing to spur vitality makes little sense, because there is no reason to suspect that a lifeless congregation would become something better with additional bodies.
Membership growth serves our collective self-image by confirming that we are likable and useful. But, to use the terms of commerce, supersizing a product does not make it better, just bigger. Aggressive marketing can offset deficiencies in product quality, but only in the short run.
In the long run, it may be that we are not quite as useful as we believe. Those who leave may have liked something else better. Rather than setting quotas for growth, I believe it may be time to re-imagine what we can become. I believe that by focusing on spiritual practice, satisfaction will grow around our programming and we will become more nourished by what we find in our religious community. Our self-image will be formed in the transformative power or our collective focus on living the life we are called to live. We will reach for our own authenticity in this faith and find that we are right with the world, whether or not others find us likable or even useful.
1 I would suggest for purposes of this paper a definition of “spiritual” found in The Spiritual Aspect of Nature: A Perspective from Depth Psychology, by Herbert W. Schroeder.
“…I want to offer a tentative definition of what I mean when I use the word “spiritual.” This word carries many nuances of meaning and refers to a complex range of phenomena. Any definition must therefore be viewed as provisional and incomplete. Most of the uses of the word that I have encountered in regard to nature however, can be summed up in the following statement.
“’Spiritual’ refers to the experience of being related to or in touch with an “other” that transcends one’s individual sense of self and gives meaning to one’s life at a deeper than intellectual level.
“In a spiritual experience, one encounters something larger or greater than one’s individual self. The ‘other’ that one encounters need not be conceptualized in traditional religious terms. Depending on the individual, the transcendent other may be seen as a supernatural deity (e.g. God), or as a natural entity (e.g. the Earth). It may be something that exists objectively “out there” (e.g. the process of evolution), or it may be a subjective, inner phenomenon (e.g. creative inspiration). It may originate independently of the human sphere (e.g. wilderness), or it may be a product of human culture (e.g. a community). For some people the ‘other’ may not be a specific entity at all, but the undefinable “ground of being” that gives rise to all existing things.”