A Stable Faith by Rev. Shayna Appel

When I was hired by the Board of UUCM 19 months ago, it was made clear to me that the primary objective of the congregation was church growth. Like many of our congregations within the greater Unitarian Universalist Association, UUCM has seen a marked decline in church membership and attendance over the last few decades.  Increasingly, leadership for various committees and functions within the church has fallen to the hands of fewer and fewer people, and those people are growing weary.

We are not alone in what we are experiencing.  In his book The Almost Church, Rev. Martin Lavanhar paints a rather dire future for Unitarian Universalism. He notes that:

In twenty-five years, little of Unitarian Universalism as we know it may remain. Numerous church observers believe that in the coming decades, one-third or more of all churches in the United States will close their doors.  Perhaps as many as 100,000 congregations will no longer exist.  Among the churches closing may be 400-500 of today’s 1,008 UU congregations in the United States.

Lavanhar notes that the trend began back in the 1950s as Protestants experienced a mass exodus of people from mainline congregations.  However, looking more closely at the present moment, he notes that the primary reason for church decline likely has more to do with the inability of traditional churches to recognize that seismic changes have occurred in the religious landscape around them, and their failure to respond to these changes.

Furthermore, there seems to be a rather wide disparity between what members of the congregation yearn for and how the church responds to those yearnings — or does not.  Some of the more compelling wishes for the church include:

  • More significant and visible community impact
  • A willingness of the church to live more boldly
  • Increased generosity manifested in greater giving to the needs of the world
  • A church in which service is at the core instead of the edges
  • The ability to accomplish things that impact lives
  • A church-wide commitment to living the faith
  • A stronger focus on community with less emphasis on the individual

I have heard these yearnings expressed by many in our congregation as well.  And yet, I have experienced on multiple occasions our own resistance to the change that will be necessary to live out the boldness of those visions.  We are way too invested in perfection in the work we do at UUCM and this over investment is undermining the good that could be done if we encouraged more leadership involvement, even if it means things will be done differently and there may be some struggles in the beginning.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly right now, is the existence of some really toxic behavior that has clearly gone on here for too long unchallenged. We need to THINK before we speak to one another or text.  Does what we are about to say meet the THINK criteria: Thoughtful, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind?  If not, speak not!

Let me be as clear as I can be.  I was hired to grow the church.  But, ministers don’t grow congregations.  Congregations grow congregations.  It is my job to shepherd the congregation as it lives out its mission.  And what is that mission?

We are a compassionate, spiritual community that honors every person’s search for truth as we learn and work together to create a better world.   [Adopted  June 2, 2019]

For what it’s worth, it seems to me that everything we need to thrive as a community of faith is in here: 

  • Compassion to undergird the tenor of our work together, best drawn from generously as we engage the changes necessary for our survival.
  • A community grounded in spirit and living out the faith we share.
  • A balancing of the individual’s search for truth with the expectation that we work together.
  • A commitment that this beloved church serve the world and not just us.

As many of you are aware, the Board recently voted to extend my contract with you for another year.  This was made necessary by the pandemic, which has made it difficult to know if I am the right minister for you longer term, and whether or not you are the right congregation for me.  I hope and pray the restrictions of the last 19 months will continue to lessen so that we can re-engage with our mission in a fuller context together.  I hope and pray you share with me the conviction that Unitarian Universalism can change people’s lives for the better in some fundamental ways.  I hope you believe that changing lives is, in fact, the business we are in! 

Rev. Lavanhar closes out his chapter “Living on Borrowed Time” by expressing his personal longing for “the day when our churches will boldly reclaim a heritage of faithfulness and service.” His longing touched my own… deeply.  For the sake of our church, our faith, and our world, I invite you to think deeply about what we are doing with our faith.  Then, as we approach the end of another calendar year and the beginning of a new one, ask yourself, “Is it enough?”

In this bold faith we share, and with much love,

Rev. Shayna