You Can Love Something to Death

Unitarian Universalism should be in a period of explosive growth. One reason we are not is just that people don’t know what we are about. There are thousands of people trying to build communities focused on support and growth and even ritual because they don’t understand what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years.

The other thing holding us back is, frankly, Us.

I am going to offer you all a personal story, but I will understand if you don’t want to read it. It isn’t graphic, violent, or mean-spirited, but there is an animal death. That being the case, I am putting it under this drop-down to give you the option of reading it rather than having to skim past the words to bypass the story:

Click here to read a story about the death of a kitten who was loved SO much.
  • This is a story from my childhood about the time my sister’s cat had a litter of kittens in my closet. It isn’t a long story; in fact that is the entire setup, aside from telling you that I was about 11 and my youngest sibling would have been 7 or so.
  • One night, while these kittens were still very, very young and not even able to walk yet, I was awakened after midnight to the sound of crying. Not the crying of kittens, but of my sister.
  • She had been told that the kittens were too young to play with unless someone was there to watch her, but she felt this was unfair; this was her cat, and so these were her kittens. She loved them and wanted to see them, and I think that attitude by have been why the cat chose my room for her nursery.
  • So, my sister had sneaked into my closest after everyone else was asleep to play with “her kittens”. She had been picking them up and trying to love on them with kisses and hugs.
  • But, not knowing how fragile they were at this stage of development, she hugged one of them too hard. It was injured so badly that she immediately understood that it was hurt, and she was crying because it had died in her hands.

All that is really just to illustrate that you can love something so much that your affection becomes dangerous and your desire to hold on to it ends up being a strangle hold. And I’m seeing it in Unitarian Universalist congregations right now.

Right now, we are at a moment that should be unprecedented growth. The number of visitors is way up at a lot of congregations according to the discussion among religious professionals. We have new mentions in media that have people curious. We have so many buildings that have been newly cleaned, newly organized, and which are as inviting as they have been in years after being shut down for many months. Yes, there are challenges, but we should be poised to overcome them and revive the mission!

But I am also hearing and seeing that in a lot of our congregations, the volunteers who held things together during the pandemic are tired and stressed out. They are worried about the decline in pledges and all the folks who either haven’t started coming back or who they know will not be. They are looking at these new faces and wondering if these visitors are going to understand how precious this church is. Are they going to step up and volunteer. And if they do, are they going to run things the right way? “Are they going to keep things the way I love them?”

And that is where we get into the embrace that can be so dangerous. We can’t keep doing things the way we were in 2019. We learned new things about worship and community and we shouldn’t long to forget them. We built new skills that we should want to put to use. Our membership is not the same, and we need to allow that to be alright or we’ll run off most of the potential members that we all hoped for. We have to allow the church to change to meet their needs along with our own.

And this isn’t to say that this is a brand new thing. I’ve been writing and rewriting this idea in my head for a few years as something the folks at a church I used to work at needed to hear very badly. Right now, though, it is worse because the numbers of potential/new members is much closer to the number of existing members than ever before and the pressure is greater–the changes need to happen much faster than some people are comfortable with (and ignoring that some people just don’t want anything to change at all).

“…we don’t stand. We move.”

Let me assure you that the Unitarian Universalism of today would be nearly unrecognizable to the forebears we love to lift up. I cannot imagine how Presidents John Adams, both of whom were Unitarian 200 years ago, would think of us today, but it would take a while to explain to them how we are descended from their own theology. There were both Unitarian and Universalists churches that were against the “consolidation” that formed the UUA in the 60s, and independent churches of each denomination still exists. We have always been about change and growth, and it has always cost us some people along the way. The mission, so far, has always been more important than the individual members, or even whole congregations.

We have to allow for change, not just in some near future, but right now, while we are there to see it. None of us are going to live forever. There is a really good chance that you will live longer than you have the energy to serve your church. New people are going to come through the doors looking to make a home in your community. It is still your community to love and support, but you have to be willing to let the new people come in and make it their church, too. We have to decide that letting these people claim Unitarian Universalism and membership in our church is more important than keeping things just as they are, or the church and it’s mission will fail. We have to be open to loosening our grip, without fully letting go, or else our love can become toxic.

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