Monthly Archives: November 2006

Responsive reading by Theodore Parker

This week for worship, I wanted a reading that allowed congregational participation, taken from “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.” If you’re a Unitarian Universalist, you probably know that “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” was one of two greatest Unitarian sermons of the 19th C. and that it was written by the great Unitarian minister Theodore Parker (the other great 19th C. Unitarian sermon was “Unitarian Christianity” by William Ellery Channing).

“The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” remains, in its way, a radical statement of what’s important in religion. Everyone who’s a Unitarian Universalist should have at least passing familiarity with it. Sad to say, it does not appear in any form in the current Unitarian Universalist hymnal.

So I adapted a couple of key passages into a responsive reading. I changed gender-specific language to gender-inclusive language because I think if Parker were alive today he would have done so. In one instance, I changed the word “Christian” to the word “religious,” which will offend the more doctrinaire Unitarian Universalists, but will also make this reading more relevant to post-Christian congregations like the one I serve.

The Transient and Permanent in Religion

It must be confessed, though with sorrow, that transient things form a great part of what is commonly taught as Religion.

An undue place has often been assigned to forms and doctrines, while too little stress has been laid on the divine life of the soul, and love to men and women.

Religious forms may be useful and beautiful.

They are so, whenever they speak to the soul, and answer a want thereof. Some forms are perhaps necessary. But such forms are only the accident of religion; not its substance.

Another age may continue or forsake the religious forms we use today; may revive old forms, or invent new ones to suit the altered circumstances of the times; yet they will be quite as religious as we.

It is only gradually that we approach to the true system of Nature by observation and reasoning, and work out our philosophy and theology by the toil of the brain.

Who shall tell us that another age will not smile at our doctrines, disputes, and quarrels? Who shall tell us they will not weep at the folly of all such as fancied Truth shone only in the contracted nook of their school, or sect, or coterie?

No doubt, an age will come, in which ours shall be reckoned a period of darkness — like the sixth century — when humanity groped for the wall but stumbled and fell, because they trusted a transient notion, not an eternal truth.

The economics of small churches

The November 28, 2006, issue of Christian Century magazine carries an article by sociologist Mark Chaves titled “Supersized: Analyzing the trend toward larger churches.” Chaves presents research showing that “the number of very large Protestant churches has increased in almost every denomination on which we have data” (Chaves and his team did not investigate Unitarian Universalist churches), and that the rate of increase in the number of very large churches has increased since the 1970’s. Additionally, Chaves says that “the very biggest churches are getting bigger,” and that churchgoers “are increasingly concentrated in the very largest churches.”

None of this should be a surprise to anyone. We all know that the number of megachurches (i.e., churches with greater than 2,000 average attendance each week) continues to grow, and that megachurches continue to get bigger. What may be surprising is Chaves’s analysis of this phenomenon. Forget other explanations you’ve heard about why megachurches succeed, Chaves says:

I suggest another explanation: the increased concentration of people in the very largest churches is cause in part by rising costs that make it more and more difficult to run a church at a customary level of programming and quality.

Churches suffer, I think, from “Baumol’s cost disease.” This is a phenomenon identified in the mid-1960’s by economists William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen. The basic idea is simple: if there is increasing productivity and efficiency in some sectors of the economy, and if wages increase in those sectors, then wages also will increase in other sectors, or else talent will move to the sectors in which wages are increasing.

However, some kinds of activities cannot be made much more efficient…. Activities that have at their core human effort, training, practice, attention and presence cannot be made much more efficient. No technological invention or social innovation makes it possible to reduce the level of input into such activities and still get the same level of output, so enterprises organized around such activities cannot be made more efficient without a reduction in quality.

Churches are subject to Baumol’s cost disease…. The only options [for churches] are to sacrifice quality or increase revenue.

Of course, other observers have come to similar conclusions, but Chaves comes up with good evidence to support his conclusion. Chaves documents that while church revenue has been increasing in American churches since the 1970’s, costs have been outpacing revenue increases, especially in the area of salaries. The result is not surprising:

When cost increases outpace revenue increases, churches cut corners and reduce quality by deferring maintenance, declining to replace youth ministers [or DRE’s and MRE’s in Unitarian Universalism] when they leave, replacing retiring full-time ministers with half-time pastors, and so on.

Some of this can be seen here at First Unitarian in New Bedford. Active membership has remained flat since about 1960, and since that time pledge income has not kept up with rising costs. Although the effects of inadequate revenue have been cushioned by income from a substantial endowment, the last major building renovation was pre-1970’s (when the big growth in megachurches began), and we currently face a substantial backlog of deferred maintenance. The Director of Religious Education position has been cut substantially, and at only 13 hours a week it has gotten to the point where we have had difficulty attracting viable candidates (the position is currently unfilled). Also, quality in programming has clearly declined over the past forty years.

On the other hand, I believe there has been some small increase in efficiency, especially in the church office. Computers have greatly increased the efficiency of producing documents, and increased the efficiency of bookkeeping, and I expect that within the next five years nearly all churches will move towards providing almost all documents via email and the Web, increasing office efficiency further. I also believe that applying modern non-profit management techniques can increase efficiency in church offices (especially since most church offices are run fairly inefficiently to begin with).

But the salaries for minister(s) and for religious educator(s) combined typically constitute more than half of a church’s budget — and there isn’t much you can do to increase the efficiency of ministers and religious educators. In fact, ministers are probably less productive now than they were forty years ago. In 1971, Unitarian Universalist minister Dana MacLean Greeley wrote that he worked an average of eighty hours a week, and that was probably fairly typical. Today, minister work weeks are more likely to average forty-five to sixty hours a week, which keeps pace with competitive jobs such as social work, psychotherapy, university professor, etc. (Part of the change here is that Greeley could work eighty hours a week because he could count on the full-time support from his wife, whereas gender roles and expectations have changed radically since 1971.)

If productivity doesn’t suffer, then quality probably does. Greeley wrote that he spent an average of twenty hours a week preparing for and writing sermons. I spend ten to twelve hours a week on my sermons, because that’s all the time I can set aside. I know the quality of my sermons suffers because I don’t spend enough time on them, but I have no more time to spend. The lack of time spent in sermon preparation may well explain the steep decline in quality of Unitarian Universalist sermons in recent years.

One factor that could lead to increased efficiency for ministers is the increased laicization of ministry. For example, many congregations are developing lay ministry or pastoral care teams, in which volunteers lay people are trained to provide pastoral care to people in the congregation; the minister increases his/her efficiency by extending his/her reach by means of training and supporting volunteers to carry out traditional ministerial tasks. Small group ministries can also be designed to allow volunteers to deliver high-quality ministry under the guidance of a trained minister. Interestingly, megachurches often use such techniques to support their ongoing growth — not only do they take advantage of the economy of scale, they also are increasing the efficiency of their ministers.

A couple of things become extremely clear from all this. Well over half of all Unitarian Universalist congregations are small (less than 100 year-round average attendance at worship). These small congregations face a stark choice. (1) If a congregation wishes to stay small, they must cut services, probably by cutting back on the minister’s salary. They will probably also have to cut the quality and quantity of services, and rely increasingly on volunteers. They will face ongoing problems with deferred maintenance, and they will also face increasing difficulty attracting new members who can still get a high level of services in larger churches. (2) If a congregation wishes to maintain the current (or higher) level of quality of services and programming, they will have to do several things: increase worship attendance to above 300 weekly year-round average; further increase revenue by increasing giving by current individual members (often by as much as 100% per average pledge unit); give up unrealistic expectations about what ministers can do (in a 300 member church, the minister will have far less contact with individuals than in a 50 member church); give up the intimacy of the small church; and proceed with rapid laicization of ministry.

If that’s all there was to this, it would be a stark choice indeed: cut services drastically and hold on to intimacy; or cut intimacy and hold on to high-quality services. But then you consider how many people there are out there who really are Unitarian Universalists already, just waiting to be welcomed in by us. I’m happy to give up intimacy in order to provide a welcoming home for those people; if for no other reason than basic hospitality which grows out of the core of a radical Universalism which says that all should be welcomed.

Anti-science, grr…

One of the key aspects of Mr. Crankypants’s religion is that his religion is compatible with science. Call him pro-science and pro-religious — in fact, Mr. Crankypants would be proud if you called him pro-science.

Politics is not usually a topic for this blog, but there is little doubt that the current administration in Washington is anti-science. Mr. Crankypants likes to read “Bad Astronomy,” a blog written by an astronomer named Phil Plait who writes periodically about what he has come to call White House tampering of science. For example, Mr. Plait has written on White House attempts to legislate against evolution, and about how the White House distorts the science around global warming. Recently Plait wrote about how the White House has managed to slash NASA’s budget, despite what Congress had budgeted for NASA. Why slash NASA’s budget? –follow the link to the article by James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and you’ll discover that the White House doesn’t like the fact that some of NASA’s research has been providing additional confirmation to the fact of global warming.

Hansen’s article includes a great quote by Richard Feynman:

The only way to have real success in science… is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be.

Mr. Crankypants can’t help thinking that at least part of the reason the current inhabitants of the White House are anti-science is due to their self-professed religious viewpoint, that of Christian literalism — a religious viewpoint that dismisses solid science like evolution, atmospheric science, psychology,* and the Big Bang — because the evidence conflicts with the way the White House feels the world should be.

Religion need not be anti-science. Mr. Crankypants’s religion is compatible with science. What about yours?

* Psychology is on the short list, because psychologists have long since determined that homosexuality is not a form of mental illness, i.e., it is not aberrant behavior — a determination which conflicts with the way the White House feels about the world.

That innocent look!
Hermes had stolen the cows;
as Apollo thought.

Amazing. Hermes
is inside every cairn.
Stack up stones, he’s there,

ready to guide you,
patron god of travellers.
But I’m suspicious:

he’s mischievous, too,
the trickster god. If fog comes
and you leave the path,

or if your map proves
to be utterly wrong, if
you somehow get lost:

you should blame Hermes.
Or thank him. For all you know,
you’re better off lost.

When you come to die,
that’s when Hermes shows up next.
With his magic wand

he touches your eyes.
Next thing you know, there’s Charon
demanding his fare.

You spit out the coin
they left on your tongue, so you
can plead with him; but

he’s already gone.
Winged sandals are fast. You’re stuck
on the banks of Styx.

Upgrade hassles

Upgrading to WordPress 2.0.5 caused some minor errors in the blog’s appearance. My apologies, should have it fixed soon. If you run into something that doesn’t look right, please let me know — either by commenting on this post, or via email.

The sermon

Second in a series trying to find theological significance in typical elements of Unitarian Universalist worship services.

In Protestant days of yore, the sermon was straightforward. The preacher expounded the word of God: “Warrant for regarding preaching as word of God is found in Jesus’ declaration, ‘Whoever hears you hear me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me'” (The Study of Liturgy, ed. Cheslyn Jones et al., rev. ed. [Oxford, 1992]). Doubts about God grew in liberal religious circles, and the old death-of-God theology of the mid-20th C. meant Unitarian Universalists couldn’t depend on everyone affirming God’s existence any more — but once God is gone, what then is the purpose of the sermon? We had better figure out what exactly the sermon is, if it’s not the word of God.

I’d like to think the sermon could be an expression of the gathered, covenanted community, but all too often it has become an opportunity for self-indulgence by the preacher, as when the preacher presents us with slice-of-life vignettes, using his or her life to (allegedly) make some religious point. Or the sermon becomes entertainment, as when the preacher is under the mistaken impression that Garrison Keillor represents the sine qua none of preaching (he doesn’t, and many of us feel he isn’t even a particularly good entertainer). Or, most dreary of all, the sermon becomes an “address” or a “talk,” and is reduced to being a mediocre lecture by a mediocre intellect.

Our problem with sermons is compounded by a mistaken understanding of “freedom of the pulpit.” Preachers and congregations interpret “freedom of the pulpit” to mean license to say whatever the hell you want. Call it cowboy preaching: the preacher rides into town, two six-guns slung low on the hips, ready to shoot it out with anyone who dares tell him or her what to preach. In the old days, freedom of the pulpit meant the preacher had license to speak truth to power, like the prophets of old; with the understanding that speaking truth to power was done under divine inspiration. Since God can no longer be relied upon, we can no longer rely on the justification for freedom of the pulpit. As one old Unitarian Universalist minister said to a bunch of new ministers, “There’s no such thing as freedom of the pulpit, so just forget it.” Unfortunately, too many preachers still say whatever the hell they want.

No wonder so many people are trying to eviscerate the sermon. The “Soulful Sundown” crowd wants to replace the preacher with the singer-songwriter (at least the signer-songwriter is entertaining). The fellowship crowd wants to turn the preacher into an adjunct faculty member of the nearby university (too bad you can’t get academic credit for attending church). The NPR-loving crowd listens to “Prairie Home Companion” instead of bothering to come to church at all.

Instead of eviscerating sermons, think of the sermon as one installment in a long conversation. The evolving conversation takes place within a covenanted community; the sermon should offer a snapshot in time of the conversation’s evolution; the purpose of the conversation is a search for truth and goodness. The preacher has the holy trust of accurately reporting the concerns of the convenanted community as one participant in the community of inquirers. And the preacher should remember that she or he is responsible for furthering the conversation based on careful listening, deep reflection, and participation in the wider conversation going on between congregations. The congregation has to do its part: listen carefully, reflect deeply, participate in the wider conversation outside the congregation, and carry on the conversation outside of the Sunday morning worship service.

If we’re not all going to affirm God, then it’s up to all of us to co-create the sermon, by doing the hard work of actually talking about religion with each other, and with the preacher.

Late fall

I took a long walk this afternoon, out to Fort Phoenix beach in Fairhaven. The wintering waterfowl have returned to the waters around Fort Phoenix: goldeneye, mergansers, loons, Brant, scaup, Bufflehead, grebes. I found myself crossing the bridge from Fairhaven to New Bedford just after sunset.

It had been a warm day, but as soon as the sun disappeared it started to get cold. The sky was one of those clear skies that you get in late fall or winter, and in the west it glowed orange-gold. I could see low dark clouds along the sourthern horizon, probably a bank of fog out to sea. I stopped at the Dunkin Donuts on Pope’s Island for a small decaf and a plain doughnut, and I watched it get dark while I sat there desultorily reading the newspaper. Not even five o-‘clock yet, and already dark.

Except that when I went back outside, it wasn’t completely dark. The sky was still bright from the setting sun. The moon, just a few days past new, added its own brilliance to the sky. Even though I was walking along a four-lane highway in the middle of the city, it all felt just a little bit magical.

More than thirty stories

For my own convenience, I have posted more than thirty children’s stories on my Web site. These are stories that I have written over the years for use either in the “Story for all ages” segment of a regular Sunday morning worship service, or in a children’s worship service, or in an intergenerational worship service, or in a Sunday school class. (Half a dozen of these stories have already appeared on this blog.)

Perhaps some of you out there might find these useful as well… Link.


First in a series: short overviews of typical elements of Unitarian Universalist worship services. Later note: This series morphed into a more comprehensive review of post-Christian worship. Link.

My real interest in examining the various elements of a typical worship service is to determine the theological significance of each element. My assumption is that we truly live out our theology in our liturgy, in actual living worship services. If we want to know Unitarian Universalist theology is really (as opposed to what people say it is), let’s look at Unitarian Universalist worship.

And let’s begin with announcements.

On a practical level, announcements are useless:– someone stands up, gives a rambling announcement that no one listens to anyway, and at the end gives a name and phone number to call, as if anyone in the congregation has pen and paper ready to take down all that information. One or two announcements given by a worship leader from the pulpit might be marginally effective. Least effective is when anyone is invited to stand up and give any announcement at all. Printed announcements in the the order of service work well because people can take the announcements with them and act on it later; but practically speaking spoken announcements aren’t effective.

If announcements are useless on a practical level, why do they persist in our congregations? Announcements provide an opportunity for people to stand up in front of the congregation and be heard; it may be the only place where certain people feel they have an opportunity to be heard. Thus, while on the surface announcements give a false impression of a congregation that values community, in actuality a congregation that values announcements is likely to: silence minority viewpoints, avoid conflict, show active dislike towards ministers and other authority figures, and/or tolerate irrational behavior. Such an environment is not conducive to open, mutually-enriching conversations about theology.

From a theological perspective, then, the presence of announcements serves as a reminder that all too often Unitarian Universalist congregational life may not include time and space to discuss theology. I have been in congregations that devoted ten to fifteen minutes to spoken announcements, which seriously reduced the time for other more explicitly theological elements in the worship service. Which is what spoken announcements in the worship service do: squeeze the theology out of our religion.