“Build Your Dream Congregation”

“Build Your Dream Congregation”
A Service at First Parish in Bedford
On Sunday, February 22, 2015


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“If you don’t know where you’re going,
you’ll end up someplace else.”


Comments for Service: Why Are We Here?

Dee Russell

Thank you for coming today. I want to be clear about why we are here. We are near the completion of our strategic plan. You have already given voice to our strategic framework, which states
• Our mission of Promoting Lives of Joy and Meaning.
• It states Our Vision of being
o A community that Nourishes and empowers its members with lifelong spiritual and justice practices, exploration and growth
o Of being A community that is diverse, inclusive, accessible and interconnected
o And is a community that Is a transformative presence in the world through acts of service, activism and creativity.

• The framework also lists our desired outcomes of wanting to be able to say about ourselves that
o We are A Spirited Community with a stronger and more diverse faith
o We are A Transformative Presence by having a positive impact on the world through service, activism, and leadership
o And we have Sound Foundations to maintain our organizational, informational, physical and financial foundations to achieve our vision.

Through committee discussions and congregational conversations you provided an assessment of where we are as a congregation and where you want us to go.

You helped define our goals through a survey on what brings you joy and meaning and how FP can help you achieve that in your life.

Now we are at a point where we want to hear how you see us attaining the goals. What actions do you envision as progressing us towards the goals? Most importantly, we want to hear which goal or goals sing to you. Which goal makes you want to stand up and say that is a high priority for me, I want to work on that goal or on that action. The answers will be different from person to person. We need everyone’s thoughts on this. So as we brainstorm ideas on actions to attain our goals, sing out – let your voice be heard.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Mike Akillian

One of the many gifts the world gives us is that it doesn’t work just one way. Another gift is that it often reminds us of this.
As when, jet-lagged, we step off a London curb only to just miss being hit by a bus coming the other way.
In another example closer to home, we know that all waters east of the Continental Divide flow east, and all waters west, flow west.

We also know that, sometimes, lightening careens from cloud to earth; sometimes from earth to the heavens.
Depending upon the government and country, power may flow from the people to their leaders or, in too many cases, from the leaders to no one else at all.

The world also works differently when it comes to religion. Of the almost 7 billion people living on the globe, about 6 billion are affiliated with a religion. Over 2 billion people are Christians; over 1.5 billion are Muslims; 1 billion are Hindus; 500 million are Buddhists; 14 million are Jews, and so on down the line. In that line are about 800,000 Unitarian Universalists of which just under 400 can be found here at First Parish.

What most religions say is this: you will find meaning and joy in your lives: 1.) if you honor the teachings of the god or gods associated with that religion, and, 2.) if you adhere to the decrees of those charged with overseeing religious practice.
For us UU’s, things flow the other way. The mission statement for First Parish is “to promote lives of meaning and joy.” So, we, as individuals, are asked to think about what gives our lives meaning and joy, so that First Parish can work to align people, programs, and practices to help us find and sustain both of those.

Most of the other six billion religious followers never encounter this opportunity. And, we have to remind ourselves that we do and that it is one of the distinct blessings of being part of this denomination.

Even for us, many of whom have emigrated from other religious traditions, it isn’t always easy to tackle those questions. Indeed, when the Strategic Planning team first issued what has become known as the “meaning and joy” survey, a number of parishioners had trouble initially answering those questions. We also got a number of comments, such as “I thought this was a survey about First Parish.” Expecting the survey to ask about two services and the like. Well, it truly is about First Parish, but working the other way round.

Today, under the banner of strategic planning in the workshop that follows, what is actually being asked is not what you should do for First Parish, but what First Parish – as a church community – might do for you and yours in the years to come to promote meaning and joy in your lives.

And that, in the world of religion, is a very unusual question and one very worthy of your time and presence. Thank you.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Building our Dream Congregation”
Rev. Megan Lynes

When you walk into the Common Room for lunch in a short while, you will see six new banners hanging proudly. They represent the goals we as a community thought hard about, and care about and want to make happen. It is no small accomplishment that we got this far with our strategic plans. It’s so easy to get lost in the weeds, or feel separate from the process or simply forget there was a trajectory in mind.

Here are the goals we’ve settled on, after many surveys and assessments, and deep listening to who we are, and what we want to do together as a congregation.


At our finest here at First Parish, we are inventive, thought provoking, visionary activists, and we laugh at ourselves. We do our best to examine social norms. We are not always perfect, by any means, but we strive to be imagineers for justice. At times we are willing to be uncomfortable for a while if it means we are doing the right thing. We’ve gotten this far together, we’ve had all sorts of successes and failures along the way, and we’ve learned a ton. With our new clear goals to guide us, we can begin to imagine even bigger, bolder things. The question of the day is what blue sky ideas are next?

What we’re asking of you this morning is to dive into the possibility and positivity of the day. Imagine it this way. You’re taking an improv acting class. You’re standing there awkwardly on stage, and suddenly your buddy runs up, arms extended, calling out, “do you want a banana?” Now you can answer “no thanks!” but then you’ve just killed their idea, and whatever lead they were taking is a no go. Plus, now it’s your turn to think up something better. The more exciting way to engage with the offer is to take them up on their weird invite, “why yes, I’ve been craving potassium all day! Thanks!” And see where the skit can go from there. Today is a “Yes, and…!” kind of a day. You’re going to hear ideas and offers, some great, some not so great, and the key is to just keep on spinning out new thoughts, and shoot nothing down. We know there are improvements to be made around here, and we do want to hear those, but today is a “Yes, and…” kind of atmosphere.

Mike talked about the fact that the purpose of religion is to shape social values. In that line of thinking, then the mission of liberal religion is to shape society by our values: inclusivity, equality, generosity, broadmindedness. I believe we shape the world we live in, by being authentic and compassionate human beings, and we do this best when we participate in a community that inspires us, heals us, challenges us, and guides us to be a force for good. Nod if you’re with me here, the heart of our faith is to bring meaning and joy not only to ourselves but to the world. The choir reminded us beautifully, and I couldn’t say it better, we are one.

John would have been here today to be speaking to you himself, but he’s doing a memorial service for his college roommate in Dallas. These days he’s been doing his own brainstorming, and he’s eager to hear ours when he gets back. In some of his more blue sky moments, John wonders about starting a congregation in Lowell or Burlington or exploring ways to collaborate with the UU congregation in Billerica. What would that be like? One of our goals is “Reach out beyond First Parish.” How should we do that?

Recently, John had lunch with a minister from Grace Chapel, the Mega Church down the road in Lexington. He learned that everything Grace Chapel is doing these days centers around the next generation. They ask themselves how thinking about the next generation of young people should affect the use of the building, the way the congregation does social justice work, the music, and so on. The disclaimer of course is that their congregation is quite different from us, in size and theology, and so of course we’ll have a different path forward, but what can we learn from their way of thinking? We too have just created a goal called “Engaging Youth and Families.”

Before leaving, John told me about a UU minister colleague of ours named Hope Johnson who decided to take her entire congregation to see the movie, Selma. One Sunday they just up and went to see it together. What would it be like for us to do that, John wondered. One of our new goals is “Embrace Diversity.” What big ideas can we cook up that get us out of our comfort zones.

This past Wednesday the Senior Youth Group piled into a bus and headed to New York city to serve food for the homeless with the Youth Services Opportunities Project. They slept on the floor in a Quaker meeting house, and stayed up late unpacking the hard truths about homelessness and the role we can have in social change. “Grow Through Service” our banner reads. What other ideas do we have that are creative and powerful?

There are many ways one might work towards our goal of “Integrating Mind and Spirit.” Each November First Parish is part of an interfaith gathering on the Common commemorating Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” which recalls the start of WWII in Germany, when Jewish stores and synagogues were destroyed and burned. This last year we had about a hundred people of all faith traditions, including three youth groups, who gathered by candle light to read poems and sing in solidarity against bigotry and hatred in our community and in our world. For me personally, Kristallnacht is a night of profound hope. This past year, I stood in the candlelit darkness between a rabbi and a Muslim. Each in our own way, we spoke passionately about peace. That was the moment I felt with my heart, as well as my mind, what it means to create lives of joy and meaning. Sometimes what we stand for together is a matter of life and death. That is meaningful. And to fight for what’s right brings deep joy. So promoting lives of joy and meaning; these are not fluffy words. They are foundational words upon which to build. How do you find yourself integrating mind and spirit? How can we do that in even bolder ways?

There’s a story I heard recently that reminds me of our new goal to “Secure Our Future.” In New College University of Oxford, England, it was discovered that beetles had destroyed the giant oak beams in the great hall. The dons of the college were at a loss to find replacement oak timbers of sufficient size, but the college forester came to the rescue — it turned out that when the New College was built, 500 years previous, the dons of the college had planted oaks in Oxford’s forest. For 500 years those trees had been preserved, so that if some day they were needed, the resource would be available. Now that’s forethought! How far can we stretch our minds into the future?

Here at First Parish we talk about going from good to great. What does that take? What does the church of your dreams look like? Today is about batting around new visions of projects we can champion together. When we sit down to share ideas, let’s be sure not get hung up over the words of these goals. They are simply meant to get our juices flowing, and certainly not meant to limit us in any way.

Thank you for being here today. This may not be your idea of what church is about. But every several years we try to do something that is wildly different, in the hopes of shaking things up. Others not present today will have chances to share their ideas too, but for now, we’re it. We are the breath of our ancestors, and the makers of peace. We are the lovers of life, and the seekers of truth. We are our grandmothers’ prayers, and our grandfathers’ dreamings.

The sky’s the limit. Today, together, we dream.


Closing Words

Our closing words are by the Rev. Steve Crump.

That which is worthy of doing, create with your hands.
That which is worthy of repeating, speak with a clear voice.
That which is worthy of remembering, hold in your hearts.
And that which is worthy of living, go and live it now.

May the quality of our lives be our benediction,
and a blessing to all whom we touch.