John Schneider, Deirdre Heck, and I have been leading a pilot adult faith formation class called, “Soul of a Leader,” exploring with some twenty brave First Parishers the spiritual practices of being a leader, what we as individual Unitarian Universalists can draw upon for our own leadership, and how Unitarian Universalism can offer leadership for our communities. We had a good discussion this past Sunday evening about a sermon delivered by the Reverend Vanessa Southern at last year’s General Assembly in Louisville. She preached about Unitarian Universalism’s potential in the changing landscape of American culture. We touched on the sermon I gave this past Sunday morning about Unitarian Universalism “coming of age” at various times in our history, as the cultural landscape has shifted. We talked also about how our particular congregation has “come of age” at various times in its own history and context.
For several generations after its founding in 1655, First Parish was the religious and civic center of town of Chelmsford. Many of the church leaders were the town’s leaders. It was the church of the establishment. However, to the dismay of the Reverend Ebenezer Bridge (1740-ish to 1790-ish), First Parish’s religious dominance was challenged by the arrival of the Baptists in South Chelmsford. So concerned about these religious rivals, someone (or someones) snuck in and stole all the pews in the new Baptist church. The new congregation took down their meetinghouse by night and rebuilt it in stealth at Heart Pond. Before long, came the Universalists, the Methodists and the Roman Catholics, as well as the reality of disestablishment and the town hall moving across the street. First Parish could no longer claim to be the center of Chelmsford.
Since that time, we have changed in some significant ways. While our church still stands on the town green, and our building remains an historic symbol of Chelmsford, our congregation is no longer centered on the town. Unitarian Universalism is probably a mystery to most of the folks who drive by our church or who attend our breakfasts and buy our donuts.
I believe that one of the most significant “comings of age” we have experienced is outgrowing our roots as a small town church. We have become a regional congregation, drawing our members not just from Chelmsford but from Lowell, Billerica, Dracut, Westford, Tyngsboro, Tewksbury, Acton, Littleton and even Nashua, New Hampshire. We no longer know all the same town leaders, serve on all the same town committees, and have kids in all the same schools. While we are no longer the center of Chelmsford, we are a center for Unitarian Universalism and liberal religion in the greater Lowell area. As we have grown more comfortable in our willingness to look outward beyond our sanctuary walls and beyond the town common, we have invited more community groups like the Table of Plenty and the Buddhist Meditation Group into our building. We are also learning to take our community and our faith on the road and put it to work, whether in New Orleans, Rockaway, NY, Lowell, or Dorchester. And we are learning to make public our values by becoming a Welcoming Congregation, and hanging our “Standing on the Side of Love” banner on our front pillars.
What do we want to be as we grow in our Unitarian Universalist faith and presence? What does it mean to be a regional church, a UU presence in our part of the Merrimack Valley? How do we move beyond sustaining to strengthening our beloved community and its covenants?
We are in the midst of a couple of things that touch upon these underlying questions: our annual canvass, the Next Steps Weekend with UUA consultant Barry Finkelstein, a shift in our Sunday school and our congregation from a model of “religious education” to “faith formation,” and some pilot projects like evening services, the Touchstones project, the “Soul of a Leader” class and the mentoring program for new members. We are coming of age. It may feel awkward and uncomfortable at times, as we recognize that some things don’t fit the way they used to and we have to learn to adapt who we are to where we are. But it also points to the energy and possibilities in us, as we strive to discern what it means to be our Unitarian Universalist community of faith here and now, to do justice now, to love kindly now, to walk attentively and humbly now with our Spirit of Life.