Worship & Celebrations
Resistance is Futile
The Reverend Julie-Ann Silberman-Bunn
Opening Words: from Fallacies of Planning by Dan Hotchkiss
Let me tell a story. One October at a church staff meeting, I presented a Christmas pageant plan. It was on a Renaissance theme and required a singing, juggling troubadour who would lead children in a circus exhibition with gymnastics, magic tricks, and singing. By the time I was done, my colleagues were rolling their eyes at one another. One said, “But Dan, we don’t have anybody who can do that.”
This is true: The following Sunday, a man visited our church who was an acrobat, a juggler, a magician, and a singer who knew how to teach. He had visited before, but then we didn’t need him! This time one of the staff spotted him immediately. He led the pageant and joined the church. Ten years later he was still there.
A miracle? Perhaps. But miracles are not improbable; they happen all the time. All you have to do is notice them!
Dan Hotchkiss is a senior consultant at the Alban Institute. “Fallacies of Planning" originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Clergy Journal (www.logosproductions.com) and is reprinted with permission.
Copyright © 2008, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Change will occur, resistance is futile, but we do not have to like it.
I went to a small, liberal boarding school in Pennsylvania; it was a school that had been very laid back under the previous headmaster. The headmaster who was in charge during my years at Solebury often had trouble with the vision of the school held by students who had been attending during the previous headmaster's tenure She felt that their vision was not structured enough to allow the school to be successful. When it came time for my class to graduate, the head master in her address to the graduating class referred to us “as the last class resistant to change". For many years after that, I thought of those words as somewhat of a badge of honor for my classmates and me. We were among the last class resistant to change. The truth, however, was that we high school seniors were idealistic, visionary and wanting total freedom, which had been the way the previous headmaster, a wonderful man with a heart of gold....who was an alcoholic and a heinous administrator, had run it.
The truth found in the title of this morning's sermon, resistance is futile, is one I think we all fight, wrestle, deny and resist with every fiber of our beings. Change will occur, resistance is futile, but we do not have to like it. We don’t have to like it in boarding schools, neighborhoods, offices, schools, houses, families and especially in our churches. However, we do have to accept that it is part of the reality of living in our very fragile and tenuous world. Everything changes in one way or another, from the skin cells we shed virtually continually, to the huge things like the New York City skyline...everything changes, resistance is futile. We do not have to like change, but we do have to learn how to cope with change, and to adjust to changes, and to find our new way of being in light of changes.
For some of you this is a new church, new because you are attending for the very first time, of have been here for a relatively short time, and we are thrilled to have you. You represent change because some of our beloved members used to sit in those seats and they are no longer with us. For you new folks, you may be longing for the familiar faces of family and friends whom you had grown comfortable with in a church hundreds of miles away, either geographically or theologically. We welcome all people, whatever their vision of the congregation and the people who are filling the seats this morning. However, we warn you that change is in the air, it is always in the air. What we want you to know even more than that is that we hope you will help us create positive change for all of us. We hope that everyone will be part of making this a better place everyday, no matter how long or short your time with us has been to date. We hope you will be part of our ongoing acceptance of the reality that change is a constant, we are all a part of that change, and we have a say in how we receive and view change.
In an article that I am currently reading, John Taylor Gatto writes of an interaction with his grandfather, “One afternoon when I was 7, I complained to him of boredom, and he batted me hard on the head. He told me I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my own fault and no one else’s. The obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, he said, and those who didn’t know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible". (“Childhood’s End", October 2008, Ode p.24)
I am not a fan of name-calling, but I think Gatto’s grandfather had a point; we are responsible for how we choose to fill our time. We choose how we will respond to every situation that faces us, we can choose to embrace, fight them, or we can go with the flow...in that way we make our own circumstances. Another version of this story might be the one told in Alcoholics Anonymous literature in which twin brothers are asked why one is an alcoholic and the other a teetotaler, and they both answer my father was an alcoholic how else could I be. Perhaps neither of them chose the their way of being, but they both became who they were in response to a set of events and circumstances in their lives, and they resisted the change that would be necessary to heal the wounds that brought them to a point where they felt they each only had one path.
We always get to choose, we always get to create and do.
Gatto’s grandfather was telling him, and by extension of us, that we always get to choose, we always get to create and do, and be in this world. From moment to moment and day to day the choices and changes we make may be small or grand, and some will come intentionally and some will come as the consequences of choices we and others make...we never get to stop making change. We always get to decide who we want to be in the face of change.
This is a new church year. We have, as we do every year, a mix of people with varying lengths of history with the church from none at all, to numerous decades, and each of you carries with you ideas about how things are done, in churches and at home, but simply we have our own ideas. The joy of a Unitarian Universalist church is having a safe place in which we can open ourselves to explore where our own ideas come from, and the whys of our ideas, why we hold them dear, why is it our only way? The other part of the equation in Unitarian Universalist churches is that we get to hear the ideas of others, the ideas that they might have thought were the only possible solutions. Magic occurs when we stop insisting that our way is the only way and start trying to figure out better solutions, which might use pieces of several ways or completely new ideas all together.
One of the groups in this church that I would like to highlight for their ability to be open to change is the Worship Weavers (Worship Associates in other churches). One of the best ideas I have ever heard of for a Homecoming earth and water communion came from our worship weavers team this month... two members came up with the idea of inviting people to write down where their earth and water was from and what it’s meaning was...the joy of this new method is it allows everyone to participate, yet is quick enough that no matter how big a church it can be done. And while some might have viewed that as a big change in our service, it was no where near as big a change as the introduction of the earth and water service on my first Sunday as your minister a little more than four years ago. Change happens...resistance is futile.
One of my desires as minister is to be able to hear your suggestions. I want to hear what works for you and does not work for you about worship in this church. Just last week I received a great deal of feedback about the children being in the service for too long, this week we have made some adjustments to the order of service, and we will wait to see how people think it went. While my desire is to remain open, I hope that you will join me in that endeavor to be open to new and improved ideas. Remember, it is not that the fire or the candle were bad ideas, simply that the light bulb, the lamp, the flash light and the furnace were further developments on what was a good idea.
I want to hear what works for you and does not work for you about worship in this church.
My colleague Dan Hotchkiss, former minister at the Unitarian Society of New Haven in Hamden, now a consultant for the Alban Institute, a think tank of sorts for congregational resources wrote an essay titled the “Fallacies of Planning”. In the essay he writes “I often read reviews of products I already own. Apparently I’m not alone: a lot of people, after a big purchase, hunt for favorable reviews. It makes us feel better and leaves us more convinced than ever that we made the right decision". This kind of post-hoc thinking does not hurt if you just bought an iPhone, but in congregational planning it’s a hazard. Economists call it the “endowment effect”: we value what we have more than what we don’t have. It’s one reason churches find it easier to continue old programs than to start new ones—even when the cost is the same.”
Every four years we need to take stock; stock of who we are, and what will best allow us to live our mission.
As we work to live our mission in the wider community, we must embrace new programs and projects. We must be aware of our natural instincts to resist change. One of the lessons that I have learned from doing youth work is that every four years there is a completely new cohort in a church's youth program. I think we would be wise to think of all church life in that way, every four years we need to take stock; stock of who we are, and what will best allow us to live our mission. We watch our children grow and change their taste in food and clothes, colors and music, what would make us believe that a church could resist change and still be appealing to each new generation? The answer we might want to consider is that if are to continue to be relevant... resistance to change is futile.
Hotchkiss’s information is based on a fairly new, and after this week I would imagine uncertain, field known as behavioral economics. “... behavioral economics—the study of how people actually make financial decisions, in contrast to the strictly rational decisions classical economists assumed". A related concept is “loss aversion,” which predicts that people will work harder to avoid losing what they have than to gain something new.
The author says “This helps explain why new ideas face such an uphill battle for acceptance in most congregations, while old ideas persist unquestioned. Remaining in a familiar building or continuing a cherished worship style does not feel risky even though there may be good reason to believe that doing so may limit our potential to attract new members. Moving to a new location or changing our worship style, by contrast, feels extremely risky because it involves the immediate loss of something we have now. In reality, the risk of clinging to the old may be much greater than the risk of trying something new.”
One of the significant challenges for our congregation or any other, is to have faith that the right people will step forward to make our dreams realities. We need to believe that one hard worker will be able to hand off the work to another hard worker much as one member who masterfully maintained our website for years has handed it off to a new member and a team of others who have been able to give this new member input and analysis from our site and other congregational sites. We have learned that more and more the website is the first point of entry to our congregation, so the fact that it reflects the vision of the congregation and not a single web genius is critical. Just a few years ago, the website would have been unimportant in congregational health...today future members have often read, and listened to sermons before ever setting foot into our doors. When these web savvy new comers join us they are here to see how they feel in our space, how welcome they are...this is very different than the church shoppers I was taught about in seminary and my early years of ministry. Resistance is futile, as a minister I must keep learning keep growing....and I depend on you to keep challenging me...resistance is futile...let us embrace change together! Amen and Blessed be.