Monday, March 21, 2011

Halfhearted Covenant?

Many congregations require too little of their members. There are no minimum pledges listed, and no consequences for missing seventeen Sunday mornings in a row. Neither the congregational bylaws nor its lived customs indicate that it takes real work to be a member of that church community.

Now, I can hear hyperventilating around the blogosphere. I am not talking about inflexible, hard and fast requirements. Obviously, accommodations are made for differing levels of physical or mental ability; and there are confidential and compassionate avenues for handling financial hardship. There are creative ways that every person can contribute *something* to the common good.

The idea is not to have absolute minimums on the amounts of time and money each donates; rather, it is to allow every person to start where she is, and challenge himself to grow into doing a little more. Members of healthy, high-commitment congregations challenge themselves and each other to set lofty goals, and to pursue those goals with integrity. And however things work out, the congregation promotes forgiveness and resilience and celebration as they mark the progress they made, and they begin setting new goals, together.

Now, I think I *do* understand why our congregations might not have such high requirements. Apart from the legendary UU anti-authoritarianism—our knee-jerk response against requirements of any kind—many of our congregations were created by people who were harmed by the inflexible doctrines and dogmas of other faith traditions. Affirming the right and responsibility of each person to follow hir own path, they deliberately did *not* make many requirements.

Furthermore, there is a pastoral issue. Most of us are busy already; we are stressed by the commitments we have already made. At least some of us are truly concerned that we could not do even one more thing. Knowing that we ourselves are over-busy, we do not set high expectations for church membership, because we do not want to further stress—or drive away!—our fellow church participants.

I get why our customs evolved, but I fear that, just like the Half-Way Covenant of centuries past, our modern Half-Hearted Covenant may also backfire. The Puritans wanted to welcome their descendants into the Kingdom of God; but some of their great-great-grandchildren gave up on God entirely. Our congregations wanted to welcome people into church on their own terms…but an awful lot of our human cousins are giving up on church entirely.

And that is a crying shame, when we know that congregations with high expectations offer some of the most effective means around for making our world a better place; and they transform the lives of the church members who live out those high expectations...

(Full sermon at So May We Be)


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