It’s A Long Road That Has No Turning
(A Sermon on Change)

February 4, 2001


“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present . . . As our case is new, so we must think and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves.”
–Abraham Lincoln: Message to Congress, Dec. 1, 1862

The year was 1642 and a few settlers on the south shore gathered to found a church. Nearly 360 years have elapsed since that timid beginning. And I wonder. I wonder whether the founding mothers and fathers of this congregation could have predicted such a long history to come. I wonder whether members who worshiped in this meeting house could have felt the power of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s stirring words in his epic poem, “Locksley Hall” - “Yea, we dip into the future, far as human eye can see, see the vision of the world and all the wonder that shall be....”. I wonder.

Today we stand at another threshold in this distinguished congregation’s history. You have just completed three decades under the steady and loyal leadership of the Reverend Richard Fewkes. For many, Dick Fewkes has been the only minister they have ever known. Now you are about to launch a search to find a new spiritual leader. You will work to form a covenant of trust and affection that will steady your voyage together in the years to come.

I wonder. I wonder whether some here may be just a little nervous about what’s to come. After all, 31 years of congregational life with one minister is no “small potatoes”! Now things are different. Things are more fluid. Things may....change. And that is what I want to discuss with you this morning. The enigma of change.

The word “enigma” is a fitting preface to the word “change”. When we say “change” we say a word that is freighted with conflicting and ambivalent characteristics. For some it means energy; life; new ways; new opportunities. For others it means uneasiness; feelings of being a little unsure of what’s to come. And for others it means a threat to the status quo; a possible enemy of what’s become comfortable and sure in one’s religious and even social life.

In addition to all of this you invite Jan Vickery Knost into your midst to work with you through this time of transition. Does he have a hidden agenda? No. Is he here only to stir things up? No. Then what IS the purpose of an Interim Minister? The purpose is to assist you through this time of change. It is to review how things get done and assist you in making the decisions you need to make that will result in a more purposeful, effective congregational life. I’m not here only to criticize or to bully. I’m here to share whatever professional talents I have with you as you need them. By way of introduction let me share some thoughts of a sociologist of religion by the name of Lyle Shaller.

Shaller is author of more than a score of books on churches. He has been a parish consultant to the Yokefellow Institute in Richmond, Indiana. Over the years I have attended his workshops and have found him to be a gifted teacher as well as a sharp critic of the ways people run their churches.

It goes without saying that every person, like every snowflake, is different. So, too, is every congregation. But certain generalities can be made about a church in relation to its size. Schaller has created a lexicon of churches and their characteristics according to the average attendance on a Sunday morning. Let’s start with his first example.

How many of you own a cat? How about more than one cat? How many of you own two or even more cats? Now who owns most cats? If you answered that you own your cat then you don’t understand cats. One doesn’t OWN a cat. NOBODY can own a cat. More than likely, the cat owns you.

Shaller compares small congregations with cats. Churches in which 35 or less are the average attendees at Sunday services represent one quarter of all the Protestant congregations in the United States and about five per cent of all Protestant church does. It isn’t hard to apply his metaphor. Let me explain.

Cats are independent, self-sufficient and don’t really like to be dependent upon others. So also the small congregation. Some denominations call them “fellowships”. Have any of you been associated with fellowships? If you have you know the kind of strong independence that lives in such small groups. No going to tell them what to do. No minister, no district executive, no denominational headquarters. No one!

Naturally, some are asking themselves right this moment what comes next. What does Shaller use to compare with the congregation that welcomes 35 to 100 worshipers each Sunday? I remember a movie titled “The Incredible Journey” about two dogs and a cat who return from many miles to their home and the adventures they have on the way. Sometimes one gets the impression that the cat wistfully admires and even wishes to be a dog like her companions.

So the next size congregation Shaller calls a “Collie”. And, except for those who may be mean-mannered because of previous owners, collies, on the whole, are affectionate creatures that return love and love to be trained. Ministers of such churches, according to Shaller, act as sort of “trainers”. Denominational leaders like such churches because their people seem to want to go to training sessions where they can size up and sniff other collies. And when a minister of a collie church returns after a vacation, he or she gets a warm reception and finds things are usually not changed a whole lot. Not so with the cat. When the resident of the house returns it is often disconcerting to be ignored by the cat who appears to be completely unaware that you were ever away and is more interested in simply being fed.

Collie churches also tend not to grow. “Church shoppers” often do not return after their initial visit. Perhaps that is because collies have strong affection for members of the family and often bark at strangers. I remember being asked to preach at a church in the Southwest. During coffee hour I asked a member if their church was growing. His answer was, “Well, we probably would grow...if it wasn’t for the tendency one or another self-appointed church member seems to feel that when a visitor comes. What they do is go up to them and say nasty things so they won’t come back.”

Then we come to the “Garden Church”. 50 or 60 thousand congregations fall into this size grouping - 100 - 175 members in attendance. For a minister this classification speaks clearly. A gardener’s work is never done. If the gardener is away for several days, the neglect is obvious. Either no one watered as directed or the weeds have taken over. Gardens respond more easily to growth than do collies or cats but it means more work for the gardener.

Next comes the awkward sized church described as a “house” by Schaller. The house-size congregation is ideal. Everyone knows one another. It isn’t really necessary after a few times to wear name tags. There are enough volunteers. Members care for one another and emergencies enforce a sense of belonging. New people, of course, are apt to feel the church is kind of exclusionary. They may find it difficult to become accepted and, unless there is a strong membership program in place, they are apt to drift away.

Notwithstanding a slight difference in average Sunday attendance, my sense is that First Parish, Norwell is somewhere between the “Garden” and the “House-sized” church. Many of the strengths contained in describing these are most certainly present here - warmth, loyalty, volunteers, joy in celebration, the wish to serve others. But of course the opposite is also true. We often find that without meaning to that we have behaved in an exclusionary way; or that we have been apathetic about church matters since the minister is gone; or that new ideas fail because they might “rock the boat” and either cost time or money or risk to accomplish.

I shan’t go into a discussion of Shaller’s other categories except to name them for curiosity’s sake. He speaks of the “Mansion Church”, the “Ranch” church and the “Nation” church. These run in size from 225 to 700 or more in attendance. The characteristics are different; the problems different. But the solutions usually are found by employing similar programs.

As I said before, First Parish is a classic “mid-sized”sized church, a combination of being a “House” and a “Garden” church as previously described. Let me share Shaller’s evaluation of churches in this category:

“Too small for two ministers. Too small for a broad range of programming. Too small for leadership to institute a full-scale systematic new member enlistment effort, but too large for enough new members to come in on their own initiative to offset the inevitable attrition. . . to small for the leadership to see an obvious need to expand the group life of the congregation through new and innovative programs.”

Shaller observes that there is a tendency in mid-sized churches to focus on problems, limitations, liabilities and shortcomings and to allow those to dominate the agenda. This can produce feelings of guilt, a sense of powerlessness and of frustration that can immobilize a congregation. To use the old cliche, they look at the glass and see it half-empty, not half full.

This is far from the case at First Parish. Lorna and I see a glass far more than “half-full” here. This is a strong church. Fortunate will be the colleague who follows me as your called minister. You have a wonderful sense of loyalty and responsibility to each other and are faithful in maintaining buildings left to your care by members past.

But we need to caution ourselves not to become so careful or so prudent as to lose the purpose of our being. Like people with no imagination, no verve or zest for living “in the moment” churches, too, can become stagnant and even die. Apathy, exclusivity, pride and selfishness can lead to a lack of purpose. By stressing the essential task of building the beloved liberal religious community we do more than worship a place or a tradition. We create that “place” in our hearts.

The Jews knew this. Judaism has survived because its members were forced out of their homeland, their temples. And I am sure you will agree that the urbanization of America has taken its toll on downtown churches, too. If you go up into Maine you will find dozens of Unitarian and Universalist churches (not to mention other protestant churches) that are empty. Dead.

Churches may appear to be alive. And yet, in some cases, something happened along the way which probably broke the spirit of that congregation. There was a church near Norwell that nearly died after the effects of a radical ministry. In the 1880’s, though close to death, a few stalwart members kept the doors open. But they were assisted by a legacy left by a former member. This is true of many New England churches today.

I have not sensed this with First Parish. I am sure that Helen Fogg, though generous to a fault, had confidence that her wonderful gift, and the gifts of others, too, would be used responsibly by this membership - NOT just to pay ongoing bills; NOT just to worship and endowment as something one must never touch so that it could grow and grow; but to use as a companion tool to make real some of the religious values we speak of each Sunday in our unison affirmations.

I recall looking into a mirror as a youngster. I would stand close to a mirror and wonder how all that periphery of vision got in there – things in the background well above and below and to the side that I could see. After a basic course in physics I understood.

The Summit, NJ Unitarian congregation has a whole host of scientists who work at Bell Labs and Exxon, not to mention other related scientific industries. A church member once brought me what he called a “rorrim” - do you know what a “rorrim” is? It’s a mirror that shows us what we look like from the standpoint of those who are observing us. It’s a reversed mirror. I found the experience of looking into that reflecting glass a little strange and even disconcerting. And this can be the case as a congregation realizes that someone totally objective is there to observe and to assist.

To try and categorize churches according to a system is worthwhile for understanding but it is still a bit inadequate for perception of the whole. I am beginning to draw some insights about the First Parish in Norwell. There are problems, of course, but on the whole this congregation is quite healthy and I am confident that you have a bright future. You have a proud history of being a liberal religious presence in this community and I am sure you will carry that mission still further.

The world will always need people of faith and courage to proclaim through their lives and their corporate religious practices that life is precious, justice must be there for all people and truth is ever beckoning us forward notwithstanding the forces of fear and superstition that would drown it out.

Over the ensuing months this congregation is going to be facing large decisions. They are decisions which all of us hope will bring a positive, more enlivening effect to our church governance, our ways of reaching out beyond our own needs to assist others and to decide together the minister who will be called to live and work among this membership as it enters the new millennia.

Moving from the foundation stones of reason, truth and compassion, any differences that emerge from these processes will find harmony in compromise and confidence. Intemperate language is not appropriate among us. We are, each of us, such singular individuals that we are inevitably going to find disagreement - theologically, socially, institutionally But there are models of churches that have moved through such transitions and disagreements and emerged stronger and more of a community.

I’d like to close with a real life situation that happened recently. I do it to acknowledge the effect change can have on us all. During the initial organizational meeting of our new worship committee I happened to mention that I was going to add a dimension to the way the closing carol was going to be sung. Ears perked up. What? Something different on Christmas Eve?

I explained what I wanted to do and was gratified to find that the committee thought it to be a positive addition. It was about that time that Lorna and I had to leave to be at our son’s bedside in Tennessee following his tragic accident. Over the next few days I spoke with a number of you by telephone. I wanted you to know that this congregation is always on my mind when away. Some of the rumors that I learned were circulating about “changes in the Christmas Eve service” quite truly, amazed me.

Over and over I explained what I wanted to do. Each time, when I did, the concern in that person’s mind vanished. As a matter of fact, following the service - after I had asked all to sing the first two verses of “Silent Night” seated - and after I had asked the children to stand and look around at the wonder of faces lit by candlelight; and after I urged them never to forget the beauty and the love that is in this sanctuary; and after I asked all to stand as had become traditional and turn to sing the final verse to the members of the choir - after all this - people did let me know that it was an addition they had concerns about initially but that they thought was a fine experience for all.

Change is a norm. It will always be a part of our lives as will the fact of separation. We leave our mother’s breast to find nourishment; we leave our home to go to school; we leave our home again to go to college; we leave our alma maters to enter the rough, real world of work; we leave the joy of childhood, the zest of youth; the wisdom of age for a life of the spiriti of which we can only dream. As separation remains a fact, so is change a reality.

See it not as an enemy or a threat. See it as an opportunity. Or, as someone once said to me, “Try may like it !” Hear the power of the words that follow, then, from Tennyson’s poem, “Lockesley Hall” -

“When I dipped into the future far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of ;the world and all the wonder that would be,

For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furled
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

Yet I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of all are widened with the process of the suns.
Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range;
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

“Namas te”
- and Amen.